By Judi Lapsley Miller with input from the Art of Birding moderation team

The monthly challenge for May was to create a set of related images that used an artistic technique to tie them all together. Participants could choose how many images made up the set, but there needed to be more than one and they needed to go together somehow. To help support the challenge, weekly inspiration Sparks looked at artistic techniques.

Week 18: Abstract

The Abstract Spark was to create an abstract image from photographs. Examples of abstracts could include intentional camera movement, closeups of interesting textures, or composites of various elements.

Moderator Kaylene Helliwell (New Zealand) selected Kathy Keddle’s hydrangea. Kathy said this was the first time she’d tried the technique of zooming while pressing the shutter – it worked a treat! Kaylene said “I really liked the effect on this flower. It reminded me of a ballerina’s tutu or a fluffy ball. I thought it was very cleverly done.”

There’s something about “old granny” hydrangeas that make them beautiful photographic subjects – I’ve been totally turned around about their beauty in recent years as a result.

Week 19: Mobile phone magic

This was one of our most popular Sparks. The aim was to use smartphone apps to experiment with creative effects. There’s something about a humble mobile phone photo that allows many of us to relax and get more creative than we would with a photo taken on our main camera. Getting creative regularly is really good for your brain! And a fun thing to do on the way to work while waiting at the bus stop or in a waiting room, for instance. There are a million apps out there that can turn an ordinary photo into something engaging. Look for Snapseed, Distressed Effects, Tiny Worlds, Deep Art Effects, or perhaps try out a clip-on lens.

Moderator Linton Miller (New Zealand) selected Karen (Kizmet Winter) Miller’s arty horse image. Karen used the Deep Art Effects phone app to transform her photo. Deep Art Effects uses artificial intelligence to render photos in painterly styles – so much fun! In this example, it turns a lovely photo into a surrealist's dream.

Week 20: Bokeh & blur

“Bokeh and blur” is another one of our most popular Sparks. Check out this blog to find out how to achieve this look on any budget.

Moderator Marion Skelton (New Zealand) chose Leanne Silver’s (New Zealand) cute wee tomtit. Marion loved how Leanne used a shallow depth of field, with resulting blur, to isolate this tiny bird from the background and foreground.

Week 21: Texture

The Spark was simply to use texture to creative effect. I suggested three methods to try:

  1. Use a camera app like Distressed Effects or Snapseed to add a grungy texture.
  2. Do a double exposures in-camera, by taking a photo of your subject and then superimposing a photo of a texture onto it (concrete works well).
  3. Better yet, layer your photos in Photoshop so the texture is above the photo. Change the blend mode of the texture to "Overlay" or "Soft light" and dial in the opacity to suit your tastes. Use a mask to paint out the texture where it is too overwhelming. If you love the textured effect, I recommend learning Method 3 as it gives you the most artistic control.

Moderator Paula Vigus (New Zealand) says “once again there were some fantastic efforts put into the Week 21 Texture challenge. Some of our members put in a huge amount of work and I commend you for that. Once I got my choices down to 6 I had to ask for some assistance... that's how good the standard was. It ended up I couldn't choose just one so we have two works of art to present.”

Damon Marshall (New Zealand) really threw his entire ink pot and brush collection at his photo and even though you may think the fungi influenced my choice, it was just the pure structure of this piece of work. Colour, texture, shapes and curves. Somehow it all pulled together for a very eye-catching image.

Astrid Authier-Hall (New Zealand) showed us how a good photo can be made into a wonderful artwork by using some artistic texture and her explanation of how she accomplished this was really helpful and impressive. Astrid explains “I had a photo of a wonderfully plump kererū with a rather boring background, so I had a go at layering a textured background in Photoshop. First I had to download some textures (I found some great free ones!), then I had to learn how to resize my texture layer (Ctrl + T)... and how to mask my texture layer so my kererū stood out from the background. I played around with the blend settings and eventually decided to use multiply for a dramatic effect. Lots of fun and lots of learning this week!”

Week 22: Old equipment

Moderator Dave Hattori (USA) chose Catherine Thompson’s (New Zealand) image. He comments, the Week 22 Spark was Old Equipment, with a suggestion to dig it out, dust if off, and to create an interesting image with it. Catherine Thompson had a unique and creative take on this, along with a great narrative. She dug out her very first camera and superimposed it over a photo of her younger self when she would have been using it. But her words accompanying the image she created say it best:  "My very first camera, a Plastic Snappy which is still in the wardrobe and covered in dust. This was used by the young girl in the photo, Me, just a few too many years ago. We are both fading out gradually and the camera has been replaced and upgraded many times since then. The young girl has also been replaced by a much older model and I'm not sure upgrades are still available."

Monthly challenge – an arty set

How to get arty with photography? We explored some possibilities through the weekly sparks, but possibilities include

• mobile phone apps to create artistic effects (there are many out there)

• intentional camera movement

• bokeh and blurred images, with shallow depth of field (needs a wide aperture lens but can be simulated on some mobile phones)

• abstract patterns

• artistic black and white

• photo-artistry, where you composite an artistic image from photos

• photo collage and mixed media

• gelliplate photo transfer onto a monotype print

• embellishing a print with paint

• double-exposures in-camera

and that's just a few! Also check out YouTube and Google for ideas. I do recommend trying something you've never tried before - it might just be the creative spark you need to set you on a whole new journey.

I chose two artistic challenges this month – curiously both very similar but completely different. They both feature ducks and both are presented in a 2x2 panel.

Jennie Stock (Australia) took four different Australian Wood Duck images, processed to look a bit like watercolour paintings. She says, “I have been playing a card game called Wingspan which has the most beautiful watercolour paintings of birds on the cards. This inspired me to work through a tutorial I had access to for creating watercolours in Photoshop – I learnt a lot, especially about Smart Filters and brushes. I have always been interested in doing real watercolours but guess I would have to do some lessons (add to bucket list!), so for now this technique will do. I tried to keep the colours subtle, as our Wood Ducks are a bit more discreet than the American version.”

I loved how Jennie’s subtle processing and thoughtful composition pulled these four images together in a coherent style. I also agree that the Wingspan art is inspirational – if you want to find out more about this game – check out my blog about why I think it’s the best game ever and read about some fun house rules!

Gayle Marien’s (Australia) riff on ducks was also thoughtful and, as usual, described in detail so that we all may learn from her. She’s a fan of Gimp, rather than Photoshop, for compositing and editing her images. If you’re put off by the cost of Photoshop, Gimp is a fabulous free alternative.

A tribute to the Pacific black duck

No matter what day I go to the Wonthaggi Wetlands Conservation Park there are always Pacific Black Ducks. They are at their most beautiful when they flash the iridescent bars of colour that normally hide beneath closed wings.

The processing

For each photo, which was cropped, the duck was masked to retain its colour and the background was desaturated. Because the photos were taken on different days and the exposure and the ripples on the water were quite different I adjusted the exposure on each to match it as best I could and have the same, or at least very similar, grey colour and I applied a Linear Blur from GIMP’s filter selections. This smoothed the backgrounds making them similar and also softened them to further highlight the coloured ducks.

For the ducks, I adjusted the colour temperature to better match the birds with each other. A border was then applied to each photo.

The textured backdrop was created in Photoscape by applying Film Effect – Old Photos – A001 to a creamy bokeh photo of shrubbery in my garden. I then dropped this into GIMP, adjusted the saturation of the primary colours and ramped up the contrast for a much more dramatic colour palette. The heading was applied in GIMP using the Papyrus font.

The bleed of the backdrop into the photos was achieved by adding an Alpha Channel to the individual photos and applying the eraser tool with a bristle brush selection.


For more photo-fun, join us in the Art of Birding challenge – jump on into June where we’re making it real and getting a piece framed, or start back at the beginning or any other month that takes your fancy!

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