The Painted Photographs of R Christopher Vest

Featured Artist

This week I’m featuring the stunning painted photographs of R Christopher Vest, a photographer and illustrator from Colorado. When I stumbled upon his work on Imagekind, I knew immediately that I wanted to share this find with you. I was especially awed by the breath-taking bird images, but Christopher also has amazing travel, wild life and landscape photo paintings. Chris obviously has drawing and painting skills that may feel daunting to many of us, but we can find inspiration from his images and take note of techniques that can only help us to expand our own vocabularies.

I was so delighted with Christopher’s bio on the Original Bird Art website that I’ve asked if I could reproduce it here:

“I have a long history of taking pretty mediocre bird photos. With crummy lens and lack of patience, I’ve put together bird images from Israel to Alaska that are breathtakingly dull and out-of-focus. But I do have computer Photoshop skills, so my choice was either to cut my throat in photo envy and self-loathing, or breath new life into the bad photos with considerable “painting”, merging and touch-up; and so voila: part painting, part photography. I’ve been a photographer and illustrator for 30 years; unfortunately, it’s almost all been for employers that view art purely as commerce—it’s time that I demonstrate to the world (and to myself) the nature of my own personal vision. My newest work has attracted the attention of the American Bird Conservancy, for whom I am now commissioned to produce bird illustrations for an upcoming book.

I call myself a “Neo Photo-Secessionist”—humbly borrowing the term from the tradition of Alfred Stieglitz and his group.  I particularly identify with the etched surfaces and beautiful tonality of Heinrich Kuehn, Edward J. Steichen, and Gertrude Kasebier.  In a nutshell, these artists at the turn of the century (c. 1900) were trying to bridge fine art and photography to earn for photography (which was often dismissed  as merely a mechanical and documentary medium) the kind of artistic legitimacy that traditional painting had. They therefore manipulated their black and white images in the dark room to render them more “pictorial”.  These techniques foreshadowed much of what is done with today’s computer capabilities, for example: dodging and burning, image superimposing, and even etching upon the original negatives. That indeed is what I do, though I do it in vivid color—striving similarly to lend artistic endorsement to computer generated art.

I agree with this assessment by John Hazelton:

Mr. Vest is much too critical of himself and work; we couldn’t disagree more with his self assessment. Each of his bird photographs are amazing considering how difficult it had to have been to capture on film or digitally the subjects in their settings. For example, the bluebird perched on the broken barn window or the dipper in the flowing creek, they could not have come about easily each taking considerable skill, knowledge of his equipment and patience.

Chris gives an example of early image manipulation by René le Begue 1906. As this is a photogravure, I’m guessing the plate was etched.

Study by Rene le Begue

The Painted Photographs

Trumpeter Swan

Trumpeter Swan v.3

Woodland Spring Vireo

Woodland Spring Vireo

Ferruginous Hawk Study

Ferruginous Hawk Study

Ferruginous Hawk Study

Ferruginous Hawk Study

Marsh Swallow

Marsh Swallow

Windswept Rock with Boreal Chickadee

windswept rock with boreal chickadee

Swallows and Willows

Swallows and Willows

Crab Apple Blossoms / Hummer’s Delight

Crab Apple Blossoms

Southwest Shrike

Southwest Shrike

New To The Neighborhood

New To The Neighborhood

Bird Disturbed

Bird Disturbed

Snowy Oak, Junco

Snowy Oak, Junco

Bison Looking Back

Bison Looking Back

Grand Canal 1939

Grand Canal 1939

Knot of Trees

Knot of Trees

Winter Road

Winter Road

Swallows and Willows

Chris has generously agreed to show us an overview of how Swallows and Willows was created.


Here is a shot I took of a flooded spring-time marsh. The willows in the upper left have not leafed out, and are sagging from the snow load of winter.  The image is rather abstract with a strong dark crescent shape and an open area of blue. The reflections are certainly interesting, but in my opinion the image is not strong enough to “stand alone”—in other words it needs some work.

Willow Reflections

Being very influenced by the Canadian artist Robert Bateman, I appreciate his tendency to depict animals not as the central figure, but as a small component of a habitat. It struck me that the open area of blue in the lower right might be a place to set a pair of birds, and in so doing to both balance the dark negative space above AND to tell a story about a dank little backwater that is a veritable smorgasbord of flying insects of the type adored by tree swallows.

A typical place to begin a photo enhancement is to add layers of texture and to begin to experiment with the opacities and the layer effects. This is an exercise of creative trial and error: toggling layers on and off, switching from “multiply” to “overlay,” etc., saturating some, desaturating others, and so on. I personally love the look of an aged and heavily gessoed board and thus one of my favorite textural effects to employ is of the type below.

Two layers of canvas texture

Another effect I’ve utilized here is to overlay layers that graduate the colors in the background from blue above, yellow in the center to greenish below.

Painted Layer

Any dabbler in textural photo-enhancement knows that a wild variety of images can be incremented into the mix, given the skillful melding of complimentary effects. One such counter-intuitive layer I’ve used here is a photo of light glowing through a foggy wet car window: it’s set to “overlay” at an opacity of 69%.

Wet Foggy Window

An important thing to remember is that an image overlay might work only in a small part of the composition and be a train wreck in other parts—I frequently either mask out the inappropriate parts or use the magic wand and lasso to extract just the useful parts (in this case it’s often helpful to “feather” the selection). I found that in the process of building colors into the image that I’d lost some of the detail in the willows because the original picture is smothered beneath a dozen textural layers at this point. Therefore, using the magic wand I grabbed the dark foliage from the original picture and pasted them into an upper layer. Using my Wacom Tablet then, I drew in some highlights.  Additionally I found a dappled effect of random orange dots that became its own layer set at “vivid light” that adds both a suggestion of dried orange leaves and a painterly bright rusty touch.

willows and orange dots

Finally, true to my poor photographic abilities, I found that my second rate photos of swallows would benefit with a thorough touch-up with the Wacom Tablet. I place the birds, scale them, and then paint in the details.

close ups of birds

The master file has about twenty layers which I always save with all elements and layers intact. This image therefore becomes both a trove of layers that I’ve decided work well together—and saved as such I can always experiment in the future with different possibilities.

Where to Find More

This is a small sampling of Christopher’s work. Treat yourself to his entire portfolio on

R Christopher Vest Website on Original Bird Art

I recommend checking his website as it has a great description of his work.

All art is available from the artist as Giclée, signed prints.

Cards and prints are also available on Imagekind.

All images © R Christopher Vest

17 Responses to The Painted Photographs of R Christopher Vest

  1. Beve October 29, 2010 at 6:34 pm #

    Wonderful writeup…a very talented person. Loads of inspiration! TY Leslie for sharing this with us!

  2. Cherie Bell October 29, 2010 at 6:40 pm #

    Do you have any tuts on processing images using these techniques?

    • Leslie Nicole October 29, 2010 at 8:28 pm #

      Hi Cherie, Well, Chris gives a bit of a tutorial in the article. Thus far on the blog (the site is still rather young) most of our tuts are on using textures, but as time goes by we will have more tutorials. Look through the tutorial category.

  3. Laura October 29, 2010 at 8:16 pm #

    He is definitely the best bird artist I have ever seen. And his drawing skills are amazing as well. His work is not just an easy computer fix as some would think – but I’m prejudice; I’ve know Chris for years and years. He’s a fine artist and a real nice guy.

    • Leslie Nicole October 29, 2010 at 8:25 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Laura. I agree! I’m sure with Chris’s skills, he could draw these freehand. I imagine that like many artists that bridge photography and painting/post-processing, the photographic interaction with the subject is integral their process. He does seem like a nice guy, I really enjoyed doing the feature.

  4. Donna Lu October 29, 2010 at 8:38 pm #

    Breathtaking work!! I want to spend hours studying Chris’ images.

    Leslie, I just found your site last night & I just wanted to say as someone who is just starting to explore texture work that I feel like I’ve found heaven here! The site is well constructed & easy to get around, the tips & tuts are informative & easy to follow, and this article & the interview with Jessica Jenney couldn’t be more inspiring. (Jessica makes me want to sell my D300 & all my gear & get a G10…I can’t believe I’m saying that LOL!)

    It looks like this is a new site too (?), so let me add congratulations & good luck to my gratitude for your site. I will definitely spread the word that you’re sharing your talent, skills and some goodies as well.

    Most Sincerely,
    Donna Luker

    • Leslie Nicole October 29, 2010 at 9:32 pm #

      Thank you for your lovely comment, Donna. Yes, it’s a new site and will be expanding and growing. I’m glad you find it inspiring and I’ll appreciate the word of mouth!

  5. George Sands October 30, 2010 at 6:28 am #

    So nice!

  6. chris vest November 1, 2010 at 4:05 pm #

    thanks for the nice comments folks. leslie has done a marvelous job with this– and featuring specific artists is a great idea. it was fun and an honor to be included. i look forward to seeing more artists interviewed like this. cheers!

  7. Bevan November 3, 2010 at 11:59 pm #

    Chris, your work is fantastic. I look forward to seeing more of your tutorials. Some of your bird paintings remind me of work produced by Ray Harris-Ching.

    • chris vest November 15, 2010 at 2:02 am #

      that’s a great compliment Bevan– i adore Harris-Ching. i’m not worrrrrrrrrthy! 😉

  8. Bob Bello November 16, 2010 at 9:50 pm #

    Excellent works, I love your technique. Thanks for the tutorials as well. Godspeed!
    Bob Bello recently posted..The Patrick Swayze Rules of Community Management

  9. Dorothy Lyner April 24, 2011 at 1:18 pm #

    This was an AMAZING article and he is an AMAZING artist. I loved reading this. Thank you so much for this post.

  10. Connie Grippin December 9, 2012 at 5:53 pm #

    I am stunned at the depth and quality of your site….I find this to be a smorgasbord of beauty and generosity…thank you~ Connie

    • Leslie Nicole December 11, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

      Thank you for that lovely comment! Makes my day. 🙂

  11. Gary Grayson January 18, 2013 at 3:58 pm #

    I am amazed by Chris’s artistic technique…WOW! I would love to see all twenty layers up close a personal…grin…Gary
    Gary Grayson recently posted..Smiling Freud (For Sale)


  1. Learn From The Masters—Create A Database Of Traditional Art | Photo Artist Textures - November 12, 2010

    […] started thinking about paintings. As photo artists, we are often—as R Christopher Vest said in a previous post—Neo-Pictorialists. What better place to take our inspiration from than the master painters? This […]

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