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The Art of Nature Photography

Lesson 3 of 12

The Human Canvas (artistic adult nude content)

Art Wolfe

The Art of Nature Photography

Art Wolfe

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Lesson Info

3. The Human Canvas (artistic adult nude content)
Continue exploring inspiration, style, and art with human and cultural subjects. See how Art mixed artistic inspiration with an interest in the human form. Look at Art's series with hand-painted backgrounds.

Lesson Info

The Human Canvas (artistic adult nude content)

As I was photographing wild animals for books I was also photographing all these traditional cultures but as I was photographing the cultures I started style izing the cultures and I was started positioning my subjects so much so that even on plane trips to my destination I would draw pictures of what I wanted to do with the cultures again this would be controversial simply because I'm actually now altering my subject I was creating patterns and abstracting the cultures those are real mahmoud's elephant drivers and re allele vince below me I'm dangling in a tree a banyan tree in jaipur, india but the concept is purely mine or I would lay on my back and have months from a monastery in kathmandu sit over the top of me this is for a book called later talk about called earth is my women's so cultures were evolving as the wildlife subject story involving cultures were I went back to the body and work endangered people where as I travelled to remote places I saw how people adorn themselves d...

uring ceremonial occasions weddings, funerals, births in the tribe call for celebrations and so cultures like the surma that don't have clothes for the most part they live in an environment where clothes are not necessary because the temperature is a cool eighty five degrees almost year round they adorn themselves with clay from the bank of the river so I was inspired by how tribe's, technologically primitive tribes adorn themselves during ceremonial occasions, and that book that became a book called tribes, and it was just this book that I traveled all around the world photographing all these different people. But from a perspective that was very different from endangered people, this was in your face. I wanted you to look into the face of the subject, just as I had done with the camera and felt that visual connection with the eyes coming forward. So it was very stylized, very clear and very much about style and art, and that eye contact was paramount. You're looking into the eyes of a culture who because they were no clothes, how do they met a manifest individual ism by hairstyle. Everyone had a different hairstyle, or the kaya pole who live in deep in the amazon that would put lip discs in their mouths to make themselves look grotesque and scary? Because this this is a warrior clan. It was interesting for me to make the connections that tribes that live in environments where there's cheetahs are leopards would adopt and be inspired by the spots of the cats, and I shot it as such. I shot it as artwork, always looking for the new idea, I started thinking, all right, I would like to tackle the human form. Nudes if you will but we'll call it the human form and I was thinking when I was traveling through areas like these desserts that so much of the dune start to look like human form so what if I did a book where I photographed landscapes that looked like human form and then the human form like landscapes so that's what I started doing it was going to be called the sensuous earth and then as I started working on this people would say ah yeah that looks like so and so's I said that you got to be kidding there's somebody else is doing this yeah and so I would look at their work and though they didn't do big bodies who work it looked derivative of somebody else's so that kind of came to a halt I wasn't going to do the sensuous earth now so I still like the idea of doing the human form and I abandoned the idea of doing it this way so I went back to my original inspiration the tribes from endangered people and the surma who mix clay and adorn themselves this way because it protects their skin from the sun and insects and yet it probably started hundreds of years ago as just a whitewash but then they started pick fingerprinting painting on each other's body and it became this eloquent design of tribal art there and lies the idea so I started with a studio and seattle on first avenue where I would get big backdrops from the from the camera store here and start painting backdrops in this particular case I put my hand prints all over this black back drop and then that would put up notices and jim saying looking for potential models that are fairly well capped that are willing to work really hard hours be uncomfortable and I don't have any money to pay you wade got over a hundred people say we want to do that that's just sounds really good and so that's what we did and I drew from all my history this is called the first few photos I showed you where I was showing that little bird in the leaf litter and then showing a human form so I'm making that connection now because I'm drawing from my history I'm going back to my earlier work and drawing inspiration but also my knowledge of the earth and the cultures so you know why trees disguise the wolf in the view? Do you see the wolf right here? So you you people are really simple people you know you're you're you're attracted to the shiny object andi I use those shiny white objects to disguise the world, but I'm doing that with that as well doing the outline of the human figure then draws you away from the two people on either side so that was directly connected to vanishing act it may take me two or three days to do the backdrop and then we would spray paint people white or black and then hand paint him and I would hand I would hand paint him into a place I had friends that would spray paint the bodies white or black and then they would turn him over to me and then I would hand paint him so yeah, this was ah black gentleman who I made really black uh and then lay him over the top of one of my designs and then I would just simply paint him into place so it's a different way of looking at the human form it's not sexual assigned sensual is more theatrical because I quite honestly didn't want to do something that looked like a cheesecake image I want to draw from my history and play with perceptions and form the human form is beautiful not mine but other people's farm as beautiful keith haring impacted this work and though keith never did arrows it was inspired by so the idea is shoot with large format and someday this will be a museum exhibit where the print could be eight by twelve feet in a museum that's the concept jackson pollock inspired my work when I'm on the phone I might be drawing little doodles I've done that my entire life and I'm on the phone I would be drawing and so I took that idea and made a backdrop and then I put a human form in it so I'm restless in my interest and I think most successful artists are that they don't limit their imagination you know I started off photographing mountains then I start photographing would ducts on green lake and all the birds I love birds I still photograph birds but I've included all sorts of other subjects you know I say to my audience that I photograph without restraint or prejudice meaning all photograph a rusting can in a gutter if I could turn into a piece of art yeah I have my limitations I won't photograph bar mitzvahs, weddings and graduations I leave that to other people but I'll photographed virtually everything else I drew from indonesian batiks to create my artwork I love looking at calligraphy I don't know what calligraphy is but I love looking at it I incorporated it into my body of work this poor kid was an intern from seoul, south korea and within two weeks he was modeled he looks like a deer in the headlights you know and then when people heard I was doing this and they saw and they would invariably and always ask well did you deliver a do this digitally and I said what do you mean by that did you put the spots and I said no every spot was hand painted every spot on the backdrop was hand painted it's that imperfection of the human stroke that makes it come alive it was if it was perfect would be far less than what it is. I can remember this shot because the two guys on the left well here's another view of it two guys on the left are doctors and their wives saw the notice in the gym in is a quote and they said we're sending her husband and the husbands haven't been consulted and they said I don't want to be nude and they said it's aren't wolf you're going to take your clothes off way had a fun I put paint in a plastic ketchup squeeze bottle because you have to work really fast the model on the left is a pacific northwest ballet dancer he's in great shape and yet if you lay contorted for longer than ten minutes it's everything you have on your body starts itchy so working fast was part of it same guy so if I thought it I could do it and for me it was coming back to my roots as a painter for the first time in thirty years I was actually having a paintbrush in my hand very different than anything I have painted thirty years before, but look, I loved it I love the process and in fact it's not really a photograph as muchas it's ah hybrid between the illustration and the capture in other words, this could be in our gallery that isn't, you know, centric to photography could be in a fine art gallery. We're selling these now in las vegas and new york and galleries, and they're starting to find their way. But for me, it's all about having an exhibit having a video, we shot all along the way video, and this is what was happening on first avenue. I don't know what you guys were doing, but this is what we were doing in seattle. So this is from a, uh, little secondary camera fixed, and in this particular case, we had twenty seven models. Men were painted black for evil women, white for purity. Now we know that's not true, but but I was creating in the usher. I was creating a composition that looks like an asher. And of course, when your work king with naked people, you have lots of volunteers. A lot of people wanted to help on this one. So the results, you know, life's a journey, and as an artist, you want to keep challenging yourself and having a reason to get out of it. And for me, it's books and his projects like this, whether ever made money from that is secondary tohave a purpose, in other words, if I only shot because I thought it could make money from the work that would not be a motivation for me, it's all about the creation and surprising people and doing things less expected that's part of shooting for my audience and that's one of the things that I started this lecture with theirs I shoot for other people I want to surprise them I don't want to be predictable and I want to be an artist that's the lifestyle I want and I want to live a long life doing that my father lived till ninety four and he had all his faculties and I would love to be that if I physically can't be there now when we put spots when I say we I have imaginary friends when I put spots on these guys two of these guys smoked and they went out on first avenue and they were spoken than I had a kid back in here you're still naked? Yeah, I put a lot of males in my subjects and simply because when I was renting equipment and lighting they would say, what do you do doing this? You're a wildlife photographer? Well, I'm doing ah bunch of nudes how can we help? Well, they're mostly male they go oh why? Why so part of that is to be provocative to show human form male female in a beautiful way, not just the predictable one of the subjects I photographed twenty five years ago with these tribes up in new guinea they painted themselves black with soot and white with clay and I draw I drew inspiration for this I play with race I turned in this one my white pilot black I turned a black guy what I love playing where perceptions so the under our king story behind a lot of this work is race, gender and sexuality I want to play with all those themes dot painting there's at least ten thousand individual brush strokes thiss took me four days to dio there's male female male female and it almost becomes irrelevant in this work I learned to clay people putting in the right thickness of clay and with light skin people when they draw and before the clay would set I painted the clay black and when the clay dried and I d saturated the image to black and white was perfect the human form melded into the backdrop which is a theme I used a lot with vanishing act but also the elements of design when I claimed people they would have to be so patient because it would take an hour to apply the clay than two hours in front of ah heater to dry them they couldn't eat talk open their eyes they could not do anything because if they it played just fell to the ground so is very, very ephemeral. So people that were volunteered to this they volunteered and was not comfortable because when the clay dries it starts to pull at your skin and you just feel like you're being compressed but at the end of it when they take a shower their skin is so supple subtitle it was a spot we were advertising a spot perhaps the most complex shot was to shoot this with this many models and you can see where play has just fallen just a slight movement and it's gone so you hold hold your breath the whole time I was showing you where I was abstracting the culture, you know, designing the culture and I borrowed from that for this bodywork matisse influence this work so anything I could imagine I even went to home depot and buy a bunch of screws and nails and, uh, tools and spray painted them and put them all over people I mean, I just I was limited by my imagination. There was a whole siri's from above looking down sixteen feet about in this image it's the shadows of the people that reveal where the people are so you can imagine in the museum if the people in the print were life size, how that's, the way this works should be seen a shooting with eighty megapixel cameras at that point I went back to africa to the very tribes that inspired this and went back to the surma and I brought a computer along and I showed him things I was doing in seattle and then I started work king with them again. Now the sons of the fathers I photographed and I build studio out there and you know, I was working with this interpreter from addis ababa and by the time I explained to him who would explain to the surma what I wanted to do it would take forever so I just started grabbing people and creating my composition sometimes it's better to be decisive than politically correct and so I just started designing my shot life is a journey from growing up in west seattle and playing and the wooded ravines to being out there in the african savannah and torturing innocent people yeah that's all part of that story for these young men had a ball they loved being part of a project this ultimately wasn't successful this one thiss this one didn't turn out really great because it was two random it was just two random but if you look closely you can see that we, uh gaffer taped would too are tripods so I could get the camera six, fourteen feet above the ground so turning a studio out in the sunny savannah and ah studio was a real challenge and this was not a cheap trip this cost tens of thousands of dollars to rent the planes to rent the land rovers to go out here and fortunately my friend thomas know who wrote photoshopped who's that man on the left he underwrote the whole trip for me because he loved the project so I tried it again and shot more share with the people it was a great product shit I was channeling picasso in this particular drawing and then I made it happen if I could draw it I can make it happen you know if you know picasso and remember what I said I didn't get him but now I do I understand I was ready for his work and incorporated it into the body of war and whereas I might have photographed these carl people for earth is my witness for the human canvas I did it more abstractly so it's a really interesting story line to go back to the very roots and photograph people in abstract way as opposed to the way I did it twenty five years ago. Now they are collaborating with the modern artist on a piece of art so that was the human canvas and I'm still doing that today new new human campuses will commence in a few weeks and yeah, it will be a museum exhibit that will tour of that I have no doubt on yet and yet that's not the end you know uh for me I keep working there's always new projects, and one of which is ah great book called earth is my witness, which looks back over forty years a world travel culture, wildlife landscape, and this book comes out in the fall, so this has been a great at addition to my work ethic or the last two years, I've just been traveling nonstop going around the world, replicating with better cameras what I, uh, photographed in patagonia in the andes, there's a lot of historic photos that can never be replaced, but for the most of it, I've been going to a new location ends with new technology and trying new subjects from diving in the amazon to putting myself at risk in upon with elephants coming through being up in the arctic with polar bears on the first day they come out of the den. What a dream project! What a great life I've lived! This is what I told my ninety four year old father is don't worry about me, I could die tomorrow and be happy I lived the life of hundreds of people I've seen everything I've ever wanted to see from great white sharks to wild pandas, snow leopards in the him last, the most remote cultures on there I've had a great life by die tomorrow, no regrets don't worry about me, and I said seriously you move on when you need to any of us. He died too two weeks later, but it was a very, very true. So this book earth is my witness looks in artistic way. I hope to the world's great religions, cultures, landscapes, wildlife. These women, young women were photographed uh, during in january on the border of india and pakistan out in the desert the great ron desert, a of india. So it's got element of art. It's got all the the books I've ever worked on. So this concludes my first lecture. Thank you. Weigh just have a few minutes is and, you know, when I asked for questions, you know, people are like sitting there and then they I'll spill my guts, I'll show my life and somebody after all that, so we will go, uh, what's your favorite kind of film. So we're not going to say that, but are there any questions? Any anything about what you saw? Our gardening? Yes, art. First, I just want to say what an incredible segment and people are always asking photographers, where do you get your inspiration? That is one of the main questions that we hear all the time, so it was incredible to see all the ways you're inspired and how you keep that inspiration over so many decades, so I really appreciate that. Thank you. I just wanted teo remind everyone again about the earth is my witness, which is your book it's coming out in october. Also, your second edition to vanishing act is also coming out soon, and both of those votes books are available online art wolfe, dot com or in your seattle galleries and other galleries around the country. That's, great and amazon that's a good place to look. So I'm going to start with an a our question from the chat room, and then we'll ask a few questions in the studio audience. So first, eric s had a question. Would you say that patients are look plays the plays a big part in your wildlife photography? And is there a way to make your own look for these times? I think that's a great question, it's eric, eric, thank you for that question. I'm more lucky than I am patient, period, you know, recall that I put oil paintings and ovens to speed up the process. There was a reason I like watercolor because water colored dried in an hour, so I like moving. I'm not one that's going teo sit in a tent and document the twelve months life cycle of a squirrel. I like moving through environment and when something's unfolding I'm there and if it's not I'm going over the ridge luck does matter but it's putting yourself into a situation where you can be lucky you know you put yourself into the environment when there's going to be tens of thousands of cranes migrating through the valley so it's not just dumb luck it's getting yourself into the right situation knowing your subject and then waiting for the cern dip just happen you know, the the unexpected moments. All right, well, we have time for a few questions from our in studio audience members to go ahead and raise your hands and rimmer to stand up so that we can see you. Um what you said about when your dad was dying really touched my heart and I was wondering, um, how did he inspire you? And why was he worried about you so lucky to have my father? Because both my mother and father put me into a school when I was seven years old called the school uh the corner school of art for children it was up on capitol here hill here in seattle and that's seven years old. I was in fault roy cove and my parents taught me to ride a bus to downtown, take a transfer upon to capitol hill and go down to the school now at seven years old in the fifties that seemed like it was okay today they would be, you know indicted on child abuse charges but it instilled in me both the confidence of travel at a early age which has equipped me tio go around the world and go into every environment with out in trepidation but also at an age where maybe parents want their children to be business majors I was encouraged towards the art that school for art for children I was free for impoverished families and nobody had money in the fifties after world war two everybody was struggling as was my family and so here I have a cz long as I would go on saturday morning I could use clay pigment all the elements of art and my parents uh kind of encouraged that so I'm really thankful tohave the parents I did I was the third child as you saw I was never given any kind of parameters I never had a curfew I never was told not to do something because I think my parents saw in this kid that at seven years old he's out in the woods studying birds and plants so they just said all right, leave him alone let him do what he did and they never got in my way and that's the greatest gift my parents could have given me all right next question please raise your hands thank you I'm jeff crews from calorie, I just wanna say thank you as well for that wonderful portion, my question is to fold the first question is, um, when you're working on projects, do you work on multiple projects at the same time? And do you have a list in your head when you're out to these locations like this one would work for this project and another one work for another one, and when you're finished a project, how do you mentally close it and not be tempted to go back to shooting another? You're so great at that question. Thank you for those questions. That's a that's a question from a photographer I can tell, because the yeah, the biggest challenges for the earth is my witness, I swear to god, I just came back from arctic norway last week with the best shots that should be in the book, but the book is being printed right now in south china, so yeah, that's going to have to be for the next book, so turning off the spic it's I always say, unless the prince printers aren't rolling, I can still get the last minute in photo in when I'm working, I'm usually working on three or four ideas at one time it's the economy of world travel that pays off the dividends otherwise, if you just take any of my books that I showed you really are world centric, they they're from europe, asia, africa, australia, the antarctic you could never create a book and b make money from it or, uh, derive a living from it from the advance of a book publisher, it just would never happen, so you have to have five projects working on at the same time, there's a lot of things I'm not good at, I'm really not good at anything related to technology. Remembering names is not one of my strengths, but when I'm working in the field, I can really compartmentalize my brain. That photo would be perfect for that project. This photo would be perfect for that, so I'm really good at keeping clean lines of distinction and seeing it at the same time. So that's how I work, I have to work that way, and I'm usually conducting a workshop, taking people with me while I'm also, uh, working on my own book project, so I frequently am taking people to africa or myanmar or bhutan, and I'm also feeding my photos while I'm teaching the class, so you have to have all those kind of things going on at the same time.

Class Description


  • Improve your composition in landscape photography
  • Develop an eye for better nature photography
  • Find --and grow -- your inspiration
  • Go from nature lover to nature photographer
  • Spot creative shots even in popular places
  • Fine-tune composition with the unpredictability of wildlife photography
  • Tell a story through fine art nature photography


Spend a day gleaning insight from a nature photographer with five decades of experience shooting on every continent, Art Wolfe. This special one-day class includes two 90-minute discussions, 90 minutes of student critiques, and three episodes of Art's documentary series Travels to the Edge.

Go beyond basic nature photography tips and dig into the psychology of nature photography and what takes an image from a snapshot to fine art. Learn to find your inspiration, break the rules and see the story inside grand landscapes. This is not a class for taking textbook plain nature photography from a boring list of landscape photography tips -- it's a class designed to help you find your own unique voice to capture your own fine art prints of landscapes, wildlife, and culture.

After this class, you'll have the confidence to experiment, to work for the shot, and to capture the story in nature photography.


  • Beginning photographers shooting landscape, wildlife and nature
  • Intermediate photographers ready to refine their eye
  • Advanced photographers looking for insight from a top nature photographer


Art Wolfe is a nature and conservation photographer with a background in fine art and painting, a start which continues to influence his work to this day. Often described as a "prolific" nature and wildlife photographer, Art has published more than 80 books of photographs, along with images appearing in major publications such as National Geographic Magazine, Smithsonian, Audubon, and more. Art has received numerous awards, including Nature's Best Photographer of the Year. He also leads a documentary television series Travel to the Edge. When he's not traveling nine months out of the year (including leading photography tours), he's teaching and working with his stock agency and production company in Seattle.

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What a fantastic use of time! My photos improved dramatically since this course. I found it so useful, I recommended it to 3 people, and am coming back to purchase. My favorite segment was about composition, which is where I really needed the most help. I'd previously subscribed to the take a hundred shots and hope one turns out well. Now I think much more carefully prior to the shot, and the quality of the photos is on a completely different level from what I'd taken before. Then entire course was excellent, and I really appreciated the segment on audience submission critiques. It helped me to internalize the concepts he'd taught, and to develop a keener eye. Art Wolfe truly is a master. His photographs have the ability to stir the emotion deeply and soothe the ailing heart. Mr. Wolfe is a great instructor too. Concepts were presented clearly, and illustrated well. I am so thankful to have participated in this course. Thank you, to Art Wolfe, for sharing insights into your talent, and also thank you to everyone involved in making this course widely available. I cannot recommend this course highly enough!


I have always loved you CreativeLive, for being there in so many ways to teach me how to do better what I love to do. And, so I doubly thank you for re-featuring this and, thus. allowing me to buy this at a no-brainer price. I live in New Mexico. I have struggled to discern how to photograph New Mexico in a way that it hasn't already been photographed. It's like the Eiffel Tower. This class has SO helped me think about how to do that. I LOVED how Art Wolfe talked about how he started as a painter and how that has influenced how he captures his photography. I'm going to really start thinking about that and experimenting with this. New Mexico has had MANY painters, besides Georgia O'Keefe, whose work I love. I'm committed to studying them more and being influenced by their work. I haven't been photographing landscapes here very much, because of how much New Mexico has already been photographed. But this class has helped me think about how to do that more powerfully.and uniquely. And also, total kudos to the videographers of the last three segments of this class. Just watching these videos and Art Wolfe narrating this is worth the price of admission. So, in short, being a New Mexican who aspires to photograph her beloved New Mexico in a way that is different and more powerful, I think this class will inspire and focus me going forward. Thank you!

a Creativelive Student

I enjoyed your presentation and critiques so very much. I was able to watch it all but decided I would love to watch it again. I bought the class. Art's sense of humor was enjoyable. I loved his time working with his models and oh my what he was able to do with them artistically was so incredible. I learned so much through his critique. I went to our local Barnes &Noble; and was shocked they didn't have any of his books. I will continue looking for them as I would enjoy having some of them for inspiration. I also want to thank creative live as I have enjoyed your programs so much and I continue to spread the word about your classes. Thank you. Frances