Sunday, April 15, 2012

Against a 'naturally textured' background...Scenes from Gyeongbok-gung Palace in Seoul

One of the aspects of NE Asian painting that fascinates me is the fact that, often, no attention is given to the background in the scene; in Western painting, a canvas will be completely painted over with a base layer--showing the blue sky, for example. In many NE Asian scrolls, the silk or the paper is left in its natural state; the foreground elements are recorded in detail, but the artist feels no need to fill in the blank background space with a 'realistically-colored' sky: 

19th-century painting reproduction from:

The above silk scroll, depicting a ceremony in the Throne Hall of Gyeongbok-gung Palace in Seoul is a typical example of the 'raw parchment' look in many scroll paintings.

Or, below, in this handpainted hanji (artisan hand-made paper) scene of a drummer, the fibers in the paper are part of the rustic effect; no need to place the percussionist on an identifiable background when the textured paper contributes its own rhythm:

So, I thought it would be interesting to see if I could mimic the 'naturally textured background' of traditional Korean art by playing with some of snapseed's filters and applying them to some photos I took with my iPhone in Gyeongbok-gung Palace last summer. (A bit of historical background: Gyeongbok-gung was established as the seat of government when the Joseon Dynasty was founded in 1392.)

Here is a view of the Throne Hall depicted in the scroll painting above,

(Lofty architecture with a lofty title; 'Geun-jeong-jeon' means 'diligence helps governance.') 

Below is the original photo from which the above scene is cropped.
You can see how the mid-day lighting hides the colorful eaves in dark shadow.
Using the 'selective adjust' filter allowed me to specifically brighten the colorfully painted eaves.
Finally, applying one of the 'grunge' filter styles,
and then intensifying the 'texture strength' produced the 'parchment look' above.

(above panorama stitched together on the iPhone using "AutoStitch.")

This is the east gate of the palace, "Geon-chun-mun,"
meaning 'spring begins.'
Through it, you can see the double-roof of the Throne Hall:
I particularly wanted the 'grunge filter' to blur the street details in front of the gate--
painted yellow lines along a concrete curb don't belong in a 'scroll-painting.'

Below, experimenting with a different texture, a scene of the Palace's main gate,
"Gwanghwamun," with Bugak-san mountain behind,
taken from Gwanghwamun Plaza:

I don't like this texture effect as much as the texture style
used for the Throne Hall and the east gate,
but it does turn the otherwise pastel evening sky into a more 
neutral 'scroll background.'

A more close-up view of Gwanghwa-mun gate,
with a mythical fire-eating and justice-promulgating 'haetae' standing guard:

Looking through the central portal of Gwanghwamun gate,
leading to Heung-nye-mun gate,
which leads to the Throne Hall complex:
This style isn't my favorite, either,
but it shows another variation available in the 'grunge filter,'
a combination of edge-blurring as well as a sepia-tone 
to tone down the saturation,
along with the texture effect.

Another day, another scene through Gwanghwamun,
showing the re-enacting of the medieval Changing of the Guard:
By using the exaggerated texture in this scene, I was going for a watercolor-paper effect...

One last scene, from the rear gardens of Gyeongbok-gung Palace--
a hexagonal pavilion on an island in a lotus-pond,
the poetically named "Hyang-weon-jeon,"
'The Pavilion of Far-reaching Fragrance,' one of the loveliest spots in Seoul:
Again, I think this particular texture style is not as successful as what I used in the first photo of the Throne-Hall in mimicking the color and texture of a scroll-painting, but you do get an idea of some of the variations possible within the 'grunge' filter.

With digital photography and digital editing, it's more and more difficult for viewers to know if they're seeing 'what's really there' as opposed to something that's been 'photoshopped;' it's so easy to add or subtract elements from a scene now, to alter the honesty out of the frame. I used to be very wary of 'altered photos,' but if altering a photo means using certain filters to modify lighting, intensity of color, and point of focus, instead of adding or subtracting physical objects...if 'unaltered' photos can be compared to prose, perhaps 'altered' photos can be likened to poetry?--a certain way of distilling what the photographer wants a scene to convey. Prose and poetry can both convey truth, just in different ways...

[All photos in this posting were taken with an iPhone 4,
and edited solely using snapseed.]


  1. I used your photo for the header on my new blog.
    Hope you do not mind.
    I did give you credit and linked it back to your blog.
    This is perfect for me, as me and my wife [who is Korean] intend on spending most of our last days in S/Korea. I was actually at this palace and a few others this last October.

  2. Hello there--I'm flattered that you liked my photo enough to want to use it as the header for your blog...I appreciate that you credit the photo to me. However, the photo you chose is actually quite dark and badly exposed, which is why I used it in this posting to demonstrate how to improve the shot. I think you would enjoy having a better quality photo for the heading of your blog--so, in short, I am asking you to remove that particular photo as the heading for your blog. Let me know if you'd like a suggestion for some other scene to head your blog--there are many more 'pan-Asian' scenes out there. Thank you.