Project Paint Pour

Acrylic paint spreads through water during an experimental shoot, Friday, March 16, 2012.

Sometimes, when people ask what I do for a living, I respond, “I get paid to play with my toys.” And, while I’m sincere in this credo, the toys are often in use to realize a client’s vision, or to complete a client’s project. It’s not frequent that I have the time to take on a personal, just-for-fun project, even though there’s tons of ideas swimming around in my brain at any given moment. Unfortunately, many of those ideas would amount to long-term projects that my schedule just won’t accommodate.

Yesterday, my friend and fellow photographer Taylor Irby shot me a link to some fascinating portraits of ink being poured into water. I was stunned at the simplicity of what was going on in the images from a technical standpoint, contrasted with the beautiful complexity of the lines the ink was creating as it flowed through the water. I immediately knew I had to try this for myself, and I was thrilled that I had a fun project on the table – just-for-fun – that would only take a couple of hours.

The biggest hurdle in accomplishing this project was finding an aquarium. I was pleased to pick up a brand new 5.5 gallon model for just under 11 dollars. Pretzels, while optional, are also highly recommended.

I purchased a five and a half gallon aquarium from Meijer, my official store, for $10.49. Rather than purchasing ink, I decided to use acrylic paint diluted with water to create my designs. Acrylic paint is easy to work with and easy to wash off your skin (I could see ink getting very messy).

Here’s the setup for the color paint pours. The aquarium was backlit with an Elinchrom Style 600 strobe at about half power, placed inside a Photoflex medium softbox. To the left of the aquarium was a Vivitar 285HV flash set to 1/4 power, and below, another Vivitar set to 1/2 power. To the right of the aquarium, I placed a piece of white card stock for fill. The images were shot with a Canon 1D Mark IV with a 50mm f1.2 lens. My base exposure was 1/250th @ f16 @ 50 ISO.

Detail of a color pour. The four dots in the upper left corner are actually fragments of paint that didn’t dilute in the water prior to the pour.

Despite the ease of working with the acrylic paint, and the similar results to the ink that it created, the project turned out to be quite time consuming. Each “pour” required me to use a clean five gallon bucket to fill the aquarium with water. After filling the aquarium, I used Windex to clean the aquarium’s outside glass surfaces of any paint residue (the humidity on the night I shot also made keeping the glass clear a huge challenge). Next, I’d pour a small amount of the acrylic paint into a cup and dilute it with a very small amount of water.

With the paint ready, I’d head over to the aquarium and grab the camera’s cable release in one hand, while pouring the paint into the water with the other. I’d shoot about 20 frames or so of each pour, capturing the paint as it poured into the water and spread out. Once I was done shooting, I’d have to carefully lift and carry the heavy, almost-full aquarium over to the sink to empty it and wash it out. Repeat, repeat, repeat. This project isn’t for those who lack patience. For instance, my first two pours didn’t work too well because I was diluting my paint too much.

While cleaning out the aquarium in the sink after my first couple of test pours (the ones that didn’t turn out well), I was struck with the way the colors of paint were running together that had settled to the bottom of the aquarium. I took the aquarium back over to the lighting setup and fired off this frame.

I came up with this high-tech rig to allow me to pour two colors of paint simultaneously with one hand (since my other hand was operating the cable release for the camera).

The resulting pour. I flipped this one 180 degrees as with most of the others.





I changed the lighting setup a bit when I poured the white paint. I used a black flag as my background, and 2 Vivitar 285HV units (one overhead at 1/4 power, and one from below at 1/2 power) with pieces of blackwrap attached as barn doors to cut the light off the background.



The final images from the project were toned as I would any other image. To aid in my edit, I shot an image of an X-Rite Color Checker inside the empty aquarium under my strobes to help me eliminate any color casts the aquarium glass would introduce. Most of the images were flipped upside down, as I found the paint looked more interesting this way. Some of my favorites from the project are the images where I used white paint against a black background. The designs remind me of cumulonimbus thunderstorm clouds! What do you think?

Posted in Experimental, Photography, Tips And Tricks by Guy Rhodes on March 16th, 2012.

6 Responses to “Project Paint Pour”

  1. Mike Mohaupt says:

    Very cool “experiment!” I love the bold colors you chose. Also loved the simplistic lighting set up. Reminded me of something I would see on

    ~Mike Mohaupt

  2. Don Center says:

    Way cool, Simple things make the best images.

  3. Ed says:

    These are amazing and I can’t wait to try it later tonight.
    Any tips for someone who doesn’t have strobes? I have a nikon 600 speedlight, the tank, but no strobes.



  4. Guy Rhodes says:

    I actually used 2 small Vivitar 285 flashes to light these in addition to the Elinchrom strobe, so depending on your ISO and aperture settings, you might be able to bounce your speedlight off a white card behind the tank to achieve that blown out white look behind the paint. Alternately, you could try using continuous lights to light this, but they’d have to be pretty bright to get the shutter speeds needed (around 1/500th would be my starting point) to freeze the paint when it first enters the water – it moves quick.

  5. Ed says:

    Thanks so much for getting back to me. I’ll try it with some straight lighting as well as the flash. I’ll send ya a link with any luck I have.

  6. Chris Decker says:

    Thank you so much for the article, it really helped solidify some questions I had before I try this out for myself. If you’re interested I wanted to share with you a video on youtube by the designer Alberto Seveso. In case you haven’t seen it already he uses an interesting method in order to blend the two colors together. . Thanks again!

Leave a Reply