Google Puts the World at the Tip of Painter's Brush

Photo: Kentucky man paints the world via Google Street View

Bill Guffey has never walked the streets of London, New York or Barcelona. He has never visited the coast of Maine or watched the sun set in Italy over a Florentine villa.

But if you looked around his rural Kentucky studio, you would never know it.

Tableaus from European cities and every U.S. state (except for Hawaii) cover the walls of his home, illustrating the adventures of a presumably well-traveled artist. Yet the self-taught oil painter said he has never physically been to 99 percent of the places he has captured on canvas.

To reach the closest Wal-Mart, Guffey said he needs at least 30 minutes in the car. But with 30 seconds on his computer, he can fly around the world with Google Street View and paint any place his cursor lands.

Not only does the mapping tool give Guffey and other users a street-level window to many places in the world, it lets them navigate 360-degree horizontal and 290-degree vertical unbroken panoramas.

"I live in a very rural area," the 45-year-old said of the Burkesville, Ky. home he shares with his wife and two daughters. "Here, I can go out and I can paint cows all day, barns all day … With Street View, I can find things I normally wouldn't see here."

Google Street View Offers Views of the World

About a year and a half ago, Guffey, a graphic artist for the local Cumberland County News, said he was struck by the urge to paint. So he stopped by a local hobby store, picked up a set of paints and canvases and got to work.

"From that point on, I was just addicted," he said.

But pastoral though rolling hills and endless greenery may be, Guffey said he wanted to try his hand at something else.

"What I did was I started painting from Google Street View," he said. "I was looking at it and found that I could travel the world from rural Kentucky."

Painted in June, Guffey calls this image "Barcelona Walk." Photo credit: Bill Guffey.

Launched in May 2007, Google Street View layers panoramic images of public streets (and some national parks) captured by Google over its maps (after blurring faces and license plates). Although it initially prompted some privacy concerns, the tool now covers nearly a dozen countries around the world in North America, Europe and Asia. And it's still expanding.

This painting, completed in July, shows Canada House in London's Trafalgar Square. Photo credit: Bill Guffey.

Artists Can Compose From Panoramic Images

Guffey said Google Street View is particularly helpful for artists because it lets them view a whole scene and then select what to include in the image.

"A lot of artists will not work from someone else's photograph," he said. But with Google Street View, he added, "you're actually composing the theme, just like you were there taking the photograph."

In February, he started a series of images from every state in the country. Since Google doesn't include images of Hawaii (although the company said it's working on adding them), he substituted in Washington, D.C., for the 50th state.

Starting with Louisiana, Guffey said he finished off the 50 paintings in about 60 days, mostly keeping his cursor away from popular and famous landmarks.

"One of the whole points was to be able to travel virtually and paint places that I had not been," he said, adding that he tried to capture the grit of real life and not just the "pretty, pretty scenes."

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