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."

For example, instead of choosing the historic plantations or sunny beaches of Virginia, Guffey chose an industrial view of a train track in Suffolk.

Virtual Paintouts Inspire Artists Around the World

This image, called "Morning Tracks," shows a scene from Suffolk, Va. Photo credit: Bill Guffey.

For his own home state, however, he acknowledged that he made an exception.

"For some reason, I came back to the simple garage scene that I'd passed by 1,000 times," he said of his Kentucky painting, the final one he completed in his state series.

This painting of Burkesville, Ky. was Guffey's final image in his state series. Photo credit: Bill Guffey.

Since March 2008, Guffey has painted nearly 100 images from Google Street View, in addition to more than one hundred others. In total, he said he has sold 30 to 40 pieces, some for as much as $1,500.

For the past six months, he has also encouraged artists around the world to join him with his monthly "Virtual Paintouts." At the beginning of each month, Guffey announces a location and invites participants to send him painted views of the city. At the end of the month, he posts them all on his blog.

So far, he said the paintouts have attracted about 25 painters from North America, Europe and even Australia. In the near future, he said he hopes to expand his outreach to disabled artists, encouraging them to virtually travel to and paint the places they may not be able to be reach physically.

Google: Guffey Is 'Remarkable' Example

For its part, Google has been supportive of his efforts.

"When we were creating Street View, we were excited about all the everyday uses, like looking for parking or planning trips," Stephen Chau, product manager for Google Street View, said. "Bill's use of Street View, to inspire his paintings and to create a virtual community of artists, is a remarkable example that we hadn't imagined but are really excited to see. It's been amazing to see the possibilities that have opened up as Street View has been brought to more places around the world."

This painting, called "Dr. Gachet's Lemon Tree," shows a small street in Auvers, France. Photo credit: Bill Guffey.

But now that Guffey has traveled the country – and the world – with Google, he's itching to do it for real.

"That's one of my goals," he said. "To be able to go to the spots that I painted virtually and paint in real life."

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