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

From his Kentucky home, man paints the world with Google Street View.

ByABC News
August 10, 2009, 2:03 PM

Aug. 11, 2009— -- 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."

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."

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.

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.

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.

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."