How an Artist Uses Google Street View to Paint the World

Editorial Feature

By Google Arts & Culture

Meet Bill Guffey, creator of the Virtual Paintout

Can anyone learn how to paint? And not just paint, but be good at it? Ask Bill Guffey and he’d say sure. He did after all.

Born and raised in Burkesville, a small town of around 1500 people burrowed within the Appalachian foothills of central Kentucky, Bill started painting after his wife wanted something to hang in their foyer. His first attempt at what would quickly become a newfound passion wasn’t what he’d call good by any stretch, but his wife admired his gumption. She hung it on the wall proudly.

“After I started painting, I got addicted,” Bill says. Soon, his supplies were taking up so much room in their home that he opened his own art studio within the small stretch of shops and weather-beaten historical buildings that make up downtown Burkesville.

Bill Guffey's gallery in Kentucky by Bill Guffey

Bill's studio in downtown Burkesville, Kentucky

He began painting different landscapes around his hometown, but after a while, he was looking for new things he could paint. That’s when he found a surprising source of inspiration: Google Street View.

“I stumbled upon Google Street View just messing around one day, and found a diner in New York City and thought, that would make a great painting.”

A welcomed change of pace from his usual spots, Google Street View became an infinite reference library that opened up the world to Bill.

“Artists will say, ‘Don't paint from someone else's photograph.’ This is not like painting from someone else's photograph, this is you finding your own composition. It's just like you’re walking up and down the street.”

Bill Guffey Searching on Street View

Bill Guffey, paint palette by Bill Guffey

Bill's palette, with its layers of paint built up over the years

After a prolific period of painting using Street View as his muse, he thought other artists might enjoy painting with him as well, so he created what he calls the Virtual Paintout.

In a traditional en plein air paintout, artists come together at a single location and choose their own compositions to paint or draw within a predetermined set of boundaries.

Bill’s Virtual Paintouts follow the same model. He chooses a different location each month and invites other artists to visit that location virtually using Google Street View. Within boundaries he sets, they find something to paint or draw, and he posts their creations on his blog.

“My first virtual paintout location was Baltimore. I think I received 6 submissions. But with each month, the project grew.”

A virtual visit to the Canary Islands garnered 146 submissions. To date he’s received over 6600 paintings from different artists.

Bill Guffey painting using Google Street View by Bill Guffey

“I like to choose a location that has a little mix of everything. I won’t just include a city, I’ll include the countryside outside of a city in case someone wants to do a pastoral scene. What I like the best is to see how artists will take what they see in front of them and abstract that.”

For Bill, the project has not only helped him refine his craft, but has brought artists together from all over and allowed them to explore the world virtually without leaving home.

“One of the most rewarding aspects has been the emails I’ve received from other artists who tell me this project got them painting again, or started their painting careers.”

Bill has already chosen the next location for his motley band of artistic, virtual globe-trotters: Amsterdam. As to where they’ll paint after that, we’ll have to wait and see, he says.

“For me, painting is my world of expression. Sometimes I can't say in words what I really want to say. I can't bring that out. But in painting I can, in the representational I can, and especially in the abstract painting I can.”

Selection of Bill Guffey's paintings by Bill Guffey

A sampling of Street View scenes Bill has painted

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