Uncommonwealth: Kentuckian gathers artists' paintings based on Google Earth

Anne Arsenault painted the scene of Venice at left based on a Google Street View of the Italian city.
Anne Arsenault painted the scene of Venice at left based on a Google Street View of the Italian city.

We look at Google Street View and see a way to tour the world from an armchair.

Bill Guffey sees it differently.

Guffey, an artist in Burkesville in Cumberland County, sees a world of places to paint — and not just for himself, but for anyone else on earth, with perspectives almost as good as being there in person.

The first thing he saw that he wanted to paint was a Chinese restaurant in New York City.

"I thought it was an interesting building, thought I would try to paint it, and I was hooked," Guffey said. "In Street View, you can find any kind of building, tree or landscape that you want."

His only problem: What would Google think? Guffey did not want to tangle with the Google legal machine in order to have a nearly infinite supply of art subjects. Also, he wanted to be able to share his work.

Guffey got a happy ending courtesy of Google, the dominant search engine. Not only was it fine to produce art based on Street View, a Google attorney bought 50 paintings, one from each state, from Guffey.

They were small paintings done with a palette knife, "that way I just scrape the paint onto the canvas," Guffey said.

And the Google corporation bought seven paintings from Guffey — three for a London office, he said, four to California.

What to do with this new set of worldwide canvasses then? Why, share them, of course.

Almost five years into the project, Guffey's Virtual Paintout has seen 3,900 submissions. The first month's subject was Baltimore. This month's subject is Venice, anywhere from the Doge's Palace to Saint Mark's Basilica and the Grand Canal.

As Guffey puts it: "All this from the hills of rural Kentucky."

Go to and see the artists' efforts. Each is linked to the piece of Google Maps used in the painting. Some are more literal, some more free-wheeling. Use of the color varies. But they are striking for the lens they put on places, both famous and previously seen only by tourists and a Google Street View photograph car or cycle.

Street View has been a blessing for painters like Guffey, who don't like painting from a static photograph because of its limits.

"With Street View, it's just like you're walking up and down the street and you decide. You can look at it from different angles and different distances."

Guffey estimates that he has done 150 paintings based on Street View since he started in 2008. Among his favorites is one from Detroit, of an abandoned house.

While new participants from around the world find the site each month, Guffey said, "there are a couple of people who have been with me since nearly the first time."

He expects about 100 submissions for Venice. Instructions on how to submit are on the Web site.

If you decide to join up with Guffey on his round-the-world tour, please be patient.

He's a family man with a full-time job as a graphic artist for a newspaper and teaches night classes. But he hasn't missed a month of curating yet.