Monday, September 9, 2013

Painting vs. Photography

"Old Timer." (desert tortoise) Oil on board, 16 x 20 inches. ©Karine Swenson2013 
This year, my focus in the studio has been to strengthen my understanding of light and shadow. It started with the Imagined Animals. I know you thought those were just for fun (and they were fun!), but I did have a purpose in mind when I painted them. I wanted to really study what light did when it hit the smooth surface of those little toys. What kinds of shadows were created? What kind of reflected light did I see? Can I use the light to make the flat painting have a three dimensional quality?

This focus on light and shadow has continued into my other paintings of animals. I have finally decided to start painting the backgrounds more like the natural setting in my reference photos, in order to understand the light and shadow even better. Of course, photographs can be limiting when it comes to light and shadow. I think it is important for an artist to work from life as well as from photos, because there are things the eye is capable of seeing that the camera is not capable of capturing. I have done a lot of drawing and painting from life, which I apply to my work even when using photos.

I often feel that photography has been used as a measure for how successful a painting is. I have heard people say, "That painting is amazing - it looks just like a photograph!" Do people really think it's that hard to make a painting look like a photograph? I am here to burst your bubble, if you feel that way. Here are a list of reasons why I don't think it's hard to make paintings look like photos:

1. A photograph doesn't EVER move. The light doesn't change, the model doesn't get tired, the animal doesn't hop away, etc. You can conceivably work on a painting from a photograph forever, and it will always look about the same.
(of course, one of the reasons why I use photographs as reference for my animal paintings is simply because they don't move. It's hard to get animals to hold still. My sketchbooks are full of quick drawings I have done from life of animals. Some of those drawings consist of only one line, and then the animal moved. Not enough information for a full painting, I'd say.)

2. Modern technology has made it relatively easy for an artist to replicate a photograph. Many portrait painters simply project the photographic image onto their painting surface and trace the image. It is a common practice among other "realists" as well. Artists can also use a grid to transfer the photographic image onto the painting surface, preventing major distortions. This is particularly helpful in blowing up a small image to a large painting surface.

Just so you know, I don't use either of these techniques. I have to do everything the hard way - I do all of my drawing free hand.

3. A photograph is already flat. The artist doesn't have to try to take a three dimensional object and create a flat image with it. That step has already been done by the camera.

4. When working from life, time becomes an issue. If one is outdoors, the light will change - almost constantly. If one is working from a model, the model moves. He (or she) becomes tired and the body shifts subtly. The model will often take breaks, and when he gets back into the pose, there are always differences.
These kinds of challenges don't exist when working from a photo.

5. When working out of one's imagination, the artist has to have a basic understanding of how things look in order to make a believable painting. This is so much more difficult than having it all right there in front of you like you would when working from a photo!! (In fact, this is my biggest area of weakness - I am not very skilled at working from my imagination. I need to practice.)

A short list, but one I hope you will consider the next time you find yourself feeling impressed that a painting looks "just like a photograph."

Even though I use photographs for reference when I paint, it is my hope that the paintings I create will transcend merely "looking like a photograph." I want it to be a painting - to have qualities a photo will never have - bold brush strokes, unexpected colors, texture, and a physical presence only a painting can have. I am seeking something beyond the photographic image, because I am ultimately a painter. Not a photographer. I don't know if I am attaining that goal, but I am striving for it.

You may think that I don't admire photographers. This simply isn't true. I have seen some amazing photography, and it isn't that easy to take a great photograph. I want to take great photographs and then use them to help me make even greater paintings.

I leave you with a photograph I took on a hike of a tortoise we saw that was only about 5 inches long:
cute as can be!!!
This tortoise was in the shade of a fallen long, so I probably won't be doing a painting of it. But I thought you would enjoy it!
Thanks for stopping by and reading my blog, all.


Robert Morris said...

I do not know why any painter would want to produce art that looked like a photograph; I am neither impressed by nor interested in photorealistic art. Although it undoubtedly takes skill, it frequently lacks an inner vision, something that I feel is of primary importance in the creation of art in any medium. Although I am a photographer, I feel that painting is a superior medium for artistic expression, as the painter has so many more possibilities in the way of technique for expressing his vision.

Of course, even photographs don't have to be photorealistic. In the early history of photography, many of its more artistic practitioners rejected its innate realism and attempted, by various manipulations, to make their photographs look more like paintings. This late 19th and early 20th century movement was known as Pictorialism, and though it eventually fell out of favor, I find the works of the pictorialists far more moving than the more sharply-focused work of many of the photographers (such as Ansel Adams) who came later. In the past couple of decades the digital revolution has opened up endless opportunities for non-realistic art photography, a development I heartily applaud.

As for painting from photos instead of from life, many famous artists since the mid-19th century have done it to an extent, and as you say, there are sometimes practical reasons for doing so. But it is so much more romantic to picture an artist (wearing a beret, of course) painting from a model in a light-filled studio or taking his paintbox and portable easel to work "en plein air" in nature or in some picturesque village square!

In both painting and photography, I believe that mood, atmosphere, color, form, symbolism, and the inner life of the subconscious are all vastly more important and interesting than realism.

Charles Flaum said...

This late 19th and early 20th century movement was known as Pictorialism, and though it eventually fell out of favor, I find the works of the pictorialists far more moving than the more sharply-focused work of many of the photographers (such as Ansel Adams) who came later. Battery Led Picture Light