Thursday, March 31, 2016

Truth or fiction: Drawing & Painting from Life vs Photos

 Photography can be a funny thing.  You can select different cameras and different lenses with different focal lengths, totally flattening or curving space and altering perspective. You can adjust how much or little of your image is in focus.  You can adjust color balance.  And that's just when you are taking the picture!  Then there's editing... Consider, for example, my photo above.  The only editing done after-the-fact was cropping it and flipping it upside down for hopefully a surreal effect. 
So when you draw or paint from a photograph, attempting to make something look 'real', what are you really getting?  It very much depends on all the choices made by the photographer.  I'll admit, that while I'm a big fan of working from direct observation, I recognize that sometimes it is not convenient.  And my painting style does not aim at photo-realism, anyhow.  I prefer to capture the spirit and energy of my subject (I hope).  I'm sharing the paintings below, all mine, all done from photos for various reasons, to help me make a point a little later in this post.
The image above is of my son when he was in college, painted at least 6 years ago, and is acrylic  on canvas and incorporates collage (bits of colored glass, odd little toys and doodads, string and yarn, and a bass guitar string on the frame).  I used the collage to help capture the spirit of my son.

And below is a painting I did several years ago, from a photo I took while scuba diving when I was young and single.  It also acrylic, on Masonite, with a shell and coral collage on the frame.  I don't think I have to explain why I worked from a photo.
This oil painting on canvas below, done decades ago, is of a scene that I regularly saw while on a toll highway, especially during drives too and from my college town.  One day, with a blustery sky, traffic was light so I pulled over and took a quick photo.  Again, there was no way to paint the scene live.  One little photo was all I had to work from.
The acrylic painting of flowers below actually began from observation, but as the flowers were quickly fading, and I wasn't done, I took photos to help me complete the painting. 
But I've been thinking more about observational work lately, and I'll tell more about why this is on my mind in my next blog post, in a few days.  But meanwhile, I've talked before on this blog about drawing from observation, in particular here.  And I want to dwell on why I think it is such an important thing to teach.

Below are two photos taken from exactly the same location, totally unedited.  Two different cameras, two different focal length lenses.  Which one is "right"? Both?  Or neither?
Let's say you wanted to draw/paint this location in the two photos above this paragraph, or the two photos below, also shot with two different cameras/focal lengths.  How would you approach it?  Do you take a photo and bring it back to your studio to put on canvas or paper?  But which image do you select?  Which is the "right" one?  If you set up an easel on the dock above, or the walkway/bridge below, and drew what you saw, what would it look like?  The first photo or the second?  Or perhaps neither of them.  Personally, in the top pair, I prefer the more dramatic perspective of the first photo.  I'm not so sure about the pair below. If I drew the dramatic perspective of the left-hand photo, I'd be concerned that it might look as thought the bridge walkway was tilting, because of the sharp angle of the shadow lines. 
 Certainly, if I want to do drawings or paintings of these locations, and am unable to draw or paint on location, I can take photos and choose what I prefer to use for my composition.  But what if you are using a photo someone else took?  Then, hasn't the photographer made the aesthetic decision about how to view the scene? And if you are trying to make it look "real", what does that even mean??  Which one of the photos in the pairs is the way it "really" looked?

Or maybe you've got a drawing just the way you want it, but you are in your studio trying to recall the colors of the scene you are painting.  Below are two different photos, taken from exactly the same location, with the same camera, but a different color balance setting.  Which one is "right"?  Which one would you use for reference for your painting?  Since I took these photos just a couple of days ago, I can tell you, neither one is a good representation of the colors I saw in the water that day.  How better to get it right than to paint it while actually looking at it?  So that the colors you perceive with your personal vision influence what you choose to put on your canvas or paper?
Here's another pair of pics, taken within seconds of each other, with two different camera settings.  Which picture represents what it really looked like that evening?  It was a pretty sunset, but again, neither one of these photos is a true representation.  Of course if I tried to set up my easel outside and paint what I saw, there would be two problems: first of all, the light was diminishing quickly, so it would have been a challenge to see what I was doing without falling off the dock into the lake.  Second, the color was incredibly fleeting.  Five minutes later it was dramatically different, and ten minutes later it was gone completely.  So I would have to add my personal interpretation, since, light and color change so rapidly.  Case in point would obviously be paintings by Monet, of a cathedral, or a haystack, for example, where he returned and painted the same scene many times with different light quality. 
Look at the incredible color of that sky in these images below!  Do you think this is real?  I took both these photos, so I can answer the question.  The photo is not edited, but still, the answer is NO.  I used a polarizing filter on my camera lens, which, when used appropriately, will substantially darken a sky, and cause white clouds, for example, to dramatically stand out.  (It will also remove glare from water or elsewhere.)  So would it be wrong to paint the sky this fabulous blue?  Of course not!  It is your artistic CHOICE.  But to paint the sky that color simply BECAUSE THAT IS THE COLOR IN THE PHOTO is just blindly copying, not creative decision-making.
In recent years, as I've looked at exhibited drawings and paintings by high school students, it seems there is a lot of skill, beyond what I was ever trained to do: the kids have learned to copy, to render, to carefully shade, and their work is often impeccable, and photographic in detail.  But what I have missed is the spirit that shows me who the artist is inside.  Many of these carefully rendered works of art seem to have the life sucked right out of them.  I would like to see the energy of a Kandinsky, the joy of a Matisse, the whimsy of a Miro, the emotional warmth of a Cassatt, the inner glow of a Rembrandt, the sense of inner light of a Vermeer, the mystery of a Di Chirico, the quiet of a Hopper, the angst of... the humor of.... the anger of.... (You fill in the blanks; I could go on and on.)
It's been 30 years since I was a high school art teacher, and I realize the world has changed.  But, when I walk through a major museum like the Art Institute of Chicago, or the Brooklyn Museum, or MoMA, or the Met, or even a tiny museum like our local gem The Hyde Collection, I am still most moved by those works of art that have a sense of the spirit of the artist.  I am not moved by a technically perfect piece that has no soul, no emotional connection, that is nothing more than an impeccable copy of someone's photograph.  (I think that's why I love elementary art students - because they have not yet un-learned the joy of creating.)
I think we can never re-claim that spirit, that joy, unless we STOP depending on using other people's photographs for the primary source material for our art.  Our kids need to look up from their screens and start to really look and SEE what is in the world around them.  If you are teaching kids of any age, set up still life arrangements to work from, have students take turns as models, take your classes on mini field trips outside to draw, give them mirrors to draw themselves, have them, as my college drawing teacher assigned for us, do endless drawings of their hands.  (Actually, the specific instruction was "endless articulating cube studies of your hands", but I digress.)  Have them do blind contour drawings of all sorts of organic objects.  Bring in taxidermy animals for drawing source material.  Have them look at and draw their feet. Borrow the human skeleton from the science department of your school to be a model, put a hat or scarf or sunglasses on it; pose it.  Have students open a random drawer or cabinet and draw the contents; have them pick flowers and examine them prior to drawing them.  Have them draw spontaneously with a felt tip marker or ball point pen or even a crayon.   If they MUST work from a photo for reasons like the ones I had for my paintings above, don't constantly resort to having them graph the photo to get it "perfect".  (It is a good skill to learn, but remember, it is just a skill.)  Instead,  ask that they use the photos as a reference, a starting point, for creating a piece of art that reflects the artist inside.  This is my challenge to you all!

It is my hope that 50 or 100 years from now, when the next generations step into an art museum, that they see works created today that express the humanity of the artist, and that move them the way we are moved by, perhaps, that Picasso, or O'Keeffe, or van Gogh, or Klimt......  rather than seeing technically perfect pieces that lack a soul, and that fail to elicit any emotion from the observer.
Thanks for reading this massive post!  I'd love to hear your thoughts!

13 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this post, especially seeing your original pieces! It is so interesting to think about the tension between skill building and pure artistic expression. I think that every art student moves up and down that continuum all the time and if they are lucky enough to have a good art teacher they are always inspired to grow and do more. The pieces which wind up in shows are chosen because of the technical skill, and do not always have that "spark" that you are talking about. Many teenagers are afraid to show their true selves, and they take a lot of pleasure and pride in their ability to render something with realism. It is true that perhaps our students who have great technical ability are afraid to "step outside of the box," so to speak! Thank you for making your thoughts visible to the rest of us, points to ponder for sure!

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    1. Thanks for your comment. It is interesting how much emphasis is placed on craftsmanship and skill, but then we always seem to end up discussing the meaning behind bizarre conceptual contemporary pieces where technical skill isn't a factor at all. All just food for thought.

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  2. Yay again! I'm giving you a standing ovation at my house! I have always valued emotion over exact representation myself and believe I have passed that on to my students, but don't think I have been so elegant in expressing it. This posting should be a presentation- for teachers, students, admin. The understanding of observation, and "real", especially in this age of photoshopped images, is so important. I had a student once who had a very different way of portraying things-his "observations" were so different from the rest of the class that we all finally concluded he must have some different brain connections than the rest of us (that class gave each other feedback everyday). More later!!!!

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    1. Thank you SO much for your comment, Lorraine. Maybe this could become the core of an NAEA workshop presentation for next year? Though then I might have to do some actual research to put it all together....

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    2. I would help you- seriously!

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    3. Hmmm I like it... a presentation by a couple of old retired ladies... would anyone listen to us, do you think??

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  3. I would listen!!! My colleague retired 2 years ago and I miss her advice and wealth of knowledge everyday!!! I wish I had a book of all her good art teachings...... I love your posts!!!!

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  4. true, but copying masters' work has been going on forever,it's how you learn techniques which you will later use to make your own mark. Creativity without any technical ability isn't awesome either!!!! Copying, honing technical skill, are just part of the journey of an artist and not the final destination.

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    1. I'm confused. I don't think I said a single word in this post about copying masters' work as part of a learning process. I believe it is an excellent, useful exercise, and I remember paintings I copied during college years, trying to discern what colors were layered to create the final piece. And I never said that we shouldn't teach/learn technical skill, either. I'm talking about the pieces of student art that I see exhibited as their best work, in student exhibits and even juried student shows. A well-rounded student should learn many things, including technical skill, and to observe and record what he/she sees, and to interpret what is seen using the skills learned, and to insert their own creative interpretation into what is being represented.

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  5. I completely agree with your comments about high school work. I am impressed with their skill level, but I prefer works that have some energy and a sense of the artist.

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    1. Glad I'm not alone in this!

      Meanwhile - I hope you don't mind; I deleted your duplicate comment.

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