A few summers ago, while visiting my family in Maine, I was on a walk with my niece and nephew. We walked barefoot down a grassy path that meandered along the rocky coast, until we found a tiny beach with the perfect view of one of Maine’s many islands. The sound of the waves crashing on the rocks leaving that hissing, popping sound as they pull away, the stuttering call of the seagulls, and the salty breeze was so perfectly Maine, I wanted to tuck the whole scene in my pocket to take back to Oregon with me. I mentioned to the kids that I’d have to come back with my paints in order to capture this.
My nephew was curious as to why I wouldn’t just take a picture of it to work from at home. I was unprepared for the question and wished I was able to explain myself better, because it is a very good question and one that many people have, and for good reason.
We live in a world completely saturated with images, and photography has a sort of authority of truth. To see is to believe, after all. I think it is worth taking a step back though, to look atwhere we are today, compared to where people were before photography, TV, and even the radio for that matter.
I will first use an example of music:
Ulan and I were recently invited to a house concert put on by a local couple. They had a grand piano in the center of their living room, and all other furniture was removed and replaced with rows of chairs to seat up to 30 people. There was food and wine, and the host opened with a poem.
Three musicians played. I felt like I had entered a portal in time, where Pandora and Spotifydidn’t exist. I was in a warm snow globe-like bubble with the modern world swirling around outside, completely unaware of the magic that was going on in here. Hearing pieces by Chopin and Scarlatti in such an intimate space, gave me a feeling like a veil had been dropped- I was experiencing the pure music without any machine in the middle. We were able to talk with the musicians afterwards which enriched the experience further when we got to learn a little bit about them.
I often get a bit choked up when I hear beautiful music live. I think many people can agree that experiencing live music is special, but in such an intimate space such as the comfort ofsomeone’s home, is a different kind of experience all together.
How does all this relate to photography? Like music, when you are able to see things with your own eyes and hear things with your own ears, without interference of machines, that is the most true form of experiencing that sight or sound.
Don’t get me wrong- I hold a deep appreciation and love for photography. My father is a photographer and had a dark room in the basement of the home I grew up in. I have always found inspiration in work by good photographers and sometimes use photographic reference in my own work. I bring these examples up only to explain and bring awareness to the different ways artists see in order to develop their skills and create beautiful drawings and paintings.
How a camera sees vs. how humans see.
A camera has one eye: the lens, and the photographic plate is a flat surface. There is some distortion to photographs, due to the outside rays being longer than the central rays of the lens. Humans have two eyes that project the image onto two different circular bowl shaped retinas, meaning the outside rays are no longer than the center rays (unless a person is very astigmatic), causing a more perfect bifocal image.(1) Cameras also, unless adjusted, bring small details into focus all around the picture, whereas the human eye can only focus on small areas at a time. So if a painting was copied faithfully from a photograph, it will most likely look less convincing than the photo itself, due to the focus on small detail all around the picture.
Though today’s cameras can do amazing things and are incredibly complex machines, they still only record what they are designed and programed to record which differs in many ways to what our eyes and minds see. They tend to wash out important values and temperature changes in the lights, and also limit the amount of color in the darks. In other words, our eyes see a heck of a lot more color than a camera does. This is easily understood more once a person learns how to see through studying painting from life. It can be extremely limiting and frustrating, even to work from the best of photos. Which means, yes! It is actually easier to paint from life!
In her excellent paper, Big Beauty and Form Sense in Contemporary Figurative Practice, Patricia Watwood writes, “in current figuration, contemporary form sense is dictated by the images given to us from photography, and not cultivated enough from the artist’s own sense of form. In other words, we are making form that is like photographs, calling it art, and not even fully conscious we are doing so.”(2)
Watwood argues that while an artist draws or paints from studying nature, nature in turn, shapes the artist. In other words, each time an artist creates a painting, that process of painting creates something inside them. Before the flood of images that have multiplied over the past century, artists developed their art based off of an ideal of beauty that they created in their minds based off of their own experience, imagination, study, and the development of their own “Form Sense” as Watwood describes. It is important in today’s world that we remember to take in the plethora of images that we scroll by online, or see on TV, distill them within our souls and minds, and then produce art based off of an ideal that we have built on our own, over time.
A painting is like a magical witch’s brew of a single individual’s experience, sensation, emotion, timeliness, vision and culture, among many other things, all mixed up and put on a two dimensional surface for the world to take in. A painting that evokes true emotion and transcends time is a truly remarkable thing to behold. It requires a heck of a lot more than just a snap shot through the filter of photography to create something so moving. Again, this is not to undermine the art of photography, as it holds its own merits and is something entirely different all together.
That said, it is silly to think that if Michelangelo and Raphael had access to IPads and cameras that they wouldn’t have used them to their advantage. Once an artist builds their skills and understanding of their craft through studying from life, then they should use any and all means necessary to help aid their process. Like I mentioned earlier, I use photographic reference occasionally in my own work, but I never work from just one photograph. I use many at once, while still having to fall back on my understanding of nature to fill in the gaps.
I hope this explanation helps any of you who have wondered about this, and also that it gives you some insight into what really goes into making a painting, so that your experience while viewing them is ever more rich.
1. Michel Jacobs, Color in Portrait Painting, (D.M. Campana Art CO., INC, 1957) p. 11.
2. Patricia Watwood, Big Beauty and Form Sense in Contemporary Figurative Practice, (American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2014) P. 19