Monday, February 22, 2010

Use of Photographs

When I was editor of the Classical Realism Journal I once interviewed the painter Jeffrey Mims. I’ll paraphrase what he said about the use of photos in painting: if you have a good photo, why not be content with what it is, instead of imitating it in paint? It’s a good point. Of course the obvious answer is that an oil painting has a romantic cachet about it that photos lack. Some people are pursuing that, and are willing to use photos to get it. But remember: if you work from a photo you are copying the effect of an emulsion on paper, or ink on paper, or photons (or whatever they are) in a computer screen. There is no getting away from that. You may be able to bring some artistic sensibility to bear on it that transforms the image effectively into paint, but I would not venture to advise anyone about how to do that. There may be practical reasons for making paintings from photos that have to do with making a living, but again I wouldn’t casually advise in favor of it.

Do I use photos to make my paintings? Almost never. Have I tried using them in various ways, as aides? Yes. There is one painting posted on my website that was generated by using photos. It is the painting of the two polar bears on an ice floe. It is obviously not a plein air painting. I did not copy any single photo to make it, but used numerous photos as references, as well as studies I had painted from nature of water and ice. None of the other paintings on this site were generated in whole or in part from the use of photos. They were all generated on site from nature.

My biggest personal objection to working from photos is that I find it to be tedious and boring. I can’t stay interested in it. Would you rather look at a video of your favorite vacation spot, or go there? Do you prefer looking at a picture of your good friend, or being in their presence?

My wife Nora takes digital photographs. She has a gift for composing and I am frankly envious of the sheer number of beautiful images she can take, or the subjects she can explore with her camera that would not be suitable for painting. I admire her photographs very much, and I am interested in looking at thoughtful and creative photography in general. I want to make it clear that I am not dismissing photography.

But clearly photography and painting are two different things. Photography has not replaced realistic painting, as it was once supposed it would, although it has influenced how it is done and largely assumed some of the tasks once reserved for painting. Painting nature, or anything else for that matter, from photographs puts you one more step removed from your subject and the direct experience of it. You should ask yourself before you start if you can afford to work that way.

Am I saying that I will never use photos? No. If I am someday incapacitated by age, illness or injury and cannot go out in the field to paint, will I turn to the use of photos? I can’t say no, although I also can’t imagine how I would suddenly not find it tedious (although that I cannot imagine it does not mean that it cannot be so), or suddenly lose the desire to work directly from nature in some capacity.

The photo at the top of this post was taken by Nora in January of this year at Afton State Park, Minnesota, on the eastern border of Minnesota with Wisconsin. Winter seems like it's been going on a long while by this time of February - and it has.