Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Painting from Photographs: A Philosophical Moment

"Snowy Valley" 5x7 pastel sketch
made from a snapshot

Trina, Saba and I are finally home and back on Campobello Island. The grass is knee-high and in desperate need of mowing! Surprisingly, the apple trees have already started to bloom - a good three weeks early.

Although we had two days of less-than-ideal weather in the Vermont pastel workshop, we managed to do some good work from photos. As most of you know, I don't paint from photos much. Watching the students turn decent snapshots into good paintings made me wonder: What did we do, before the snapshot was invented? And how have our painting practices changed since then?

Degas was probably one of the first to use photography in his work. His photos, of course, were hardly snapshots, since they were made on glass plates with long exposure times. Vermeer may have used a camera obscura, an ancestor of the camera. But again, there's no "snap" about using one of these! Snapshots didn't really come around until after the Kodak Brownie was invented in 1900.

Painters like Degas composed their photos carefully. A snapshot, of course, should be composed carefully, but Kodak's motto of "You push the button, we do the rest" along with inexpensive film allowed us casual shutterbugs to get a little sloppy. Digital film has exacerbated the problem. You can shoot a few hundred frames in a few minutes and pick the best composition. Careful planning has been supplanted by triage.

Before photography, painters spent a lot of time composing and designing their images. If a tree in the scene ruined the composition, it was eliminated; if a hill needed raising to improve the design, it was lifted; if a cloud pattern seemed meaningless, the artist imposed order upon it. Knowing what worked and what didn't was an important skill the painter practiced every time he went to work. But today with snapshots, many students assume that the photo doesn't just depict but also dictates, and it must be recorded without error. "Well, it was there in the photo" - how many times have I heard that?

Never assume that the photo tells your story in the best possible way. It can't - it tells the camera's story, not yours.


Unknown said...

thanks for that one, Michael. It seems so sterile, somehow, just to try to make an exact reproduction from a photograph. Unnecessary, really, since one can now print photos on canvas.

Tony said...

Good thoughts to remember when working from a photo. I sometimes forget and include everything...imagine painting Cathedral Rock from the aerial photo?
Been following your trek home. We are packing now and leave next monday and will take 8 days to get back to NE. See you next year.

Prabha Narayanan said...

This is a lesson i should never forget and you have put it nicely in words. Thanks Michael.

Jo Castillo said...

Great post and good reminder. Thanks.

Candi said...

Thanks Michael. Another problem I have found painting from photos, a bigger problem than composition in my opinion, is color. Do you have any tips or ideas concerning color?

Baltimore personal injury lawyer said...

Interesting insights into the pitfalls of modernity in painting. You make a nice point that the painting need not be the photograph, and the snapshot should give detail, but not meaning.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

Thanks, everyone. Candi, not to be glib, but painting from life is the way to go. Photos just don't cut it. I always feel free to play with the color if working from a photo. Typically, I'll come up with some color scheme - e.g. analogous yellows and greens with a small amount of violet.

Michael Chesley Johnson, Artist / Writer said...

PS Happy trails, Tony! Travel safe.