Painting from photos… (1)

June 25, 2007

Yesterday again I tried to find other paintings about crystals. Well – this is my way to find out how frequently a theme has been used. I do this research regularly – not because I want to find inspiration from other artists – this I do in a different way – but I want to make sure that I am not covering a theme or subject which has been covered to death. There might be exceptions though – but in these cases I try to find something totally unusual, an unusual view or detail. So the internet is quite convenient and the quickest tool to do so. Why not utilize all the resources you have got today?

I did not succeed besides finding one website. The paintings were a kind of photorealistic reproduction from photos as it seemed, in a still-life context or “natural” environment.

Although those oil paintings reflected a meticulous representation of various subjects – I was deeply disappointed because the paintings reflected photo images, so it seemed, because all the images were painted in a way how crystals are normally photographed – with a clean, neutral background in order not to detract attention. Although some images tried to convey a relationship to other realms that are supposed to have an esoteric touch, they unfortunately reached me only as superficial saccharine portion. I missed character and personality in these paintings and originality.

I found this really strange – not discovering more work about crystals. So either too few people are interested in the subject which I could not believe because there is quite a market out there where all sorts of crystals are sold – even the internet is full of offers. Or this is simply a subject that has not been covered to death as flowers and sunsets have. Good for me.

I am quite familiar with crystals because I collect all sorts of minerals and have also dug them out myself. The luggage of so many a holiday was quite heavy when returning home. Minerals and crystals are such an incredible treasure of nature and even the tiniest of them looks like a wonder of perfection when viewed through a microscope. How can this not be a subject of inspiration a painter would want to touch to find out what the secrets of those perfections are?
So even if the audience for painted crystals would be small they are a great means to learn more about the play of colours, contrasts, textures and perspectives. The world of minerals is a world of its own, reflecting the universe the same way as it reflects the world of the microbes. Forms are repeated everywhere as if the whole world is repeated in fractals. But even without that specific personal fascination crystals inherit an attraction for everyone. This aura is undoubtedly something that the profiteers of the esoteric squad use to their advantage.

But what’s wrong with painting from photos?

Regarding the second question I am probably touching a very controversial subject. I feel that painting a most realistic copy from photographs (other than your own) is not the true essence of making art. You probably can feel safe copying photos but art making is not a job where you are safe. *Art making is an adventure with many unforseeable variables. If you want to be safe you’d better off going back to the office. *

I consider painting or rather copying from (other than your own) photographs only appropriate when used as means for reproduction on commissional request, for documentation and for portraiture when the model is absent. Why do I feel this way?

Of course photos can be used for inspirational purposes or “to get things right” but I am convinced you “miss the point” when you copy from (foreign) photos simply, because you cannot build up a relationship with the object. Or can you? I don’t think that you can catch the real vibe of a subject if you don’t see it in reality or have seen it at least. Whether you see it in your head as a kind of 3d projection (f.e. from a dream or a kind of vision – many artists have these kinds of visions) or see it in reality does not matter at all. Only when you develop a real relationship with the object in question you might develop your own original image. This is the moment you would transfer it to the canvas or to any other medium.

(Today I know you can very well build up a relationship with a subject that you have seen on a photo only. No-one requires this to happen in reality – for artists this can happen very well in your head only. And images change – what you might have seen on a photo might be transformed completely in your head. Now it is definitely you own image. (Feb-04-2008)

It is often said that painters cannot really paint subjects from areas they do not live in. I don’t consider this fully necessary because as I said before – you really can build up a certain relationship with subjects which are not in your direct neighbourhood or you are confronted with on a daily basis, but being near certainly helps and influences your whole work. Copies from (foreign) photos therefore often appear to be dead, just a copy.

Funnily this exactly was the theme in a chat yesterday about painting where this came up – painting from 2d or 3d. Someone said it makes a big difference whether you paint from real life or from a 2-dimensional medium such as a photo and I think this is right to some extend! What the camera sees might be totally different from what the human eye sees – a camera normally cannot be tricked – it does not judge but relies on pure physical laws – a human eye can – depending on personal and physical capabilities which cannot be standardized such as a camera’s. I also think it is the human interpretation of an object that makes the difference. Depending on the emotional state of mind we see things differently, with a positive or negative touch, in warm or cold light.

So what to do now?

Painting copies from photos does help to improve skills. As an excercise it does not make any difference whether those are your own or from someone else as long as you don’t violate any copyright and keep it to your own. Painting from photos can help to work with contrasts. It can even help to see colours – how colours trick the brain sometimes, that makes you see something different than what’s there. We all know how colours change in different light although the colour has not changed in reality. If you enlarge an image on the monitor for example to an extent where you can see the single pixels you will easily learn how colours are mixed together to create a certain color in the distance i.e. at normal size. This practice really helps to see that the human eye interprets colours instead of splitting them up into single components which are needed to reproduce the very same colour complex. Example: mountains covered with snow appear to be blue in the distance although they aren’t of course.

I think painting from photos gives you a great amount of security – but for fear of getting things not right you sacrifice being original and unique. * Maybe this is the moment where artists should watch children and their approach to making art which is unspoiled and un-influenced and how fearless they create.

When I say now, that I need to know the basics of my job before I can decide to change the rules, this sounds contradictionary to what I just said about watching the kids. But being spontaneous and original does not mean that I should not know what I am doing. Otherwise my work will look amateurish and inadequate. Some people might not notice but the majority will.

Now – isn’t art making something that comes from your inner self – how is this possible when you are only copying a photo? Unless you consider the process of mixing the right colours you need for copying a photo as a part of your creative process – which I don’t – although I must admit I love mixing colours for the pure sake of it. But that’s another subject.

The bottom line is that developing an own style is driven by personality and not deliberately chosen. I don’t think that I could force that in a certain direction unless I want to copy another artist’s style or use the trends of a certain era. Therefore I find it almost imperative not to work with other artists of my own medium unless I have already developed my own style. The danger of being derivative is just too big. But that’s also a totally different subject.

I believe that it is a deliberate decision you make as an artist how to work on your chosen subject. I am convinced that between all the pure creative processes, where you are working from a subconscious level, you are very well able to take clear directions because art making implies a learning process as any other occupation. The image of the artist as a genius, wildly waving his brushes in elusive ecstasy and splashing the paint on to canvas belongs to the fairy tale of a Hollywood production but not into real life. Anything else is BS.

Taking the risk of doing something “wrong” rather than using the safety rope gives you freedom. Painting copies from photos forces me to give up my own original style, my way of seeing things, I just paint what the camera has seen even if I have been behind the camera lens. But that moment is long gone. *

* I have discoverd that several things I wrote about this subject are drop dead wrong, nonsense or simply a prejudice. I have changed my mind due to testing what I said. I proved myself being wrong! Even if you trace a photo you cannot magically turn a painting into a photo again. The traces of your work will leave the marks of your style – always. (Feb-4-2008)

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