Painting from Photos – Is it really original Art? (3)

September 12, 2007

Funny – this subject is coming up again after I realized that the last showdown winner of the Saatchi Gallery is an Italian photorealist artist: Vania Comoretti

Congratulations Vania!

Btw – I am by far not the only one who asks this question (from the subject line). But in the meanwhile I am convinced that this is driven by prejudices (feeling guilty) – so I took some time to do some research on photorealists to learn more about them… and to get rid of my own prejudices!

Vania Comoretti is a master of photorealist technique – this you can say even from seeing images on the web only. There is no doubt that she absolutely masters her medium of drawing with inks, watercolour and pastels. I am quite baffled about this (her winning) – according to the majority of galleries which rather dwell on abstract, modernist and minimalist works (at least here in Germany and Great Britain) this is not what I would have expected.
Aside from the fact that these kinds of competitions are ridiculous¹ because viewer’s choice via computer is always a kind of mental masturbation and a manipulation of numbers – the question about the originality of this type of art arises again. There is a very interesting thread on Wetcanvas, the biggest art forum on the web. You can read it here. But let’s go step by step.

One of the experts for photorealism is Louis K. Meisel who invented the term “photorealism” in the 60’s, a movement originated in the USA as a counterpart to abstraction and minimalism. In Europe the movement is not equally well represented – therefore I would like to introduce a couple of photorealist painters or I should rather say hyperrealist painters rather than original photorealists as defined by L. Meisel, artists such as Estes, Kacere, Head, Bacon, Close or Bernardi.

Photorealism is defined through imitating photographs, “often omitting human emotion, political value and narrative elements” (from Wikipedia). Hyperrealism au contraire is using “photographic images as a reference source from which to create a more definite and detailed rendering” that often “is narrative and emotive in its depictions” (Wikipedia), it simulates something that never existed. “Hyperrealists create a false reality that is convincing illusion”. Photorealism utilizes analog photographs rather than digital imagery as does hyperrealism.

You could also say, hyperrealism transforms the superficial reality and illusion of the photorealism into an interpretation of reality that has never taken place, incorporating political, social and emotional elements which might not have existed at all.

Taking this even further might lead to another painting style, that of John Currin , who clearly refers to old photographs from college books and other photographic material, changing his subjects into some super-ridiculous and provocative figures.

What really strikes most is the incredible amount of technique and craftmanship that is involved in photorealism. And a lot of patience depending on the techniques of course. Some giant paintings are printed or plotted on huge canvasses and then overpainted, sometimes only small details are added, changed with a brush. Many artists do not reveal their exact techniques so in fact it is up to the viewer to check this out. One does this even on her website: Alicia St. Rose, which is really interesting and reveals that it is not that easy to paint in a hyperrealist manner. It is not easy at all!

Some hyperrealist painters work from photographic slide projections in order to project images on the canvas, others use printing directly on the canvas as a kind of tracing layer, some use even grisaille underpaintings to create their image.

The painting techniques of Don Eddy sound complicated: “To create his paintings, the artist utilizes a unique system he has developed over the years– underpainting in three colors. The first layer is phthalocyanine green in a series of tiny circles about 1/16th of an inch in diameter. Eddy meticulously paints each of his works first in tiny green circles, a meditative process of setting the values for the painting. This layer is followed by brown, then purple, to separate warm from cool colors. He may then add between 20 to 30 layers of transparent color to achieve the radiant final palette of each painting. Eddy draws a map onto the canvas that only he can read, and then begins to create a universe.” (from the website of Nancy Hoffmann Gallery)

Techniques such as these clearly should erase all sorts of prejudice towards photo or hyperrealism and finally answer the question above: yes, I clearly think painting from photos can be highly original art. The results are often breathtaking due to a high level of technical prowess and virtuosity. They may not be to everyone’s taste, because they are often considered as mere kitsch rather than true art – it is hard to argue about this and I do not want to digress into a discussion about what art is and what not.

What strikes most is that themes and subjects chosen in European photorealism differs very much from that in the US. At least that’s what I observed.

“Classical” photorealism icons seem to be cars – mostly old cars, motorbikes and street sceneries, toys, pin ups, casino “still lives”, cityscapes and in most cases these paintings live from colour and extreme contrasts and a multible number of various objects which often turn the paintings in incredibly cluttered scenes (check out the artists of the Louis Meisel gallery, such as Flack, Bell, Gniewek, Chen, Kacere, Spence and others).

What’s the point, in having a painting then instead of a photo, you might ask. In many cases you would not even take a photograph because the motif seems to be quite unappealing – then why paint such a scenery and reverse something to look like the origin, the photo?

But there are other photorealists or I should rather say hyperrealists such as Jacques Bodin, a French painter whose subjects are quite different. The giant photorealist paintings of Gottfried Helnwein are an entirely different species as are Don Eddy’s and Simon Hennessy’s and also Vania Comoretti rather fit into this section of hyperrealist painting.

So if these do not prove to create real original art – who does?

I think we really should leave the ever present question of what is allowed to create true original art behind us. It is definitely not the techniques that define the answer to the question. So what is it then?

(to be continued…)



¹ you simply call or email your friends, collegues etc. and ask them for a vote and the more people you can contact, the bigger is your chance of winning – this truely has nothing to do with chosing the best among others. But this is a different subject.

Btw – I admit that I am participating – without calling or emailing friends to vote for me – simply because I trust fate … and it cannot hurt and it is free! You never know what happens and even I have dreams sometimes…

9 Responses to “Painting from Photos – Is it really original Art? (3)”

  1. m6fan Says:

    I think most people believe that photorealist? process is relatively new. Many people may not realize that as early as the fifteenth century, artists were using optical devices to help create their art work. The desire for realism and a close depiction of nature and its beauty enticed the Renaissance artists to use optical devices to give them the ability to reflect far away images onto flat surfaces to aid in painting, etc.

    I’m somewhat torn on photopaintings as being art or not.

    For that matter I’m not even sure if photography in the strictest sense is true art and that photographer’s themselves are true artist. Some photographic work may, yes, be termed art and artistic but really, a picture of a sunset, a flower, etc…….is that art?
    I don’t know……….personally, much of my work, especially shot for commercial purposes, I don’t call it art.
    These days, anyone with the camera is termed an artist but truly in the art world I’m not sure someone is called an “artist” just because they pick up a brush and throws paint on a canvas.

    Would we call a monkey who picks up the brush and paints on canvas, an artist?
    Or a camera for that matter. I would imagine a monkey could take a picture and some of it might be rather interesting,,,,,,,,,,,but no, not Art.

    Yes, we put our personal spirit and passion into the work but are we truly creating…………….

  2. vyala Says:

    Alan, thank you again for your thoughtful answer. I am going to comment this in a separate post because this is something that is questioned repeatedly. I don’t think there will be ever a final answer but there are some thoughts…

  3. Alicia St. Rose Says:

    Hi Vyala,
    Thanks for mentioning me. Just to let you know I still shoot with an old Minolta SRT 200. Hyper-realism is not defined by the camera used to capture the subject, but by the amount of detail in the painting. I consider my camera a sketch book. I see a seen or subject I want to paint and my camera freezes that moment for me. In many of my paintings I have to correct the keystoning that occurs from camera tilt.
    Just wanted to add that.

  4. vyala Says:

    Hi Alicia,
    thanks for checking in and your comment. I think there is a light misunderstanding: I never said that Hyperrealism is defined by the camera – of course not. It is the painter who creates the image in such details that sophisticated techniques are a requirement. I am talking about sophisticated paintings techniques not camera techniques. And thus your work is awsome and I am a great fan of your work!

  5. Hey just came across this whilst browsing the internet for hyper realism.

    I think the term hyper realism is being thrown around a lot lately as a modern alternative for photorealism, mainly due to the now influx of digital photography that has helped push the genre back into the limelight. For me there is a clear difference in the two artforms. in hyper realism its not about having more detail than photorealism, its about having an image that looks like it exists in some kind of everyday reality but infact it is none existant, it blurrs the bounderies of reality through manipulation. That could be done with a computer, utilizing more than one photographic source, or just plain good old artistic liscence. The final result is a piece of art that resembles reality.

    all the

  6. vyala Says:

    Hi Simon – thanks for visiting.
    Your explanation confirms what I understood hyper-realism to be and what I said in my post above:
    “You could also say, hyperrealism transforms the superficial reality and illusion of the photorealism into an interpretation of reality that has never taken place, incorporating political, social and emotional elements which might not have existed at all.”
    A very interesting genre for me but that also requires the utmost technical mastership in my opinion.

    The only thing that irritates me a bit is that you call yourself a “photorealist painter” and not a hyperrealist. According to your statement you say something different. Should it be that the definition is not as simple as it seems or are you just testing the folks whether they pay attention or not – lol?

  7. haha well spotted Vyala

    I want to update my web site at some stage and give it whole new look so I just havent gotten around to changing the photorealist painter under my name. i know once i start it will take me ages to complete and have other commitments, so pure and simple, I’m being lazy !!!
    I have been meaning to change that for ages, totally slipped my mind. I think my ealier works was pure photorealism but recently they have changed from straight forward representation into more manipulated forms.

    To be honest though a lot of galleries and artists use both terms openly as they are so closely related, its also sometimes easier and quicker to explain to people what photorealism is rather than hyper realism.

    I will have to change it as soon as possible now.
    thanks for pointing that out !!

  8. vyala Says:

    Yeah – I know what you mean. But the difference is essential I would say – and as usual people feel a bit overwhelmed when it comes to realize that it takes a bit more than superficial viewing.
    In the end the most important thing is that people like to look at your work no matter what made you to create it – right? Artists sometimes demand too much I think or give themselves too much importance. I try to get over this with a bit of humour.

    Good luck for your work and for your website – I agree it’s a hell-uva work to do – I have been through that a couple of times too – it seems to be a constant construction side… 🙄

  9. Sheryl Says:

    this is so very interesting..I think even when we are talking photorealism and hyperrealism, there is still a certain amount of the artist being given TO the work. Yes we can and do argue that a “camera can do just as well’ ..well yes and no..cameras lie..they lie about shape, they lie about colours, they lie about proportions, they lie about we still have to put our own interpretations to the test. Man and the brush came before the camera and realism came long before that. As an artist, I am turned off by and actually insulted by alot of what they deem abstract or installation art..or even alot of the digital art..or more so “digital painting: ( a process that uses a program to convert a photo to a painting..).does that make it any less art? who am I to say?.art is in the eye of the beholder and more so the artist..a wise young lady once told me…”just because something is a good photo, does not necessarily make it a good painting: How true! I have taken many,many photos over the years, but not all of them speak to me as a painting…some are just good photos..and some are better paintings..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: