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
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…