Painting and Photography

“We are not interested in the unusual, but in the usual seen unusually.”

–  Beaumont Newhall

I have noticed a difference over time between many paintings and photography. Many successful paintings have been created of subjects that are pretty boring. They are scenes that a good photographer would never even bother with. The composition can be mundane, nothing about the objects unusual and the light flat and uninteresting. Such a scene captured as a photograph would be of little interest to anyone. While it may be true that a painting with great composition, content and lighting may be better than the others, it doesn’t seem to be an absolute requirement as it is in photography.

Why is this?

I have a couple of theories. First, many people confer an almost mystical ability on a painter who can use a brush and paints and create anything that looks like something else. It seems to be a talent beyond so many (of course, it’s not!). But there is that self-deprecating belief in many people. So they are amazed when a painting looks like almost anything at all. Secondly, I think sometimes it is that the technique may be interesting. There are so many more ways in which a painting can be uniquely painted than a photograph printed. The photograph has to rely more on it’s content since the technique with which the print is created is much more limited than the myriad ways in which a painting can be painted.

Interestingly enough, I have found that when I paint from a photograph, I get a more interesting painting if I work from a “poor” photograph, one with not that much of interest going on. If it is a great photograph, my tendency is to try to reproduce it too literally, so I end up with something that looks like a not-very-good photograph. I used to manipulate some of my photos to make them worse with less information so when  using them as a reference for a painting I was not tempted to settle for what was in the photo but to go beyond that in the painting.

The Illusionists

“It is dangerous to let the public behind the scenes. They are easily disillusioned and they are angry with you, for it was the illusion they loved.”

– W. Somerset Maugham

I couldn’t resist this quote when I saw it as it is a perfect continuation of the discussion in my last post that started with the topic of talking about our art. The public in general does not really have an idea of what it is like to be an artist – I don’t think this is totally due to some unique quality such a life has. I know I don’t really have any idea what it is like to be a surgeon, lawyer or butcher. In many cases, I also idealize those professions in ways that real practitioners of those trades would roll a cynical eye at. Any career, even the most glamorous, has it’s share of drudgery or downright unpleasant work to do.

It is almost impossible to understand any role unless you have been in it yourself. I remember in a prior career when I moved into management (who had always been the adversary and who it was easy to be critical of), I became aware of the realities of making imperfect decisions in the midst of imperfect information. I realized one should always be wary of assuming insight into what others do, why they behave as they do, etc.

I think there is a real reason, however, to support the “illusion” the public has about being an artist. It may inspire them to explore their own artistic side – less likely to happen if you are moaning about some of the tedium involved. It may allow them greater enjoyment of your art – if you complain about what it took to make something, it casts a pall on the piece itself. And it may just allow them to be happy for you, in their belief that you’ve achieved the “good” life. Why steal that away?

There are too few ways in this world to offer something to others – why not honor the illusion that others take pleasure in? Who knows, maybe it we’ll start believing it ourselves and wouldn’t that be a good thing?

If Words Could Only Express….

“I believe painting or visual art is suffocated by verbal description.”

– J.R. Baldini

First, my apologies to anyone who has wondered where I’ve been for the last 2 weeks – I’ve seriously neglected my blog (and those of others!) as a result of the large Open Studio art event Susan and i held here the last 2 weekends. It was an intense experience, as always – exhausting, exciting, perplexing, amusing and (surprisingly) quite successful! But I’m back now with an intention to resume my normal blogging schedule.

After talking to hundreds of people about my art during the event, the quote above captured my attention. When you host your own show, you are faced with the need to converse with those who show up. Certainly everything you read suggests that this is critical to sales – buyers want to get to know you, it helps them put the artwork in context. Also it’s just plain polite and sometimes you find out some really interesting things about people.

On the other hand, answering the same questions over and over again about what something is or how it was done can become maddening. I also wonder whether it is better to leave some mystery about your technique or does that seem too precious and paranoid? I don’t really worry about someone trying to copy me, since I’ll by then have moved on to doing something else anyway.

I believe there is probably some ideal balance between revealing just enough about yourself and the art and not over-describing everything to the point of “suffocation”. After all these years of doing this, I’m still searching for just what to say…

By the way, as it may be hard to tell, the above piece is a photograph of a rock formation – that’s all I’m going to say about it!


“I like trees because they seem more resigned to the way they have to live than other things do.”

– Willa Cather

I love trees.

Regardless of the changes they are put through by the seasons, they are patient and stand firm. Perhaps resigned, but also accepting.  A worthy role model these days.

I’ve always seen this image as representing hope that, in spite of circumstances, life will be renewed.

Knowing, Thinking and Looking

“Thinking is more interesting than knowing, but less interesting than looking.”

– Goethe

An interesting hierarchy.

I agree with the first part – knowing means there are fewer possibilities, and possibility is what keeps our interest. Some people may believe knowing is supreme, but as an artist, I think it leads to stagnation.

The second part is less obvious to me. Which would you prefer to do, think or look? Both contain endless possibilities. Thinking involves our imagination, a realm that has vast potential. Looking is such a rich experience and often we see things we could not imagine.

As an artist, I believe both are crucial and need to be developed. When I want to explore my creativity I will often look at my work and think about how I could change it, what concept I want to explore, what techniques I want to use, what I am trying to express, what should I strive to make different, etc. This thought process usually feels more like a contemplation than thinking, but it is an active use of my mind. At times like these I also pay more attention to what I’m looking at, how I’m looking, where I’m looking, etc. Without focusing on looking in this way, I lack the raw material my new work will need.

I guess I’ll continue to try to be a thoughtful observer in search of a few more pieces of art…

Photography and Painting

“It takes a lot of imagination to be a good photographer. You need less imagination to be a painter because you can invent things. But in photography everything is so ordinary; it takes a lot of looking before you learn to see the extraordinary.

– David Bailey

This is an uncommon viewpoint and, i think, one that can only be understood if you have done a lot of both painting and photography in a serious manner. I believe most people believe painting is a more difficult artistic activity because it takes more pratice before a good piece results than is the case with photography. One can occasionally take a good, or even great, photograph, even with little experience – no one produces a great painting without a lot of practice.

But I tend to agree with David Bailey – the challenge with photography is to take ordinary scenes and do something original and creative with them. In painting, you have such license to add, subtract, change or alter what’s in the painting. The constraints of photography, the “ordinariness” of the subject matter, make it really hard to do something unique. And now there are so many photographic images out there, simply by sheer numbers it has become difficult to differentiate yourself. Finally there are fewer options in photography about the medium used for the final product – there isn’t the range of papers, textures, paint types available as there is with painting that can make paintings so interesting to look at.

Now admittedly both pursuits are very challenging and worthy of our efforts. For me personally, I find that it is easier to be creative with painting than with photography, where I usually feel that my efforts are just not really new and exciting, albeit somewhat competent. And it’s the creative juice we’re all after in the end!

I think, therefore…

“You can’t look at abstract art without thinking.”

– Patricia Cole-Ferullo

Yeah, much of the time you are thinking “What the heck?”…

But seriously, I think this is an interesting and perhaps controversial statement. When looking at something abstract, we start trying to find something familiar or recognizable. We start trying to figure it out, to find some way to relate to it. This is certainly one mode of “thinking”. Since we may not have any familiar forms to look at, we start to pay attention to other aspects of the piece – the colors, design, patterns, shapes, etc. We have to work a little harder to find something about the piece to like (or dislike).

The controversy of the statement is the implication that other types of art do not require thinking. I don’t really agree with that, though I do believe that our minds become engaged in different ways with different types of art. When we see representational art we do not have to work so hard to understand what we’re seeing or what the artist is saying (perhaps). It is given to us more obviously. These images may evoke memories and emotions, or we may become intrigued by the artist’s technique, or the objects may be depicted in new or unusual ways that cause us to consider them more carefully. We may be less likely to examine the piece from the perspective of color, form, etc. since the familiar image itself is so inviting and distracting.

Personally I enjoy the kind of mental engagement abstract art results in. It’s a little like a puzzle that I have to figure out. And I get to make of it what I want. It’s a challenge and it’s liberating, at the same time.