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.

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8 responses to “Painting and Photography

  1. I understand your need to do that Bob. Effectively, by “blurring the lines” You are in fact broadening your possibilities.
    Many, may years ago, we were recording a demo commissioned by EMI of the old Four Tops classic “Walk away Renee” – and initially we were going to go out and buy the record and build our version using it as a referral piece. In the event, we decided against this, and recorded our own version, just using our memories of the original, which of course were quite a way off the mark, but ideal in helping us get a fresh take on the song. It was really interesting to hear the original some time later and compare the two.

  2. Myself, I work I work better a painting after a black & white photo… If gives me a structure but let’s me free to invent in color… Interesting post, as always, bob!

  3. I often used photos to paint in the past, I do it now less and less, the reason being that I have lost the interest. One of the most fascinating elements of painting or drawing from the subject for me is the process of putting 3 dimensions (and even 4 if we count time, which is passing by while we paint, and sometimes quite a lot!) into 2. Working from a photo the subject is already 2dimensional and this reduces too much my freedom grades.

    And yes, if I have to paint from a photo, I prefer a bad one, for exactly the reasons you say.

    @Danu
    2 weeks ago i was asked to make some coloured Scotland sketches by my Bayattic business friends.I was in Scotland last year and I did sketches, but the weather was so horrible that the heavy grey colours were “raping” my soul, kind of, and I was unable to put colours on them. As my friends asked for coloured sketches, I noticed that the Grey had totally deserted my emotional memory and I put very strong colours on the sketches. Too strong, I guess, my Scottish friends were a little bit scared!
    This little story just to say that I much more prefer to put my own colours on things. But no painter is such a good colourist as nature, so one should always keeps our eyes wide open outside there!

  4. I loved Scotland, miki! I had the chance of good, sunny weather, most of the time in Glasgow and Edinbourgh.

    Ture, no painter is such a good colorist as nature! (but we still try, don’t we?) and I remember a scene from the Vincent & Theo movie by Robert altman when Van gogh is exasperated by the beauty of a sunflower field! It is frustrating, sometimes… But it’s a great thing that photography took the burden of documenting reality off the back of painters…

  5. Interesting thoughts as usual Bob, as an artist that has had many debates about this very subject, allow me to share my opinion. As a young art student I could reproduce still-lifes with ‘amazing’ accuracy (as you say sometimes the ability to paint life is seen as great even if the subject is boring). I was bored to tears though. As I came into my own sense of style and philosophy I quickly departed from the art of ‘painting from life’. (Even though it’s probably much more lucrative a ventur). I completely agree with you that some paintings seen as ‘great’ are very boring. That is why I thank God for artists like Wassily Kandinsky, who ceased to merely represent life in their work. Thanks to him and other early 20th century painters, the painter who creates from pure imagination with only colors, texture, shape, and nothing else is not so uncommon. Painter Helen Frankenthaler is one of my favorites for example.

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