The New Medium for Art

Weight of Time Passed, photograph

“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road.”

– Stewart Brand

I spend most of my day looking at paintings and photography on a computer monitor and have been researching various aspects of publishing artwork, both online and in more traditional mediums.

It has struck me that the computer monitor is becoming (or has already become) the most common medium by which we view art. It’s not galleries and museums, and perhaps not even books anymore. Our common visual reference is the monitor.

This has some potentially far reaching consequences. Monitors (assuming it’s a good one, which is becoming more common) display images with a dynamic range and quality that reproductions cannot match. Viewing a piece of art on a large, good monitor has become a really nice experience. Because light is streaming through the image instead of reflecting off of it, their is a luminosity to images viewed this way that cannot be matched when the image is on paper or canvas.

I suspect many will agree that the images on a monitor beat images in a book or a print. Now for the controversial part of my post…

How does this experience compare to seeing the original piece of art? I’m wondering if our visual taste buds are becoming accustomed to seeing art with the luminosity and quality of a monitor band whether we will become “disappointed” when we see originals. I know that I’ve already had this experience in certain museums, where my first impression of certain paintings or photographs has been one of great disappointment. Perhaps a copy I saw on a poster or in a book had been somehow more vivid and the real thing is a letdown.

I know that there are definite tactile qualities that a piece of original art has that a display cannot reproduce. This is more true of paintings than of photographs, which have no three dimensional character and are all, after all, reproductions. But I wonder how the increased use and quality of monitors and the resulting experience of viewing art might subtly influence how painters paint and how viewers react to original work?

I can’t imagine monitors will ever replace original art, but I also can’t imagine that how we see original art hasn’t been affected by this relatively new way of experiencing it.

Doing it Twice

“There is no great writing, only great rewriting.”

Louis D. Brandeis

I often find myself comparing the creative process in different artforms in which I have some experience: photography, painting, music, writing in particular. It’s interesting to examine the similarities and differences. Sometimes it can be revealing and perhaps will cause you borrow some approach from one for use in another.

This quote speaks to the process of editing one’s writing. Of course there are small edits you make along the way, changing a word, rephrasing a sentence. But when writing anything of significance, usually there are drafts, whole versions which are re-examined and reconsidered in their entirety.

The process of making a photographic print  is similar. There are minor adjustments you make as you make your first print, but that print usually serves as a proof (like a first draft) and often multiple proofs with revisions are made before a final version is created.

In my experience painters don’t tend to incorporate this concept into their work as often. I know that there are often preliminary steps that can precede the final painting: value studies, sketches, even smaller versions done in a different medium (pastels as a study for oils, etc). But rarely does a painter actually repaint a painting – do it over.

Part of the reason may be that it can take a long time to complete a painting and it’s hard to think about doing it again. Rewriting a book draft can take a long time as well – one reason it can take years to complete a book. Part of it is that some of the spontaneity which can make a painting fresh when it is repainted could be lost. Writing and photography are perhaps more “studied” artforms where that spontaneity is not as important or even wanted. Music is an interesting comparison – the writing of music is more like writing a book, with many revisions possible. Musicians obviously repeat performances of the same piece many times – each is unique but clearly the same piece.

What is your experience? Are there times when you’ve “redone” a painting? How has that worked for you? Does it depend on the type of painting, the medium, the subject matter, etc.? What are your motivations for doing or not doing this?

Choose Your Weapon


Enflamed, photograph

“If Velasquez were born today, he would be a photographer and not a painter.”

– George Bernard Shaw

I wonder whether painters from long ago would have chosen different, not-then-available art mediums. It’s curious to contemplate what kind of photographs Rembrandt or Vermeer might have taken had the camera rather than the brush been their chosen instrument. Both were masters of light so I’m sure they would have created rich and compelling work.

It’s interesting to me why more painters do not become better photographers. It’s very common for painters over time to tackle different mediums – watercolor, oil, collage, pastel, etc. Few in my experience become equally interested in the camera. Of course, everyone takes pictures – but I’m talking about practicing fine art photography where the photograph is a work of art in itself. Equally puzzling is why more photographers don’t also take up painting at some point as a way to expand their expressive arsenal.

Perhaps the disciplines are too different. I suppose it’s equally true that not many painters (or photographers) become sculptors, writers, actors, dancers, musicians, etc. For some reason I have found painting and photography to share more in common with each other than with these other artistic mediums. But perhaps to others, picking up the camera feels as foreign to them as would sitting down at a piano or playing Hamlet.

What draws one to choose painting or photography to begin with? Both produce visual images depicting our world. Both allow for a wide range of creativity and expression. Both are considered valid art forms. Have you ever asked yourself this question? Have you ever contemplated getting serious about painting or photography, whichever you don’t do now? If so, why have you chosen to do so or not?



What Isn’t There…


“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”

– Miles Davis

It’s all too easy to play what’s there – to take another photograph, paint a painting, write a story, compose a song, much like the ones you’ve done before. There are lots of reasons to do so – creating a consistent body of work, improving one’s skills through practice, recreating a past success, fear of making a mess.

It takes lots of imagination, courage and discipline to “play what’s not there”. To take the next step and create something new is exciting, seductive, frustrating, uncomfortable – and ultimately very rewarding.

I’ve been focusing lately on some abstract acrylic paintings – my intention to stick with non-representational work makes it a little more difficult to “play what’s there” since I’m not trying to make it look like anything else. During the period when I was doing landscapes in pastels, I found I was focusing on improving technique and much less on being creative. The explicit nature of the subject matter weighed me down. My focus was more outward.

When painting non-representationally I find myself listening to the pieces more. I start a piece and put it aside, come back and sit with it, trying to understand where it wants to go next. Since there are no external landmarks to direct me, the marks I’ve made so far must be my guides. I enjoy these private conversations immensely.

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.

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!