Yesterday, Duffy Masterson of Ottawa, Ontario wrote, “I’ve been a photographer for longer than I care to mention and have recently taken up painting in acrylic. I find that all the subject matter has been expressed through my photography and not much, if anything, catches my eye for painting. There are always subjects to paint, but none that I want to paint. My wife and I are packing up and moving to the B.C. Gulf Islands in an attempt to spark the creative juices again. Have you ever run into this kind of block?”
Thanks, Duffy. Your block is called PFS (Photo Familiarity Syndrome) and it’s as common as influenza. Some of us fight it daily. There are many ways of looking at it and several ways of dealing with it. Taking photos is a creative act in itself. Some artists, as they move through their life-images, find that less and less interests or moves them. As it becomes more difficult to be surprised by joy in the external world, reality-based images become used up. The trouble with photography is that it uses up joy too quickly. Also, by stealthily teaching dependence, photography can turn out to be dangerous. Unlike the purist and pre-photographic masters of landscape — Courbet, Corot, Millet, etc., by visual volume alone it is possible to become jaded. Moving to a new environment may not solve the problem. You need to realize that painting can exploit a different — I didn’t say greater — range of feelings than does photography. Painting, in its most exalted forms, can bring another kind of creative imagination into the mix. With painting you have an opportunity to add a unique personal spin — to put a different kind of style and signature to your product.
For most of us, photography, in all of its marvelous manifestations, is one of a number of tools in the kit. An extreme purgation is to take your photo apparatus and shove it into a vault for a year. Forget you ever did it. I know it’s tough for those of us who love to look through viewfinders and are used to collecting images in nanoseconds. In this deprivation, painting becomes more of a savoured event — a timely act of deliberation, consideration and contemplation. Painting becomes less capture and more conception. Worthwhile subjects begin to appear from nowhere. With independent painting you move into the lively and mysterious darkroom of your own mind. In this place something else again is sure to catch your eye.
PS: “The expression of beauty is in direct ratio to the power of conception the artist has acquired.” (Gustave Courbet)
Esoterica: “What do I want to paint?” is not only the main question, it’s perhaps the only question. Many painters find they bump along and somehow inadvertently touch on a “hot spot” where an idea or a motif suddenly gels. It’s important that these golden occasions are recognized and noted. The artist pauses and looks around for related and peripheral ideas that can also be exploited. It’s often in this “second generation” where the most involving and exciting work is done. “Paintings come out of themselves,” said the great Canadian landscape painter Lawren Harris. “The idea,” said Damien Hirst, “is more important than the object.”
A world of opportunities
by Duffy Masterson, Ottawa, ON, Canada
Thanks to you — and all you other creative people — you have reminded me that painting, rather than photography, allows one to work with all elements rather than simply those elements you can fit into the viewfinder. The mind’s eye can compose far more elaborate designs than can be seen by the physical. My wife and I are still moving to the Islands, however you have opened my eyes (all three of them) to a world of opportunities while we wait for our house to sell.
All about metaphor
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
Painting goes inside, photography is external. Exceptions are a given. One can cajole friends or hire models to make most any kind of photograph, or one can laboriously turn a view into a realist painting. But one needs only to look at Bosch or Breugel to see that painting is much more direct. Paul Klee was asked if he liked nature. He responded, “Yes. My own!” Art is all about metaphor. And teachers of art should make that easy to do.
Coke versus wine
by Jeff Swarts, Danville, OH, USA
Most photography is like having a coke — which may be great when you’re thirsty. However, painting is like enjoying a fine, complex wine, which is much better if you are not thirsty. Photography helps us remember where we’ve been and with whom we’ve been there. The best painting is the memory itself, or better yet, a memory, observation or future vision of what is unseen.
As a painter sees
by Richard F. Barber, Anshan City, Liaoning, China
It seems Duffy Masterson is still looking at things as a photographer and not as a painter. Art is about seeing beyond the shape and into whatever you are going to paint, the feel of its texture, the intermix of colours, the general interplay of light and shade. You are the camera, your eyes are the shutters; what you absorb through them is what you paint and it’s you that is mixing the colours not the camera.
(RG note) Thanks, Richard. For more on this subject go to the category Seeing in the Resource of Art Quotations.
Blocked or depressed?
by Stella Reinwald, Santa Fe, NM, USA
From the overall tone of Duffy Masterson’s letter, I don’t think he’s “blocked” so much as depressed (essentially the same thing I think). Having spent a lifetime dealing with sporadic episodes of depression, I know one of the sure signs (for me anyway) is extreme apathy. Moving is pretty drastic and it could be the right thing to do, but when the right antidepressant and/or “good” therapy start to restore your balance and perspective, you will rediscover the wonder in everything once again. If you want to know more about one person’s experience with depression and antidepressants, write me.
Inside and outside editing
by Len Sodenkamp, Boise, ID, USA
I belong to a local group of painters called the Plein Air Painters of Idaho. You might consider contacting your local art groups and seek out people involved with plein air painting. There is a great magazine called PleinAir. I can not express the joy I feel when I stand in front of my easel looking into nature and attempt to translate the information to my panel. I do have a small digital camera. I always take a lot of pictures. When weather does not permit painting outdoors, I go to my computer for source material. However I have to think about editing information and making the composition interesting. In other words, applying the same disciplines in the studio that I would apply outside. Other artists I have talked to have similar concerns and issues regarding translating photographic information into a painting. The important thing is to keep painting.
“Painting outdoors is a distillation of time, a capturing of the essence of existence during a specific period in the artist’s experience.” (Charles Muench), more Plein Air quotes in the Resource of Art Quotations.
Time in nature to recover
by Robert R. Newport, Los Angeles, CA, USA
I paint landscapes with acrylic paint on canvas. I have and use a Nikon D70 to record those scenes in nature which I wish to paint. I record the scene from different vantage points, in different light situations, with different levels of detail. I find these photos useful as I compose my picture. I do believe that if I was relying on these or any photos for my inspiration I would soon suffer “PFS”. My inspiration comes from my experience of the natural world and the feelings evoked in me in the process of observing and being in nature. I have travelled extensively throughout my life and in a way used my time in nature to recover from the traumas of my work (I was a psychiatrist for 31 years). I found, as so many others have, that the “clarity” and the “realness” of the natural world, free of the noises of my mind, could bring me to almost transcendent states of consciousness. This is what I am attempting to communicate in my art and looking at pictures has nothing to do with it.
(RG note) Thanks, Robert. The Nikon D70 is also the model I currently use. To get the hang of it I had to take the handbook to bed for several nights. Incidentally, a terrific book is Mastering Digital SLR Photography by David D Busch. Busch has written countless excellent articles and books on photography and this one has truly useful, state-of-the-art material for anyone who uses digitalnot just SLR digital.
Plein air total immersion
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA
Having just returned from a Plein Air Painting event for a week up and down the Central Coast of California (San Luis Obispo Art Center), I’ve reached a peak of stimulation and exhaustion–painting like a wild woman from daybreak to past sunset, up hills, down mountains, bungied myself and my easel to the pier at Post San Luis as gale force winds blew all the fog away and caused the ocean to trip the light fantastic. And fifty other artists were out there doing the same so that the cumulative energy in that part of the world reached a fever pitch. I didn’t have time to take photos, and of the ones I did, I was too dog-tired at the end of the day to download and look. Just out there in the sun and wind and heat and magical dusk, three paintings a day and a nice long hot bath at the end. So I didn’t win a prize or make any big sales or even meet a gallery owner, but Wow, I was alive! Total immersion into plein air. Now I’m back home, I’m still excited at every shaft of sunlight on the street, every juxtaposition of light and tree and shade and shadow, near car accidents as my eye is caught by yet another momentary composition.
Uncharted inner territories
by Cecilia Henle, Portland, OR, USA
I happen to believe very strongly in the interior landscape of our inner realms, and in digging into it with the opposite of the photographic eye — the inner eye of understandings, symbols, concepts and meanings. This seems to be a realm that many artists — and collectors — shy away from exploring and revealing about ourselves while the more obvious outside world takes our attention, and bends it to the influence of our peers, our outer lives, and the times we live in.
Photography has always been a means to express the obvious. It has been a rare joy to see an artfully considered piece that points to the greater exploration of the truths held more deeply between us and our world. The world can be breathtakingly beautiful and demand awe and inspiration. But what of the uncharted inner territories where Nature also reigns?
Antidote for photo familiarity
by Laurel Weathersbee, Las Cruces, NM, USA
An idea for Duffy and his Photo Familiarity Syndrome: don’t dive right into realistic painting with acrylic. Instead, try something looser like oil pastel or maybe collage. Instead of trying to “capture” or “document” an already-familiar scene in a photo-realistic way, how about re-interpreting the scene with a looser, freer medium? Learn to look at shapes and values, not “things.” I believe this might help one switch over to the right brain’s understanding of spatial relationships, instead of depending on the left brain technical skills.
Learn new ways to explore
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
My response to Duffy would be that he needs to really play around with his paints and discover what they can do. It is a new medium for him, and shouldn’t be used with the mindset that it is to replace his photographs. If he is merely going to paint paintings to replace taking photos, he might as well just keep taking photos. I don’t feel it is the subject matter that is the problem. He needs to paint whatever is around him, stop looking for the picturesque. Paint a hubcap in the sun. He needs to become excited about the actual spots of paint on the canvas and forget about the image for a while. If he works this way for a while, then he will have learned new ways to explore the imagery that truly inspires him, and it will re-inspire him because now he will see it in the language of painting.
Between gimmick and cliche
by Brian Knowles, CA, USA
The issue of what to paint has long been of concern to me. With so many good artists doing good paintings, just about everything has become a “visual cliché.” Ideas and concepts have become increasingly important. The downside of that is becoming “gimmicky.” Gimmicks are not profound. Somewhere between the gimmick and the cliché lies the answer.
Both paint and photo
by Robin Ann Walker, Dallas, TX, USA
Regarding the issues of photography versus painting, I have just returned from an artist’s retreat in the White Mountains of Arizona hosted by Gwen Pentecost of Joyous Lake Studio and Gallery in Pinetop, AZ. It was a physical gathering of members of an online group who came together for a week of plein air painting. Subject: the fall colors of aspens. It was my first experience of plein air painting. I found it a joy to be outside with my paintbrush, with a peer group of accomplished artists in the clear mountain air. It was also a struggle for me, as a studio artist. I completed three paintings, the lowest number for anyone, because for much of the time I was painting with my camera. Since my interest in painting and photography is equal, I have developed a unique style which incorporates both. It also serves my mostly commercial market of hotels and corporate offices. I am painting first and printing photography over the top. The result is an image that looks both painted and photographic, since the brush strokes are readily visible, yet the image retains the crispness of a photo. This series is my current “hot spot.”
Throw away the camera
by Scott Pynn, St. John, NB, Canada
I was just reading your letter and considering the dreaded state of subject stagnation. I think all artists experience this drought of subject matter and should not be discouraged but rather invigorated. In my experience it is when I think I have run out of things to paint that my creative gears start turning. A lack of external stimuli leaves great voids in my mind, which leave a lot of room for me to dream up new and even more exiting things or ways to paint other things. Without having a picture of that perfect scene, you are forced to make your next painting your own and I think the human mind can dream up far more interesting things than even mother nature. So my advice to Duffy is to throw away his camera and start exploring the infinite that is his own mind.
No preconceived ideas
by Scharolette Chappell, Auburn Hills, MI, USA
I’ve come full circle back to my childhood when playing in the sand was so darn much fun! This is what inspires my recent works I call Playing in the Sand, the Dance with No Name. I usually let the materials find me — like the sand is fluid as I am fluid, veiling material blows in the wind like my hair in the breeze, gallons of house paint pours out like my heart pours out tears of joy or sorrow, true freedom opens here in this place in spontaneous motion — I simply recommend really asking who you are and just do it! No preconceived ideas. Just take materials that represent you best and go for it!
Re-visioning and re-creating
by Keith Montgomery, Dallas, TX, USA
I have spent the past 15 years in the production of film, music videos and TV commercials. During the latter half of that journey I immersed myself in nature photography and underwater video shooting. I have just recently culled through all of my subject matter and selected numerous possibilities to paint. I am currently involved in several local classes at the Laguna Gloria Art Museum, Austin, Texas. I began in 2002 as a self-taught artist using acrylics. I am now expanding into water-soluble oils as well. I am excited about re-visioning, re-creating my current artistic tools and perspective, utilizing the photographic images from through the western U.S. and my past summer in Maine. Since I was physically connected during the photographic process with the “place” I can now explore and experiment with this new medium of color and technique to discover my own painting “style.” I continue to expose my senses to other artists’ work, locally and with magazines and web visits to stimulate things I desire to try and integrate into my own process.
Freshen with close-ups
by Harry Robbins, PA, USA
I teach art to adolescents in a treatment facility and sometimes I get tired from the constant focus on and awareness of my students’ behavioural needs. I have techniques I use with my students that I find have reciprocal value in their refreshing me as I work to refresh them. Like all teenagers, my students say that they are “bored and tired of doing this stuff” which means that they are looking in a tired, predisposed way and not really seeing their world and work. This is when I tell myself something like, “Hey, Pal, wake up — this is Art, these kids should be excited not yawning,” and break out my all-purpose cures for both jaundiced-eye and adolescent ennui that are designed to change the students’ point of reference from a rote, prejudiced vision to seeing their subject with a fresh eye. I read a short story or poem, sometimes I put on some unusual music, sometimes I have them sit so they are looking at their reference material from an unusual angle, and I always look for a way to point out the colors and forms they have not seen. You can’t always change your environment, but you can change your reaction to it by seeing inside it, seeing the real without the false screens of illusion that impair the ability to cope. If the mountains at home are uninspiring, then look at the tangle of grass at your feet. See the linearity of the blades and stems and watch the subtle changes in hue as the clusters of blades rise from the soil. How do the tones in a close perspective stack up? Does the view to the farther horizon really need any greater range of values or richer hues than those you use to paint the grasses? Because most of my students are from abusive backgrounds this has carry-over to their outside lives. Vision and freedom are not necessarily on some far horizon — the values worth learning, building and keeping are closer than that. The gist of this is: if the landscape photos we have taken no longer thrill us, freshen the eye with close-ups.
by Anne Copeland, Lomita, CA
I just wanted to acknowledge Robert for being truly the most articulate writer on art. Each letter is a gem of wisdom — shared in a way that is very understandable and without any pretension — something I definitely appreciate. I feel as though I have been in a years-long art course that I absolutely look forward to and enjoy so much. I have shared your letter with dozens of folks, and I know they too are enjoying it immensely. Sometimes we end up discussing your topic of the week at length, and it is truly wonderful the depth of discussion that results from your original post. You have given us things to think about that we have never even been aware of.
I absolutely treasure these gems and I save and reread many of them. I love the idea of a lifelong education in art — we really never stop learning, and you have given us so much to think about. I also love seeing other artists work — all of them — and I feel very wealthy to have such good writing at hand to inspire me.
Word of God
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Edward Berkeley who wrote, “Photography done as a means of recording a place or event is very different from photography that expresses a feeling. The former is journalism or archiving, the latter art. The same applies to paintings.”
Also Patty Grau who wrote, “On a vacation on the Big Island, Hawaii, we took a day-drive trip around the entire perimeter. I left the camera at home and had a narrow long piece of canvas and pastels and I recorded my views in the order they occurred. It was so much fun, so rewarding, so about really sight seeing.”
And also Craig Steel who wrote, “Maybe we sometimes lose sight of the fact that the “subject matter” is not what’s outside, but its what’s inside. And what’s outside is really the medium.”
And also Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel who wrote, “I remember one of my teachers, the Israeli painter Ofer Lelouche, saying that the camera is like a single-shot cannon — whatever it gets in one shot that’s it, whereas the human eye is like a machine gun, and it takes in a multitude of images over a period of time, and as such, much more information.”
And also John Ferrie who wrote, “Duffy Masterson has turned from his love of photography and applied all his photographic and dark room teachings to the subject of painting. It’s like the person you date just after a long-term relationship. This is the one where you have hot sex and a great time, you think its love but it just doesn’t last very long. It is often referred to as the ‘in between affair.’ ”
And also Norman Ridenour who wrote, “I am a photographer, good amateur, and a sculptor. Try painting abstract, not landscapes, cityscapes or people but reduce what you see to geometry and go from there. Even take favorite photos and work from their physical structures and not their subjects. I can see working with pure color and line in the Gulf Islands.”
And also Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, Texas who wrote, “When we learn a new medium, we can apply some of what we already know to it. But the whole point of using a new medium is to experience something else that has different qualities.”
And also John Mullenger who wrote, “I find that photography, particularly digital photography (instant imaging), tends to lead to a non-appreciation of things. You take things for granted, moving too quickly from one to another. On the other hand, painting makes you appreciate things more. I never take a sunset or a beautiful piece of architecture for granted.”
And also Eleanor Blair, Gainesville Florida who wrote, “The best way to solve the “there’s nothing interesting to paint” problem is to simply sit someplace comfortable, and paint whatever you see in front of you. The only rule is don’t look into the sun.”