Yesterday, Sharon Knettell of Woonsocket, Rhode Island wrote, “Why do current trends among realists seem to favor extreme rendering? I’ve noticed that the prize winners of many contests — the Outwin-Boochever, the Art Renewal Competition and the BP Portrait Awards are almost indistinguishable from photographs. The runners-up were all quite photographic in finish and, I think, origin. It seems the beauty of the deftly painted or drawn mark is being subsumed by the current penchant for extreme verisimilitude. What has been lost is the struggle to capture an image with economy and freshness. What’s going on?”
Thanks, Sharon. You’re right, super-realism is back in style. There are several reasons:
In the last decade, everyone and her sister has been trying to paint like Sargent, Sorolla and Nicolai Fechin. The painting-a-day folks are on it like gangbusters. It’s been Impressionism all over again. The tightening up that we’re witnessing is, in part, a reaction to this “fresh painting” trend. Further, with the current widespread distrust of Expressionist and large-scale unskilled art, both artists and collectors are attracted to works where they think they see evidence of skill and craftsmanship. In a world of increasing conservative values, sharp copying of photos and photo-like super-realism is the new validation.
One need not depreciate this wisdom. It’s good clean wholesome work that startles many collectors with the artists’ patience and loving attention to detail. In this age of upset and flagrant knuckle-dragging, workmanlike, time-consuming and time-honouring pursuits like quilting, weaving and woodwork are also on the rise.
And there’s another reason for the rise of super-realism. Tight rendering based on photographic reference is actually easier to do than realistic painting done freshly and expressively. Advances in projecting and digital technology have played a part. A few photo-realists have knocked it all down to a science and are using assistants for the grunt work.
Sharon, I don’t think we’ll ever come to a time when painterly bravura is out of style. It’s just too beautiful to look at, and only a few can do it well. All my life I’ve noted people getting hot under the collar with changing trends. Like the width of men’s ties, things wander. As the wise man said when asked by an Eastern Potentate to come up with a saying that might fit all occasions, “And this too will pass.”
PS: “The contemporary art audience, having had a century of flotsam and jetsam flung at them, think that [super-realism] is miraculous stuff.” (Sharon Knettell)
Esoterica: Right now there’s a show at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam called “Snapshot–Painters and Photography 1888-1915.” It’s coming to Washington DC and Indianapolis in 2012. Artists like Degas, Vuillard and Bonnard relished their Kodaks and used them well. The resulting paintings were not photo-dependent as much as they were photo-guided. In some ways it’s nice to know that some of the Impressionists were not as pure as we thought. A selection of Sharon Knettell’s remarkable paintings are below. Sharon works from life.
People have no criteria these days
by Dan McGrath, Lexington, KY, USA
We are now in an age of less art exposure and practice in schools. Many people have no criteria to judge what is good art versus better art, or what standards are, and are afraid to ask a gallery owner, so they opt for what they can quickly understand: the photo or its reproduction in paint.
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Where’s the depth and poetry?
by Scott Kahn, NY, USA
There are many skilled, trained, and virtuosic technicians who paint in the realist mode. Some are hyper-realistic and very much akin to photo-realists, whether they use photographs or not. To distinguish themselves from the thousands of other equally accomplished painters, it becomes necessary to carve out a niche. Invariably this involves subject matter or some gimmicky way of painting reality. It’s really a heightened form of illustration. No amount of virtuosic skill and choice of subject matter can be a substitute for depth and poetry.
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‘It shall return’
by Lesley White, Prince George, BC, Canada
Sharon would only have to follow fashion trends to understand why photo-realism is currently in vogue. If we stayed the same size from decade to decade, it wouldn’t be necessary to shop anywhere but our own closets. Despite my admiration and appreciation of several other painting styles, my passion for painting realism never wanes. Three-haired brushes and painstaking rendering of detail is what keeps me involved and excited.
Naysayers of realism have always existed but I never did pay much attention to the dictums of fashion trends either. I’ve explored painting impressionistically, afraid I was missing something magical and agree realism is easier, but it’s not about hard/easy, it’s about what draws you to your studio each day. Keep the course, remain true and don’t throw out those bell bottoms or high top sneakers just yet. Perhaps an addendum to “this too shall pass” should be “but given time, it shall return.”
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What makes a photo — ART?
by Bruce Pollock, Victoria, BC, Canada
As a photographer, I have been fascinated over the last few years by the increase in the number of paintings that are so obviously based on photographs and by the hyperrealism of some of the work. What’s troubling to me is that, somehow, by turning a photograph into a painting it becomes ART, no matter how banal the subject. I’m pretty sure that if I tried to exhibit an original photograph that was the source of the painting, it would be dismissed as uninteresting. And rightly so. I can appreciate the painter’s skill in producing such work (at least I did until I saw your comments about painters using digital projection) but is that really sufficient to elevate a boring subject? I’m not here to plead the case that we should stop treating photography as a poor cousin of painting and that it should be accepted as art – that issue was resolved long ago. I’m simply questioning whether every photographic subject becomes art simply because it is rendered as a painting, not as a photographic print.
There are 2 comments for What makes a photo–ART? by Bruce Pollock
No thanks to photo-realism
by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA
Photo-realism in painting, per se, has never interested me. It often seems that the artist is raising the craft of painting to a higher level than the meaning of the artwork – it becomes a beautifully-made object that says nothing. There are those who deliberately use photographs as the subject of their paintings in ways that are fascinating (or at least interesting), but not many. Mostly, it seems that the goal is to say, “Look at how well I can paint.” No thanks. Give me something that says, “This is paint.” For a really thought-provoking look at how photography and the camera obscura have been used in the past, readers should take a look at David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.
The power of detail and correct colour
by Lori Spencer-Neuzerling, Western Australia
Your reply to Sharon was of keen interest to me. I paint in a style that is extremely exacting and of fine detail (my subject is Western Australian wildlife and flora). I’ve had very successful exhibitions — the last was a sell-out — and the main comment I received from viewers at that show was that it was so very refreshing to gaze at a painting that overwhelmed them by its extraordinary detail, coupled with the fact that they enjoyed being able to recognize and understand exactly what they were seeing. In fact, their attention was drawn to meticulous detail that they hadn’t noticed before in the bush. Another important fact to consider is that, in this style of painting, the artist blends extraordinary amounts of pigment to make myriad unique colours – and this is what truly distinguishes these artworks from photographs. It proves to me that this kind of detailed realism is alive and well, and appreciated, and I’m happy to hear it’s on the rise again.
There is 1 comment for The power of detail and correct colour by Lori Spencer-Neuzerling
Where’s the sensual delight?
by Michael Epp, Vancouver, BC, Canada
So, everyone’s been painting like Sargent for the last ten years, and now they’ve moved on? Dang, I’m late for the party again ! Seriously, though, when you paint from a photograph you end up with something very much like a painted photograph, but when you paint from the thing itself — sur le motif, as Cezanne said — you end up with a painting. I know this from experience. Remember the story about Norman Rockwell taking the wall off his studio so he could get a horse inside? A photograph wouldn’t do. Rockwell did use photographs, but he advised using them ‘judiciously,’ and never as a mere substitute for reality. The problem for me is, the real thing — the horse, the apple, the mountain, whatever — always suggests so much more than a photograph does. As Alex Colville said, “I don’t use photographs because photographs don’t give me the kind of information I need.” I’ve noticed that when I have painted photo-realistically, viewers, usually fairly novice ones, say, ‘That looks just like a photograph” (and that’s usually all they have to say) and they think they are being complimentary because they seem to think that the only reason all painters don’t paint photo-realistically is because they can’t. On the other hand, it seems to me that more sophisticated viewers and buyers are looking for something more — they understand that wonderful brushwork, contrasts between thin and thick areas of paint and between opacity and transparency, for example, are a huge part of the sensual delight of a painting, and they don’t and won’t get this from photo-realism.
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Living in a high-definition world
by Didier Flament, Pahoa, HI, USA
Art often reflects a society’s preoccupations and the trend these days seems to be with all things HD: HD video, HD cameras, HD movies, HD TV, even HD glasses (the kind you read with). Photo-realism in painting is HD art.
But I also think that the art-loving public is tired of scribbles and dribbles and paintings that look like they were done in a 10-minute session. Works of beauty such as Sharon Knettel’s pastels and photo-realistic painting can’t help but inspire admiration. I display a number of my pastel paintings in my home and the ones that get the most attention and compliments are those that are the most realistic (though my pastels are nowhere near photo-realistic). I only half-agree with Ms. Knettell’s statement that “economy and freshness” are lost when a painting shows a lot of detail. “Economy” might be lost, but “freshness” is a quality that can be present in any painting and is a function of the artist’s sensibility, not of how quickly the work was done. I must admit that I don’t quite understand the desire for “economy.” Why be stingy? Who decided that one stroke of paint is better than two? The artist should paint until he/she has achieved the desired effect, just like a piece of music should have as many notes as the composer feels is necessary. I, for one, am very thankful that Mozart was not a minimalist and did not strive for “economy.”
There are 4 comments for Living in a high-definition world by Didier Flament
Classical realism takes skill not photos
by Cary Juriaans, Langley, WA, USA
I would like to make sure that photo-realism is not confused with classical painting, which is neverdone from photographs. See Jacob Collins for instance. There is a huge difference between photo-realism and classical realism. Yet many people seem to see them as the same. I run an art school (Whidbey Island Fine Art Studio in Langley, Washington) focusing on skill in art and classical skills. The artists who teach here have all earned the stripes with life drawing, no matter what their style is. They don’t teach with any photographic references, unless it is a specific class geared to this.
As a classical painter, I do not ever paint directly from photos. I may use them as a reference or reminder of my set up. Also, a painting takes me way longer to finish than my impressionist friends.
In order to paint well in the style of Sargent, Fechin and Sorolla, one has to know the skills first as you must know well. I don’t know many good impressionists that did not first paint a classical realist painting well. In fact, a lot of good painters were illustrators first, then they were able to develop another style. I must say, I have an issue with the term ‘fresh painting’ etc. It seems to me that this is just a term for splashed on thick paint. Not necessarily well done. As you said,the large-scale unskilled art is a reason for the return to art with skill (not photos!). In fact, painting from just photos is just as unskilled in my opinion.
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Let’s honour our differences
by Jane Freeman, Bemidji, MN, USA
I am afraid we are making assumptions about photos here. I know for a fact that many of the artists from the Art Renewal Center work straight from life because they are very accomplished and classically trained and if you take the time to follow to their websites you will see they also teach or have taught at very famous schools of art. It is not quite fair to assume they are just copying a photo.
I have always found it quite curious that those who work more abstractly have a tendency to cut down those who work more realistically and those who work realistically seem to enjoy abstract work. I do not know why that is but perhaps I am a good example here. I enjoy all forms of abstraction perhaps because that is something I have studied. It is also how I learned to paint in high school and college. There came a time when I wanted more. I wanted to test what I was capable of. Slowly I became more realistic in what I produced and switched to watercolor. I have found a lot of satisfaction in what I do and enjoy it very much. If we all painted one way, how boring would that be? And how shallow to even consider there is only one way to express ourselves. Perhaps as more schools begin to offer realism as a subject in class, we will see more people able to appreciate what it takes to do this. It is wrong to assume because I might use a photo that I took and I arranged the setup for, that the painting painted itself. I could give the photo to someone else and they would have trouble doing what I did. Their expression of that subject would look totally different from mine and that is wonderful!
I think it is time for all of us to sit back and enjoy and honor our differences. That is what makes each of us unique. My personality doesn’t fit with looseness or chaos as I am a planner at heart. My life is my life and how I paint is how I choose to express my life. For someone to think that is not good enough or even wrong, or worse yet not art, is pretty careless in thinking. I find wonderful qualities in other artists’ work and I wish you would find it in your heart to appreciate what I do as well. This world is too full of harshness and I do not think we need to add to it. In fact, if you stop and think about it, this attitude is just another form of bullying and at least we all know or should know that is wrong. It is not healthy for either party. Calm the art world by acceptance and honor the artist by appreciating what he or she does and why. We need to find a way to make peace amongst ourselves if we ever think the world will understand us or what we do. Division amongst any group, organization or people is the first step to failure. We would do well to work together in unity and respect.
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Getting a deposit for commissions
by Catherine Stock, France
I have just been listening to your radio interview and I was surprised to hear that you don’t believe in charging deposits for commissions. I charge a non-refundable 1/3 up front for a portrait commission, and 2/3 on approval and delivery of the final work. Now that I live in France, I also ask for travel and housing expenses to be covered. People often have an image of themselves or their children that doesn’t jive with my interpretation, so it’s better to have an understanding when such an occasion arises. I definitely feel more comfortable with an escape clause for both parties.
(RG note) Thanks, Catherine. Yours is good advice for most artists. Being contrarian and not wanting to get hung up on the rocks, I don’t ask for a deposit because I dislike a feeling of obligation to do something I might decide I don’t want to do. When I do take a commission I like to be fully up for it, wanting to give it my best shot with no obligation to either party. If they don’t like it, I keep it and I don’t want them to pay a plugged nickel. Some people try to nail you with a deposit. I won’t be nailed. I’m probably very unbusinesslike on this one. But I hate having money in the bank for work I have yet to do.
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