Yesterday, Susan Truex of Murfreesboro, TN, wrote, “What about using alternate forms of transferring an image to canvas, other than traditional drawing skills? Many of my colleagues and students, fearful of their abilities, use projectors and trace. I know there’s a chance of image distortion, but is there a deeper, moral standard that needs to be considered?”
Thanks, Susan. Most illustrators think projecting is not a moral problem. It’s a time-saving, creative asset.
Projection also allows fine artists to find elements within photographic or other images that may be emphasized for creative benefit. Laborious linear drawing, often awkward to the painterly mode, can be avoided. Further, projected images tend to show where things are, not how things are. This gives the tracer an opportunity to feature specific parts — say shadows or patterns — without having to plot distances and other relationships. Simply put, projection releases artists from other concerns.Rating today’s devices, the almost obsolete slide projector (e.g. Kodak Carousel) beats out the commonplace opaque projector for colour and sharpness. If you’re using slide projectors, you need to stock up on spare bulbs — they’re going the way of the dodo. Many of the currently popular digital projectors have less than stellar images when viewed close to the projected area. That being said, a digital projector and an easel-side monitor is a deadly combo. Once you get the hang of the technology, the advantage of digital-photo to canvas work is speed. There’s no waiting three or four days for slides to be developed, if indeed, they are still developing them. At the top of the current clickback we’re showing the three types of projectors I use in my studio.
Recently, while hanging out in NC Wyeth’s well-preserved studio, I noticed his old Magic Lantern. Wyeth had his sketches turned into glass slides by a professional photographer.
Regarding image distortion, it’s actually lack of distortion where projection comes up short. Photo-dependency often brings on a stultifying photo-tyranny that overruns the imagination. Keep in mind that mountains often need to be taller, faces need to be caricatured, and nature herself may need a ferocity, sublimity or personality that photography can’t always grab.
PS: “If you paint from 35mm Kodachrome, you’re likely to end up with a 4×5 foot Kodachrome!” (Sergei Bongart)
Esoterica: The real downside to trace-projection is a condition known as Projector Addiction. Over time, chronic PA can cause an artist to completely lose the ability to draw. The antidote is to gradually turn off the machine earlier and earlier in the tracing process — just like you were weaning yourself of booze. In this way, drawing is reinvigorated, individual imagination is slowly restored, and style once again shows her pretty face. The addicted artist starts to feel better (and, if guilt-ridden, slightly more moral).
Don’t marry the projector
by Bill Angresano
I have been an illustrator/fine artist for over 25 years, and when I have projected, I didn’t mind the results, after all when you apply the paint, you have to re-draw “lose” some or all of the drawing. What I love is the drawing! So for a very long time now I do a cartoon, in full value, transfer just the “large shapes” and paint/redraw and in some cases embellish or actually change for the better my composition or idea. I like that freedom. Projecting lends itself to being “married” to the photo or reference material that I just personally don’t enjoy. Either way the end result is what really matters.
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Showing up without crutches
by Lesley Humphrey, Houston, TX, USA
It is the mark of the artist present in the work that is of artistic value, in the end, over and above his ability to replicate life accurately. I prefer a distorted, authentic representation of what inspired the artist over a well drawn image. One entertains and appeals the head, and invites critique, the other you feel in your gut. If you must project, let’s have an area where you show up without crutches, huh?
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A moral dilemma
by Adriana Rinaldi, Oakville, ON, Canada
Thank you, thank you, for writing this letter. Some of my absolute favourite painters use projections equipment, i.e. Joseph Raffael, a superb watercolour artist, and Carolyne Brady, now passed away. I sometimes use one and sometimes don’t. But it has always been a moral dilemma for me. It’s true, it does free me up to just get on with the painting part, which is the most important part to me. Sometimes all I want is to just roughly get the outline right. Your letter was very timely!
Determining size and placement
by Carol Morrison, Oakville, NS, Canada
I am delighted to see that you also use the clunky Artograph from time to time! I acquired one from another artist who is going the digital route. I am doing a series of paintings of victims of injustice using images received by email from Amnesty International, and was having difficulty getting the facial proportions right. Now I print off a copy, and project it onto the canvas using the Artograph. I use the projected image to determine the size and placement of the face on the canvas, and to trace the outline and main features of the face. This saves a lot of frustrating guesswork!
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Drawing does not define the artist
by Greg Freedman, New Westminster, BC, Canada
When the evidence that Vermeer used a camera obscura to sketch his canvases, many people (including more than a few critics) claimed he was cheating. David Hockney scoffed at this and said, “I’ll give you a sketch produced by a camera obscura and you give me back a Vermeer.” It has been estimated that true drawing facility (the ability to accurately draw what you see) is so rare that only about 1 in 1,000 possess it. Still, with 6.8 billion people on our planet, that means that 6.8 million people have this ability. I know there are a lot of artists out there but I doubt the number is 6.8 mil. I doubt it is one thousandth that number. So it would seem that the ability to draw well is not what defines an artist.
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by Diane Hart, Marietta, GA, USA
If this is something that is so widespread and acceptable among fine artists (I am not commenting about illustrators here), how come there are no classes offered on “How to use projection to enhance your work?” at the local art schools? Why isn’t it written up in artist’s statements “I strive to capture the light with the best projection technology available.” I have never heard an artist in any circle I have been in, openly admit to doing this. As artists, we love to talk about our new techniques, or paint color or whatever, but I have NEVER heard anyone talk about their latest and greatest projection system or even more, share this “deep, dark, secret’ with their potential clients. Am I missing something here? I think that if people did not inherently think this was immoral there would be more open discussion about it.
I am a still life artist and have never used any type of projection in my work. As I admire other artist’s work, I now have to ask myself if this artist is “projecting.” It sort of feels like trying to compete in the Olympics with everyone else being on steroids. Did I not get the change of rules memo from the judges, that it is now OK to use steroids? With all of this in mind, I appreciate your openness and “transparency.” I don’t care if people use these methods, I just think it should be written on the package so the playing field is level.
(RG note) Thanks, Diane. Yep, nobody teaches it, not many admit to doing it, and some are really embarrassed that they do. Many who do it privately don’t let on they are doing it. Working in darkened studios, behind closed doors, they’re called “darkworkers.” A lot of them belong to secret wizard clans or attend witches covens. All of them eat a lot of toads.
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Power’s out — learn to draw
by Ed Pointer, Afghanistan
The projector is the bane of creativity. Yes, I am aware there is much good art coming from this endeavor but there’s a TON of bad art, too. I’ve seen projectionists even duplicate the out of focus depth of field behind the subject in their painting. We are now to the point where almost everyone projects – this requires very little talent other than becoming a master at duplicating surface colors and texture. One with such “talent” would be very good at painting on dinner plates and flower pots.
I’ve often wondered if those who project don’t have, down deep inside, a sense of guilt at not having perfected their drawing skills. Should we ever have a massive power outage the “projectionists” would find themselves without much talent left to actually complete a decent painting. I’ve seen awards given to projectionists by the judges in art competitions because of their super realistic paintings, complete with crocheted doilies and silver shiny pots only because they’ve mastered the ability to use projectors. Very little creativity just masterful surface duplicators with no real depth. I guess I’m a purist… sorry.
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The valuable imperfection of the human hand
by Skip Rohde, Asheville, NC, USA
The projector became a crutch when I started using it too frequently, first to “confirm” the accuracy of my figures, then to use it in drawing them in the first place. I allowed the projector to do the job instead of my eyes. Finally, it became addictive because the projector was so accurate that I began to rely on it exclusively. The big problem with projectors is captured in your quote: “If you paint from 35mm Kodachrome, you’re likely to end up with a 4×5 foot Kodachrome!” Paintings done from projected photographs always have the look of an enlarged photograph. Mine did. So I put my projector away in its box. It’s a pain to set it up, so I only get it out when I really, really need it. Then it goes right back in the box again. My drawing has improved and my paintings no longer look like they came out of my camera. Artists are human, after all, and human-drawn things are going to be imperfect. It’s that state of imperfection that shows the human hand.
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Useful applications for projectors
by Nicholas Simmons
There are a few useful applications of projectors besides just getting the image on the canvas or paper. I’ve had a digital projector for some time, and find it invaluable. For artists working with (and perhaps combining) multiple images, it provides a way to instantly toggle between them for comparison and choosing which parts of which references to use. This process requires the ability to see images in quick succession, as any lapse can disrupt the concentration and memory. The images also need to stay in precisely the same place over and over (even more important in the tracing step). A slide or opaque projector is a nightmare in this situation; slides (in addition to being expensive and cumbersome) can and do move, and anyone who has ever tried to place pics in an opaque projector the same way twice — let alone quickly — knows it is virtually impossible to do, as even the tiniest deviations create terrible “keystoning” and parallax problems.
Another vastly important yet never-discussed aspect of projector use is discerning the optimum size for a painting. I have a theory that every painting has its perfect size. I can’t back that up with anything scientific — it’s an intuition, but it has certainly held true for everything I do. To me, some paintings need to be on an intimate scale, and others need to be large. How large? The projector is a tremendous tool in making these decisions, allowing you to see your concept from small to gigantic. I go over this in demos in my workshops, and people are astounded how their ideas take on a whole new meaning and level of excitement by simply having the opportunity to check things out at various scales. Does wonders in the inspiration department, and experimentation invariably leads to this feeling I’m describing: every painting has its perfect size.
As for the tracing part, that isn’t the picnic some people imagine. With digital projectors, you have pixellation to deal with, making smooth lines jagged and graduated color into something like a mosaic. Things that look clear from afar can be unrecognizable up close, and anything that was unclear from a distance… well, you get the idea. Decisions constantly have to be made while transferring the image: simplifying and discarding here, embellishing and refining there. While some of this can probably be done by a person who can’t draw, a solid drawing background is indispensable. Also, while many artists can draw beautifully at “normal” scale, making a drawing wall-sized is a very different matter. Had they been around at the time, I have a feeling Michelangelo himself might have had a few laptops with projectors pointed at the ceiling.
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No soul in projected work?
by Pepper Hume, Spring, TX, USA
I’m afraid you missed the mark on using projectors in the painting process. The real “moral” issue is in WHAT you project. I work out a composition, a drawing small and use a projector to grade it up to the correct size of the final artwork. Projecting an image the artist developed is simply a mechanical shortcut. Call me old-fashioned, but to project a photograph and then fill it in sounds like hack work to me. Lots less work to use Photoshop which has some very good effects if somebody wants a “painting” of a photograph of their house or dog. That ain’t art.
I know, I know, millions of hours have been invested over the centuries trying to define what art is. But one thing most agree on is that for art to happen, the material must pass through the brain of an artist, not just a mechanical lens. And yes, I realize that photography has been accepted as an art form of its own. But even there, a living brain has gotten between the subject and the image on the paper/screen and made artistic choices. I believe that if you can’t draw it, you have no right to paint it because you haven’t gotten “into” it. You don’t know it, your hand hasn’t felt how the shapes and forms interplay. Sure, you may paint a pretty image but it will have no depth, no honesty, no soul.
Compromises either way
by Carol Marine, Austin, TX, USA
Wow, it is so great to hear you say this about projectors. They are my views exactly. I feel similarly about using photographs to paint from. I heard in college that the greatest sin of all as an artist is to paint from photos, but I now see that you make compromises either way painting from life or from photos. Painting from life forces you in many cases to work very quickly. For example, when outside the light changes very quickly and you generally have at most 2 hours to get a scene down. When inside, even common still life objects change quickly: many flowers, especially tulips, weave and dance, cut fruit browns, leaves wilt, etc. Also, when working from life, you are met with an intense amount of information that you must cull through and interpret. Working from a photograph, on the other hand, means viewing an already 2-D image, where the lights are lighter, the darks darker, and the colors not nearly as vivid. The upside of working from a photo is you have all the time in the world. You can study it for days at a time. You can take 50 photos of a scene, from every angle, and at every f-stop, and then paint your own take on it. I know many artists who do absolutely stunning work from photographs, and many who do equally stunning work from life. And some who do both.
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Projectors not useful
by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands
Projectors a “useful tool” for artists? I don’t think so. Perhaps for illustrators who produce gadget-art or for painters of mega-portraits of dictators — because both have strict (if not lethal) deadlines. Vermeer was a superior craftsman and a great artist who knew what he was doing when he used a camera obscura to study the play of light on all kinds of objects. He observed them through the camera, and used the effects to his benefit in his oils.
If Susan Truex’s colleagues and students are “fearful of their abilities” there’s all the more reason for them to trash the projectors and pick up that pencil and draw! There are few shortcuts in becoming a good artist-craftsman, you simply have to start making your 20,000 mistakes or do your 10,000 hours of laborious work a.s.a.p. to master the art. The “concerns” as you put it, are all part of the learning process.
By using a projector to transfer an image an artist skips this part of the creative process, and becomes too result-oriented. Painting is not about getting “the image right,” it’s about how you approach the world, how you use your eyes and brain and heart and hand, and that includes accepting the limits of your abilities. After all, style is not only the result of what an artist can do, but as much the result of what he cannot do. Whilst drawing (and it really doesn’t matter if you draw in line or tone, from the real thing or even from a photograph) the brain immediately starts working out solutions, possibilities, etc. Besides, if you draw, there’s no need to switch on the gadgets. N.C. Wyeth may have enlarged his sketches with the help of a magic lantern, but he sure did his drawing first.
oil painting by Ifthikar Cader, Sri Lanka
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes John Deckert of CA, USA, who wrote, “Painting a picture from a projected image is like sex without foreplay. You get the job done, but you’re missing half the fun.”
And also David Lloyd Glover of West Hollywood, CA, USA, who wrote, “Some illustrator colleagues I knew were prodigious users of the 35MM slide projector. Guys like Bernie Fuchs, David Grove and Bob Peak used them with great skill and style. I found projector work to be tedious and frankly quite boring. Kills your eyes and hurts your neck. Nothing like dipping a hogs bristle brush into some thinned out dioxazine purple and slashing out a fast sketch and then diving into the palette with wild abandon. You feel free and exuberant!”
Enjoy the past comments below for Projectors and such…