One of the more surprising of Robert Henri’s classroom ploys was to have a model posing in one room and the students painting in another. Even with folks bumping into one another in the doorway, the system was a developer of quality.
Fact is, with subject matter close at hand we can turn into lazy observers or over-dependent ones. The disadvantages of camera dependency have long been known — you can get all kinds of instantaneous reference without having to look thoroughly at the wonder. When subject matter is a little more remote and hard won, we contemplate and absorb more and yet tend to bend design elements to suit both ourselves and the needs of the work.
Currently there’s a world of pros who have computer screens beside their easels–ready reference at the touch of a mouse. It’s an obvious efficiency. Try moving the terminal to some place where you have to get up and go look at it. You’ll find yourself taking more time to cruise the material and noting the nuance of colours, patterns, tones and feelings that don’t always appear so readily when the stuff is in your face. With the walk-away system you can “burn in” the big picture. Heightening your abilities of observation, it makes you a sharper designer, a greater lover of our visual gifts and more self-directed and willful in your creativity.
Here’s an exercise with two parts: Look at something that interests you, even a photograph of something that interests you. Let your eyes lovingly move over it, noting particularly its formal values such as gradations, patterns and linear connections. Then, focusing on some central spot, let your eyes go slightly out of focus and allow the whole image to sit on your retina for a few seconds or even a minute. Like a camera, you’ll burn in an image that you can refer to as you need it.
For those who may be trying to wean themselves of photo dependency, here’s a compromise: Forget the slick reference. Print yourself a small black and white image or two and hang them beside your easel. Without the tyranny of colour, you’ll be aided in the understanding of relative tone values. More than anything, your own imagination will be released from a stifling confinement to fly free.
PS: “It is easier to paint a good picture than it is to paint a bad one. The difficulty is to have the will for it. A good picture is the fruit of all your good living.” (Robert Henri, 1865-1929)
Esoterica: It’s generally a good idea to try for “tone-truth.” This means more or less correct tone values and believable light and shade in at least one part of your picture. For most of us, obtaining tone-truth is more difficult than drawing and composition put together. That’s one of the reasons why many artists decide not to go there. Tone-truth requires patient trial and error until things finally look right. Surprisingly, photos can often give you a bum steer. You kind of have to drag those zinger relationships up on your own.
Value of contemplation
by Dave Graham, Estelline, SD, USA
Your letter brings sharply to mind the caution of Alphonse Bertillon: “One can only see what one observes, and one observes only things which are already in the mind.”It reminds the artist — as well as any other whose life depends upon observation and seeing — that unhurried, thoughtful, probing observation transcends the ability of the quick, all-inclusive glance to permit expansion of the mind’s receptivity to retinal impulses to the optic cortex… and ultimately to the centers of visual memory and correlation.
Freedom from reality
by Carolyn Newberger, MA, USA
This summer I bought a brilliant bouquet of zinnias at the local farmers market and just had to paint them. I dashed off a watercolor, trying to capture the brilliance of the pinks, oranges and reds. The painting was awful. Last month, I decided to try again, but this time, all I had for reference was the lousy painting with its garish splotches of color, and my memory of how the flowers had knocked my socks off. Freed from reality, but with the memory vivid from the messy painting in front of me, I crafted a new painting. I added and removed paint with abandon, invented a cut glass bowl to make sense of the blowsey bouquet, and striped wallpaper to keep the whole thing from flying off the paper, and worked to capture the inner excitement rather than the literal flowers themselves. The result was a painting that delights and excites me. Imagine!
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Putting the reference away
by Julie Eastman, Chapel Hill, NC, USA
One of my favorite exercises is to ask my students to prepare a small sketch of a photo reference, then to put the photo away (not to be looked at again) and use only the small sketch to develop a much larger painting. This helps the students learn how to switch their loyalties from the photo to the painting, and they start thinking about how to make the painting work in and of itself. During the process, they often learn that they missed capturing something important in their sketch, which helps them to observe better the next time.
Technology of a caricaturist
by Kerry Waghorn, North Vancouver, BC, Canada
I have found that in doing caricature or portraiture or whatever, that what you have said is a real aid. Scan the photo reference, run it through Photoshop, do automatic levels and contrasts in adjustments (not like the old days where you had to do it manually) then set curves, do one B&W on light to get the shady areas detailed in line and then one on darker to get the tones that are more subtle. With these two (usually 5 – 6.5 inches high at 72 – 200 dpi) you have good reference away from color and easy to print. From there you go. To me this is all legit. You still have to do the work, it just makes the prelims easier.
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The fine art of noticing
by Kittie Beletic, Dallas, TX, USA
While driving around yesterday doing last minute Christmas errands, my daughter and I played a game that involved noticing our surroundings. We would ask each other questions like “What was the color of our waitress’s blouse?” or “What did that billboard say?”; “What did the building next to the billboard look like?”; “How many people were standing at that bus stop?” We were surprised at what we did and did not notice!
In the evening, as I was sketching a bit and then working with textiles, I was recalling a specific scene – of course I have a picture of it somewhere but can’t find it – and in my mind’s eye it was detailed and specific. What came out in my artwork was blocked, abstract and full of color. I like how this piece is turning out far better than the original real life picture and it occurs to me that the translation, when allowed, can often be not only a reflection of the artist within, but of the human being within, as well. My artist self is whimsical and colorful. My human being self reaches out to touch the hearts of others.
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The dumb eye
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
It is the artist who makes the camera image a master and not a helper. By adopting a different view of the photo image, you can take away much of the dependence. I see it as a handy tool like a Phillips head screwdriver. No one gets too attached to a screwdriver! I did plein air painting for twenty years and find this experience a huge help in the studio. Looking at the photo, I know the values are wrong and the color as well. What I do get from the photo are ideas about composition, patterns and light and some great reference for details. When I take photos, I don’t take them as a professional photographer would. I take them as if I were panning around looking for images, much like I did in plein air. I’ve learned that my camera likes the color blue and makes the skies way too blue and dark in value, it darkens shadows and removes color from them, eliminates many middle tones, bleaches out lights turning light middle values into near whites. I suppose I could manipulate these flaws with Photoshop by why bother. In my paintings I strive for the same goals I did in plein air. I search for a sense of light, exaggerate color to create interest, look for shapes and patterns. Hopefully a certain mystery comes through. My studio paintings look very different from the photo reference and hopefully more akin to plein air. A patron at an art show once remarked to me that a camera ‘captures reality.’ I believe many in our culture have internalized this view. With this view, the camera image sets the standard for ‘realism.’ In reality the camera lens is just a different sort of eye than our own and what it records is just as much an abstraction. It’s a dumb eye that beautifully records details but does not emphasize, synthesize and edit like our wonderful human eye. By removing the godlike worship of photography, the artist robs it of its addictive power and remains free…. free to be imperfect and to be human.
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Wonderful possibilities of digital detail
by David W Zuck, Midlothian, VA, USA
I appreciate the thrust of what you are saying about easel side digital imagery, but I have to disagree with you on the issue of subtle nuances. I’ve been using the method that you are criticizing for many years, starting before the general trend that has taken off. I definitely have to break off from looking at both painting in progress and photo reference and get way back to see how things are going. However the more I look at my digital screen the more I see incredible and delightful nuances of value and color. It is hard to find a stopping place because there is so much there. It is necessary to work from the very best photos that one can produce and this is an art in itself, certainly made much easier with the great advances in digital photography. I also belong to a plein air group and appreciate the dynamics of this approach. I have found that just winging it after starting a painting with digital photo reference usually doesn’t yield a satisfying result to me. As with plein air, observed detail is best for rendering a lively and truthful work. It makes me way less self conscious in my paint application. Philosophically it is difficult to reconcile the photo reference method with the whole purpose of making art pieces, because if you already have a great photo why is it necessary to repeat it with a painting? My only recourse is to paint as though it were plein air, with as much free brushing as possible.
Transferring sketches to the computer
by Michael Fuerst, Urbana, IL, USA
I often take an in-between approach by sketching “somewhat stationary” persons who are either watching or performing music, or chatting in a coffee shop or pub. The subjects rarely know they are being sketched. I usually end up with a convincing, dynamic, non-portrait likeness. The sketches typically take 10-30 minutes.
If caught in the act by the victim, and the victim likes the sketch, I usually give away the original or an emailed copy. I rarely keep my sketches of children because I have to bribe children to remain relatively stationary by promising them the sketch.
Since I often work in dimly lit places and a scribbly style (somewhat reminiscent of Giacometti’s sketches) and erase a lot, my favorite medium is a Derwent water soluble 4B pencil. If I am working in good light, watercolor or water soluble pencils might sneak in. Sometimes sketches end prematurely when the subject leaves. I transfer the sketches to the computer via photographs, and use a photo editing program to either adjust the contrast, manipulate the background, and/or do very minimal touch-ups.
Switching to black and white
by Doug MacBean, Hamilton, ON, Canada
I work almost exclusively from my own photos, this time I said (to myself) “switch the composite into black and white, and concentrate on tonal values.” This has forced me to re-examine the colour importance against solid modeling of my forms. The tonal aspects are more important to my preferences, and colour is taking a back seat, for a change. This is a good thing. Now I am looking at simple cools against warms, with emphasis on more tactile elements. I often forget the image I am working from, and continuously ask myself if this is something of my own vision, or just a copy of a photo.
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The limits of efficiency
by Robin Shillcock, Groningen, Netherlands
Memory training produces the best results for an illusionistic painter. Having sketched wild animals in the field for many years, I never realized that I had a really “muscled brain” where memory was involved until I started model drawing with colleagues. In three-minute poses I got in the whole model, pose, facial features and chiaroscuro, while my artist friends were still struggling with basics, as in stick-figures. I’m not saying my sketches were masterpieces but precise in a very simplified way. They were about understanding what I was seeing, about perceiving. The problem with the Kodachrome Generation and the Microsoft Generation follow-up is that many do not learn to perceive. They don’t have to; the image, right down to the nitty-gritty detail, is there all the time on a screen, and the pc can regurgitate it at a moment’s whim. All they need to do is look. They don’t need to understand.
Illusionsitic or representational painting is in most cases re-creation, especially where the subject is the living thing like say a polar bear breaking through the pack ice to get at a young harp seal or, closer to home in Holland, a moorhen scuttling across a frozen canal: before the pencil touches paper it’s gone! So you have to draw from the image in your mind’s eye, sometimes trying to replicate the movement of a bear with your own muscles. The great Swiss wildlife artist Robert Hainard (1904-99) spoke to me of “muscle memory,” using your own muscles as an aide-mémoire in drawing. Without saying it he was talking of understanding what you see. It’s not what you get when copying photos. It’s what you get when you’re out there, and if you have an inquisitive mind; if you cut into an elk’s body, if you sketch during anatomy classes for surgeons or out in the field, looking at shape, at tonal values and how the light can change everything.
Now don’t give me the If there were computers in Rembrandt’s time he’d use one baloney; if anyone, Rembrandt’s work is about understanding light and texture, volumes in space and yes, anatomy, as his two fine “anatomical classes” testify. But his art came not only from observing but also from imagining and dreaming about his subjects until the story he wanted to tell became an image in his head; sure he used models, sure he made studies, but there’s no proof he used any of the short-cuts available at the time (camera obscura, hollow mirror), not like Johannes Vermeer or Carel Fabritius.
No doubt I’m biased, but my experience of artists of the North American “school” is that they are interested in being “efficient”: Why, they say, spend all that time in the field if you can shoot 50 photos in the time it takes me to do five sketches? Then they go home to sit in a comfy chair and paint from a screen, with suave music in the earphones and a good latte by the turps jar…
In art school we were advised to develop ideas from crappy newspaper photos, forcing us to fill in from memory the fuzzy bits like flat black shadows and overexposed bits. It was an instructive exercise, but looking at the work I did then, I see the overriding influence of photography: dynamic attitudes, smiling faces! Understanding tonal values requires drawing and painting from nature, from observation. It takes time and effort and truly, there are very few shortcuts!
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 Corrine Hull of Indianapolis, IN, USA, who wrote, “I’ve lately been trying to capture those fleeting glances of landscapes you see when driving.”
And also Jarwal of Travancore, India, who wrote, “Art is like sport. Practice counts. There are no shortcuts to becoming good in tennis. Only repeated training in deviousness.”
And also the poetess Paula Timpson, who almost always responds to these letters with a short poem.
José Feliciano, born blind
His guitar fingers,
to trust… pure Spirit!
The imagination is more valuable than knowledge, yes…
as the will takes one far
beyond now, into the real truth
fearlessness to fly free.
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