Is it just me?

I visited the local art circle’s exhibition at Bolton Library last week. There were two paintings which struck me. (Well, three if you include the one I voted for in the Visitors’ Prize poll, and which I then went out to the front desk and bought.)

One was a definite ten out of ten for watercolour technique and craft. It was an excellent version of a photograph of a seaside scene shot against the light. It was so good, it was just like the original photograph. In fact, that’s where my problem lies. It was just like the photograph. It didn’t add anything that the photograph didn’t say already.

I was once told that an artist’s job is to make you see things in a way that you hadn’t seen before. Picasso said that he didn’t paint what he saw but what he felt. To me the watercolour artist, by duplicating the photograph, has not shown me a new way of looking at the scene, nor had they painted what they felt.

In a similar way, there was a fine painting of the Duchess of Cambridge based on a newspaper photograph but again, I saw nothing in the painting which I couldn’t have seen in the original photograph.

I’ve seen paintings before which have been based on newspaper photographs but which have said more than just the originals. I saw a set recently where the artist had put a year into Google images and painted certain random pictures which came up. I can’t remember exactly how they were chosen but there were some weird ones, but collectively they were more than just copies of the originals even though they were realistic.

Earlier in the summer, I wrote about copying paintings by other people. I had copied a fauve painting of Matisse by Derain. I then used the techniques I’d learnt to do a self portrait in the same style. Last week, at the pastel drawing class at college, Rachel was showing us the use of masks. The work was a landscape at sunset with a lot of aerial perspective. The distant hills were yellow, mid-distance were orange and foreground ones were rusty brown. I watched her demo and immediately recalled a photograph I took of the foothills of the Himalayas which was a series of blues.

foothills_of_the_himalayasMy pastel drawing was nothing like this because a) I didn’t have the photograph with me b) my skills at reproducing photographs is not as well developed as members of the Art Circle c) the lesson was about the use of masks and not copying photographs but mainly d) I already had the photograph so why bother reproducing it.

I spend a fair amount of time on Pinterest posting images into one of my folders called Images I Like. These are intended as inspiration for art work. Inspiration, I stress. I have no intention of trying to copy any of them. The only project I currently have in mind where I intend to try and produce as close a faithful copy as I can is of old cigarette cards, but much larger by a factor of about 20 (i.e about 2 ft by 3 ft instead of about 1 in by 1 1/2 in.) But that is a distant project at the moment.

The title of this post is “Is it me?”. Is it me, or do other people have a problem in the accurate, realistic copying of photographs? Do such painted copies have any artistic qualities (not the same as technical merit) that the original photograph does not have? Just asking!

On the other hand, reproducing famous photographs in Lego is a totally different matter! Check out this link for some amazing work! Here is a taster based on Robert Capa’s Spanish Civil War photograph:



About notes to the milkman

I'm a printmaker based in the North West of England, living in Bolton and printing at Hot Bed Press in Salford. Please visit my website
This entry was posted in Art, Artists, exhibition, Painting, Photograph, Photography and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Is it just me?

  1. seascapesaus says:

    No, it’s not just you! I use photographs a lot for inspiration, but they don’t answer all the questions I have while painting because my pics are not ‘art’ in themselves. If I made successful artworks like that, I certainly wouldn’t bother reproducing them in such a time-consuming way as painting! Nice that you bought that Christmas present John. It would be a lovely present for the artist too.

  2. The “where is the artist in the work?” question is an important one. Some time ago, I read an article about a portrait painter who produces portraits that are almost indistinguishable from their photo reference in which he described how he projects the photo on to the paper and then starts work. In which (crucially artistic) ways does this differ from the painting by numbers exercises that I recall doing as a child? I don’t doubt that a high level of skill is involved but it suggests that the outcome is more important (and more marketable to a certain audience?) than the process. Thank you for raising the issue.

  3. Beautiful photograph, by the way.

  4. Not just you. Had I written and posted a short piece about an exhibition of a local pastel group, I too would have made the comment about an accurate pastel copy of as photo. In this case it was of the face of a big cat. I daresay an accurate portrait of a family pet may be an outcome much in demand.
    On the other hand I love the Lego interpretation. I find this much more creative than most of the Peter Blake assemblages of retro toys I recently blogged about.

  5. Nancy Farmer says:

    no, it’s not just you! way back when, it might have been the painter’s greatest achievement to paint something that looked like a photograph – in that period after we sorted out perspective and before we invented photography. But now, we have photography, worse, we have all sorts of clever electronic jiggery-pokery to create any picture we want out of thin electrons and make it look convincingly real… so, really, artists need to do something that plain lenses and clever programming cannot do to still be interesting!

  6. Mags Phelan says:

    Again, not just you. I want to feel something of the person who has painted a picture.

  7. aremraf says:

    Not just you…and the others, but just to extend the painting/photography considerations a bit further…I sometimes collect newspaper images that strike me could only be photos. Not only to do with getting a scoop, capturing the moment and so on, but because of the qualities of the image. It might be to do with lighting, or composition, or emotions depicted, that kind of thing. Identifying an image that you can’t add anything to by painting it helps sort out, conversely, what you can do in a painting. And now we know the camera can and does frequently lie, in a way it levels the playing field for both art forms.

  8. Pingback: Life Drawing and Portraits | notes to the milkman

  9. Servadio says:

    I think that a serious painting has nothing to do with photography. Make a portrait of Berlusconi, you can distill your thoughts and judgement, a photograph, however grotesque, can only project the ridicule, the joke, the ugliness….

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