Beyond Photography

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Beyond Photography

From Castle.Proxies.AuthorProxy

Published on before 2005


Of course there is more to painting well, to creating works of art, than accurately recording what is there. But all other things being equal, the painting that reads most convincingly as a three-dimensional scene, whether in fact it is made up or observed, or derives from some combination of imagination and reality, is going to have greater power to move the viewer than one that falls too far short of that illusion. People today have seen too many photographs and movies to be as easily impressed, visually, as people of the past were who never saw those things, so they are looking with different visual perceptions and expectations. People from the 17th century are not going to see our paintings. People of the 21st century and later are the ones who will see them, and if the imagery is not up to a certain standard of realism, it will not get through to them, will not affect them the way it might have affected people from centuries ago. Whatever magnificent artistry we might have put into the design and orchestration of color, composition, etc., will go largely unappreciated if it does not read sufficiently realistic, meaning convincing in its three-dimensional illusion. A master painter can go beyond what is possible with photography, and I maintain that that is what it will take to make a positive difference, to change the status quo.

Even in the depiction of imaginary scenes, great painters have posed models, used mannequins to pose clothing on, looked at props, sketched scenery from direct observation to use as reference material, indeed generated many sketches and studies preparatory to addressing the main canvas or panel, rather than simply stepping up to the blank canvas, brush in hand, and beginning to paint. The reason was to enable them to achieve a higher degree of fidelity to reality (i.e., three-dimensionality) than they could do working strictly from their head, because they knew the picture would stand a better chance of carrying if the imagery were to read convincingly. The instances where artists did work just from their head and nothing else generally fall short of what they did when they had something to look at, but the viewers of their day were more accepting of that than those of today are. And of course there are exceptions, notably Claude Lorraine and some other landscape painters, and perhaps Rubens in certain instances.

I was once a fanatic who believed for many years that a true artist worked only from his head, that even looking at a model was cheating. But I could not help but notice how the paintings I did in class, looking at the model or a still life, as assigned, always turned out to have something special about them that I appreciated and that I realized made them better, in some ways, than the paintings I did strictly from my head. Still, I persisted in my fanaticism for quite a few more years, and I believe I benefitted from working that way for so long, but eventually I moderated my idealism to some extent in my desire to create the best paintings I could create, which required me to look at something while I worked. I think you would be surprised to learn how much is made up or changed from the way it really was, in the paintings I've done over the last 25 years or so. The confidence to do that, to deviate from what we see in front of us, comes from working from one's head, as you advocate, but it is also well to refer to something in order to bring the realism up to the highest level of which we are capable, because that aspect adds power to a painting. It registers a chord of recognition in the mind of the viewer, because it resembles the visual world they know.

We don't just paint for ourselves. We paint with the idea in mind that people will see our paintings, some day, somewhere, and we surely want to register on their consciousness in a positive way when they do. That is why I think it's important to try to go beyond what is possible with photography, rather than fall short of it or make it "just like a photograph," keeping in mind who will be seeing what we have done: people of the 21st century, and perhaps of the 22nd and 23rd, etc.

Virgil Elliott

Virgil Elliott is the author of Traditional Oil Painting: Advanced Techniques and Concepts from the Renaissance to the Present, published in 2007 by Watson-Guptill Publications. He is one of ARC's <u>Living Masters</u>, and an active member of the ASTM Subcommittee on Artists' Paints and Materials. Images of some of his artworks can be seen in ARC's Gallery of Living Masters and on his own web site,