And… and I’m… I’m real…
“Pinocchio: And… and I’m… I’m real. I’m a real boy!
Geppetto: You’re alive! And… and you are a real boy!”
Back in March I wrote a two-part post about coming to grips with calling myself an artist with a capital “A.” Without going back over the all the angst I have felt over the years I can tell you it was directly related to my use of photography as the basis for my subject matter.
I thought I was a hack, and I didn’t want to be a hack. I loved to paint people; not necessarily portraits, but people doing everyday things. I loved the Impressionists, but I just couldn’t see myself hiring a bunch of models and posing them in ways that emulated everyday life (I didn’t have the budget or the interest, really). So I continued to base my slice-of-life paintings on photographs – first old photos of my family, and then, increasingly, on photos I took myself.
At first I would manipulate the images using the technology I had on hand: a copier, tracing paper, my sketchbook, pencils, and scissors to copy, cut, and manipulate the images. Then I discovered photo-editing software and that made it a hell of a lot easier, but it increased my level of guilt for having “cheated” somehow.
Oh lordie! I was raised a Catholic so the guilt thing was a bottomless pit!
To try to alleviate my guilt I searched years for evidence that the use of photography made me no less a “real” artist than those who painted entirely from life. I suppose if I hadn’t fallen asleep in all of my college art history classes I would have learned about the use of photography and saved myself all that grief (I still fall asleep in darkened movie theaters — a habit that severely disturbs my husband – but I digress).
The first book I found (this was waaaaaaaay before the internet so I was searching libraries and book stores) that made me feel somewhat better was Beyond Impressionism: The Naturalist Impulse by Edwin Becker and Gabriel P. Weisberg. I studied that book like a hawk, bookmarking pages and showing it to everyone I could corral – I wanted the world to know that, “hey, lookie here – these painters used PHOTOGRAPHS!”
It was a form of validation.
Another, more recent book that made it to my shelf in my search for validation is David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters (2002). In it Mr. Hockney (somehow I can call Eric Fischl Eric, but Hockney is British, so he will always be Mr. Hockney to me) analyzes Old Master’s techniques and claims that in order to obtain some of the spectacular accuracy in their paintings they must have used optical aids, such as camera lucidas and camera obscuras.
The fact that there is controversy regarding his theory makes perfect sense to me. I have had that same damn argument going on in my less-than-scholarly brain for decades. “Using photos and aids = bad! What about talent, technique, and plain old skill?” vs. “using photos and aids = ok cause they don’t make a painting by themselves – painters make paintings and these are just tools, much like my pre-technology copier and scissors.”
Shut up, brain!
Then in late 2012 The San Jose Museum of Art in California produced a show of Eric Fischl’s art entitled “Dive Deep: Eric Fischl and the Process of Painting.” I didn’t see it. I should have. Some of you may know he is one of my painting heroes, not just because he uses photos as a basis for his work, nor because he uses technology to help him do so, but more because he is a painter’s painter – he paints with big, juicy brush strokes that tell you just how much he loves to move paint around on the canvas. I also love that he is so transparent – he is so generous with his knowledge and his processes – seemingly ego-less.
There is a nice short video clip from an interview he did for the exhibit in which he discusses his process, and talks about (oh how I love him for this) how ironic it is that he now uses the very newest forms of technology to help him produce one of the most primitive forms of expression.
LOVE that perspective.
My self-esteem has come a long way since the mid-70’s when I was nodding off in Art History classes, and while I am not ashamed to say that I take, manipulate, use, and sometimes even PROJECT (gasp!) photographic images onto my canvases, I still somehow want to stand up and shout “I’m REAL!” whenever I come across evidence that new or old masters have used photography or other technology to create their work.
So how’s this for an exercise in meeting one’s demons head-on – in the interest of my own transparency, and since this is a blog about my workday, I thought I’d share some of the the work that happens outside my studio, before I ever lift a canvas onto my easel. (Please refrain from laughing at my pathetic use of PhotoShop when you see these.)
The main subject photo:
Another, similar photo from which I “stole” the feet missing in the first photo:
The final composition on which the final painting is based:
These three images ended up, collectively, as this painting of my brother: “Baby Oil and Iodine.”
For the next painting all I wanted to do was to skew the perspective, so it was a much simpler process: open photo in PhotoShop, play with perspective in “skew” mode, and click Save.
In this example I removed a third bridesmaid from the middle of the image
to make this painting:
Finally, a more complex example, which will never be made into a painting. Not only did I combine a couple of images, I also started experimenting with location and backgrounds, and it just never felt right, so I put it aside.
First, the original image I thought had elements of an interesting painting:
Next, another subject (happens to be me – the man above is Richard, my husband):
Experimenting with combining subjects, deleting background, adding backgrounds and I still couldn’t make this one work well enough to try to put it on canvas.
So there you have it – I’ve no more secrets – yet. Well, maybe one or two, but really, there is no way that I could make the paintings that I want to make if I didn’t have the kind of technology we have available today. It just makes things so much easier and faster. And I really, truly, would prefer to get this part of the work over with as quickly as possible (as you can see I am not exactly an enthusiastic aficionado of photo-editing) so that I can spend more time doing what I really, truly, love to do, and that is pushing paint around on the canvas.
Aloha for now, and let’s say it, all together now…
I. AM. REAL!!!
P.S. There is an excellent article, actually a review of the catalog for the exhibition Illusions of Reality: Naturalist Painting, Photography, Theatre and Cinema, 1875 – 1918 at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam in 2010, on the “Naturalist School,” as it was called in the first Paris salon in which paintings of this ilk appeared, which you can read here.