Tuesday, April 18, 2006
A Photographic History
Alley with Shadow, 2006, Oil on Panel, 12x16
In a recent post I mentioned how I generally work from photo reference rather than real life. The exception to that is the unclothed model, of which I have always drawn from life.
I have a long history of working from the photo. In junior and senior high school, I painted or drew portraits of popular performers such as John Travolta (I was a HUGE Grease fan in eighth grade), and Leif Garrett (my profound apologies about that), and later on in high school, I did many, many drawings of Jim Morrison of the Doors. For awhile I drew copies of the Grateful Dead logos, made buttons and sold them for a dollar to the deadheads at our school (and yes, I am now aware of the copyright infringement involved in that). In fact, at our 20th class reunion, former deadhead turned math teacher, Hal Norman and I were talking and he said he had recently come across a box of things and found some of the buttons I had made. I did my share of making up images and working from actual objects, like still lifes with flowers, vases, and that sort of thing, but mostly I liked reproducing what I could see in the photo.
In college this changed a bit during the foundation year. We worked from the model, from still lifes and of course, did the typical and never-ending studies of cones, spheres, and cubes. We were also required to do more conceptual projects, which was something I struggled with. I have always wished that my work could have more concept behind it and I tried, but the reality was, my ideas were usually just dumb. So when it came time to choose a major, I decided to transfer to a school that had an illustration department, because I felt I needed to be "directed" and also because the painting department (I was at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design) at that time was filled with abstract painters and instructors and I knew that wasn't right for me. As an illustration major it was often necessary to work from photos and we were encouraged to do so, as well as to combine multiple elements to form an image. There were also mixed messages regarding this however. Once I painted a really nice portrait of Bette Davis from a photo on the cover of People magazine. There happened to be a visiting illustrator, Charles Santore, giving a critique and I put up the portrait for him to review. He totally ripped me apart for using a photo as the reference. This was slightly puzzling to me, because a). I didn't think Bette would pose for me and b). illustrators do portraits of celebrities ALL OF THE TIME using photo references. In fact that was the assignment-to paint and capture the likeness of a well known person, using a photograph.
However, I must admit that I have often been a slave to the details of a photograph. A year or so before we moved to NY, I did a number of paintings of decrepit buildings and garages and that sort of thing, based on photos that my husband had taken. It was a great way to dip my toes back into painting, but it was also the point when I realized that I working like that wasn't right for me anymore. My eyes had changed and my intent had shifted. I wanted express myself, not translate. The next project I started was learning how to use pastels and for awhile I mostly did pastel paintings of fruit and flowers, working from life, which led me to doing the landscape, as I discussed on Friday.
I don't know if my focus on working from photos was a help or a hindrance to me and my development as an artist. Maybe both. If I hadn't had references I may have been able to develop more of a conceptual way of thinking. On the other hand, I may have not even bothered to do anything creative without the inspiration of great photographs of a supremely sexy (well, to a high schooler), if somewhat sleazy, dead rock star from the sixties.
April's Art News has an article about how common it is for painters to use photo reference, and how there is still, after centuries of use, some unease as well as acceptance about the practice. I found the article to be comforting. Clearly there are so many ways to be an artist and my way of working is right in there along with everyone else's. With varying results, of course.
Today's piece is an image which seems to be a bridge between the simplistic landscapes that I normally do and the busy, more complicated street scene, which, yes, includes figures, that I plan to post tomorrow.