Monday, October 26, 2009

The Crutch Of Photographic Reference

Representational artists today are fortunate to have such an extraordinary tool to use in creating works of art — the photograph. But for every benefit photography provides, it also yields great drawbacks. These include simple problems like inaccurate color representation, poor reproduction of values (especially in bright light) and photographic distortion — all of which are easily handled by the well-trained artist. But there are a few issues with using photographic reference that go much deeper than simply having to adjust a color here or a value there. Photo reference can make you lazy. Really lazy.

First, it's simply easier to reproduce a photo than it is to work directly from life. The reason is that the mind has to do much less work when taking a two-dimensional image (a photograph) and reproduce it again, two-dimensionally, on paper or canvas. In contrast, the mind has to work hard to convert three-dimensional reality onto a two-dimensional plain and still achieve the illusion of three-dimensional form. The conversion that has to occur when working from life and placing what you see through direct observation onto a two-dimensional plain like paper or canvas is an exceptionally complex skill that can take many, many years to perfect. It’s also a skill an artist must polish if he or she is to accurately correct those simpler problems like photographic distortion and exaggerated atmospheric depth inherent to reference photographs.

The second, and in my view most sinister problem with using photographic reference, is it can make the artist lazy in the way of concept. Working from photographic reference, especially for those artists that work with subject matter that requires the use of the camera (like us wildlife artists), one can easily be seduced into simply reproducing a good photo. So rather than developing a concept for a painting, then looking to one’s photo reference library to help one realize one’s concept, the artist simply looks for a photo that would make a good painting.

Does this mean that directly copying a photo is always I have seen many artists whose personal style is so unique that it would be difficult to even recognize the photographic reference they used. Also, in the case of doing portraits, photographic reference may be the only means of capturing a likeness, such as when working with young children. But for many artists, the photo can become a crutch for laggard conceptualizing — photographic reference’s most artistically corrosive drawback in my view. The artist must avoid becoming a slave to his or her photographs.

With this in mind, I’ve decided to post how it is I often work using photographic reference. My painting titled “Date Night” makes a fair example:

I began with the idea of creating a nocturne painting with moose as the subject. I did several sketches that served to nail down the composition. I then went to my photo reference library to find images I could use to realize my concept. In the end, I used four different images to help me complete the painting.

I first located the subject of my painting. In the case of these reference photos, they are reversed from the actual painting. If I'm really adamant about a painting's direction being a certain way—as was the case with "Date Night"— I'll draw everything in reverse from my reference (it also makes for a challenging drawing exercise).

I used this bull moose for the cow in my painting. A few minor anatomical changes and poof! Female moose.

This was my reference for the marsh and grasses. I often use reference like this photo as just a guide. You'll notice the actual grass in the painting is laid out much differently.

And finally, I used this image for creating the tree and background mountains.

You may have noticed I had no reference for creating the nocturne itself. For this I looked to how other artists had handled painting night scenes and essentially flew by the seat of my pants (this is the first nocturne I've ever painted).

In locating images for use as reference, I try to keep a few things in mind...

1) Light sources.
I make sure the light source at least loosely matches from photo to photo.

2) Environment.
When building a painting where the environment will play an important roll, I try to make sure all of the reference I utilize is from the same geographic area. As an example, I don't want to be putting plants in a painting that wouldn't exist in that environment.

3) Integrity of the Concept.
I try to remember not to let the reference change the concept — which it can sometimes do if you're not careful.

Remember that it's called photographic reference for a reason. And most importantly, never let your photos limit your ideas.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Questions? See FAQ

I thought I'd take a moment to address several of the most commonly asked questions I get from artists and art enthusiasts regarding me and my work.

1. How long does it take you to complete a painting? (Boy, if I just had a nickel...)
Answer: Seldom am I actually able to give an accurate number to anyone that asks this question. Every painting is different. To quote Norman Rockwell, "Some come easy, some come hard." Also, a bulk of the time it takes to create a painting lies in developing a concept for it. If you began counting the minutes from the point I started working on an idea for a painting, to the finished work, several months may have passed. But, if you really must have an answer — addressing strictly the actual application of paint to canvas part of the process — it can take anywhere from a few hours for a very small painting, to a couple of weeks for a large work.

2. What paints, brushes and canvas do you use?
Answer: For a while I bounced back and forth between Windsor & Newton Artist Oil Colors and Holbien. I've now settled on Holbien. The reason being that of all of the brands of paints I've used, Holbien's quality is the most consistent out of the tube. There's never a teaspoon of oil expelled upon first squeezing a tube and their high level of pigmentation is very consistent. As for brushes, I use Windsor and Newton Lexington Series bristle flats. I've now switched to using linen canvas. The brands I'm currently using are a combination of linen panels made by SourceTek (Claessens #66) and stretched linen canvas (Centurion LX brand).

3. How do you price your artwork?
Pricing can be tricky at first. Some artists price paintings based on how they feel about them. Others take a more traditional and structured 'retail' approach. I suppose I'm somewhere in between but lean more towards 'traditional retail approach'. I've arrived at my pricing by comparing my work with other artists that I feel are of equal skill and work with similar subject matter, as well as artists that have been working professionally for about as long as I have. Doing this provided me a good baseline from which to price my own work. As one looks at my prices, they'll notice that smaller pieces, per square inch, are more expensive than larger pieces — the paintings become less expensive per square inch as they get larger. I keep all common sizes at the same price level. For example, you can expect to pay the same price for any of my paintings that are 11" x 14" — regardless of subject, time it took to complete, or how I feel about the piece. The only real fluctuation in the price would be influenced by the framing, but the base price for any particular size painting remains constant. Basically, I come up with the price, then add the cost of framing.

4. Who are your favorite artists?
Answer: That changes often. But here are some that have always stayed at the top of my list... Living: Bill Anton, Jeremy Lipking, Clyde Aspevig, Matt Smith, Mian Situ, Kathryn Stats, Scott Burdick & Susan Lyon, James Reynolds (to name just a few). Deceased: John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, Edger Payne, Carl Rungius, Frank Tenney Johnson (again, that's just some).

5. How tall are you?
6' 6"

If anyone would like me to add to the FAQ, just let me know.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Magic Of Talent And The Reality Of Hard Work

I am sometimes confronted with the very well-meaning art observer who compliments me on my “great talent”. On the one hand, at its heart this is a sincere acknowledgement of appreciation for my work. It is meant as no more than a heart-felt compliment and I shouldn’t take it any other way. But on the other hand, I also find it to be a dismissal of the reality of being an artist. Let me explain...

The creation of art (and especially representational art) is somewhat of a mystery to those that feel their artistic faculties only allow them to appreciate art rather than create it. In many ways, this mystery is good for business. It effectively elevates the artist to a position of admiration which often translates into better sales. But the mystery of talent, to a large extent, can be revealed as simple determination, dedication and in the end, consistent hard work.

I fully understand that no matter the endeavor, there are those of us that will excel at any particular chosen task more so than others. Everything, from the environment in which we are raised, to the people we encounter along the way, right down to our DNA, will have a tremendous impact on how we excel at certain tasks. One need only look to athletics to see how the individual’s performance is influenced by these kinds of variables. But as with any undertaking, the effect of those variables must be tempered with perseverance and hard work. And there are few other categories in which this is truer than in art — and more specifically, representational painting.

I’ve spent my entire life drawing and painting. I am constantly trying to refine and better my skills as an artist, both fundamentally and stylistically. It’s tireless, frustrating, difficult work and I do it nearly every day of my life. My dedication to being better at what I truly love to do has gifted me tangible results. I can look back on my previous work and see great changes for the better. I can see dramatic improvements in all aspects of my work — improvements that are obvious when I look back even just a few years. In other words, I didn’t spring from the womb being able to draw and paint. In fact, I would argue that anyone could learn to draw and paint realistically. Essentially, it comes down to simple eye-hand coordination and there are a set of very effective techniques and principles one can learn that will help them to achieve that end. I can think of a couple artists who I have personally observed go from 8th grade-level competency in drawing, to truly professional quality, and their betterment can easily be explained by their dedication to constantly practicing — not by supernatural forces.

It isn’t in a person’s technical ability to recreate on paper or canvas what they see that I consider talent. And, since one’s style (and the public’s appreciation for it) is a relatively subjective thing in art, talent can’t necessarily be gauged by personal style alone. If talent in art truly exists, it can be found in the artist’s level of commitment to bettering themselves as an artist, and maybe more importantly, in their love of creating art.

Don’t let your (or anyone else's) preconceived notions about “talent” stand in the way of you becoming a better artist.