Wednesday, April 7, 2010

is portraiture using photography bad painting ?

With the advent of this year’s Archibald Prize  the issue of photography in portraiture has reared its head, for example, in Christopher Allen's critical review in The Australian newspaper.

Which brings me to my blog comment today - re the use of photography in portrait painting. Well, not so much a comment as some musings.

Photography is not a replacement for drawing and painting. It never was, despite the once dire predictions of portrait painting's immanent demise with the arrival of the daguerreotype. Conversely, I believe there seems little point to replicating a photograph in oil paint. Though I don’t wish to be too catty about it. Maybe it is largely a matter of taste and artistic intention. Photo-realism and super-realism are simply not my cup of tea. Though I did notice last year at the BP Portrait Prize at the National Portrait Gallery London, about a third of the entries were in that genre. Even more the year before.

Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old MastersI acknowledge at the outset that visual aids, especially mechanical ones, can leave all sorts of nuanced traces in the work, as illustrated so well by David Hockney (who had a career-long love-hate relationship with the camera in his own painting practice) in Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. The premise of this lavishly illustrated publication is precisely that many great artists, reaching right back into the Renaissance, have used mechanical aids in their drawing and painting. He attempts to demonstrate that numerous famous portraits were indeed not simply painted from life by eye.

And I’m certainly not wishing to defend stilted, wooden, lifeless portraits, purporting to be naturalistic studies, that sit uncomfortably on a canvas, somehow out of plumb in a number of subtle and not so subtle ways because they were ineptly copied from a photo. The web is full of ‘studios’ that offer to turn your family snap into a piece of lounge room kitsch.

But questions keep popping into my head:

· Many insist that portrait should be painted from life. But how can a self-portrait ever be from life? A mirror reflection is a 2D image. Or aren’t self-portraits capable of being 'good' portraits? (better tell Rembrandt, Schiele and Kahlo)

· What about a portrait painted from another portrait? Not ‘Art'? (e.g., Bacon's version of the Velázquez Pope)?

· What about portraits painted from multiple photos whereby the artist creates a mental ‘summary’ that seems to be the ‘best fit’? Would it make any difference if he used video, with moving images instead of a static image? How is a video panning round the subject inferior to 'a sitting' where the sitter ‘strikes a static pose’?

· What is so sacred about the posing sitter? The literature on sitter performance, persona selection, self-image projection, transactional understandings of the sitter-painter diad, suggests more complex things are transpiring than a simple sketching of 3D form, e.g., Kozloff, M., ‘Portraiture and performance’ in  Face Value: American Portraits, Donna De Salvo, 1995.

· even the assumption that painting a portrait is primarily about painting a likeness is just that - an assumption. It seems like such an unassailable and self-evident truth, yet I believe it is a vestige of artistic objectives and commercial criteria that pre-date the camera. The first century of photography only served to underscore that requirement through competition. Even once well into 20th century expressionism, the assumption continued. It was not until post-modernism deconstructed the portrait, refusing to take the portrait at face value as a likeness of a sitter, but instead asking questions about how identity is contained in image, what identity is anyway, how shifting and slippery self and constructions of self and representations of self can be, that artists produced work that intended to either bounce off established beliefs about portrait through ironic treatment, or looked for other ways of representing self that a photographic likeness.

Mike Parr, for instance, is more concerned with mere snatches of multiple identities, with unconscious elements of identity, and with process used in developing images than he is in accuracy of a single likeness. He  explains, "I began to think that the self-portrait really was a record of traces in time ... that in a sense I was creating a kind of a dig. So here was this dig going on which was the true meaning of portraiture ... the self-portrait in the late 20th century has become a kind of fiction—a kind of absence rather than a presence and that the real presence is this collision of chance and intention and layers of process within that container."

What kind of work does this approach produce? "The video 100 Breaths is a multiple self-portrait and endurance test. Parr covers his face with 100 different drawings of himself. Using his mouth as a suction cup, he sucks them on one at time, then blows them off, gasping for air." (smh review).

· Can artists who have lost an eye ever paint a legitimate portrait since they have lost the stereoscopic vision deemed so essential to painting from life? What about artists who deliberately close one eye to assist their draughtsmanship?

· Or artists who use a Dark Mirror to highlight tonal values for portraiture? or use a camera obscura to assist draftsmanship? Or use perforated cartoons for figurative frescoes (Michaelangelo, Raphael)? or use tracings/transfers to assist getting the perspective of the face? Are all these practices somehow ‘impure’?

· What about artists who have a sitting, make sketches of the sitter, make notes re colour, commence the painting with the sitter present, but then take photos and complete the piece back in their studio – from memory, their sketches, notes and photos. Compromised portraits?

· What about artists who paint purely from memory, with no sitter present (eg, Maggi Hambling)?

· It seems behind such niggling about legitimate process in portrait painting is a broader question about prescriptive art practice. If we had all stuck to the rules of 19th century Paris Salons, where would painting be today? For behind such prescribed institutionalised scripts for artists lie questions about the nature of social influence (power); ruling elites (both within culture and in social structures); vested interest (whether defending personal prestige, or controlling the market); cultural tyranny inherent in fundamentalist and conservative values; career trajectories (fame and saleability); mass-media and myth-making (art-making as a constructed narrative); ethnocentrism and fear of the 'other' ... and ... alpha males.

The fact is painters, including great painters, have used photography in their art practice ever since that tool became available to them. Van Deren Coke, in The Painter and the Photograph: from Delacroix to Warhol,documents their use by placing the photo beside the painting in question for a range of artists including Munch, Henri Rousseau, Picasso, and Francis Bacon.

Similarly Aaron Scharf in Art and Photography documents the case of the use of photographs by the great painters. He even goes so far as to link the origins of Impressionism to Corot's use of halation-blurred photos in the 1840s (pp 89-92)!

Certain contemporary artists substantially or almost exclusively use photography for their portrait painting practice. Marlene Dumas, a case in point, works from newspaper clippings and old porno images. Catherine Kehoe uses old family snaps to interrogate memory and identity. Jenny Saville employs extreme close-ups and medical texts to assist her to render flesh in paint.
My personal interest is in expressive mark-making in portraiture. And I see photography as one (of many) useful and legitimate tools in painting expressive portraits. I thought Jenny Saville made some practical and convincing observations about the issue re her own practice:

“I use photographs a lot. I take lots of photographs of myself. There's a kind of snobbery against photographs when you do life painting. But I pillage information from anywhere. I really don't care where I get it from. I'll have photographs of my body, and sometimes I take photographs of bits of my friends' bodies, and I have lots of medical textbooks that I use as reference. ... I don't take a photograph of a whole composition, just fragments of the body. Since I work on such a large scale, I don't paint while I'm looking at the figure. Usually I have a model for about six hours, and do about 10 rolls of real close-ups. But I don't use the model when she's in front of me ... I find working from life really intimidating. I couldn't draw or paint on a size like that [indicating a medium sized sketchbook]. I find it so hard to do --unless I do a detail of an enlargement or something. There is no point in me doing a study like that. It's just more natural for me to use larger areas of flesh. I don't like working in a life-class ... I don't get anything from it.”

I find her pragmatic approach liberating. And may she be as idiosyncratic as she pleases in her technique. It’s revelations of practice like this that make me balk at blanket condemnation of photography as a tool in portrait painting. I also recall my elementary school teacher condemning the use of biros in place of pens as somehow less than ‘proper’ for writing.

But there is one more thought that buzzes round my head. I wonder why so many present day artists set such a high store on 'realism'. It is a if the sheer skill of creating photo-like images in paint was enough reward for the artist. The realist notion of portrait painting seems obsessed with reproducing a recognizable physical likeness, as if having achieved such a likeness was in itself the seal and guarantee of having painted a good portrait.

While the camera was used by great artists of the 19th century, they did not make themselves a prisoner to it. If a mechanical device can produce an accurate likeness with such ease, what was left for the painter to do? The same question, but of landscape painting rather than portraiture, is asked in this summary of Simon Schama's program on Turner in his Power of Art TV series:

Turner had anticipated the great 19th-century question posed by the invention of photography. If the camera could now make two-dimensional facsimiles of nature, of people, of places, what work did that leave for art? Turner's great nebulae of color gave one answer, but there was another to be had. Freed from the job of describing the mere look of the world, art could now go to the heart of the matter, the subjective vision of our mind's eye. Turner was the first true modern. Modern were his tempests of paint, modern his blown-up cloudy forms. Ultra-modern was his determination to tackle dangerous subjects ... For Turner, art was not a placebo. It needed to wreak havoc like the storm, to have the force of an avalanche or an inferno. Great painting, his painting, needed to risk disaster, the better to communicate it.

My personal answer is expressionism. I wish to represent inner states, (my own, the sitter's, both concurrently) not only surface appearance. A good photographic portrait may aspire to the same goal. So I have the further goal of representing those inner states not only through the composition of the work but by the very quality of mark-making i use to create the image. Hence my chosen project for my Masters degree. And this blog traces my journey of discovery and development.

Anyone any thoughts on any of this?


  1. excellent article. particularly liked the response to the question about whether artists who don't use a sitter are real artists: got lots of ideas for doing portraits:) thanks.

  2. thanks so much, rahina ... glad you got something out of my ramblings ... take whatever ideas you like - they came to me freely and i let them go on as freely

    you already paint such stunning portraits but isn't it fun to keep trying new things, take a few risks ... and they are risks ... i sometimes wonder whether people realise the courage it takes to paint ... if it doesn't then one is probably just colouring in rather than trying to say something ... ah well, there is a place for decorative art too "The Buddha stretches west as well as east."

    Thanks for dropping by. I expect to be quite productive in coming months so if you are interested in my work it may be useful to become a follower of the blog. Cheers, h

  3. thanks for your generous response Harry. i remember one artist suggest i trace faces: this just did not work for me. he did watch me doing an underpainting once, starting with a fairly wide brush and no drawing.and told me to stick to it:)
    I have put a link to your blog on mine so no probs there.

  4. Yes, direct brush-work without drawing sure gives fresh results. And it is certainly where i'm heading as i progressively move away from representational portraits into far more abstract Bacon/Arnuf territory next year. As the forms become increasing abstract and the facial planes break up then use of photo-images becomes an entirely irrelevant issue, methinks. Thanks for all your interest.

  5. Dear Mr. Kent,
    It is a wonderful discussion of photography in portraiture. I have used photos, quite often, in fact, but the one "compliment" I least care for is, "It looks just like the photograph."
    The longer I do this, the less I depend on photos. If one cannot discern the hand of the artist, what's the point of the effort? I love to explain to my subjects the significance of the various marks, do-overs, paint build-up and "imperfections". Richard Diebenkorn's work and a book about his life taught me much about "mistakes" and how to build upon them, learn from them and not be overly concerned about hiding them.
    And Harry, that's why I love your work so much. You boldly go where many artists fear to tread. But then, you knew that.

  6. Hi Gary, sorry it’s taken me a while to respond to you interesting comments but i have been away in Sydney.

    Your experience further illustrates that there are many ways in which photos get used, and many different expectations both by artists and viewers about that use. For my taste (and these matters are matters of style and taste) it is the very imperfections you speak of that are of most interest. I view paintings as hand-made artefacts that belong to the material and intellectual culture of a given society and time. So i enjoy seeing the human trace in the work. I like to feel my affinity with the cave artists of Lascaux ,and of Tasmania 40,000 years ago.

    I know there are many keen blogger artists who pursue photo-realism in their work. They take pleasure from exercising their skill in paint-handling and producing images whose quality can readily be judged even by the most inexpert – it is simply laid alongside the photo that prescribed its composition. Others (e.g., Flickr has a group who call themselves ‘realistic portrait painters’) are only interested in ‘realistic’ painting and they tend to look back to artists like David or John Singer Sargent as painting accurate representational images of human faces.

    In my view it is too easy to forget that what made David and Sargent great was not their photo accuracy but their stylistic interpretation of their subjects. Yes, they were consummate handlers of paint but that was a means to an end, not an end in itself. Their ‘end’ variously was political rhetoric, social critique, character analysis, aesthetic design and composition, and personal professional advancement.

    As someone whose interest is chiefly expressive, it is the paint build-up you describe that is, in itself, that is of aesthetic interest. It is the searching lines, left in place, that tell the narrative of the artist’s quest for his or her vision. It is the haptic and gestural quality of the paint marks that reveal the emotional state of the artist as a sub-text to the image and composition. In expressive art, this subtext is to the fore, even becoming the main text for some artists.

    In this kind of art, there are no mistakes – only a change of mind, change of direction, refinement of intent, exploration of possibilities, agency of the medium, aleatoric journeys of discovery.

    And yes, it does take courage to move beyond one’s current understanding and skill set, for inevitably one is moving into a phase of uncertainty and exploration which has its frustrations, disappointments and dejection. But also times of breakthrough with its elation, growth and empowerment.

    You are already an portrait artist of consummate skill and sensitivity, Gary. Your turban portrait is stunning and way beyond photo-realism in its nuanced exploration of personhood. It’s exciting to read your growing sense of liberation that you will bring to your work. I can’t wait to see where that takes you.

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