When somebody admiring a painting of mine comes out and says "Wow, it looks just like a photo!" ...I try not to take it too personally.
Comparing my execution of a painting with the execution of an image by a machine probably strikes them as a favorable comparison: it takes skill to get a high degree of accuracy, there must be intentionality behind the effort, the viewer likes to know what he's looking at, etc.
Especially for the student who is working diligently at discipline and technique in order to achieve visual accuracy, it could be encouraging to hear that the result of one's work is "photo-accurate." It takes time and great effort to attain accuracy in one's drawing and painting. However, though most people intuitively recognize that a well-executed painting is superior to a photo, we mostly couldn't articulate how and why. For example, a wonderfully executed still life painting, hung in an ornate frame, set in a gorgeous architectural environment within, say, a formal dining room, is fitting and beautiful (if well integrated with the space). A photograph of the same subject in the same situation would seem a parody. Why?
The major reason is breadth.
So what is breadth, exactly? To begin answering that question, let's look to painting's near cousin, sculpture. Specifically, I ask you to compare Michelangelo's David to this wax figure from Madame Tussaud's.
Let's ask the more obvious (or at least the question more modern, empirical minds find easier to answer) first: which is more realistic? Obviously the wax sculpture, correct?
Now, the less comfortable question: which is more beautiful? Don't give in to that modernist temptation to cowardice and say "who am I to judge," or "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Don't give in to a state of agnosticism because the matter cannot be mathematically proven or quantified. Say with boldness the truth as you see it. I say just as obviously as the latter is more realistic, the former is more beautiful.
But why? One important reason is the breadth of the David. I find this quote from GK Chesterton very insightful and applicable to the question at hand:
"We all know the fable of the man who imitated a pig, and his rival who was hooted by the crowd because he could only produce what was (in fact) the squeak of a real pig. The crowd was perfectly right. The crowd was a crowd of very penetrating and philosophical art critics. They had come there not to hear an ordinary pig, which they could hear by poking in any ordinary pig-sty. They came to hear how the voice of a pig affects the immortal mind and spirit of a man; what sort of satire he would make of it; what sort of fun he can get out of it; what sort of exaggeration he feels to be an exaggeration of its essence, and not of its accidents. In other words, they had come to hear a squeak, but the sort of squeak which expresses what a man thinks of a pig – not the vastly inferior squeak which only expresses what a pig thinks of a man." (from Fancies Versus Fads)
Michelangelo wasn't trying to recreate a literal man in marble (as a mold of a man could have been taken and enlarged for that purpose through mechanical processes) - no, he looked at men around him and, from his experience and intelligence, derived an ideal concept of a man that embodies poise, grace under pressure, beauty and form, strength and sensitivity. He communicated not only the story of David and Goliath but also the strength and beauty of the city of Florence, poised to slay her enemies. It is a higher, clear vision that grasps what is essential and leaves out what is not. It is as high above a mere cast of a man as a human being is higher than a beast. There are similar qualities but they are unmistakably different in kind and excellence.
So too, with a well-executed painting and a photograph.
To define it more precisely, breadth is the quality of an artwork in which the most essential elements are beautifully related one to another within the given medium without burdensome, distracting, or inessential details.
Fewer facts but more grand truth and beauty.
Now, where does Photorealism fit into this vision and understanding of art? Don't many artists work from photos even if they aren't Photorealists?
Does this make Photorealism 'bad?'
The short answer is: yes, sort of. An artist should, as much as possible, be before nature and exploring and understanding beauty as directly as possible without any mechanical separation or filter. Painting from a photograph is a fundamentally different and inferior experience and practice from painting from nature. Painting from photos is deadly to the art of painting when practiced exclusively and is deleterious to it in any quantity. This being said, it is often a necessary tool for modern artists and can be useful as long as the painter has sufficient and effective training based on direct observation of nature.
Photorealism as a movement sprang up in the 20th century with much good intent. I believe many of its practitioners recognized the intimate connection between truth and beauty (which all of this previous conversation presupposes). However, photorealism has an improper relationship with the truth in a couple of ways.
The first is that it accepts the photograph as a starting point and a foundation for the truth the artist bring to his art, as opposed to direct, unfiltered observation of nature. Leaning on photography this way trains the mind and eye to accept certain distortions and limitations of nature characteristic of that medium. Color, form, edge, and focus are not the same (or as beautiful) in photography as the human experience of sight.
Secondly, Photorealism tends to make slavish, exact replication of a photograph with all the warts, pimples, pores, and other "facts" the end goal without the larger understanding of relationships, and most essential connections. This way of mechanically copying the already-mechanical image of a camera is the antithesis of breadth. I don't want to scold Photorealists too much though. The truth is the original Photorealists were trying to rebuild the connection to visual truth from the ruins of the destruction of Western Art. Much of their work is impressive and skillful in an age of art characterized by the rejection of truth and technique and the production of quite unimpressive, undisciplined, and/or ugly works.
At the other end of the spectrum, another mistake of our time is to accept and value paintings with bad color or poor drawing - schlocky work - merely because it is "art" that is too poorly made to even appear to be based on a photograph. In essence: valuing deformity as opposed to breadth and beauty.
Both of these errors (of Photorealism and schlocky painting) are types of Neo-primitive ways of painting and inferior to the great tradition of Western Art.
I want to close with two paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA) that struck me on a recent tour I gave - one by Chardin and one by a Flemish Master, Frans Snyders. The difference I will describe is what led the Boston School painters (who founded the MFA) to revere Chardin as a hero and to appreciate Snyder as striving towards greatness yet ultimately remaining relatively primitive.
Among other interesting objects, this still life by Snyders features a pedestal of grapes. Every grape is thoroughly and painstakingly described, the decoration on the fine china is there in all of its detail, the weave of the wicker basket is accurate, and so on. It is realistic. It is detailed. It is impressive.
The other is a small still life by Chardin that might easily be overlooked despite its significant placement on one of the two main columns in the front of the museum (another still life by the same painter occupies the other column as well). In this simpler composition we find many fewer edges and details. The grapes, when inspected closely, tend to blend in with each other. However, as the viewer steps back, one or two edges of the cluster of grapes jump out - a reflection here, a silhouette there - until the viewer perceives some as being closer, others receding into the shadows (to recreate the effect, try squinting at your screen a bit). As the viewer backs even further, the grapes interact with the ceramic around it and the table underneath until, unmistakably, a scene of light and forms with clear and unmistakable depth congeals in front of the viewer's gaze... each part related to every other.
With this fresh experience of the painting, one glances back at the first work and notices how, despite all of its detail, it looks flat. One grape in front looks almost as close as the grape in the back of the cluster. One intricately detailed edge of the plate seems just as close as the other despite sitting on a flat table and being, presumably, almost a foot away. A direction of light is indicated but not felt. The Snyders has intricate detail added to intricate detail (1 + 2 + 3 + 4... ). On the other hand, the Chardin has considerably fewer details... but each chosen one is in marvelous harmony with the others. These details communicate with one another and multiply their respective effects into a grand unity, more expansive and much more meaningful than any single part by itself (1 x 2 x 3 x 4...).
The former has intricacy but the latter has - you guessed it - breadth.
Chesternest is named after the apartment home where my wife Deirdre and I grew our family from one child to three. We called our apartment 'The Chesternest' because of its location in Manchester, NH as well as the fact that Deirdre was in 'nesting' mode when we moved in, as we were expecting our second child. Being on the second floor of a three-family home, we felt "nestled" into our spot above a street where we came to make many friends and share a beautiful season of our life.
That home, which we left this past spring, was filled with happy memories including the more than three years of my drawing and painting training under Paul Ingbretson, many hours spent playing with our little ones, and hours of friendship and parties with other families from the neighborhood. It was our cozy nook for a young family in a small city.
I hope this painting communicates some of that feeling.
Among the elegant ceramics and delicate dried hydrangea blossoms, a small porcelain bluebird is making its nest inside a stacked teacup. The blue and red-browns and yellows that predominate this painting have an air of calm and quiet about them. They are subtle rather than loud. There is a sense of stillness and perhaps even distance about this still life that I hope will remind the viewer of the peace of a home. The blue china cups and plates that are stacked and scattered throughout the painting are actually from the set of dishes we used as a family on a daily basis for our meals, and are artifacts weighed down with the memories and happiness of those days for me.
Information for collectors: Please see further details about Chesternest on the Still Life page.
In a previous post, I said that still life offers all of the best that the art of painting has to offer - not only the object painted, but what it does, visually. Falling in love with the visual. The next step (and a harder step) in understanding painting is to understand what objects are doing together. This is something that has dawned upon me gradually (and I am sure that my understanding is still incomplete).
One particular way that I have come to know the harmony of different objects working together is the concept of a color scheme. So what is a color scheme? In college I learned one step more than I leaned in 3rd grade. In grade school I heard about complimentary colors: red and green, blue and orange, purple and yellow... these colors are "complementary colors." Later on in college someone presented the idea that pictures should have "complementary color schemes." What this boiled down to was: pick a "red" and a "green" and build up a picture using them; this will give your picture a unity and good contrasts and will make it look more like it has a "color scheme."
For me this presentation of the idea was anything but compelling. I believe in large part it was so because the ideas were poorly communicated -- but I also suspect that those teaching me had, in fact, a very shallow understanding of them as well. I suspect some of the teachers didn't really "believe in" or rather understand that color has certain rules and laws to be discovered. Even among many trained painters it is common to say things like "color is entirely relative" or "color is just such a personal thing." In my years of study with Paul I discovered that this simply is not the case. A large part of discovering the truth about color is jettisoning a lot of partial, formulaic knowledge about "color scheme" and what it means to be a "complementary color." I had just to observe what two colors do together.
This exercise can be a very hard and trying thing. Looking for something, trying to observe something about the relationship between two colors that, initially, you can barely imagine. Paul encouraged me to find two colors that "looked magical" together. What did that even mean? They had to look better together than when they were apart. If a certain red looked good with a certain blue Paul would ask "did you try EVERY red with that blue?" This was very challenging: had I really seen every red with this blue? Was there a better one? And often the answer was "yes, there was a better one." Over time, my judgment and perceptions became sharper and sharper and before long, by trial and error of learning to see color relationships, I got to the point where I knew when colors were magical together.
This is one aspect of the harmony that drives mature artists to make still life. There are many others that exist: shape harmony, value rhythms, lost and found, the play of main lines, gesture and movement, transitions, and many more. These larger unities comprise the "game" of visual harmony and are what bring artists back to picture making again and again. Watching for them and understanding them will make you a more discerning art appreciator and will open up a world in which you can delight in still life.
I am pleased to announce the launch of my current project: a series of paintings and general focus of my work surrounding the theme of The Faces of New England.
No doubt you immediately think of human faces -- and so do I. I am available to take on portrait commissions and will be excited to have local patrons who want to be part of this project and who want their faces to represent the beautiful states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. There is no one face that encapsulates the character of this region. I myself will be scouting out subjects that I think embody some aspect of New England and what it means to me. The possibilities here are vast and fascinate me! What are the New England "types?" Are there some folks who may not immediately come to mind, but who deserve to be included? Who do you believe represents New England?
I will also be seeking out the Face of New England in the landscape and architecture of the area. Those spots that give us our character; sights and buildings that make New England memorable; places that people come from elsewhere to see -- or perhaps would, if they knew about them!
Finally, this theme will make its way into my still life work within the studio. I'll be looking to include objects and products unique to New England within my still life paintings. I'm excited to find inspiration in the things that are around us that we perhaps take for granted: natural objects, artisan products, New England furniture, etc. Keep this in mind for a custom still life request: you might have something that's near and dear to you that you'd like incorporated - and frozen in time - in a still life painting. And, if so, I'd love to hear the story behind it!
As we know, Boston is the most prominent city in this region. I'm very proud to be taking my traditional, Boston School training and applying it this way to look all around the region and develop a series that will be meaningful to everyone who cares about this part of the country.
What are your favorite places in New England? Do you know someone who somehow embodies the the region or one of the states, specifically? What are the hidden treasures of this beautiful area that are waiting to be preserved in art? I'd love to hear!
I'll have more to say about this project as it develops!
Hello there, I'm John H. Folley. Thanks for visiting the Beauty Advocacy Blog, where it's my job to help you become a more discerning art appreciator.
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