From time to time friends ask me to paint a portrait for them, usually of their kids, my answer is always to send me a good photo and I'll do my best. Maybe an artist greater than me could produce wonderful portraits from mediocre photos, but I struggle to turn out something interesting when the source is a boring photograph of person staring into the camera and grinning. Luckily with the advent of digital cameras and cameras in mobile phones, people are snapping away constantly and I frequently get an inspiring photo to paint, and this often results in a painting even better than the source. See the Painting of a Friend´s Kid as an example of one I'm really pleased with. When taking my own photos to paint from I always take hundreds, hoping at least one will give me that special feeling that it will make a good painting. I suppose if I were a better photographer I could be more consistent with the quality of my portrait photos, maybe I should try to find a blog on the subject. As it stands I rely on getting lucky with a nice photo, furthermore I have found that planning a photo shoot often results in stale, tense or contrived images.
The painting which heads this post, of Tatiana by the River Tormes, was from a spontaneous photo we took last summer with the camera in my mobile phone. We were walking by the river near a village called Villa Gonzalo and she started making a crown out of some flowers that were growing along the banks of the river. Castilla y Leon is quite a dry place and there is not an abundance of flowers to choose from, lots of red poppies on wasteland in spring but this was around midsummer and the fields, sporadically populated by stumpy dark evergreen Encina trees, were already turning a sun bleached yellow. The only fresh vegetation and broad-leafed trees to be found were along the river. The shade of the tall trees provided a soothing escape from the intense Salamancan sunshine and the dappled light on Tatiana's face and shoulder inspired me to take out my phone which had a camera built in. I couldn't hope to achieve the quality of images capable with my SLR camera, we had just been planning a picnic, not a photo shoot. However I'm glad I seized the opportunity because when I got home and had a look at the images on my computer I saw that this one perfectly captured Tatiana's delicate poise.
People often claim that painting from life is essential but there are many advantages to working from photos. Here are some of the reasons why I use photos so much:
- The light doesn't change. You can paint all day and don't risk losing your initial inspiration by having to paint for an hour a day over a much longer period.
- The sitter doesn't move or get tired. They also don't insist on seeing the painting before it's finished, this always kills the magic for me, especially if they start looking disappointed at the half finished result.
- The options for composition and background are greater. You can paint an outdoors scene, or a beach scene without having to go to the beach every day.
- You can zoom in for the detail. I don't wear glasses and have pretty good eyesight but sometimes it is a strain painting from life if you are sitting too far from a subject to see some vital detail, the exact curve of an upper eyelid or the roundness of a nostril for example. Maybe the detail isn't vital and the ability to see everything microscopically may provide a temptation to paint everything in such a way that you lose the objective view of the image and the painting doesn't have unity or looks overworked.
- Spontaneous moments can be captured.
Now we are living in a world where we are all used to seeing photos taken from every angle, in every possible location. The traditional portrait of a figure sat looking out from a canvas looks stale and lifeless to us now, we have been spoilt by the profusion of images caught on digital cameras, smartphones or posted on social networks such as Facebook or Google+. I think we should take advantage of these new developments, not keep claiming that there is some sort of magic when painting a person sat in front of us. Artists in the past got very good at painting from life, if you go to any national gallery such as the British National Gallery in London or the Prado in Madrid you can see portraits of royals and important people of times gone by which would be hard to beat with regards to technique and realism. As new paints were developed people started using paint in different ways, the impressionists for example had access to the innovation of oil paint in tubes and began to use paint in thick buttery impasto which held expressive brushstrokes. They became more mobile and no longer tied to studios were able to paint outdoors to achieve their impressions of light and shade.
Even this exciting exuberance soon began to lose its novelty and in the 20th century painting went through a difficult time. Artists didn't know where to go next so they got ugly. There was some photorealism which I quite like but there is also a lot of abstract and aggressive art which often fails to strike a chord in me. Jackson Pollock became fashionable when his drip paintings seemed new but he couldn't develop the idea any further and such art is easy to copy, he must have felt despair when he found no direction to go but back. When I stand in front of abstract, expressionist or even naive paintings I often feel like the little boy in the story of The Emperor's New Clothes who could see that it was all a trick and I wonder whether the artist was fooling himself as well, putting a lot of imaginary emotion into each meaningless brushstroke. But all this was just a failure to find anything new to do in painting, a feeling that everything had been done already.
Although it might not seem like it, now we do have new vistas to explore in painting. With digital photos and even more developments in modern paints there are things we can paint in ways impossible in the past, with techniques and a quality very difficult to obtain before now. Maybe we should stop trying to be original and just concentrate on being good and then maybe we can take painting to a whole new level of beauty.