Saturday, July 09, 2016

Figurative Paintings: Alla Prima versus from Photographs

A previous post talked about painting landscapes from life versus from photographs.  Many artists, especially the hard-core traditionalists, say you should never work from photos.  Other artists copy photos in so much detail that they've spawned the Photorealist movement.  I'm not in either of those camps.  I find that photos and life are complementary: there are things that come with working from life, and there are different things that come with working from photos.

In working from life, I'm really open to the person in front of me.  I see their natural posture, the way they move, how they speak, their manner, their personality, their humor, and their humanity.  I see the way their clothes hang on them, the way their skin is different colors in different areas, and get a 3-D sense of how their body is formed.  When I'm drawing or painting a person, I'm trying to get a sense of who they are as a person.  You can't really get that from photos.

There are limitations, though.  A person can't hold a pose for very long.  They need to move every so often, which interrupts the process.  Then they never get back in exactly the same position.  The result is that a painting done strictly from life is an average of many poses.  Also, the more interesting the pose, the shorter the time they can hold it.  If you twist your torso 90 degrees, for example, you're going to un-twist over the next few minutes.  Think you can hold it for 20 or 30 minutes?  Hah!

Another limitation: time.  The person being drawn or painted has a life outside the studio.  Sitting in one position for hours while I mess around on canvas is not an option.  As an artist, I have to respect that.  Furthermore, a professional model is paid by the hour.  That rapidly gets quite expensive.

So: working from life has some good aspects, and some limitations.  Just like everything else in life.

Photos have their own characteristics.  For one, the subject can hold the pose forever without moving.  That's pretty valuable in itself, particularly in those cases where the pose is difficult or impossible to sustain.  Since the subject isn't moving, the artist can focus on important things like the structure of the face.  It's often the little details that I catch: the way the shadow of the jaw falls on the neck, for example, or the dip of a lower eyelid.  Things that would be easy to miss in working from life because the subject is always slightly moving.

On the flip side, photos are flat 2-D representations.  When you and I look at something, we see it in 3-D because we have two eyes that provide depth perception.  That matters a lot more than you might think.  When I'm painting an arm, for example, I need to know what that arm is shaped like, so I can convincingly paint it so it appears to curve toward you or away from you.  Photos don't give you that information.  Also, photos don't tell you much about the person.  They give you an image of what that person looked like at a specific moment in time, but you can't interact with that image to find out who they are as a person.

Given all this, I find that working from life and from photos are complementary.  I see things while working from photos that I can then look for when I work from a real person.  When I'm with a person, I can learn a lot about them, and carry that into later work from a photo.  The lessons learned flow both ways.

When I'm working on a large painting of a specific person, I use a combination of both in-person and photo techniques.  I generally have the individual come to the studio.  I'll have my camera set up on a tripod near me with a remote to take the exposures.  We'll talk and I'll be taking photographs like crazy.  We'll move the individual around, move the lighting around, have them stand or sit or whatever, and I'll continue to take photos.  I can shoot a thousand pictures in an hour.  Sometimes I'll do some sketches, sometimes not.  By keeping the camera to the side, I can engage the individual in a discussion.  The camera is not front and center between us, so much of their camera shyness goes away.  We just talk. Meanwhile, I'm punching the button on the remote to take photos like crazy.  That's the great thing about modern cameras: you can shoot a thousand photos and not break the bank getting them developed!

What this does is give me a lot of exposures, all with controlled lighting, along with a sense of their personality.  I can then choose which photos to use to create the story of that person.  Often it'll be a combination: the position of the head from this one, the expression in the eyes from another, the hand from a third.  Since the lighting is pretty much the same, this is pretty easy.

I really don't like working from snapshots.  It's common for figurative artists to have people ask them to do a portrait from a snapshot.  Hey, it's easy, you've already got the image, right?  Well, no, it's actually pretty hard.  The person's expression may be great, but the lighting, pose, environment, and color will be terrible.  And if they give you a bunch of snapshots, they're all taken at different times of the day or year, lighting is completely different and usually very harsh (flashes on mobile phones are NOT good light sources!), clothes are different, and so on.  No, it's much better if I take my own photos, thank you very much!

Okay, so this has turned into a tome.  Time to wrap it up.  Bottom line: working from photos and working from life are two different, and complementary, things.  Each can bring information to the table that the other can't.  Just don't rely exclusively on one!

1 comment:

lifeartist said...

I enjoyed reading this blog post so I thought it would be nice to let you know someone is reading your little tomes.I am in the working directly from the subject camp, mostly. There are times when that is not possible. If I do work from a photo, it's to finish something established from life. Color is very important to me and photos just don't render color well. I did a portrait of twins from two school photos without ever meeting them. It was the most difficult painting I have ever done. I would have preferred to have started with them posing in front of me but with 7 year old twins, that's a unrealistic expectation.