Stage 2. Painting vs photography, time and relationship.

March 26, 2011

As my project progressed, an important concern that arose was the question of the place of photography in my working process. It is nowadays common practice amongst artists and painting students to use photographs as reference material in the construction of their artwork. However, to paint from life and to paint from a photograph are not the same thing: indeed, they generally result in images of a different quality.

In a video biography of the American portraitist Alice Neel, Robert Storr (the dean of Yale University School of Art) discussed the difference between painting and photography. While the photograph captures a single moment frozen in time, a painting takes place over a longer period, recording through the layers of paint the time taken in the sittings. A painting is an ‘extended moment’, not just ‘time stopped.’ And, ‘…the mere fact that painting is not a second arrested but is a relationship of seeing and of the see-er and the subject means that painting contains duration, somehow.’ (Storr, interviewed in Alice Neel, Neel, 2006) In portrait painting when the image is made from life, a relationship builds between the artist and the sitter. Conversation happens, and the person is presented in the painting as the artist saw them over that period of time. The portrait in this context is a record of their interaction. In the case of Alice Neel, she wanted to paint ‘real people’, and her portraits present a psychological exploration of her subjects. A direct contrast to this is the common contemporary practice of constructing painted portraits primarily from photographic sources. While this often leads to a more exact representation of likeness and is more convenient for both parties, the relational interaction between artist and subject is significantly reduced. In the 2004 portrait of David Gulpilil by Craig Ruddy, which won the archibald prize, Ross Woodrow (2004, 13-15) gave the criticism that Ruddy had created a caricature based on a stereotype. The reasoning was that Ruddy had formed his idea before he even met Gulpilil, and their only contact was a few hours from which Ruddy could start the portrait. The portrait in this sense did not come from any artistic insights into Gulpilil’s character but rather the projection of the artist’s assumptions onto the subject’s face. It displayed a distinct lack of personal relationship between them. Like Alice Neel, Lucean Freud also paints from life, constructing his nude portraits over many sittings, sometimes hundreds. With the shifting of the artist and subject during these interactions, it is evident that, ‘these works are painted over time, and consequently time itself is captured in the accumulations of paint, in the shifts in perspective, in the physicality of the subject.’ (Mullins, 2006, 19-20) In her book, ‘painting people’, Mullins presents the work of a number of artists who choose to paint the human figure in an age dominated by visual technological reproduction. With regards to painting vs photography, she discusses most painters seeing their works as an ‘antidote’ to the constant barrage of images that are shot at the viewer daily in our world: ‘Paintings create pauses in life, and offer distillations of subjects rather than unconnected snapshots.’ (2006, 17)
From the discussion thus far, it appears that painted portraits depict a longer duration than photographs. This also suggests the need or impulse of longer viewing time, thus creating a pause as the layers of the painting are absorbed by the onlooker. It also appears that paintings made from life contain a richer relational aspect: that of the see-er and the subject, as well as any deeper understanding of the other through conversation and observations made during the time of the sittings. But what of painted portraits made primarily from photographs? Assuredly there is much time spent in their construction and so in this sense as a painting they can create a pause as they are absorbed by the viewer. However without the consistent presence of the subject, the artist must project more of themselves onto the still faces in the photographs. Like in the case of Gulpilil by Ruddy, the preconceptions of the artist are more likely to play a higher role in the finished portrait. There is less tension between the see-er and the subject, the sitter is not physically there as the artist paints, demanding attention by their presence and able to speak back. My last body of work is a good example of this. I asked people from the free breakfast if I could paint their portrait then proceeded by taking some photos and working from those. This was convenient and certainly sped up my working process, but as a method it did not help me to get to know my subjects – that is, apart from the few words we spoke before and after I took the photo. Some people I got to know better, through simply chatting with them over the breakfast, but others I never saw again. I made each portrait with many time-consuming layers of paint which in itself created a pause and encouraged the viewer to stop and contemplate, but my own preconceptions and initial impressions of each subject were prominent in the painting’s construction.

This prior experience led to my desire to avoid using photographic reference material. I wanted to know my subjects better, for the finished portrait to be a record of that interaction. Furthermore, my intention was to meet other people in my suburb through exploring existing social connections. While I originally intended to make sketches and then take them back to the studio to turn into paintings, a suggestion was made by my lecturer to increase the number of sketches per subject and to turn them into animations. Already having a prior interest in animation, I heartily took this up, and have not looked back since. With regard to recording duration, the animation indeed does that, but in a pointedly linear fashion. The sketches record the shifting and movement of the sitter during the time I was with them, and shown in sequence produce a narrative of our interaction. As a drawn image, it also produces a pause in life – that of the time taken for the viewer to watch it.

This shift in form led to my next area of exploration, that of portraiture in moving images.


References:

Alice Neel, Neel, Andrew (Director). DVD. Art House films, 2006.

Mullins, Charlotte. Painting People: Figure Painting Today. Thames & Hudson LTD, London. 2006. 19-20.

Woodrow, Ross. “Caricature finally triumphs at the archibald prize”. Art Monthly Australia #172 August. 2004. 13-15.

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