This is scary stuff, but we are taking quite the trip. We are going to put ourselves out there for all the world see... and maybe even judge, so let's make sure our "seat-belts are securely fastened." Since the last time we met, here, I imagine you have been going about town, jotting things down that catch your eye, or even snapping a quick photo of it and creating an album in your iPhone called "To Paint." That is what I titled my album; I have 228 photos in the cue. Perhaps you didn't take any photos, and you didn't even jot down your favorite views in your notes... That is ok. I would need more PROOF that this whole painting thing is gonna work, too, before I put out any effort. Have a little trust, and faith. I will throw in the pixie dust.
The word that we discussed last time was "RUTHLESS." We discussed being ruthless about jotting down what catches your eye. We need to talk about photography. Or rather, where does photography fit into your new painting practice. In my youth (that was a very long time ago,) I wanted to be an artist.
I wanted it really badly. I knew that I had ZERO creative skills. Other than making clothing for my younger sister's Barbies, from my mother's sewing scraps that never quite made it into the waste bin, my creative skills made their appearance in the kitchen. After repeated attempts to convince me to follow the family tradition of becoming a doctor, my parents gave up and succumbed to the standard conversations about the fact that I would make someone a good wife someday. So off I went to college to study something... SOMETHING. But what? I don't think it really crossed anyone's mind at the time what might be best for me. I was firmly ensconced in a "familia latina." I think they were hoping a degree would make me a more viable candidate for marriage- it would "polish the jewel," so to speak. Bless them, I love my parents.
I was doing my part to be "good," and decided to go off to Boston. I didn't have a firm plan other than finding housing first, food second, and schooling last. Boston was full of schools... I would find something, something to study, something to eat, somewhere to live. And so I did! I showed up in Boston with about $50 in my wallet, and proceeded to luck into the housing part of the equation. Somehow the stars aligned and I remembered reading about a house for foreign born girls that were attempting to better their lot in life. ME! ME! That was me! Apparently, as the story was told to me, there had been a very wealthy Irishman living in Boston while, back home, in Ireland, his kin folk were dying of starvation from the potato blight. As it turns out, one of his nieces inquired wether she could come to the States and live with her uncle as the opportunities were impossible for a young girl in Ireland at the time. He agreed to it, and then, she asked if she could bring her girlfriends with her. I guess that would have shed an ugly light, back in the day, on such a successful man to have a houseful of young girls, so he set them up in a brownstone on Newbury St.- yeah... like THE Newbury Street in, one of the poshest addresses in the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston now! Bethany Union, as it is called, was set up as a trust to provide housing for young women at a really low cost of $250 per month, breakfast, dinner, furniture and utilities included, way back when I was young... meaning you probably where in diapers at the time. (The price has gone up, to $700/month, and now tends to house more than just young women getting their education in the city. If you are interested, you may need to do a more thorough investigation as I understand it has changed hands.) Going on then, Bethany Union grew to include 3 entire brownstone buildings that shared common walls. The bottom floor included the living room (where young men could enter during visiting hours until 8 PM) and a dining room that provided both breakfast and dinner five days a week to the 44 girls that lived there. Bare with me, I am getting to my point.
With only $50 in my wallet, I must have looked fairly pathetic for they took pity on me, and let me owe them the remaining $200 and let me in. So as to make up for the difference that I was lacking in funds, I became the "helper" to the cook, Barbara. In my mind I thought of her as "Old Faithful," she could really blow her top if she was pushed to the brink. She was a presence to behold, let me tell you, she didn't take kindly to any behavior that even whiffed of being out of line. She was feared, and actually dreaded, by the girls. She was a VERY large woman, I remember wondering where on earth could one even buy a brazier that would hold such enormous...well, breasts. "Breasts" seems like such a diminutive body part compared to how dominant hers actually were, but breasts is what they were. They were so huge that I remember them resting up against the lip of a humungous cauldron, dwarfing it. How she never burned them, I have no idea. Barbara, though, had a heart that was even bigger, so much so that it wasn't long before I stopped even noticing her size. At first most of what I did fell under the category of 'worst of the worst chores." The kitchen was in the "dungeon, " with only one wall with a window where I could see the dumpster, a few steps up from my post at the potato peeling station. While I peeled hundreds of potatoes, I watched my impending future as I was in charge of all trash disposal for all 44 girls (can you say "YUCK?".) The rats running to and from the dumpster permanently sealed their impression as disgusting animals in my brain. I just about wore out the floor between the wall where I would grab the filthy dishes from the dumbwaiter, that the girls sent down from the dining room above, and the sink where I washed them. It wasn't long before Old Faithful was able to see that she could get a day off by putting me in charge of the ravenous girls. So I made breakfast and dinner for 44 girls and cleaned up after them. Somedays, when I am actually ready for bed, but still doing the dishes at my kitchen sink, I want to complain about my load of dishes... and then I remember Bethany Union and their dishes and I shut right up. Anyways... if you haven't yet fallen asleep with my story, I became the little hen in that house pecking after the girls to keep things somewhat tidy in the dining room, while day in and day out I worked there in the early mornings and late evenings, doing my best to squeeze in a degree in English on my off hours at a nearby college. These girls were something else. Apparently the word was out about Bethany Union, and all the schools without dorms sent their foreign girls there. Now, Boston is a mecca for universities. And they all have dorms, so why were these girls needing room and board? Because THEY WERE ARTISTS, and the schools they were attending had no dorms of any kind.
Yes, those lovely young ladies were my first introduction to real artists. Their skills were off the charts!!! For the first time in my young life, I was exposed to real artists and I WANTED IN. I wanted to be a part of THAT club. But how could I without even barely legible penmanship, never mind any skills even faintly resembling creativity? I came up with a plan. I needed this plan because my parents were going to wring my neck!
I tend to think I am more brilliant than I actually am - I was the same back then. So here was my plan: I was going to become an artist through the back door. Yup. That was my plan. I figured that drawing was a natural ability one did with ones hands, and the only way for me to have a crack at it was to put something mechanical between my hands and the art. PHOTOGRAPHY, then, was the career for me! I figured I could learn that- it was akin to grabbing the last remaining cans from the just-about-empty-cupboard and fixing a meal. I was grasping for a solution.
I only ran in to one major hiccup- my parents. They were in such a state of shock... try and envision two hispanic parents trying to convince their daughter of the error in her ways over a bowl of chicken soup at Au Bon Pain. In their efforts to dissuade me, they felt compelled to bring up again the notion of studying medicine. No go. I was firmly entrenched in my plan. They were not. My wonderful, loving, latino parents did the next best thing - THEY SENT ME TO SEE A PRIEST.
I kid you not. I had to travel all the way back to their home, five hours north, and go talk to their priest. After all, I was a good girl and that was what I was supposed to do. I remember Father Ray asking my mother to wait outside of his office. Once seated in the hot seat, I was glad to see it looked like any old office and their was no confessional in sight. Phew! I was in the clear! After about an hour an half, what must have seemed like an eternity for my mother, we finally came out of his office to find her sitting there with her legs perfectly crossed to the side, grasping the handles on her purse. As my mother quickly, and gracefully, untangled her legs in one fell swoop, she stood up and said, "Well, Father Ray?" I sensed the rest of the sentence was supposed to go something like... "is there any hope for our daughter?" My poor mom. She had no idea what was coming. Father Ray handed her a folded piece of paper, and he said "I have had a very nice conversation with Carolina, and I have suggested a photo school on the coast of Maine that I think she will thrive at. Cue the dead silence.
I had that dead silence filling every last square inch of her van while she drove me home... to my dad. On our way home, she just kept wringing out the steering wheel as if she could squeeze out of it the perfect words she would use to tell my dad our news. We had barely been in the door but a few minutes when my dad showed up. I can't quite recall if he was still in his hospital scrubs or not, but the look of exhaustion on his face was palpable. It got even worse in the next few moments. To make a long story short, they never went back to church again.
They also told me that I was on my own.
Next stop - photo school:
I ended up getting quite the education at The Maine Photographic Workshops, now called Maine Media since the entire world has seemed to have gone digital. My education there was exactly what I needed. They taught me to see, not just look, but really how to see. Now, this may sound obvious, but what you have to realize is that before attending photo school, I looked at the world and noticed it's beauty, and it's light, but never had I given even half an ounce of thought to the four edges that encased that beauty in a photograph. I now realize that what they were teaching back then was composition.
If you have no idea where to begin in this art path, then composition is the place you want to begin. We need to be hyper vigilant of the fact that we are translating a 3 dimensional world and putting it onto a flat surface. Our job is to do it so well that the viewer looks at our subject and totally forgets about the fact that what they are looking at is on a 2 dimensional surface... they can escape into the new reality you have created. So, yes. We will be working on composition with every single image we photograph, draw, or paint. There is no escaping it.
Having said that, I want to take a few moments and discuss where photography might fit into our path as painters. The big question is, and what I really wanted to title this post, is photography a friend, or a foe?
There is a real movement out there, in the painting world, where photography for painting is frowned upon. You need to find out your own answer on how YOU feel about photography as an aid, a friend or a foe, in your work habits.
Since my last post, here in my Field Notes, I have been working on a commissioned painting. I had hoped to get right to writing my next post for our painting journey, but got hit squarely between the eyes with the question regarding photography when I was asked to paint a painting of someone's beloved airplane. They showed me a photo of their airplane and asked if I could paint it... without the pavement that was under half of the plane in the photo. They wanted it to look like the entire plane was parked on the grass... as the front tires were in the photo. In full disclosure, I took on the task a few weeks ago, but kept pushing it off while other "vistas" competed for the attention of my brushes. Before I sat down to write, I knew that I needed to get the monkey off my back and paint that airplane.
So all I had was this photo to go by. I had never seen the airplane in person, or even one that looked like it. I not only had to get the dimensions of the thing somewhat believable, but I also had to invent parts to the scene without any references, and I needed to get all my inspiration from the image I saw in the photo. That is a tough challenge for a painter, let alone a beginning painter like me. Regardless, in my naive belief in my abilities I jumped in to get it done. I knew that I would feel much better getting to my writing once I was finished with the painting.
So painting I did:
I put my heart and soul into the little painting, but it was not enough. I couldn't FEEL IT. Had I taken the photograph, then maaaaybe. But it had not been my idea, my composition, not even my wish. Like a typist in the days of old, I felt relegated to being the copier. And what is worse; I am not that good at copying anyways. My skills are not there yet and my shaky old hands can't seem to paint a straight line. If you have an image, in photograph form, do yourself a favor and make it one that you took. The colors, in my little painting, were true to the photograph, other than the grass that had been pavement, but I wanted to push it a little more. I wanted to see what was possible. I was at a loss with my brush skills. I, then, turned to my old pals - my soft pastels, and made a second attempt:
I felt, and still feel, quite a bit better about version two. Perhaps because I was not just copying a photograph, but getting a chance to put myself into it. This is where photography can begin to be used as a reference. It felt so good to be working with my pastels... like putting on your favorite best-fitting jeans when they are just coming out of the warm dryer. Soft pastels are like working with chalk. And like chalk, they can get wiped away by a rain shower, or even a clumsy swipe. For some reason the clumsy swipe part happens more often than not, perhaps because of their inherent fragility, I seem to bump into my pastel paintings like a magnet! You must frame them under glass- a costly part of pastel painting. Unlike regular sidewalk chalk, though, the colors will last forever without fading... and the amount of gorgeous colors that exist in the soft pastel world will make any artist swoon. I was not sure wether Jim would even WANT a painting made with pastels. I figured he would most probably prefer the first one, in oils, so I called it another day and headed to bed.
My head had barely touched the pillow, my breathing had not even begun to slow down, and I said to my husband "I think I need to paint it again."
I went to the far edge on this one, didn't I... flying off into the sunset of la-la land. Pardon the pun. I just had to push it to see what would happen. Now none of this painting several versions of the same thing is my common practice. Why was I having so much difficulty?
Because the downfall of using photography when painting is that when I use a photograph, I run the risk of being controlled by it. This is what was happening.
You have to ask yourself 'what is it that makes a painting special?' Is it the photographic likeness of it? Today, you and I are bombarded with images about what looks right and what looks wrong... and I am not even talking about body images (there is a topic we can leave to someone else to tackle!) You and I both have seen trees. We know what they look like. When you pick up a brush, if your aim is to make paintings that look exactly like photographs, I will be asking, in my head as I look at your work, why you don't just go into photography. Now, I must interject here. There are realist painters whose work I greatly admire. Their paintings are so precise, that it looks like a photograph. But I don't admire their paintings for that look-like-a-photo quality. I admire those paintings for what they left out. For how they hand picked what would be in the painting, what got stream lined to its essence. I refer you to the work of Jeffrey T. Larson (@jeffrytlarson) or Jeremy Lipking (@lipking) and my personal realist favorite: David Vickery (@vickeryart)... all on Instagram respectively. These painters are MASTERS at their realist art. But they are not just pumping out copies of photos in paint, wether they use them as reference in their work or not.
So I ask again: What is it that makes a painting special? Is it the photographic likeness? No. It is YOU. Don't rob yourself of that by just copying photographs for the rest of your life. John F. Carlson, in 1929, in his book, Carlson's Guide To Landscape Painting, wrote:
We must not imitate the externals of nature with so much fidelity that the picture fails to evoke that wonderful teasing recurrence of emotion that marks the contemplation of a work of art.
I can not agree more. By the way, Amazon carries his book now, and I can bet you that a lot of the good painters in this world have it as a valued member of their art book collection. Get it.
But I believe we need to go a bit deeper into the issue of wether photography is a friend or a foe for a beginning painter. For centuries, artists have been learning about paintings by copying the paintings of others. Good. I believe in that practice. I copy drawings and paintings, or sections of paintings made by others to better understand how they did what they did, and also to better understand how I work. And one could argue that copying a painting in the 1800's is like us copying a photograph. Yes. I agree with that as well... but. There is a 'but' to this whole thing. At some point, when our skills improve, we are going to want the freedom to paint anything anywhere. When we look at a three dimensional object, say a pear in front of us, we need to translate it to a two dimensional surface. Going from 3D to 2D, like learning a new language, creates a new pathway in our brain. Now I have not seen any scientific data on this... but I CAN FEEL IT in my head once I am done with the painting. Going from a 2D photo to a 2D painting is an entirely different thing going on in my brain. I wonder wether painting from a 3D object will have more emotion, more me, in the painting because I spent more time interacting with the subject... feeling it out. I can feel the heat, the wind, the bugs, the person, or the fruit that I am placing just so to catch the light. It has to be. In real life, in person, I have more of an emotional reaction to a scene than seeing it in a photograph because I am interacting with what I am looking at. More emotional reaction has got to permeate into the painting. But what if I suck at painting? And nothing but junk gets produced no matter my heightened emotional connection? That is where brush mileage comes in. This is a slow moving train, little grasshopper. We must learn to draw and paint with something manageable first - something where we can control as much as possible all the factors. I will be talking about what is manageable next time.
Now you could be reading this and throwing your hands up in the air and heading for the nearest lets-throw-paint-on a-canvas-and-talk-about-our emotions-to-feel-good kind of painting. I did that (Flora Bowley has a class that I took via the internet.) It did not work. I put 100% of myself into it and ended up empty handed other than a few colorful paintings of ...well...paint. I got nothing out of it more than getting over my fears of making a mess and feeling ok about using my previously untouched supplies.
On November 23, 1978, Philip Guston, a painter and printmaker in the New York School, that went from being an abstract expressionist (like de Kooning) to neo-expressionism, wrote-
No good to paint in the head- what happens is what happens when you put the paint down- you can only hope that you are alert- ready- to see. What joy it is for paint to become a thing- a being. Believe in this miracle- it is your only hope. To will this transformation is not possible. Only a slow maturation can prepare the hand and eye to become quicker than ever. Ideas about art don't matter. They collapse anyway in front of the painting.
We must bring about every ounce of patience with our own selves as if we were teaching a toddler to walk. I expect great things will come out of my dedication to this painting path I have chosen, but my expectations are realistic in that those great things won't happen today, tomorrow, or in the next few years. When that time has past me by, and I can look back on my paintings, I will be able to see the progress. In the meantime I am putting my head down and getting to work.
JD Salinger, in his book Catcher in the Rye, asked "Is fiction more truthful than reality?" Let that quote sink in. When we paint only from a photograph we get a copy. When we paint from life, we translate the world around us. Great - and we are off to painting nirvana!
There is, yet, one more avenue that we have not discussed in this 'friend or foe' discussion in regards to using photography for our paintings. Tom Thompson, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Edgar Degas, and Pierre Bonnard painted some of my all time favorite paintings. I would be THRILLED if I could paint like any one of them. Did they just get out there and paint whatever was in front of them without using any aid, photography or contraption? No. Did they exclusively paint from life? Not all of them, and certainly not all the time. I believe some of them were incredibly adept at painting from memory. For us, this means that we would need to hone our skills (meaning we need to get really good at drawing and painting from life first) to the point of being able to recall what something looks like, then go to our studios and paint it. Good luck with that! I, for one, am soooo not there yet. Bonnard was a big proponent of using photographs for his imagery, but he used THEM rather than being used BY them. He could extrapolate the most important parts of HIS photos and be inspired by them, bringing bits and pieces from different images to translate his own world to share with us. What is wrong with that? Nothing. You see, we (you & I) are THE FILTER that gets to do the translating. The more polished our skills at putting paint on a surface to do what we intended it to do, the more avenues we get to pick from. I, for one, am all about that kind of freedom. How about you? You may feel one way now, and different later. It does not matter if you change your mind along the way. What matters is that you go through this process with your eyes wide open, and your brain permanently in "clear thinking" mode.
I am pushing myself to learn how to draw and paint well because I believe that SKILLS + YOU= the opportunity to make GREAT art, but you have to be ready for that moment by upping your skill set to be as sharp as possible so that a COMPLETE YOU gets put down on that canvas... even if one has to begin with baby steps.
Enough said. You get my drift. Is photography your friend or foe? Are you ready to get going? Are you ready to take flight?
Lets do this thing!!!
-on an end note, Jim took all three paintings. That makes me happy.