Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Why not just take a picture?

Journal page from last August in colored pencils

I ran into a comment in a letter to the editor in The Artist's Magazine that demands an answer. The writer asked "With realistic portraits (snip parenthetical), I wonder, why they didn't just take a damn picture?"

Well, as someone who does realism sometimes, especially in colored pencils, sometimes in pen-watercolor or watercolor pencils, very occasionally in pastels because I treat that as a loose medium, there's a real answer to this question.

The human eye and hand are better than any camera. If you learn realistic drawing either monochrome in graphite or pen or charcoal, or using color in any color medium - but especially those that lend themselves to it such as oils, acrylics, gouache, pastel pencil, colored pencils or watercolor pencils, you will have a truer image with better color and values and accuracy than even the best digital or film camera can achieve. Cameras distort.

We get so used to the idea that photos are accurate that it takes learning to draw to realize just how far off they are. A camera is monocular. Most of us artists have two eyes and can perceive depth much more easily. Every photographer I know grumbles about gamut ranges and their limits. 

Here's an easy example for anyone who has a phone or digital camera. Get one of those standard, velvety dark red roses with a blue-cast red. They are beautiful and classic. As a drawing subject it's wonderful. As a painting subject, starting with Alizarin Crimson or Permanent Alizarin Crimson is a good idea, but don't keep it monochrome, you will want touches of a warmer red and some Ultramarine or at least a triad palette - a warm yellow like Cadmium Yellow would be fine and you can mix the greens with the full triad because those roses also tinge toward red in their leaves.

Now take a photo of it. First with your cheap phone camera. Then with the very best camera you can borrow. If you are a good photographer with good equipment, lighting and studio, you may actually be able to get a photo recognizably a red rose. Congratulations, you're probably professional and might be able to sell that piece to a card company.

But even that photographer is going to take a hundred or more shots to get the good one where you can see that it's a red rose with a water drop on its petals and the right light and shading to see its form. They're still going to do significant playing with the image after getting it in order to achieve something suitable for either a fine art frame or a magazine cover. 

"Why not just take a picture?" is a little bit like "Why not just paint it in oils?" Because someone good at both photography and oil painting will have a lot easier time getting a realistic red rose of that hue with that triad palette on a canvas at any size than with the camera. It's that difficult to get certain colors with a camera, let alone all the color nuances in something that common but that saturated. 

Photographing landscapes, you can get the sky beautiful and the trees are black silhouettes against it. Or see all the detail in the trees but get a washed out white sky with invisible clouds. The colors are going to be off, adjust one and something else will go crazy. Nothing gets worse than trying to take a photo of a painting after it's done, when the painting has gone beyond the camera's gamut range and value range.

Two versions of one of my best realist paintings.

The first photo is truer to the exact colors of the background, though the truth lies somewhere between them. It also shows the value relationships and color relationships on the leaf better. The second photo is closer overall and the bananas are still less saturated than they were in life. No white showed at all in the actual painting. I have light lemon yellows that just vanished. The shadow of the banana on the leaf is not as blue as it looks even in the second version, it's a blue-green, not an ultramarine. 

The second one is what I chose to display, the closest I could come to the splendor of a realist pastel painting that came out perfect. I love color and sometimes I choose to paint highly saturated subjects just to get to use the brightest colors in the box. I worked hard on this one and did the full Colourist Method working loose to tight, value first with a color structure, then more accurate color and more detail at each stage till the final blazed. I still love the painting. I framed it. I might never sell it, this mad thing with bright yellow fruit on blazing green leaf on cerise cloth is something I love. I have it in a black mat as a bright little spot of intense color in my room.

No photo can do justice to the reality of that sparkling painting. Yet I painted it from a photo better than my photo of the resulting art, done by a photographer far better than I am. 

So there are really two answers to this.

1. Realistic drawing and painting is more accurate in form, color, value and proportion. Once mastered it may look like a photo but it's better than a camera can achieve.

2. Taking a picture isn't easy. Photography is a medium in its own right. Photorealists have learned to use their cameras as a sketchbook and master both photography and realism. An ephemeral image, digital or film, is repainted usually much larger than life in archival materials to form a big painting or a mural. 

It's all art. It's all good. To ask why people would draw that well by hand is to assume that art is something like manufacturing. The realist artist, however accurate, and the good photographer both are individual artists with a unique signature to their work. They care about the subject and say something with their images. They express what they mean. 

A good realist portrait artist can turn that grainy selfie your girlfriend sent on the night you two met into a portrait of her and of that night as if you were there when she took it. On archival materials, be that graphite on good archival paper or artist grade colored pencils or oils, your great grandchildren will know about the night you met and the look in her eyes as she wanted you to see her at her best. When she's an old lady her youth will still be alive. An artist knows the story and knows you and puts all that into a painting, a drawing, or a very good portrait photographer you hired to capture that night for you forever.

Art is subjective. Art isn't perfect. Art is sometimes permanent and sometimes fleeting. Digital images may be tremendously lasting if you have some way to record them on durable media or just keep getting meticulous about backing them up indefinitely. Or they may be as fleeting as forgetting to upload them to the cloud, but you remember it and sketch from it. 

Art is communication. 

Loose pastel painting of a conch on dirty sand with foam

Why I painted this conch the way I did was half the photo reference to give me the details and a rough idea of the form, which I adjusted a little, and half the memory of a huge one maybe ten or eleven inches long that my grandparents let me play with as a little kid. I listened to the sea in it and ran my hands over that shiny pink area within. I loved the salt crusted on the outside and its rugged form, its interesting weight, the idea of being by the seaside instead of just visiting a lake. Decades later on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, I walked on seaside beaches and saw the sand and what kinds of wrack were on it. I smelled it. I experienced it. All this always mattered a lot to me, it was the stuff of dreams and my love of the sea. Some part of me will always be a beachcomber however few the times I've been physically capable of it.

This one's more painterly but still more or less representational. Not as detailed as the photo and not as overdetailed as realism can sometimes get - especially if the photo reference isn't good and the artist is still learning.

Here's a much less realist one.

Sunset at Sea, loose pastel clouds, sun, sea, boat

This is almost abstract. I mostly played with cloud shapes to get the feel of backlit sunset clouds in some sunset colors I've seen many times. I worked from a reference that had more or less this color harmony and I moved the clouds around a lot, changed the texture of the waves and gradated them, just did all sorts of things to it to turn it into a fantasy. It reads true but it's nowhere near as detailed as it looks and most of it's from imagination. The boat itself is just a single calligraphic squiggle with the tip of a dark purple stick to give an impression someone's sailing in at sunset or sailing out even farther toward the night. Up to you which way the boat's going, it's not even that specific. Depends which way land is closer, there's nothing in sight for context! 

I changed the placement of almost everything and it's visual fiction of a subject that's different every time. It's my fantasy of sunset at sea and has a lot of my feelings about the sea as much as the conch does. The adventures I wished I could have but were never practical with my physical limits. If I had no disabilities whatsoever, I would have taken off in my twenties to work on ships and travel by temporary work, writing stories and painting journals everywhere I went and probably traveled constantly. The dream of it is still something grand and I traveled enough on land, saw the sea enough to have a good life.

Realism is just one way of creating an image. There's a full range of accuracy and detail from realism and beyond to pure abstraction. There are paintings I still don't comprehend or if I do, I realize I didn't like them because I disagreed with it or didn't like the mood. Many styles of art have stylized features that aren't accurate but get the idea across - like the big expressive eyes in anime drawing, they reach the heart and don't worry about precision recording. Yet botanical drawings and Audubon's paintings are sometimes true records of extinct species. There is a place still for realism as history, especially as we still lose species every year to pollution and industry and global warming.

Without historical photographers I would never know what the past's beauties and horrors looked like in the age of photography. Everything from lost castles to Civil War battlefields do get conveyed powerfully by photography and by realist sketching. But a drawing can go someplace the camera still can't.

James Gurney is my favorite illustrator now, tops. He doesn't stop at what he can snap a picture of, He can put a child riding a triceratops with as much fancy saddlework and colorful pageantry as an Indian elephant in a religious parade. Try finding one of those with meat on its bones, let alone dressed in gold-edged silk and congenial with children, willing to pose! If you can imagine it, you can draw it. Realistic drawing opens up what's inside your head to the rest of the world as if you carried the greatest camera of all time into your dreams. 

I have seen Salvador Dali's dreams and he wouldn't have painted them nearly as well if he didn't know how to paint the waking world accurately.

Abstraction is stronger if the artist does master basic drawing and perspective. Knowing the rules, tricks and techniques of rendering makes stylized rendering more powerful and consistent. 

But there's a natural learning stage where a student's copying a photo in the spirit they draw still lifes and plaster hands instead of live people. It's not moving. It's got a lot of detail, they can take their time and measure and get it true to the source. You can do that with the Old Masters too and it's just as valuable an exercise. In fact either may be a good picture to sell to someone if you did a good job of it - to me that is basic journeyman work, so long as you have the rights to use the source photo.

Either use your own or use photos that the photographer - another artist - has given permission for hand copying to create your own right. Otherwise depart from it so radically that it just gave you an idea, which is fair use. That does mean Don't Trace without Permission, but go ahead and trace as a measuring method if you're learning. It's as good as any to find out people's foreheads are that enormous and their eyes not where you think. 

Copyright matters because the photographer is an artist too and uses a difficult medium. They have to try and try again with different settings and directions and lighting and then manipulate it after it's taken, and get about one or two good ones out of a hundred shots. Each medium has its strengths and limits. 

Why not just paint an oil painting? is as valid a question. The best answer to it is "Because I wanted to do it in this medium instead."


  1. This is one of the best explanations for learning to see and draw I have ever read. I get tired of people who say, "I can't draw, I just paint." Well, I hate to tell them that if they can't draw, they surely as heck can't paint. Thanks.

    1. Thank you! I'm glad it made sense. Most of my lessons, I try to be practical but this one just came to me on a casual comment in a discussion. One of those everyday phrases like "Are you an artist?" I keep wanting to say something weird to it like "No, why do you think I am?" or otherwise mouth off but real people, I just say yes to the Obvious.