Beyond Photo-Realism

by Sheila

Have you ever wanted to paint a subject that you were a little intimidated to draw?  I have.  I’ve used various methods to get that initial drawing onto the canvas, including projecting the image and tracing in the key elements.  Many folks object (wildly) to that and consider it cheating.  Not sure where these good people were able to locate “The Official Rule Book of Art”, but I do have my own issues with using a projector and have stopped doing it– because it doesn’t suit me.

What many people don’t realize is that Photo-Realism refers to art that incorporates a photographic view of the subject and specifically, to art that is made using mechanical means to transfer the image onto canvas.  When I do paint from photographs I only use my own photos, so the concept, composition and lighting, all of it, are mine.  I’m not taking anything away from anyone else, so if I think projecting the image is a defensible practice, why don’t I do it any more?

The reason I quit projecting my images is well articulated by artist David Gray, in his blog post To Project or Not to Project.  What people may not realize is that using a projector doesn’t actually help all that much.  It just sets you up to start out your painting in a very tight and self-conscious manner and there are much better ways to start a painting.  Plus, as David Gray points out, “…you WILL lose your drawing in the painting process.”   And when you lose your drawing, you’re going to have to get it back on your own, which requires drawing skills.

These days I start paintings in a couple of different ways.  For smaller paintings and paintings with more simple subjects, I just draw the key elements onto the canvas with thin paint, wiping off and correcting as needed.  For larger paintings with more demanding perspective lines and architectural features, I start by painting a barely visible grid onto my canvas and laying a transparency with a matching grid over my reference photo.  This allows me to quickly get the big pieces into the correct places and move forward with the painting.  I find that when I get everything too perfect the painting loses some of its energy, so I’m gradually loosening up and letting my imperfect self be part of the process.

I had already abandoned my projector at the bottom of a closet when the film, Tim’s Vermeer, came out.  In the film, Tim Jenison, an inventor, explores how Johannes Vermeer may have been able to achieve the extraordinary level of detail and accuracy in his paintings.  He makes a very good case for the technique that he believes Vermeer may have used and I highly recommend watching the film.  The hour and twenty minutes I spent watching Tim’s Vermeer really shook me up and gave me a lot to think about.  I don’t want my studio practice to be something that feels like drudgery!

I find that I’d actually rather that my paintings didn’t look just like a photo.  If I wanted a larger copy of the photo, I could get that made with minimal effort and expense.  I want the paint to look like paint.  I want the image to read as realistic from a distance, but for closer examination to reward the viewer in ways that only a painting can.

"Chai" in Progress

“Chai” in Progress

"Chai", 2012 © Sheila G. Ticen, oil on canvas, 36 x 25.5"

“Chai”, 2012 © Sheila G. Ticen, oil on canvas, 36 x 25.5″