Quit Painting Other People’s Art

Here’s an issue I see frequently in the world of art today from the lowly student, to the returning retiree, to the professional: Re-creating a work of art into the artist’s medium resulting in a lifeless copy of something once beautiful and meaningful.

Do you know what I’m referring to? Have you seen/created works like this?

I’ll contain this discussion to my fellow painters:

O BITTER MUSE!

The most common form of copy-painting folks often come across is people who paint from photographs.  Yes, yes, I know, many painters and especially illustrators use photographs frequently as reference in the construction of an image.  A reference.  Say it with me now, “R E F E R E N C E”. A painter knows how to draw the image already, the photo helps in the small details when a painter feels they need to recall more specific information.  Far too often, we see students and especially pseudo-professionals create a work entirely from a photograph.  A trained eye quickly picks up that photos have been used.  Why should we not do this? The work ends up lifeless – only a copy.  Some artists can make some aspect of these works interesting: Watercolorists can sometimes create interesting effects in color application and transparencies, drawers can create different effects in line weights and contrasts, and the painter can shift a whole mood in addition to the previous two effects.  But these changes are often pedantic and cannot detract from the image as a photo.  We can always tell the photo-painting because of the inclusion of excessive details revealed by looking at a pictoral reference, which are different from the movement details we find with live or imagined objects.  The photo is a static instance of an event and completely unsuitable for a painting.  Photo-paintings also lean towards the development of bad habits: restrictive drawing space, restrictive palette, attempts at color which result in drab local color arrangements, and lack of experience in drawing live models/scenes.  As painters, we must, at all cost, SEE (with our personal eyes) what a subject looks like – how it moves – how light plays off edges and curves, how lines appear and disappear, how color plays in the shadows, and so on.  A photo cannot reproduce this; neither does video.

A couple of simple rules:

Stop and change your idea immediately if you plan on painting any of the following:

1) Family photos

2) “Found” photos

3) Pet Photos

4) Cellphone Pix

5) Website caps

6) Cropped areas of a photo in an attempt to do something “different”

7) Paintings of famous photographs or paintings of work you did in your photo class that you got that A- on.

8 ) Anything your friends say you should paint.

Because:

A) These are all terrible ideas and have been done by every wannabe post-mod contemporary shit student artist for the last 10+ years.

B) It will result in a terrible painting that no one wants to see.

C) They are boring.

D) They are artistic Plagiarism!

Artistic Plagiarism

Sometime in the last 30 years, some idiot decided it was “OK” to “express yourself” in any way you feel as long as you are being yourself. You, you, you, you, me, me, me, me, blah.  Once upon a time, a favorite old art professor told me, “paint from a photo and you’re committing plagiarism.”  The shitbag art students in the class with me argued with this guy for weeks about that statement.  Partly, he said it so these kids would say something and begin to argue to make them academic artists, but he was also correct.  The photo itself is already a record of an event and it’s own aesthetic creation.  It might be more historical document than art, and the ‘artist’ might decide to elevate the work to some sort of western notion of fine art, but the work is already done – why paint that?  Just frame it and put it on the wall.  When you paint it, you’ve just copied someone else’s work – maybe even your own.  To him, and to me, it’s no different than taking words from a published document and using them as if you said them yourself.  And like the trained literature/composition instructor, the trained artist can tell right away when the work is a photo-painting, thus knowing it was plagiarized.  I believe a little part of that intuition exists in all viewers of the work which somewhat universally makes the work uninteresting – except to the Sunday-painter whose mind was just blown: “Wow! I can paint my dog too! and I have the perfect picture of him in a little pink sweater I knitted”.  Thanks photo-painter for shitting up the art world one person more.

So, in conclusion:

I> Don’t paint from photos or any other copy-reference; draw from life

II> If you do paint from photos, DO SOMETHING WITH YOUR PAINTING that the photo does not or can not.  If you constantly strive to improve upon the photo and instead work more from life, one day magic will happen… you will no longer need it.

*** ADDENDUM ***

That was quick – I got bombarded with private and semi-public arguments within minutes of this post.  On one hand, it’s good to see people are reading me, on the other, I wish people would argue less, listen, and learn.

I should clarify, however: Artists of all forms know that human minds are repositories of experiences and knowledge manipulated by intuition and abstract forethought resulting in limitless creativity, thanks to Noam Chomsky and linguistic anthropologists everywhere, boo to modern philosophers and psychologists.  My argument about ‘not’ painting other people’s work is a plea for artists to construct their own work – which they can certainly do.  We all learn some painting from copying masters and other artists, this is normal behavior, but copy-learning must be tempered with real painting as well and eventually, the student moves away from the copies to become their own master.

My argument is for those artists in galleries downtown, right now, who dare put a photo-painting on a wall.  The “why” about this problem might be fleeting for most non-artists though.  The major problem with photo-paintings is that they are terrible paintings, lacking energy, lacking style, lacking composition, idea, complexity – name it, and these paintings do not have it.  The best one can achieve is small variations of technique – but who cares? The average viewer doesn’t give a shit, they want to see a nice painting, not a dentist’s office visit.  It reminds me about times when I’d go see movies with film student friends.  The movies might have totally sucked, but the film student goes on and on about the direction, lighting, and so on, amidst a flood of angry or confused movie-goers.  This is crap, and a hallmark of the postmodern world we live in where things are now created for exclusive groups, instead of larger audiences.  The longevity and usefulness of personal art is temporary, fleeting, and ultimately meaningless.  We don’t expect every painting, film, or pop-song to be amazing for centuries – of course not – but why don’t we have long-lasting works anymore?  This is the question I raise and attempt to locate data for.  We also do paint for ourselves.  I have a number of personal drawings and paintings that will never be shown.  Not because I’m ashamed, but because that the art is not for a public – there’s no need to show it.  I have a responsibility as a fine artist to show only work which I believe a public would like to see and needs.

Here is a painting exercise for folks – I’ll use my own work.  <gasp> no he didn’ – Sure, I did use photo reference in my earlier days; I too tried painting from photos.  I learned the lesson first-hand that photo paintings lack something which model-based paintings have.  I have since learned how to use a photo for a painting, not as the painting.

Which of the following paintings was created from a photo?  Which of the following paintings was painted with photo-reference?  Then criticize and analyze. I don’t have enough portraits scanned in for a good data set, apologies, so I’m selecting three portraits and two landscapes.

-The Endless Slug

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One Response to “Quit Painting Other People’s Art”

  1. I just read this and loved and agreed with it! I was in a gallery the other day and an artist who was rated the best in there totally not only used photos but also used Photoshop’s filter “cutout”. Then they had to of transferred the image to their canvas and painted it. I was totally appalled by this. I am a graphic designer illustrator and painter and I so could tell. I know that filter very well and wasn’t impressed at all by there work.

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