Why The Negative Reaction To Painting From Photos?

Exposing Judgmental Narrow-mindedness.

Using photos for reference purposes remains a hot button issue and I’m not exactly sure why this is. Many artists blamed the negative response to Kate Middleton’s official portrait on the fact it was created from photos.

To me, someone who has worked from photo reference for 40 years, the issue is a non-issue. I see it for what it is: one of many tools available to artists today. In fact artists have worked from photos for a century and a half so you think the nay-sayers would get tired and just shut up.

Unfortunately, there are many who do not share my point of view and they tend to demonize those who choose to use photos in their creative process. Yes, there are legions of bad paintings done by artists who work from photo reference, but there are multitudes, every bit as ill-conceived, painted strictly from life. Cluelessness is an equal opportunity malaise.

The truth is, in the hands of a skilled artist, cameras can potentially offer great help and I find it hard to understand why anyone would choose to summarily dismiss such a helpful tool. The camera can be a huge time saver. Yes, there is potential for misuse and abuse, however, if used intelligently, the pluses far, far outweigh the minuses.

One great thing about the camera is that you can record bucket loads of visual information in the blink of an eye. As a portrait artist, using photos gives me access to movers and shakers who have neither the time or patience to sit the number of hours it takes for me to paint one of my paintings.

Photography makes it possible to incorporate elements in a painting that would be impossible to do otherwise. Certain fleeting lighting conditions for example would long be gone before most artists had the opportunity to set one’s palette, let alone collect the visual data necessary to replicate a scene in the style of high realism.

To this end, the amazing 19th Century Academician, Jean Leon Gerome, (see image above) used photographs extensively in his process. In fact, he traveled with a photographer on his numerous excursions to the Middle East, specifically for the purpose of gathering the degree of information necessary to execute his brilliant Orientalist paintings.

Would it have been possible for Gerome to create these paintings without using photography, by simply working from life? Personally, I don’t think so, because before Gerome, no artist had ever achieved anything near the same level of illusionistic atmospheric realism so effectively and prolifically.

Before photography was invented, artists used a vast array of devices and strategies to augment their ability to record the world around them. Once photography appeared on the scene, however, realism “coincidently” took a big leap forward.

So why is it that so many people get all sanctimonious and holier than thou when the subject of using photo reference comes up? Why all the negativity?

There is no dismissing the importance of working from life? As a teacher, I firmly believe it’s the ideal way to train artists, because instilling a spatial three-dimensional sensibility is a crucial to creating life-like paintings. I think the fastest route to being an exceptional realist is to first learn to perceive the dimensional aspect of reality before you can hope to replicate it, let alone interpret it, on a two-dimensional surface.

I took a much slower route. My initial training as a realist was self-inflicted and based solely on working from photos. I was working as an illustrator and needed to meet deadlines to pay the rent. I didn’t have the luxury of going to an Atelier, nor did I even know they existed. I had drawn and painted from life in my first two years of art school, but the model was merely considered a creative departure point, not as a way to understand structure, light and atmosphere.

Initially, I used reference from books and magazines — the internet wasn’t even a gleam in its mothers eye, at that point. Working from photos, two things became abundantly clear. First, if I would merely copy a picture, the result would be flat and lifeless. With no understanding of my subject’s structure, my rendition lacked a certain authenticity and snap. Secondly, if I relied on photos taken by others, my control over compositional elements was moot. I needed to insert myself deeper into the process by taking control of my source material. .

So while attempting to learn the ins and outs of painting realistically, I was also teaching myself how to use the camera to my best advantage. I started with a Polaroid camera and eventually, wound up building my own darkroom. When I painted I was using the Munsell System to control my values and colors. At the same time, I used Ansel Adams’ Zone System of Photography to pre-visualize the values in my reference. These two modalities formed an awesome symbiotic relationship and I learned so much. Additionally, taking my own reference pictures enabled me to shoot my subject from multiple positions, enabling me get a more complete view of my subject and have a better sense of its intrinsic structure.

After ten years of working things out on my own I was fortunate enough to find a former student of the late great Frank Reilly, John Frederick Murray and John eventually introduced me to painting from life. I studied with John one day a week for ten years. The awesome thing was, the method I had developed on my own synced perfectly with Reilly’s teaching.

Now I use painting from life as the basis of my teaching philosophy, but I don’t regret for one moment my circuitous path. If the intent is there the path will reveal itself.

What you do and how you go about it is up to you, but if you want to be a realist painter, I think it would be most beneficial to learn photography. The rational that “I’m an artist and technology give me a headache” is lame. Get real. The technique of painting is a zillion more times complex that photography.

There is no reason to work from bad photos. Learn to take pictures that appear as close to the way the world appears to the naked eye. Today’s top flight cameras are so far beyond what film was ever able to yield, with respect to that. Plus, you now have the ability to review your pictures instantaneously and make sure you have exactly what you need. When I shoot reference, my camera is tethered to a laptop which allows me to scrutinize my images at a far greater magnification than looking at the LCD screen on the back of my camera.

There is an acronym used in computer programing: GIGO. It stands for Garbage In, Garbage out. Understanding how to take good reference photos will go a long way towards eradicating the misconception that “using photo reference results in flat boring images.”

Until next time…

A Royal Fiasco

I’m sure by now that everyone in the universe–except perhaps for cave dwellers, Bedouins and survivalist living off the grid–is familiar with the controversy and ensuing ripples of negativity surrounding the first official portrait of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, and the future Queen of England.

It would seem a most enviable commission–potentially career altering–based on Kate’s iconic status. That’s assuming, of course, all went according to plan. The potential for criticism was always lurking in the shadows, but I don’t believe anyone, particularly the portrait artist, Paul Emsley, ever expected the tsunami of negativism that ensued.

Legions have been quite forthcoming with opinions regarding what’s wrong with the portrait. I can’t recall such a stink ever made over another portrait. As negatively as the Lucian Freud portrait of Queen Elizabeth was received by the public, it was still seen as just a painting by some crazy artist. No such consideration this time, however. Wherever you turned, there was the portrait of Kate, larger than life, surrounded by a sea of vitriol.

Unless this is the first time you’ve read my blog, you would know that on the day of the unveiling I was interviewed by Kate Snow on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, regarding the subject of portraiture. They weren’t seeking a critique from me, just looking for a sound bite or two that could offer their national audience a little insight into the process. I stated that ultimately, as long as the artist and client were satisfied, a portrait should be considered successful. Anything beyond that is a bonus, so since both subject and artist proclaimed great satisfaction–Kate described the result as “absolutely brilliant”–that should have been it. Unfortunately, that’s not the way it went down, with Paul Emsley stating that criticism was “so vicious” he doubted whether there was any merit in the work.
.
During my interview I was asked what makes a portrait successful. I answered, “A good portrait, in my point of view, makes you think you’re sitting in front of the person!” While I was showing a clip of the interview to some students the other day, they asked me, based on my criteria, how I felt about the portrait, so I thought I’d share what I told them with you, my readers.

Each semester I take my students on a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, here in New York City, and break down a range of paintings by various artists, based on the principles I teach. I talk about what works and what doesn’t. Very few paintings are without some flaws. That doesn’t mean they’re not still great. I don’t critique to be mean-spirited, or to elevate my ego–I am far from flawless–but to help my students understand there are consequences to the choices they make. Forewarned is, after all, forearmed!

When I paint a portrait the reaction I am looking for is, “I feel like he/she is about to step out of the canvas and speak!” When viewing great portraits at the Met I see how strongly people respond to that very quality. With that in mind I’ll put in my own two cents worth and try to pinpoint what exactly went wrong here.

Illusionistic painting requires a certain degree of alteration; you need to deceive your viewer. In order to capture the feeling of space you must organize, edit and interpret information. To what end you make these changes is a question of intent. Intrinsically there is no right or wrong, but if creating an illusionistic reality is the goal, one needs to understand how the eye and brain function in tandem. You experience spacial depth through the mechanism of binocular vision. If you draw and paint exactly what you see, whether from life or a photo, your painting will look flat, because it’s on a flat surface, and binocular vision is taken out of the equation. I believe to create a dimensional illusion certain adjustments (based on tangential phenomena associated with binocular vision) are required. The bulk of what I teach is based on this concept.

A sense of structure is achieved by emphasizing planes, mainly through value changes–although it can also be achieved via hue and chroma shifts, or any combination of the three. Used in tandem with the juxtaposition of hard and soft edges a painting can seem quite spacial.

I have placed the reference photo used by the artist next to a reproduction of the painting. (Why anyone would ever post their reference photo online is beyond me, but being able to compare the reference to the painting is most useful.) In the photo, Kate appears thinner, younger, crisper and more dynamic. Looking at the painting, Kate appears much softer, with the exception of her eyes and mouth. This is a photographic technique called shallow depth of field. You set your lens to the widest aperture and focus on the plane of the eye. Everything in front of and behind the eye gets blurred, this draws your attention straight to the eye. Unfortunately this is not the way we humans see, so you wind up with a flat photographic look and not the illusion of three dimensionality.

By virtue of the softening, the structure gets lost. The side planes of her face are barely discernible, diminishing her bone structure and making her face seem wider. This makes her eyes appear small. The front planes of her lower lids seem lightened a bit which unfortunately emphasizes the lines and accentuates the bags. Her chin and jaw line are softened, but since the edge is uniformly soft, she appears rounder. The result: an older and heavier version of Kate.

The eyes are over modeled–this means the value range has been expanded–so they don’t sit back far enough in the socket, and they seem a bit glassy. According to William Bouguereau, the secret of great painting is having the smaller accents remain subservient to the large planes. In other words, each part needs to be in relationship with the whole. The eyebrows seem to have been painted more symmetrically than they appear in real life, and their shadows has been lightened at the expense of structure.

The nose, also the target of much scorn, has lost its aquiline character. The shaft has been widened, further flattening (and fattening) Kate’s appearance. It’s under modeled–meaning the value range is compressed–which pushes it back. The ball of the nose doesn’t project out due to the softening and deemphasizing of the wings of the nose. The highlights have been almost eliminated. Having the nose project forward is very critical because it indicates form. The mouth looks flat because contrast was lowered and overly sharp.

I think the way the face is placed and lit was less than ideal if spacial illusion is the goal. Thomas Eakins called light the big tool. I think there’s a major misconception that a true artist can make a great painting regardless of how the subject is lit.

With regards to the color, and this is a very personal thing, I feel the flesh is a little too monochromatic and neutral for my taste. The subtle hue and chroma variations present in human flesh can go a long way towards suggesting that there’s blood circulating under the surface. Again, I don’t really see evidence of this in his other portraits. To be fair I am evaluating this based on digital imagery. The artist told Hello! magazine that “half the problem is the portrait doesn’t photograph well.” (I don’t know of any artist who doesn’t feel the same way when seeing their own work reproduced.) The digital image is all I have to go on.

I believe the artist’s intention was to flatter the Duchess, but based on the public’s overall response, he didn’t succeed. Our appearance is based upon our skeletal structure, so the alterations ultimately flattened the form and downplayed her character. I find this a bit peculiar because Kate requested, and Mr. Emsley reiterated, that she wanted to be painted as her natural self. I also question the portrait’s scale. It’s an aesthetic decision, of course, but it’s my theory that people are put off by freakishly large heads, unless the painting is intended to be viewed at a distance. Call it survival instinct, because in nature larger creatures devour smaller ones. Another drawback of painting large-scale is it’s more difficult to step back, particularly if the artist paints sitting down, which I believe Mr. Emsley does.

When you paint in a classical manner, like Mr. Emsley or myself, you open yourself for potshots across the board. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is an maven when it comes to reality. Many so-called bona fide experts have chimed in, but I’ve heard very little with regards to the mechanics of what went wrong. According to The London Evening Standard, “He (Paul Emsley) was accused of making her seem a decade older than her 31 years, giving her ‘hamsterish’ cheeks and a look as ‘soundless and smooth as an undertaker’s makeover’, while others described the portrait as ‘catastrophic’ and ‘rotten’.” But saying that her nose isn’t quite right or her eyes are strange is just stating the obvious.

Personally, I don’t think the artist warrants the terrible, vicious and insulting response he received, nor did he deserve to be vilified and eviscerated. The majority of portraits out there are far worse than his. Critic Michael Flood McNulty stated that Kate’s painting is, “Truly the worst royal portrait ever.” Perhaps he’s the worst critic ever, because the majority of those done in the past century are horrible. I tried to discuss the reasons behind the most often cited complaints. What I pointed out were subtleties, not gaping holes, but under a microscope, even the tiniest misstep can appear the size of the Grand Canyon, or should I say, Buckingham Palace? I think the artist handled the paint with great ability, but unfortunately technique alone can’t carry a painting. There’s so much more to a portrait than surface. The decision-making process, relative to intent, lies at the heart of all great painting.

So this begs the question, who’s at fault? I believe the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of Kate. She picked the wrong portrait artist, because I don’t believe Paul Emsley’s intent is ever to create illusionistic realism. Unfortunately, based on the public’s reaction, that’s what they were expecting, and unfulfilled expectations lead to upsets. What he did here–enlarging her head, flattening the form and accentuating the texture–is what he always does. It was very effective for his portrait of Nelson Mandela and won him the coveted BP prize for his portrait of Michael Simpson. Mr. Emsley is using a classically styled technique to express modern sensibilities and I think that’s what attracted Kate, who was an art history major. Next time she should choose an artist who’s capable of integrating a contemporary sensibility with a classical illusionistic reality, assuming her goal is a great portrait, not a great controversy.

Until next time…

How To Be A Better Artist in 2013

mw

A commenter, responding to my recent post On The Quest For Excellence, said their New Year’s resolution was to be a better artist. They cited the following quote:

That which we persist in doing becomes easier – not that the nature of the task has changed, but our ability to do has increased.

Ralph Waldo Emerson:

I know Emerson was a brilliant guy but, big picture in mind, I think he missed the mark. Yes, it’s true, you will get better through repetition, but if you do something badly and you practice and practice, you’ll get better at doing it badly. Which begs the question: how do you to learn to do it well?

If you’re being objective (a huge part in the quest for success, IMO) you first identify the problem and then come up with the solution. However, it’s easier said than done, because, had you had that knowledge, there wouldn’t a problem in the first place. Therefore, you need to look outside yourself to expand your capabilities. This where a good teacher comes in.

At the height of my illustration career (Time Magazine covers, movie posters, national ad campaigns, etc.) I realized that I wasn’t satisfied with the quality of my paintings; I spent the next ten years studying, one day a week, with John Frederick Murray, a former student of the legendary Frank Reilly. Everyone thought I was crazy because I was “so good” but I wanted to be so much better. Reilly’s teachings allowed me to fill in many gaps in my approach. Having been self-taught, up to that point, I was amazed to discover that Reilly’s methodology synced perfectly with mine.

My former student Martin Wittfooth, one of today’s hottest young painters, was mentioned last week in People Magazine. Comedic actress Kaley Cuoco stated that she had recently purchased a large painting of Marty’s. When he first came to study with me, he was having modest success with his gallery work, but he too wanted more. He signed up for my Friday class and came every week for three years. Above you can see a recent painting of his and below, you can read what he had to say about his experience.

Marvin Mattelson’s technique and teaching philosophy have been an invaluable asset to my own understanding of painting. A tremendous amount of the knowledge and experience that I have acquired in this class greatly informs the way that I paint in my own time as a full time professional artist, regardless of what subject matter I choose to depict. Everything from the best choice of materials, to a thorough understanding of color, to the handling and application of paint and the achievement of compelling realism is covered in Marvin’s method, and in a manner that is extremely easy to absorb and process. The method allows for immense personal development for an artist at any stage in the game. In the various classes I have attended throughout my studies and my career, I have never witnessed such great strides of advancement in well-rounded skills as in the students in Marvin’s class. I am grateful to count myself among them.

It really has been a hugely transformative experience for me, and I wish that more aspiring artists who had the chops to progress with their painting discovered his class. I do make a point to tell anyone asking about my portraits or just painting-advancement to consider signing up.

Martin Wittfooth

I’ll be teaching two continuing education classes for upcoming winter/spring semester at The School of Visual Arts in New York City. These classes are open to everyone, not just full-time students. Realistic Figure and Portrait Painting, Fridays from noon to 6pm, starting Feb. 1, and Classical Portrait Painting, Saturdays from 10am to 4pm beginning Feb. 2.

On Tuesday September 15 there will be a Continuing Education Information Session for students interested in learning more about available courses at SVA. I’ll be in attendance, so if you’re in the neighborhood, please stop by and say hello. This information session will be held at 209 East 23rd Street, room 311, 3rd floor. Seating is given on a first-come, first-served basis. Session begins promptly at 6:30 PM.

You can read more about my portrait painting and figure painting classes and workshops here.

On the Quest for Excellence

As we approach the end of 2012, many of us gear up for the inevitable task: a list of resolutions to guide us in the oncoming year. What exactly do we aspire to accomplish in 2013? Lose five pounds, be a better person or perhaps mend some fences? Or do we want something more: to achieve greatness and/or success?

There’s a book by Malcolm Gladwell on that very subject called “Outliers.” It’s an interesting take on the subject. Very entertaining. He basically claims that being in the right place (parents, environment, etc.), plus being given the appropriate opportunity, and lastly, putting in the proper amount of time (10,000 hours) are the key components to becoming a huge success. He makes a good case, citing people like Steve Jobs and the Beatles—plus others—as examples. What he doesn’t seem to take into account, in my opinion, is that many fitting his criteria fall far short, while others, seemingly outside of his archetypes, are able to achieve greatness none the less. Ultimately his book is a cookie cutter explanation which offers few tangible solutions of how to get there from here.

My take on the matter offers a far more practical blueprint. I believe that my criteria, although geared towards the arts, can be adapted to any career choice or endeavor, from athletics to business to science. So please feel free to share this blog post with anyone you think it can help. It’s based on my own life experience and has proved instrumental in helping many of my former students achieve their dreams.

I think that in order to be successful, one needs to be in possession of the following four traits:

Number 1: Talent.
To me, talent is the most overrated of the four. It’s a popular belief that it alone insures success. As a teacher with 40 years experience, I can assure you, this is very not true. Many precociously talented people fall far short. My most talented student ever isn’t currently employed in any creative capacity, and is not even tapping into his great talent as a hobbyist. The myriad of distractions, which life has to offer, has kept him from manifesting his tremendous artistic potential. Conversely, I had another student, with minimally apparent skill, who become a most impressive painter. I’m not saying that talent is meaningless—it’s impossible to succeed if you have none. therefore, in the grand scheme of things, I consider it’s worth in the quest for success to be about 5%.

Number 2: Hard Work.
My aforementioned student, the one with with minimally apparent talent, achieved success because he worked his butt off, bringing in a finished painting each week, while his classmates put most of their energy into making excuses. Similarly, when Bouguereau entered the Academy he was rated last in his class, but thanks to his legendary work ethic, he eventually won the highest honor, the Prix de Rome. He went from last to first. Rarely does anyone achieve great success without working hard. Since hard work is at least twice as important as talent, it gets a rating of 10%.

Number 3: Objectivity
It’s far more important than the previous two, because you need to cast a critical eye inward if you truly want to be great at what you do. If you actually think you don’t need to improve then why aren’t you successful already?

It’s easy to make excuses, but in order to get better you need to determine your weaknesses and turn them into strengths. What exactly is it that you need to work on? Is it your overall design sense (sometimes referred to as picture-making), achieving unity, drawing hands, establishing color harmony or something else? It may be one thing or it may be many. It may not even be seemingly art related, but pretending that a problem doesn’t exist won’t fix it. See, if you think you’re already great, what can you possibly do to get better? When you acknowledge that a problem exists, you give yourself a chance to change it for the better.

Being self critical is very tough. None of us like to be criticized. We tend to get very defensive when told that we are lacking or somehow screwed up. Very few realize that the knowledge and experience responsible for our achievements to date are the very same things keeping us stuck. If you want to fulfill your potential, you need to be ruthless regarding your self analysis and the truths you hold to be self evident.

Objectivity requires not only a look inward, but also a look outward. With regards to the big picture, where exactly do you fit in? What traits allow others to be successful while you fall short? Are they more talented, do they work harder, do they charge less money, are they better at networking, are they less ethical? The list can go on, ad infinitum, but the bottom line is, if you just stand there hoping that things will serendipitously turn around for you, you are powerless?

If you can muster the strength to be self critical you can begin to move forward. What’s the worst that can happen? Maybe you discover that you’re not willing to do what’s necessary. That can be a very good thing. Get out of the game and find another better suited for your unique set of talents and abilities, and put all your energy into that.

To me objectivity is much more important than the previous two traits because no matter how talented and hard working you are, if you don’t focus your energy appropriately, you’re going nowhere. With that in mind, I rate objectivity at 33%, approximately twice the importance of the other two.

Now if you’re keeping score, the previous three when added up total 49%. So obviously we still need to account for an additional 51%, or what I consider to be the most important factor in achieving one’s goals. But as important as it is, without talent, hard work and objectivity, it alone falls far short of 100%.

Number 4: Perseverance
The most critical aspect of achieving greatness is never giving up! It is pretty obvious, when you surrender, you’re out of the game. Interestingly, most people cite fear of failure as the reason they give up. That’s pretty ridiculous, if you think about it, because once you’ve given up, failure is all but guaranteed. Personally, I believe fear of success is the main reason people pack it in. Being successful means giving up your comfort level, your reasonableness and your excuses, because once you succeed you need to keep working even harder to keep succeeding. It never gets easier. Life is an incline. Either you are moving forward or you’re sliding back.

So if you truly aspire to become all you can be, this blueprint can come in very handy. Take a look at where you are now and begin the journey, one resolution at a time.

I wish all of you, my readers, great success and a happy, healthy and successful new year!

Until next time…

Is Portrait Painting More Difficult Than Brain Surgery?

Are You Up for the Challenge of Being a Portrait Artist?

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself! So said Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Obviously, FDR never tried to enroll anyone in a portrait artist workshop. Fear is something that people–particularly those considering whether to reach for their dreams–need to face.

Not that learning to be a portrait artist isn’t a terribly daunting task. Although many–my wife included–would debate the following comparison, I always tell my students, “Portrait painting isn’t brain surgery, it’s much more difficult.” It’s my way of saying that the number of variables a realistic portrait artist must deal with is exceedingly high. Seriously though, I’m not trying to belittle the difficulty faced by those in the field of neurosurgery. To be a brain surgeon, you must be ridiculously smart. Surgeons deal with life and death situations, although to be fair, some portrait artists able to create the illusion of life. Creating life–or the illusion thereof–is pretty awesome.

I truly believe achieving greatness as a portrait artist is one of the most difficult things a human being can attempt. I base this on the fact that–as I see it–very few portrait artists in history have reached that exalted position. (What constitutes greatness in portraiture will offer much fodder for future blog posts.)

But just because something is über challenging, what exactly is there to fear? A lot of people site fear of failure as the reason for refusing to challenge themselves. If you think about it, fearing failure makes no sense. You’re automatically a failure the instant you back away. Even if you fail, you’re no worse off than when you started. I think what people truly fear is success. It’s human survival instinct to want to maintain the status quo–at all cost. Success can potentially overturn the apple cart. How will being successful alter your life? Confronting success takes courage.

I recently spoke with a woman considering my New York Portrait Workshop at the School of Visual Arts. She expressed great trepidation with regards to participating–although she eventually registered. I thought maybe something’s in the air, because a couple of my recent Atlanta students said they were fearful, as well. One of them, Margaret Kaufman, called Binders’ Director of Education, Jacob Gunter, many times, waffling back and forth, unsure if she should attend. Fortunately Jacob was able to assuage her fears and ultimately, she chose to come.

Margaret is very new to painting. She had recently taken a couple of plein air workshops and one on flower painting. Prior to my portrait artist workshop, she had never even attempted to paint a human head. Margaret had the following to say about her experience:

I feel I learned a tremendous amount. You helped me overcome my insecurities and are a dedicated amazing teacher. If you ever need me to speak directly with any insecure potential students I would be pleased to help out. I feel you have helped start me on my journey as a portrait painter and I look forward to working with you and learning from you next summer. It is about the journey – and you have helped me get a great start. I can’t thank you enough.

The awesome portrait at the top of this post is her first ever. She managed to push through her fear and she blew her own mind in the process. It was an honor to witness her growth and I look forward to seeing her fulfill her great potential. Near the end of the workshop, Margaret emailed a picture of her painting to her husband, so he could see the progress she had made. His response, “Did you sign up for Marvin’s next workshop yet?” I thought that was a pretty smart thing to say. After all he is a neurosurgeon.

Until next time…