PAINTING FROM PHOTOGRAPHS – mundane craft or true modern art?

Photography has played an ever-growing role in my picture-making since the first day of the second term, of my second year at Saint Martin’s School of Art. It was a bleak winter’s day in 1980 and I remember feeling particularity depressed about the direction – or lack of direction to be precise that my painting was taking. For the past four terms at the school I’d walked a wobbly tightrope between the pressure to emulate my tutors’ abstract expressionism, and my own innate passion for making representational images. The resulting stream of paintings echoed this dichotomy, rarely convincing as abstract or figurative; more often than not, a clumsy, unresolved mishmash of the two forms. If, as occasionally happened, I turned out a pleasing picture, it was always more by luck than by design, with me clueless as to how or why I had achieved this. 

THE COACH PARTY (detail) – 1980 – oil on canvas
This was the first painting I made after my talk with David. It was huge (the foreground figures were to-life scale) and liberating in equal measure. I was rarely happier or more stimulated when working on a painting.

Then, on that winter’s day in 1980, while I was pacing back and forth, dreading the coming weeks and months, a new tutor called David Hepher walked into my studio space, and my art career was changed forever. David, unlike all the other tutors at Saint Martin’s was a figurative artist and to this day I have no idea how he came to be teaching there, but for me, his sudden appearance was as timely as that of an Old Testament angel. I distinctly recall his expression as he first set eyes on my paintings – large canvases full of expressively, heavily painted figures of young people hurtling boldly through a romanticised Israeli landscape.

RESTING AT MONTFORT (detail) – 1980 – oil on canvas
This was the third painting in what I still think of as my “Hepher Series”, and I was already discovering, as he surely knew I would, that “copying” would provide its own form of interpretation…

A warm quizzical smile came across his face like that of someone unexpectedly bumping into an old friend. Then I remember that he sat down on my rickety paint-spattered moulded plastic chair. During the previous four terms at the school not one tutor had ever smiled this kind of smile when looking at my pictures, let alone sat down in my space. By the end of the ensuing conversation it became apparent that he was almost as relieved to see my work in that school, as I was thankful that he was now teaching there.

The Banyas Waterfall – 1981 – oil on canvas
One of my favourite spots on Earth; the source of the River Jordan, and almost believably, as the Macedonian soldiers believed two centuries before Christ, the birthplace of the god Pan. Notice the way I played with tonality and shadowing to create more drama…

The first thing he asked me was who my favourite artists were, and when I said Vermeer and Hopper he looked curiously at my wild and frenzied pictures. He then reminded me of Vermeer’s reliance on the camera obscura for achieving these perfectly painted captured moments and asked me why I didn’t use my own photos in a similar fashion?

CHURCH OF SAINT MARY MAGDALENE & GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE – 1982 – oil on canvas
This painting was commissioned, paid for and then returned back to me as a gift, when my patron’s new girlfriend took against it. It could even yet prove to be the first and only painting I sell twice!

While I’d already been using photographs for the past year or so as a form of rough reference, in the same way I worked from my sketchbook, David convinced me  to try something “bolder”, in his words, but hugely controversial; especially within such a temple of conceptualism and abstract expressionism as Saint Martin’s. He suggested that I take my favourite photographs and copy them as faithfully as possible in oils, like huge painted photographic enlargements. He felt certain that in this way I would find the inner artistic peace I was craving.

MOUNT MERON FROM SEFAD – 1983 – oil on canvas
In a similar way to the Casino painting below, I seem to have slightly shifted the angle of the tombstones, and altered the line of telegraph poles – I’m guessing to increase the sensation of being drawn down into the valley, before being swept up again toward the distant mountain.

And cutting a long story short, David’s empathetic advice proved successful, even though the pictures I went on to produce with this new method ensured that I would prove even more of a problematic enigma for most of his colleagues. Presented here are several of the large canvases I painted as a direct result of David’s tutelage. Some them have appeared on this site before, but never side-by-side with the “offending” snaps! 

THE OLD BRITISH CASINO – HAIFA – 1985 – oil on canvas
In some ways this is the most faithful photographic copy I made in the entire series of pictures (the removed fisherman notwithstanding), yet the subtle shift in angle and perspective is stark – and effective – I think?

5 thoughts on “PAINTING FROM PHOTOGRAPHS – mundane craft or true modern art?

  1. Thanks for the post. I have always felt a little guilty for my reliance of photos as references but after reading your post and thinking about my own work, I realize they were just that, references, not copies.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Exactly. The argument that it’s “cheating” in some way implies that there is some invisible book of rules written by some kind of arbiter of how art should be made. But of course, for better and for worse, there are no rules, and good art is good art, and bad art is bad art no matter what the point of reference.

    Liked by 1 person

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