PHOTO-REALISM v’s PHOTO PLAGIARISM

…and the stark difference between copying and INTERPRETING.

This is not the post I had planned. But that was before I had the great misfortune, not to say fright of seeing the latest portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. A few posts ago I discussed how I came to paint from photographs, and how and why it can work brilliantly in the right hands. What I did not discuss however (and perhaps I should have done), was the converse of this, when photographs are simply copied as a form of craft, with the art all but forgotten.

Well, this latest portrait of HRH (https://ewn.co.za/2020/07/26/queen-elizabeth-sees-new-portrait-unveiled-at-britain-s-foreign-office) not only manifests as easily the lousiest in a long line of dire images of the United Kingdom’s longest serving sovereign, but also exemplifies all the worst elements of painting from photographs.

The “artist” has succeeded in confirming every prejudice I ever had thrown at me by detractors of “photograph-method”, and arrived at a plasticised and peculiarly scary image, obsessed with technical finesse while utterly devoid of empathy and artistry. This is not so much a majestic portrait as a grotesquely kitsch, 2-dimensional waxwork. This is the produce of a copyist and not an artist all, and says much – none of it complementary – about the judges of the BP National Portrait Award; the winning of which landed the alleged “artist” this most august of portrait commissions.

As I attempted to illustrate in a previous post, copying from photographs offers so much more than the absolute stability of the reference material (i.e. total stillness and unchanging light). IN THE RIGHT HANDS – from Vermeer (with his Photo Obscura) to Rockwell – it offers up an essence and intensity of “moment” that resulted in some of the most empathetic and compassionate pictures ever achieved.

While I would never be so hubristic as to place my own photograph-method creations on a par with those of the great masters of the past, I dare to claim, that at their best, my efforts do at least show some of the positives of the genre. Three of the pictures below were not only exciting and fun to create, they are human expressions accentuated by technique rather than masked by it. The fourth picture is an example of my own, of what happened when I allowed technique to subsume the human moment.

Jolanda – 1983 – oil on canvas:- Jolanda was the first love of my life, as I hope and believe this tender portrait betrays. Using a tiny snap from a then-recent visit to Cremona, I wanted to capture the romance of her, bathed in the Renaissance tones and light of her native Lombardy.

Lynne – acrylic on board – 1996:- Lynne was an ex-ballet colleague of my wife Dido and a close friend. I can’t recall if this was a commission or a gift, but it comes from a series of images of her, and her and Dido, dancing for my camera at our house in Spain. Again, I used the photo as a sketch upon which to elaborate both Lynne’s graceful movement and her vibrant personality, and all drenched in the bleaching Andalusian summer light.
Marie and Juan Junior – 1998 – oil on canvas (detail):- Juan and Marie were our only full-time neighbours when we first moved to our country home in Spain. However, unlike us, who sought solitude and lived remotely by choice, they were outcasts from the local village and desperately poor. Nevertheless, they were a cheerful and extremely loving couple, always pleased to offer us the modest hospitality they could. In this picture of Marie feeding her new baby boy (and second child) I tried to express a mixture of our compassion for their kindness, and our admiration for their dignity, despite their arduous circumstances.

Margaret and Pete’s Party – 1994 – gouache on Daler Board:- In fairness, this was always intended as more of an exercise in technique and excruciating attention to detail, than as a work of artistic expression. The drawing alone took me the best part of a week, and I think I spent over four months on the piece altogether (it was also intended as a way to help me pass the days during the months of depressing boredom while stuck in Boulogne sur mer ). Although not quite so dire as the Queen’s new portrait, it is equally sterile, and that probably explains why I never completed it. Interesting to note, that the hands on the nearer completed figure (actually yours truly), despite being immaculately drawn/copied, have the same “banana bunch” feel as those of Her Majesty in the new portrait.

KINNERET THREE WAYS – a portrait of the Sea of Galilee in three media…

The Sea of Galilee (known in Hebrew as Kinneret, due to its having the shape of a harp – a “kinor”) is well known to most people in the “Abrahamic” world as it played such a crucial part in Jewish, and especially Christian tradition and history. For followers of Jesus it is of course famous for being the actual site and / or backdrop for several of his miracles, while for Jews, its main city of Tiberius was a post-biblical centre of learning and culture.

Arab boy looking east, from Ginosar – ink on paper

For the modern State of Israel, Kinneret is a major source of both pious and recreational tourist revenue, in addition to its crucial role as the country’s primary fresh-water reservoir.

Kids on the Eastern Shore – ink on paper

Sitting as it does towards the northern tip of the Great Rift Valley; filled by the creeks and streams of the western Golan and the Upper Galilee to its north; at its southern point, spilling into the River Jordan and; surrounded on three sides by steep escarpments, the inland lake (for that what it actually is) has a geography to match its epic traditions and history.

Girl on a Raft – Ein Gev – ink on paper

As an artist, and a romantic it was always the stunning physical beauty of Kinneret which excited me most. To this day, I can still clearly remember my first-ever sight of it, from high up above, standing on the Horns of Hattin (where Saladin defeated a Christian army in 1187) – a dazzling smear of precious turquoise sitting deep within a heat-hazed frame of ochres and pale greens.

Three Generations – Eastern Shore – ink on paper

That was in 1967, when I was seven, and it is a view which I have never tired of since, and which I have been fortunate enough to revisit on many occasions, and never more so than during the summer of 1980…

Mother bathing Child – gouache on paper

It was in that year that I and three friends decided to walk the entire circumference of Kinneret – starting out from, and returning to, Tiberius over the course of two days.

Mother bathing Child – oil on canvas

We decided to do a clockwise circumvention and so set off heading north along the west shore of the lake, with only the clothes on our back, two rucksacks (a couple bottles of wine, cans of beer and packets of crisps and Bissli falafel chips in one, and music cassettes and radio batteries in the other) and a small ghetto-blaster…

Ein Gev Bathers – gouache on paper (commercial poster)

As it turned out, these meagre provisions and sparse equipment helped generate one of the most pleasurable 48 hours of our young lives…

Family Group – oil on canvas (palette knife)

The fact we were two boys and two girls; the wine and beer (chilled each evening in cool water of the lake); two lingering golden evening swims; and some incredibly empathetic music provided by the likes of George Benson and Carlos Santana made for an intensely sensual experience…

Danish Girl at Ein Gev – ink on paper

…So much so, that even though it all happened the best part of 40 years ago, whenever I think back to that walk it still makes me smile.

Ein Gev Girl – oil on canvas

Thanks to the fact that I made many sketches and paintings of Kinneret, and the people I witnessed playing on its pebble beaches and bathing in its refreshing waters, I get to smile on a more less a daily basis. I hope that the pictures shown here provide an equally happy reminder to those of you fortunate to have been there, and an enticement to those of you thinking of going…

BEHIND THE SCENES – painting with oils on different surfaces…

When one thinks of an oil painting, one generally thinks of a picture painted on canvas, but across the centuries since artists first mixed coloured pigments with oil they have applied their oil-based paints to a large variety of surfaces, including things like metal and glass. These days, especially within typical art school settings, the most commonly used materials in addition to canvas are, cotton duck (a cheap-yet-similar cloth cousin of true canvas), board (usually either plywood or stiff backing board), and paper. When I started out as an art student in the autumn of 1976 at Harrow School of Art, I had never painted an oil painting – on any surface – in my life.

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Still Life with Bottles and Lemons – oil on paper – 1980.  Paper makes for a super slick surface, so that the brush or the palette knife has a tendency to “skid” across the surface – great for fast, energetic gestures.

Although I’d had in my possession a box of half-used oil-paints since I was a babe in arms (left behind by my father when he disappeared from my life) I’d never known what to do with them. Somehow, painting with anything but watercolours had always seemed mysterious and slightly scary. But all this changed in the second year of my foundation course when I realised that if my aspirations of a career in fine art were serious I’d have to learn how to paint in oils. However, my foundation student grant was only sufficient to fund the paints themselves and not the surface materials upon which I was to apply them. Fortunately though, Harrow had a junk room crammed full of backing board, So, my first experience of oil-painting was on board, primed with two or three coats of liquid PVA glue.

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Dido at Caesarea – oil on board – 1991  Board has some of the slickness of paper but conversely the brush tends to “stick” toward the end of the stroke. It’s rigidity makes it unresponsive to palette knife.

When I began my BA course at Saint Martin’s the following year my student grant was substantially improved and I was able to “progress” onto stretched cotton duck (or poor-man’s canvas as Sam, our school technician and unofficial canvas-stretching instructor used to refer to it). Nevertheless, large pieces of cotton duck (and I was already working on extremely large-scale pictures) cut a substantial swathe into my grant, leaving precious little for another essential “tool” of the young art student – that being copious amounts of ale every evening at one of the many wonderful local Soho pubs. This meant that I did much of my oil sketching on paper, which, when sufficiently sized, took the paint pretty well. In fact, I did not get to paint on actual “canvas, canvas” until around ten years after graduating from Saint Martin’s when I at last had enough dosh of my own to afford the real thing, ready-stretched, and ready-sized and primed.

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Restaurant Juanita – oil on cotton duck – 1992   Duck is a cruder weave than canvas so that it’s slightly rougher to work on. Fine for free, painterly brush work and palette knife but not so much for fine work. No use at all for the photo-realist.

The four paintings presented here are examples of each of the four surfaces I used. In the flesh it’s easy to tell the difference, even between the one painted on cotton duck and the one painted on canvas – but that’s a whole other story, perhaps for another time…

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Wild Flower and Almond Trees – oil on canvas – 2000   Top notch canvas is worth the extra cost for those artists striving for total control over the paint. When correctly stretched and sized with rabbit skin, its smooth-yet-holding surface allows for the complete range of “attack”.