Once again, I am about to do a longer post here to set up a new piece and talk a little about it and the show it is headed to. If you are just interested in seeing a picture or finding out where to see some of my art in the real world, feel free to skip to the end. For the few people out there that like my art AND have made it too the year 2015 with your attention span in tact, I am going to talk about the process I took to create the piece.
Creating art is always full of struggles, wrong turns, accidents and mistakes. Some artists are fairly open about the methods that brought them to the final piece, a lot more would rather keep most of the route hidden, but most would agree that the process used to create a piece of art is just as important and revealing as the finished product.
In my last post (The Rules) I started to talk a little about this and made an offhand comment about using studio assistants. I said that, if I manage to reach the level where having studio assistants work on my pieces makes sense, one of “the rules” to creating my work would be never using them. The reason for this is simple: as a painter, if you lined up two pieces of work by a painter I am familiar with, one created partially by studio assistants and one created entirely by the artist, I would be willing to bet that I could tell the difference. Maybe a studio assistant cares about keeping their job, where the artist is only focused on working through ideas, and helps make the final piece higher quality, but the fact remains that there will be differences.
A lot of artists take a similar stance about the use of photographic references.
The thinking goes something like this: the camera has already translated a three dimensional object into a two dimensional image. The camera has already taken away a lot of information that could be used to create a more dynamic piece of art. And also, isn’t that kind of cheating, do you even know how to draw? Are you just tracing that shit?
I think that the people who feel this way would give you a similar story to the one I just told about studio assistants. Line up two paintings by an artist, one done from life, one from a photo reference and they can spot the difference. I have to admit that as a figure painter, as a realist painter, I have often found myself leaning that way as well. However, the kind of paintings I am making do not lend themselves towards working from life. Compromises must be made, so I have my own set of rules for using photo references. I am about to tell you all about how I broke those rules, so let me first lay them out for you:
- Be familiar with the subject. I paint humans, so, you know, talk to them, look them in the eyes, drink a beer with them, ask them if they feel things, etc.
- Only use photos that you have actually taken.
- Take photos from many slightly different angles, with many different focal points, to collect as much information as possible.
Pretty basic stuff. I think a lot of artists (who are not trying to create hyper-realistic copies of photos of banal daily life) (or whatever hyper realists are into these days) would probably have a similar list.
Recently, I have began work on a piece for what has become an annual event, a show of (mostly) figurative paintings that Poets and Artists Magazine curates at the Zou B Art Center in Chicago. This year, the theme/title of the show is “Immortality and Vulnerability”, which immediately set me off in a direction that begged for a new approach.
Because I spend an estimated 99.9% of my time in the studio surfing the internet and reading trashy news sites, it should not be surprising that when I received the information for this show, I was reading an article about (yet another) celebrity’s private photos being stolen and shared publicly. In a time when nearly every person you know is walking around all day with the ability to cheaply and easily take photos and videos of anything they like, it is not hard to see why this is happening more and more. And obviously, not just to celebrities. With photos so easy to take and share, I don’t think it is a huge leap to link the idea of “immortality and vulnerability” to the fact that so many people’s private images will be outliving them on the internet.
For a while, I resisted using this idea. It seemed almost too easy and silly to be worthwhile, but I realized that the opportunity this idea gives me to break my own rules and explore new processes mattered more than the idea itself.
So I set out to break all of my rules for using reference photos.
In order for this idea to really work for me, I would have to take a private moment from a stranger, and make it public in a way that has the potential to outlive them. Now, I don’t feel right about stealing peoples photographs, so I did the next best thing. I went online and asked people to email, or text, me photos of themselves. I asked strangers to send me the kind of images that they would normally only send to their lovers. Because of the internet, this is surprisingly easy and non awkward, and I got a lot of responses.
I picked two women with interesting faces and asked them to send me some images. First, a couple where their identity was hidden (camera obscuring their face, or cropped in a way that it was hard to tell who they were), that were the kind of images that they might send to their husband (or boyfriend or a random person on the internet, whatever) to tantalize them.
I took the images and did everything I could think of to corrupt the digital files, while still keeping the image identifiable. I wanted to mimic the sort of distortions and degradations that happen when digital files are shared over and over. I saved the jpegs over and over at low quality. I shrunk the image smaller, then blew it back up big again. I opened up the file deleted some bits of the code. I took a photo of the photo on my screen.
The process created all sorts of different glitches in the images from which I selected my favorites and made a composite that looked as glitchy as possible, while still being an obviously sexual image. I used this version of the image as reference for a painting. In the end, I used a single image that I did not take, of someone I have never met, as reference for the painting.
The idea was for the final piece would be a diptych, with this image paired with a more traditional portrait that revealed the subjects identity, and hopefully allowed the viewer to connect the sexual image with something that felt more like a real person. As I started working on the portrait, I ran into a problem. The problem was the same problem that led me towards my original rules for using photo references. The problem was I did not know this person, I did not have a feel for her expressions, I didn’t know anything about her and therefore, I was making a lot of guesses as I worked on the portrait. The kinds of guesses and assumptions that you have to make when working from photographs that you did not take of an unfamiliar subject. The kind of assumptions that lead to the kind of paintings that make people say things like:
“Line up two paintings by an artist, one done from life, one from a photo reference and I can spot the difference.”
In order for the piece to work, the portrait had to be as relatable and human as the second panel was digitized and anonymous. I did the only thing I could think of to make this happen. I called up the models and asked them to come in to the studio and sit for the portrait.
The painting is not complete but, it is coming along nicely. I still need to refine a lot, come up with some elements to tie the two panels together, and obviously finish painting the blank parts, but here is the piece as it stands:
If you want to see more images of the development of this piece, and continue following along as I finish it, follow me on Instagram.