Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Monday, October 23, 2006

PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE PAINTER, Part iii—A Personal Reflection

It's been a while since I put them up, so I reread the first two posts in this series to refresh my memory. The first was a brief description of the history of photography and painting, and the second a brief history of the Photorealist movement. With that basis, it's high time to deal with how photography has affected my own painting. I have nothing against Photorealism, but I bristle when the term is used to describe my work. Not only is the phrase usually used derogatorily to dismiss representational art as passé, it's a poor description of what I do.
I've executed a few pieces that qualify as marginal Photorealism. The painting The Sunning Stone (above), an oil painting from 1988, is a sort of collage of three photos: two of Golden Eagles by Steve Chindgren, and one of a rock pedestal in Canyonlands National Park by Al Hartmann. This sort of stitching together of copied photos of subject and background is a hallmark of contemporary wildlife art, and, in the manner typical of my genre, I adjusted various aspects of color and composition to “improve” on the photographs, but otherwise relied completely on them to inform the painting. Compare another photoreliant painting, the more recent Yellow-Crowned Night Heron Portrait (right), with its photographic progenitor (left).

While executing paintings like these is a good discipline, I don't find the results terribly satisfying, and equate them with Rachmaninoff's daily playing of scales. As I mentioned in part ii, I find the distortion and exaggeration of subjects not lifted from photographs to be more “poetic” than photorealistic subjects. My own subjects fall far short of the poetry of Rembrandt's, as well as of my own objective, the rendering of somewhat distorted and “poetic” subjects in a highly realistic and detailed manner. An example can be seen in the painting above. Awakened by raindrops after a long, subterranean summer slumber, the Couch's Spadefoot Toad (Scaphiopus couchi) in Call of the Monsoon arches its back and squints its eyes in a manner more befitting a purring cat than an amphibian. The posture is physically possible, but is not one likely to be seen, much less photographed. Hopefully, the painting describes the spadefoot's motivation better than any photo could.

Likewise, the subject of Great Helmeted Hornbill executes a silly pirouette that no self-respecting wild bird would attempt, but the bird's posture, along with the painting's composition and point of view, all conspire to describe the difficulty of hoisting a one-pound bill casque aloft.

Don't let me leave an impression of contempt for photography as an element of the painter's toolbox. Rarely do I paint a piece without using it. In Instant of Opportunity, a pair of Emerald Toucanets chases a Spiny-headed Treefrog from a tree cavity. The postures of the subjects and the composition of the painting are as contrived as can be, and were all arrived at without the benefit of photographs. The anatomical structure was corrected using photographs, and many elements in the piece, including a bromeliad, berries, treeferns and many of the background trees were lifted directly from photographs I took in the Central American highlands. The various elements, some copied from sketches and photos, and some fudged, were combined in a composition where a centrally located X, formed by the two birds' bills, a branch, and a row of treefern crowns provides a fulcrum from which the frog propels himself.Photographs can be used as simple storage devices for information, without actually copying them. To paint the houses in the little village of Convoy Through the Canopy, I used two photographs of rural Sango architecture I had taken in the Central African Republic (above). Although the painting is drawn from a totally different angle, it is still completely informed from the photographs, as are the surrounding banana and cocoyam crops. The completed triptych is shown below.

Photographs are extremely useful for analyzing textures, particularly moving ones, like water. For the painting Table Mountain Ghost Frog I built and painted a simple sculpture, cemented it to a stone, and ran a garden hose over the whole thing to see how a thin film of fast-moving water would be distorted by a frog clinging to a stone. One of the 36 photos I took is shown, along with the finished painting.

I designed the composition of Black Skimmer a couple of years before painting it. While canoeing on Upper Myakka Lake, I watched a squadron of these birds skimming at close range, scrutinizing closely the wakes they left behind them. I was surprised by how narrow they were; much more so than the drawings I had made, but after watching them I wanted still more information. I painted the piece the following winter, and took camera and tripod to a neighborhood park, unseasonably dressed in cutoffs and sandals, and waded into the duck pond. I set my camera just above the water's surface, and shot a roll of pictures as I sliced the surface with a Persian kindjal sword. The visiting families seemed disturbed to see a seedy-looking man with a large weapon up to his hips in frozen duck shit, and I imagine my exit only barely preceded the arrival of the police, but the resulting photos provided an invaluable tool for finishing the piece.
All photographs and paintings by CPBvK


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoyed Part III very much, Carel - especially your explanation of how you have used photography to see or experiment with things that are most difficult to observe with the eye. That's where I too have found photography and video footage to be useful with my own nature observation. For example, a few years ago, I made a videotape of a dragonfly perched on a friend's hand. When I reviewed the footage on my computer later, I saw something that was not really visible to the eye... the dragonfly was blowing a water bubble out of its mouth and rubbing its legs through it before rubbing its eyes. When I watched frame by frame, it was obvious that this was happening, but at regular film speed (or to the naked eye), the water bubble was all but invisible. Similarly, macro photographs help me to see insects and other small creatures in a way that is nearly impossible, even with a magnifying glass. It seems to me that the only way to reveal certain details or observations is to either create art that depicts it (as you so often do), or to create photo sequences or slow-motion video (both of which are pretty clunky alternatives and generally not that aesthetically pleasing). Art such as yours combines aesthetics with revealing that which is so difficult to observe with the eye.

Loved the story of recreating the Black Skimmer's wake with the Persian kindjal sword. If this occurred during the current climate of suspicion for anything out of the ordinary, I'm certain that your actions would have attracted undue attention.

6:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Once again Carel, I'm in awe of both your talent for painting and your ability to write and convey information succinctly and enjoyably.

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"the painting describes the spadefoot's motivation better than any photo could"

Exactly what I love about your work--the stories your paintings tell that a photograph never could.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Packrat54 said...

Reading how the art was created woven into the story of the painting's subject(s) is fascinating, kind of a ying and yang. I enjoy what you do here and try to return regularly.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...


The post makes terrific reading for technical voyeurs like myself. I'm particularly impressed by your work recreating the physics, for lack of a better word, of the environments; the frog sculpture/hose experiment is great!

I use photographs a lot in my own work, though usually in a fragmented way - a bit from that photo and a bit from this one and so on - but, despite making work that is centered around invented, fantastic environments, I've always felt the lesser for being a slave to art scrap, those over-stuffed, accordion files of images that might, one day, trigger some inspiration.

My hat is off to you.

11:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here, here ... to all that was said above and to you for putting words and paragraphs to what many of us do on a regular basis!

6:30 AM  
Blogger Patrick B. said...


Thanks for an insightful look into your work.

10:21 AM  
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7:41 PM  

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