Wednesday, September 11, 2019

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Every once in a while someone asks a variation of "do you work at the site of the painting?" or "do you work from a photo?" or "isn't working from a photo copying?".  Some answers.

Sketch or Photo?

I have no qualms about working from a photo as long as I realize that the photo will never capture what the eye can see.  The photo can freeze a moment in time and enable me to finish a painting, but I don't rely on it solely.  I always sketch a painting before beginning with the actual paint stage. Sometimes I sketch on paper, sometimes Mylar for easier transfer, and sometimes I just sketch on the canvas.  I only do the latter if I'm sure of the composition as alterations with much erasure can ruin a canvas.  If I'm painting in egg tempera the sketch must be done before transferring to the panel (more on this later). But I almost always take a photo of a setup, the scene, etc., as it establishes a base line and serves as a reminder. This is especially helpful when I may take much longer than one sitting to finish the work.

Still Life and Food

When working on the food series I'm essentially working in still life except that my models tend to rot over time and some rot very quickly.  I always take a photo of the finished setup but start the painting from life.  A painting might come together in an hour, a day, or I might be distracted working on other paintings.  As the models begin their inevitable decline I switch to the photo which, among other things, captures the lighting level from the original setup.  After doing many types of fruit enough times I can now paint them from memory, altering the colors, values and composition to suit my mood.

Working Outdoors (Plein Air)

Working outdoors is another matter.  I prefer painting in the studio, but I've done plein air painting (working outdoors).  The downsides are that weather,  temperature, time of day, energy level can all change, some quite quickly.  Most plein air paintings I begin will eventually be finished in the studio, but that might be days, weeks, months or, as in some cases, even years before I get back to the work.  Or I might do just a value study in paint or a small painting of the subject to then later do a larger painting in the studio. Again, I always take a photo of my final scenic choice and often many photos to capture light, mood, hue, different perspectives, etc.  Certain times with scenes that hold great significance to me the image is burned in my memory and I hardly need a photo as a reminder. 

There's another important factor in all this - the photograph is static, but I often change my mind taking liberties or poetic license with different aspects of the scene.  I might change the orientation from more horizontal to more vertical, remove parts of a scene that don't work in the painting, change colors, values or mood, enhance or distort certain aspects of a painting, etc.  As examples see the following progression from Reflections: Fuller Brook No. 4 where I've changed the orientation from the photo that shows in the original sketch of values/color, moved the direction of the stream from right to center to left, and lengthened the perspective:

Is It Copying to Work From a Photo?

A child once asked me after watching a demo of egg tempera if I was copying since I had the photo alongside the painting.  Working from a photo is done for similar and different reasons when working in egg tempera (pity the old masters before the camera was invented!). This is an unforgiving medium compared to oil although it has its moments that offer solutions when changes must be made.  The medium must be painted on a solid surface - a panel that doesn't bend like canvas fabric.  Like oil painting the surface must be prepared with a gesso base but unlike acrylic gesso used for oil painting the gesso base for egg tempera is solid and doesn't bend (made from either chalk or marble dust mixed with sizing) and when application is finished is usually around 10-15 layers deep.  The traditional gesso is very absorbent and can be damaged easily until fully cured.  Therefore sketching on the surface isn't advised unless you can do a perfect drawing the first time out without any later changes (I can't!).  But just like oil painting, working over graphite isn't compatible, charcoal would work but the charcoal will ruin the gesso surface that can only be cleaned so much.  The solution is doing an original sketch of the painting on paper and then transfer with a safer Saral transfer paper onto the gesso surface after I'm sure the sketch is what I want (I generally sketch on Mylar which is sturdier). I then tape a print of the photo of the original setup onto the panel to serve as a reference and but can then also be folded down over the painted surface for protection when not working.