November 3, 2018

Working from Photographs (Part I)

        At my last show someone asked me, “I hope you won’t be offended, but do you ever work from photographs?”  The idea that I might be offended by the suggestion is sort of a funny one.  I consider working with the aid of photographs to be essential research into my subject.  Yes, I know that there has been a certain snobbery that a true artist needs no such aids.  That must be related to the idea that Renaissance artists were somehow “cheating” if they used a camera obscura, as if bringing some ingenuity to bear on a problem is genius, but bringing all your ingenuity makes it too easy or something.  But I never went to art school and was never trained to be a “true artist” anyway, so I’m going to set any judgments aside and simply describe some of the ways in which I do use photographs.
        First of all, whenever I’m planning to make a print of a real plant or animal, I gather lots of reference photos that show my subject from the angle I’m thinking of depicting it, as well as lots of other angles.  For example, if I’m doing a cat I might have photos to help with the pose, and photos for inspiration with the fur pattern, and photos to help with the face, and maybe additional photos for a detail of a paw or some other specific element about which I’m not quite sure.  I use photos of my own whenever possible, and I do use sketches from life when my own cat cooperates, but I supplement with a variety of photos from the internet to add to the research.  In these cases I’m not copying any single photo, but I’m certainly using the photographs to teach me details of what my subject looks like in real life.  Otherwise, how could I possibly know the proportions, or the way the joints bend in a particular position, or any of the other details I crave for accuracy?  Block printing often simplifies elements, but that makes it all the more vital that I start with the way things really look so that I can decide what to modify.  In this picture of a woodpecker, for example, I had some photos of birds on my feeder, but found additional photos that showed the bits that were obscured in my photos, as well as pictures of tree trunks with interesting bark.
        Even when I’m making a fantasy scene, I collect photos to help.  After all, nothing is really entirely new; it’s always composed of elements or analogies with real things.  I collect photos of trees for the forest setting, or lions’ paws for the feet, or birds’ or bats’ wings, or flames, and so on.  When I’m depicting a mythical creature with a long history, I do lots of research into how it’s been portrayed before, so that I can find the right balance between making my version “accurate” to its roots, and yet not too boringly generic.  How could I possibly know whether I was doing something new, if I didn’t know what had been done before?  Again, the idea is not to copy any one photograph exactly, but rather to use the photographs as research.  In the picture of the hercinia, for example, I looked at photos of birds to help get the flight right (I believe I ended up using pictures of terns for the basic shape), and lots of pictures of old growth European forests to get ideas for trees, mushrooms, fallen branches, and so on.  (Those pictures were mostly of the Schwartzwald in Germany and Bialowieza National Park in Poland.)  If you were to go searching on the internet for photographs of those forests you could probably recognize a tree here and a branch there, but you would not find any scene exactly like the forest through which my hercinia, which is not exactly a tern, flies.
        So that’s one way of using photographs, but perhaps that’s not what people are thinking of when they say “working from photographs.”  Tune in next post to find out about when I do, in fact, copy a photograph directly.

[Pictures: Downy Woodpecker, rubber block print with watercolor by AEGN, 2006;
Feathers to Light the Way, rubber block print by AEGN, 2017.]

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