I do prefer to paint from life. I cherish the connection between me and my subject, but I paint from photographs when it becomes necessary: sometimes when it is the only way I can capture the subject in motion or in a difficult position, sometimes when I am in a location for a short time only, and sometimes when I review my photographs from past activities and decide one of them would make a good painting.
If I have the luxury of time, a painting from life can attain the same level of detail and finish as one I might create from a photograph. Several of my paintings done from life could easily have originated from photographs; but that is never my intention, it just reflects the fact that I paint the same way regardless of my source. Does that undermine the significance of those pieces? Or of the paintings that did originate in the camera? I feel just as warmly toward those works as any of my others.
When enjoying the work of another artist I naturally assume that it was done from life, and will be disappointed if I learn that it was generated instead from a photograph. And yet I respond to those paintings almost as favorably.
That makes me wonder. Why not just always paint from photos? I think some artists do. Or, more extreme, why not just take photographs and look at them? But more on that later.
It’s important to recognize that enjoying the creation of a painting is a completely different concern from enjoying looking at a painting. I treasure the experience of connection that the act of painting provides me, and that determines my work preference.
But even though I aspire to paint only according to my own best vision, still I am interested to know why works of art are received and appreciated as they are. My current best guess follows.
When we look at a simple line drawing of a figure, we perceive the image of a figure. We don’t stop to think what a piece of brain magic this is, but let’s do so now.
There are no lines around figures or faces in the world. A plain curving line provides no retinal similarity to the view of a person, and yet such a drawing can take on gesture, solid form, even emotion. This is an amazing leap, and it is the brain that accomplishes it. In fact, the brain rather enjoys the exercise. Line drawings, lost edges, loose painting strokes—we love those, but why? It is the ambiguity that allows—no, requires—the brain to make an interpretation and convince itself, on some level, that it is viewing solid reality, and in the course of this exercise it douses itself with endorphins. There need be no concern for us at this point as to why this happens; it just does.
Further, we can enjoy paintings and drawings even when they are not loose, even when they accurately mimic the image projected onto the retina from a live scene—or from a photograph. Could it be that a highly realistic painting or drawing provides endorphin-inducing uncertainty as well? It would seem so.
Might even a photograph provide similar ambiguity? But a photograph leaves no effective room for dual interpretations. We cannot revel in the physical method of production of a photo because it is mechanical, even when the artist alters the image given her by the camera, because that alteration does not reveal her hand. We enjoy photography in other ways (not under discussion here). But when I recognize that an apparently photographic image is actually the production of a human hand, something changes in my appreciation. Beyond the admiration or envy I may feel, I can like the work, sometimes in spite of myself.
True, photorealism fails to excite me the way a less defined piece can. The brain work is not the same, yet the knowledge that I am looking at the work of a person does allow for an ambiguous interpretation of the image in the way a photograph cannot. I can view the work as paint or as image, and that ambiguity does appeal to me.
A question I cannot answer is why highly illusionistic artwork is so widely favored, because I myself much prefer the ambiguity—or even polyguity*—of a work that shows the artist’s hand.
*I made that word up, to signify more than two possible interpretations. I then found the word online in a discussion of Joyce’s Ulysses, used just as I have here. My great big fat dictionary does not list “polyguity,” but it defines “ambiguity” as allowing two or more interpretations, so there was no need for the new word. But I think it’s cool so I’m keeping it. Besides, the prefix “ambi” is commonly understood to mean just two.