by Michael Dumas
Likening a painting to a photograph seems to be a commonplace reaction when the painting in question appears highly realistic, especially if it entails a significant amount of detail. Such a comment, however, has a number of interpretations, including some not particularly complimentary to the artist. The benign, even favorable meaning behind the comment would be that the viewer has found the painted image as being highly convincing, and they are simply using the photographic reference for emphasis. Well and good as far as it goes, but is it accurate? If it is not, and yet the viewer perceives that it is a fair comparison, both the artist and the viewer are left at a disadvantage. The artist’s intent is not getting conveyed, and the viewer is left with less than a full understanding and appreciation of what might actually be there given a greater awareness. For both, it is essential to understand the fundamental differences between the act of painting an image, however convincing, and the characteristics to be found in creating an image with a camera.
The first thing to realize is the fundamental difference between normal binocular vision, and that of the camera’s view, which could be likened to being one-eyed. The three dimensional effect that is created by binocular vision simply does not exist in a single image created by the camera. While a photograph may offer clues of dimensionality, they are largely suppressed in comparison to what is observed with two eyes. The painter has the opportunity, if skilled enough, to create a sense of dimension to defy this inherent limitation of the two dimensional surface. To do this however, a host of illusionistic manipulations must be brought into play.
The focusing system of the eye is also quite different than that of a camera. The depth of field in photography governs the areas of sharp focus. Everything within a particular distance (it might be deep or shallow depending on the camera’s settings), top to bottom and side to side within the viewfinder will be indiscriminately focused to the same degree. With some settings, in certain circumstances, the camera produces the very specific optic effect of out of focus circles. This feature of the camera’s mechanics results in many deviations from how we normally see things. For example, the way in which we observe surface reflections and sub-surface depth in calm water. If the camera is focused fairly close up on surface objects, such as lily pads, it will not be able to simultaneously include the sub-surface information and reflections of distant objects that are readily available to the eye.
The human eye focuses only on a very small percentage within our overall range of vision. To demonstrate this, simply focus on a detail within your environment and do not shift away from it. You will note that the vast majority of our vision is peripheral in nature, and goes quickly out of focus spherically in all directions away from the point of distinct attention. Our sense of the overall view of things is the result of our eyes scanning bits and pieces of the total view and forming a compiled impression within our brain. The experience is not just through the eyes, but also through the mind. Each of us has our own distinct preferences and we will pay more attention to some things and blithely ignore others. Painting with this sort of personal interpretation not only allows for individual expression, and can be most convincing because it is not literal.
The speed at which a photograph is taken has a direct influence on the final image, and much of this does not match well to what we perceive. Consider the flowing water of a stream, and the drastically different result one can achieve in photographing it. Recorded at high speed the water is frozen into odd shapes that are real enough in actuality but are moving too fast for us to effectively observe with any confidence. We can recognize water in such images intellectually, but they do not convey the subjective reality of experience through our unaided senses. Likewise with a very long exposure that blurs the water into a soft flowing mist-like element. Very beautiful, but most certainly not what we can experience directly. Even if one selects a mid-point between these extremes, there is always a sense of the image not being as we remember it. This is because our impression of a flowing stream is rooted in an extended time frame to accommodate the movement. Conveying this impression governs how naturally convincing it will appear in paint.
Lens effects can dramatically alter images away from how we see the world through our own eyes. Wide-angle lenses distort perspective and sense of distance, filters alter color and contrast, telephoto lenses compress perspective, and so on. These effects can be positive ones for the photographer, providing choices for creative and dramatic imagery. Painters my find many of the things found in photography to be useful to them also, and may in fact be influenced by such effects, but whether or not the finished product is ‘just like a photograph’ is quite another issue. Unless the painter is blatantly faithful to copying a photograph, including all of the distinctive photographic ‘signatures’, the comparison is simply inaccurate, regardless of how ‘real’ and convincing it might be.
What then are the means available to the painter who desires to create very convincing interpretations of reality? Perhaps the single greatest attribute available to the painter is the degree of selection that can be exercised, and the amount of variation that can be applied to this concept. Take for example, the issue of creating a three-dimensional effect. By softening an edge, even to the point of losing it in the background, a sense of form receding into space can be authentically conveyed. The result is achieved not through literal translation, but is a manipulation of the brain’s susceptibility to certain types of visual illusion. Moreover, this strategy can be applied to each and every object of choice within the painting. In photographic terms this would mean individual depths of fields adjusted to all objects independently rather than one overall depth of field, and this is simply not available to the mechanics of the camera.
All of the features within a painting can be applied in a selective manner, be it the degree of hardness or softness in edges, range of tone and color, detail, patterns and textures, shape, placement, and so on. None of these things are good or bad on their own. However, detail for the sake of detail, color for the sake of color, etc. denies the potential of these qualities to express meaning outside of itself. Such things take on importance only to the degree in which they contribute to the success of the overall work, both conceptually and visually. Of these, the declaration of ‘it’s just like a photograph’ seems most closely related to the presence of detail in a painting, but detail has many guises, and each one is subject to selective inclusion based on the painter’s personal preference and intention. Foundational detail would entail things like accurate shapes of the objects portrayed, shadows that conform to, and coordinate with a light source, a sense of dimension, and so on. This sort of detail is truly foundational, and it is what makes even the most broadly painted works take on a sense of the authentic. In works that incorporate greater degrees of surface detail, this foundational aspect of detail is indispensable. Without it, regardless of how much surface detail is shown, it will simply lack presence.
The photographic comparison seems to be generated by the surface detail of objects, but once again, whether or not such detail is photographic in nature is very much in question. Some paintings, for example, depict fur by placing a multitude of individual lighter hair-like strokes over a dark undercoat, others use the same light over dark system, but concentrate on the pattern that the fur as a whole makes as it conforms to the underlying form. Still others establish the basic patterns by first indicating tonal variations while leaving the surface base largely untouched. Some painters may feel the need to take an ‘every hair’ approach, others prefer limiting the depiction to foundational detail, and still others will manipulate a broad range from specific surface detail that blends into suggested detail, and continues even further into areas restricted to basic tonal values.
Each method, and the degree of emphasis or suppression of detail will govern the final, and distinctive, result. Interestingly enough, even if one were to group paintings according to the approach taken, there would still be substantial individual differences based on who created the painting. The particularities and the touch of the individual impose a degree of uniqueness, much like one’s hand writing, the brush simply replacing the pen. Even so, success in painting must also include conceptual considerations be they dramatic or subtle, and an effective means of executing an idea. Photographers face the same challenge to establish individuality within their field, but because the tools at hand are specifically distinct, so too are the choices available. The notion that they are comparable based on the common ground of being images on a two dimensional surface, regardless of how ‘real’ they both might appear, is to misunderstand and thereby disregard the creative skills of both the painter and the photographer alike. Learning to distinguish between the two not only adds to the enjoyment of viewing, but also fosters an appreciation for the very discrete and separate skills that each endeavor requires in order to achieve success.