I’m finished taking my second figure painting class, getting more comfortable painting the delightfully and frustratingly complex human form, from life, a few times a week. As I get more and more comfortable handling this subject matter, my mind tends to wander to thinking about just how “far” I want to go in these depictions. Do I want to paint every last color transition, every last hair or freckle? Do I want to do those things just to prove that I can? My answer is obviously no. But then I start to think about photo-realism, its critics, and the idea of an artist “turning themselves into a machine.”
I think that my stopping point with an objective painting is usually once it becomes joyless and nitpicky.
Sleep by Megan Koth 2014
I’m experimenting with how to handle the background in a more abstract way.
I think this is why I tend to have a bit of an unenthusiastic attitude towards photo-realism (or hyper-realism?) in the pure sense of the word (not to include an artist who happens to use photo-realistic techniques for work that is expressive in other ways.) The joyless, labored-overness (not a word) is just so apparent that it becomes the whole spectacle of the painting. I don’t want to post a picture of someone’s work as a “bad” example, but we’ve all seen the uninspired paintings of boring photographs of stuff on a black or white table, closeups of marbles or other ephemera, and maybe marveled at the technical skill, but then ultimately forgot them.
I have a crazy theory (i.e it obviously doesn’t apply to everyone) that a lot of painters who go into photo-realism do it as a sort of defense against the devaluing of their labor. As any artist is well aware, the general public tends to at least struggle with acknowledging that the labor of an artist has any value at all. “That painting looks so fun and effortless!” they’ll say about anything not rendered to the highest degree. And nobody should be paid for “fun.” Nothing about a photo-realistic painting looks fun or effortless. And people can see that- they can see the drudgery (i.e. “real work”) involved. And thus the “problem” is solved. But at the cost of creating something that is perhaps more memorable, or that really elevates the medium or the consciousness of a viewer.
And at the end of a day, why try to make paintings that look like photographs? You can be as precise as you can, take as many hours, days, weeks as you want, and the “machine” (i.e. the camera) will always win. Because it’s a machine, and you’re an imperfect human being. But that’s okay. It’s okay to show your hand in your work. In our age of chasing the next shiny new widget, it can be incredibly refreshing to see something so distinctly created by a human hand.