This article was first published in Galleries magazine, July 2017 edition.
A ‘selfie’ is a self-portrait linguistically, but the abbreviation is visual as well.
To painting a face from a photographs is also a short-cut, in fact it is to begin at the end.
It is a truism that photography as source material for figurative painting removes too much risk, so the high-wire act of drawing loses the need to be able to find a balance of visual cues.
Degas used photography to paint and trace from, but he didn’t trust the new technology, so he continually experimented with printing ink, pastels on the way to paint. Bonnard said that ‘nature stands still in front of me, so that I can invent from her’. ‘Copying isn’t art, it’s just copying oneself’ agreed Pablo.
In addition, Singer Sargent’s words, that ‘a portrait is a painting in which there is something wrong with the mouth’ should convince artists to make portraits that are primarily about the medium and technical problems posed by it – the likeness causes us all to look at portraits ‘wrong’.
Painted faces must first be satisfying works of art and inconsistency, unresolved areas and unease need to be present. That doesn’t sound like portraiture, and yet the generous viewer can embrace the awkwardness of drawing, often being rewarded by revelation rather than mere recognition.
Photography doesn’t need to be gilded by paint. Hockney’s ‘joiners’ (particularly the one of his mother) are full of his painter’s sensitivity to composition, light and the possibilities of multiple viewpoints as well. Richter is such a wonderful painter and his visual intelligence is so measured that, when he uses photography as source material, he is confident enough to refer directly to the qualities of those photographs in his painting. Gursky’s photographs of groups of people at work and play are astonishing portraits, only really possible with a camera to hand. Avedon and Kander’s images acknowledge the foundations of their subject matter laid down by painters for hundreds of years.
Painters, on the other hand, can stray when too jealous of the authority of photography, aiming for that elusive and transient (possibly trivialising) imagery of ourselves, and forget that a painting is also a construction of an alternate reality.
Jonathan Ellis, June 2017