My darling wife went to the BP Portrait exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, yesterday. She brought me the catalogue home for a present. While there are many pictures that I like, there are some that I just don”t get.
They are photographs that are painstakingly recreated in oil paint on canvas. Why? I want to know who took the photo, after all they are the real portraitst. The painter is just the craftsman that reproduces the image that already exists. I can only think that it is an attempt to add value to a photo. You obviously feel you are getting your money’s worth when you get oil on canvas. After all, any idiot can take a photo, can’t they? Hang it on your wall and hear the oohs and aahs of appreciation. “Why!” your friends will exclaim. “That’s amazing – you’d think it was a photograph!” That’s because it is a photograph.
When the camera relieved the artist of having to create realistic portraits for their customers, artists were free to experiment and interpret the world in their own way. This is how modern art came about. Picasso and Monet didn’t have to paint pictures that looked like anything anymore. They could have fun and paint pictures for the sake of painting them and for the sake of exploring the potential of art, to express themselves as creative artists, to explain the human condition.
I’m in thrall to the camera and the realistic image as much as anyone else. I’d love to break away and draw freely like Quentin Blake, but something makes me want to make sure the image is recognisable and representative. Perhaps I should get over it and work at it.
I’m an illustrator. I like to tell stories with my pictures. When I left art college I had a brilliant crit from the art department at The Radio Times. They said I made you want to turn the pages of my illustrations to find out what happens next. They needed one-off editorial illustrations that said everything in one image. They saved me a lot of time. “Go and see book publishers,” they told me. “Don’t waste your time with magazines and newspapers.”
When I look at the portraits in the catalogue, the ones I like are the illustrations. The one’s that tell you about the person and their life. The paintings that make you want to know more.
Slavishly copying a photograph so you can see every hair and stitch of the clothing with out an obvious brushmark says, “Don’t look at the person in the portrait, look at what a clever craftsman I am.” I’m not sure what that says about the human condition other than humans can be robots too.
Filed in: Drawing