“Why just copy a photo?”
“That’s not art, it’s just copying.”
We’ve all seen comments like this. I’ve had more than a few on this blog I don’t mind telling you. And more by email.
There’s one in particular that sticks in my mind, when I posted a photo of a sight-size still life set up with the painting beside it. I often work like that.
Someone added the pithy comment, “why just copy-paint a perfectly good photo?” The funny thing was, I was working from life. Some people see what they want to see, I guess.
Realism isn’t copying
Here’s the thing: Those kinds of comments reflect a basic misconception. Painting realism isn’t copying.
To illustrate what I mean, I’m going to attempt to describe what I did with this painting. Specifically, I’m going to list how I adjusted the colours as I painted. Because it was a series of very deliberate decisions made whilst painting that deviated from what I saw.
This came up on the Facebook group of my Colour Course the other day, and I’m sharing it here because I hope it will be useful to show how I go about changing things as I paint, what I change, and why.
And also hopefully explain why my course is set up the way it is, with such a strong emphasis on colour accuracy.
Start by knowing what you’re seeing
I spend a lot of time very accurately judging the colours I see. I often use a colour checker and Munsell chips, to do that, like this:
I carefully set up my easel and subject so that I know that, as far as possible, the range of colours and particularly the values I see are within the range of paint. Why makes things harder than they need to be?
Once I’ve done all that, I know the range of colours in my subject. I also know, because I’ve done this a lot, where the colours I see are outside the range of paint, whether it’s the chroma or the value, or where I have some leeway to push things around a bit.
The point here is that I know what the starting point is. I know what the actual values and chroma of the colours are. I’m not guessing.
Here’s what I changed
So here are the changes I made to the colours in that little painting of the jug and the apple.
The apple is much higher chroma than it actually was, in the reds and the yellow-greens (that means the colour is more intense). I kept the value pretty accurate, and I kept the relationship in chroma between the lights and the shadows accurate, but everything came up a notch or two. If you prefer something more concrete, it was 1 – 2 steps on the Munsell scale. May not seem like much but it makes a big difference.
The background and the ground are both considerably lighter in value than they were in the subject. And so is the cast shadow, because cast shadows belong to the surface they are cast onto, not to the object that casts them.
So changing the local value of the ground also meant changing the value of the cast shadows to preserve the relationship and the realism. Otherwise, it would just look wrong. The only reason I changed the value of the background and ground is because I wanted a lighter picture.
The body of the jug is painted slightly lower value than it really was in the lighter parts so that I could add highlights with pure titanium white and they would stand out enough to work. You can’t match the value of specular reflection, because it’s effectively like a little light source, so you have to try to suggest it.
The value of the pattern I didn’t change at all, because I know (from painting lots of studies of cubes and spheres of different local values) that low local values cover a smaller value range from dark to light, and any discrepancy in the value relationships would be minimal and not obvious. It wouldn’t break the picture.
So I changed a lot of the colours in this painting. But they were still anchored in what I saw and I did it deliberately, preserving relationships. And I knew how much I was changing them by and in which direction.
I changed them because I wanted to make a better painting. Whether I achieved that or not is debatable, sure, but the point is that I didn’t paint exactly what I saw. I painted something based on what I saw, informed by my knowledge of how light affects colour – knowledge that I’ve gleaned from a lot of investigation and practice panting cubes, spheres and pieces of fruit.
People sometimes ask me why I spend so much time painting cubes and spheres. This is why.
I’m not making any great claims for this painting. It’s not a brilliant painting. But it’s also most definitely not a paint-copy.
Unless you were with me when I painted it, seeing what I was seeing, you’d never know that. And that’s the way I want it.
I don’t want the changes to be obvious, I just want to make better paintings.
It’s my belief that being able to paint accurate colour makes you a more effective painter when you’re deviating from what you see. I believe more knowledge is never a bad thing. I believe that greater skill results in better art. I don’t believe in happy accidents, or at least, I believe they happen very rarely and much less often than some people like to think they do. I believe in intention, in clarity of purpose, in knowing what you want to achieve and doing your best to achieve it.
You may not agree, I get that and I’m fine with it. But please don’t tell me I’m copying what I see. Because if you do, you’re doing pretty much every realist painter out there a great disservice.
Best wishes and thanks for reading,
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