At my painting class this week, I had to choose a new photo to paint from. Now, a big part of the learning in this class involves learning to listen to our instinct about what makes a good painting. It's quite difficult to do when you're trying to create a painting, but we start with one whole class taking photos of a flamenco dancer dancing. Then we combine all the students' photos (can be thousands). Nicholas Pearce, the instructor, is both a technically savvy artist and an artist of the old school (i.e., not of the express-yourself school), to boot--a bit of an oxymoron! He brings in his computer and sets up a large monitor and scrolls through the photos quickly. We have to decide in the space of 2 second whether we like a photo or not. Then gradually cull them down to one.
This process sounds like a waste of time to new students, and I thought so too, when I first took his class. But then I started trying to choose photos from my own collection--no dancers!--and I find I look at them quite differently. It's the very rare one that is really valuable as a potential work of art, as something that can be turned into a large painting that I'll want to look at for the rest of my life. When I brought my selection of photos to class so that Nicholas could help me choose, he tells me, to paint someone you know, you are always concerned about making it look like them, even if the photo is a good one artistically. All the more reason to find a very good photo, one that is dynamic in composition and colour, conveying the essence of expression that is so hard to define.
Sure, you can take a photo and use it as a stepping stone to create something more to your liking. That's not what the class is about, though. It is about learning to see what makes a composition, using the entire photo as the frame in which to see that composition. The thinking the painter does in the making of the painting from that photo is then not about how to alter shapes, add colours, change expression, to perhaps make a painting that works. The thinking instead is how to produce the artistry you've already identified as present in the photo. How to achieve harmonious intensities using only cadmium red deep and light, cadmium yellow medium, phthalo blue, and white, how to loosen that tightly wound desire to copy, by using a 1.5 inch house painter's brush, how to deal with the effect of blowing up an 8x10" photo to a 30x40" canvas.
It's a process of technical exploration of a sort that students rarely learn in school. But more important, for me, is the exploration of what I the artist am doing and want to be doing. This last is the most difficult thing for me.