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Archives for May, 2006

Studying images and style

Drawing or painting from photographs is inherently different from working from life, because when working from a photograph, the subject of the work is a static image. Studying images has always played an important role in art, although the images in the past were of course not photographs, but works by other artists. As Cennino Cennini recommended in the 14th century:

take pains and pleasure in constantly copying the best things which you can find done by the hand of great masters. And if you are in a place where many good masters have been, so much the better for you. But I give you this advice: take care to select the best one every time, and the one who has the greatest reputation. And, as you go on from day to day, it will be against nature if you do not get some grasp of his style and of his spirit.

The style and spirit of the artist to be copied is as important as the subject of the artwork itself. Cennino emphasizes this point by directing the student to study one master at a time:

For if you undertake to copy after one master today and after another one tomorrow, you will not acquire the style of one or the other, and you will inevitably, through enthusiasm, become capricious, because each style will be distracting your mind. You will try to work in this man’s way today, and in the other’s tomorrow, and so you will not get either of them right.

This idea of copying another artist’s work to study style is perhaps alien to our contemporary ideas of how an artist should develop. But the goal, development of a personal style, is something that all artists share:

If you follow the course of one man through constant practice, your intelligence would have to be crude indeed for you not to get some nourishment from it. Then you will find, if nature has granted your any imagination at all, that you will eventually acquire a style individual to yourself, and it cannot help being good; because your hand and your mind, being always accustomed to gather flowers, would ill know how to pluck thorns.

How can we relate this approach of copying other artists to the practice of working from photographs? Dan Bodner said recently, “We cannot separate how we see from the way photography has informed our vision.” This seems consistent with Cennino’s writing. An artist who works continually from the photograph will, intentionally or not, acquire the “style and spirit” of the photograph. The camera thus becomes the artist’s master. Dan Bodner seems to have escaped this because he already developed a personal style before turning to photography as a source.

Dan Bodner on painting with photographs

plein air landscape painting
Painting From Life vs. From Photos

“I walked into my new studio and this was the view, these water towers – which are typically New York. I thought, ‘yeah I should do that.'”

In early 2005 Dan Bodner changed the focus of his artwork from the human figure (painted from life or imagination) to cityscape. At the same time he began to use digital photography to study his subjects and his own work.

Bodner often makes photographs under conditions that would be difficult to paint from life, like the night scene above, or snow storms. He is in particular interested in the effects of city lights on the sky. From a large number of photos he selects a sample which he studies by making pencil drawings.

The drawings are not direct copies, but interpretations that combine elements from more than one photo. After he finds the composition, Bodner makes small oil sketches to study color. Then he makes a large painting based on all of these elements. In the end, some paintings are similar to the original photographs, others diverge substantially from the source images.

Photographs are not only Bodner’s subjects, but a way to study his own work. He has found that by making a photograph of a painting, he can see it as though looking for the first time. As Bodner explains, “By making the photographs daily, I can get a distance from the work as I’m painting it.”

Photography is associated with all aspects of Dan Bodner’s cityscape artwork, a connection which he finds appropriate. Bodner explains:

I want to use photography as a source for my work because we cannot separate how we see from the way photography has informed our vision. I think photography allows painting to be what it is today.

first part of this interview

Painting from Death: Bodner on creating from photographs

plein air landscape painting
Painting From Life vs. From Photos

To paint from a photograph is inherently different than painting from life. Some artists avoid photos, others use them, perhaps covertly, for practical reasons. But to American artist Dan Bodner, painting from photos is not merely a technique, but a way to focus on his role as an artist. I interviewed Bodner recently at his studio in Amsterdam.

Question: When you work from photographs, do you ever ask yourself, what is the point of making the painting, when the image already exists in the photo?

Bodner: No. A photo is a record of a moment that has passed, a dead moment. I don’t feel that I own the image as a photograph until I paint it as a painting. The photo itself always refers to the past. But a painting of the photo is a creation, which goes on living. The painting defines its own continuing moment in time.

Question: Does painting go beyond the goal of simply making an image?

Bodner: What painting is for me is part of human desire. Every kid smears his food, or shit, and that is really connected to what painting is. A kid makes a mark and has the satisfaction of knowing “I made this and it will stay there.” For an adult I think it is connected to fear of death, which is innate. And it is connected to the desire to procreate. As you get older it gets existential, of course. To take things out of you and put them into the world, there is an absolute satisfaction in that. To do this from a photo emphasizes the act of creation, bringing life to something dead.

In the next post, more about how Dan Bodner uses photos, his subjects and his methods

Techniques and Ideas

How to Store Oil Paints

oil paint tube

  1. Tube Trouble?
  2. The Greatest Invention Since the Paint Tube

How to Care for Brushes

oil painting brushes

  1. Turpentine Trouble?
  2. Storing Brushes
  3. Cleaning Brushes
  4. Shaping Brushes
  5. Transporting Brushes

Things to Ponder


  1. What is Art?
  2. How to Make Art Last?
  3. Is Art School Worthless?
  4. Why is it Difficult to be an Artist?

Frames and Framing

  1. To Frame or not to Frame?
  2. Internet as Frame
  3. In real life, the frame matters

Painting from Life vs. from Photos

plein air landscape painting

  1. From Life by Zipser
  2. From Photos by Bodner
  3. From Life by Bartman

How to Blog

  1. How to Write the Perfect Blog Post?
  2. “Bloggers have to Earn the Right to be Read”
  3. How Should Artists Blog?
  4. Can You Create in Public?

Painting from photos, preview

plein air landscape painting
Painting From Life vs. From Photos

We have recently been discussing the role of photography in painting (e.g., Art News Blog, Making a Mark, Edward Winkleman). Yesterday I travelled to Amsterdam to interview Dan Bodner, an artist who has achieved success painting from cityscape photos. What impressed me, along with the quality of the work, was the way this artist has conceptualized the photo’s role in his creative process. The artist’s words and paintings will appear in the next post.

What gets lost on the internet?

The answer to the question, “What is art?” will no longer be “That which is in museums and galleries”, but, “That which looks good on the internet.”

I’m not so concerned about the accuracy of the prediction; I find it a reasonable bet. What bothers me is the extent to which the digitalized image separates us from the essential physical character of the artwork.

In creating an artwork, especially from imagination, the nature of the materials influences the process. The subtle traces of this which remain can be some of the most powerful aspects of the physical work itself. And yet these are easily lost in the digital reproduction. A striking example I have seen of this is in Michelangelo’s drawings. The drawings which I studied in the recent exhibition in Haarlem have great power, but this is mostly lost in the internet reproductions.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling does as poorly on the internet as the study drawings, but for a different reason; the awesome, encompassing quality of the work is lost when it is reduced to a miniature flat image on the computer monitor.

If this can happen to Michelangelo, what are the implications for artists today who wish to use the web as their exhibition space? Will the medium distort and degrade the artist’s methods as he or she attempts to create “That which looks good on the internet”?

Fall of the Art World

A lot of mediocre art can be a good thing

The conventional wisdom is that the rise in selling art on the internet will swamp the market with mediocre work. The implication is that a more restricted art world, with dealers and curators as guardians, would protect us from this fate.

In fact, a marketplace swamped with mediocre work is exactly what we should hope to see. If there is a large quantity of artwork produced, the average quality indeed may be low. But the average is not the important metric. What matters is the variance, the overall distribution. If there is a broad distribution, there may be a small fraction, say the top 1%, that is remarkable artwork.

In speaking to many artists, I have heard about the hopeless feeling of never being able to break into the art world, the world of dealers, curators and collectors. This sentiment discourages artists and discourages artistic production. Fewer artworks mean fewer great artworks — probabilistically speaking.

If the internet becomes the dominant art market, then no one need worry about breaking in. The focus can be on the more important question, “How to make the best art possible?” The more that artists feel empowered to produce, the larger the number of paintings that will be in the top 1%.

Of course, the discerning buyer will have to search for that top 1%. But since when did shopping become unpopular?

Fall of the Art World