Photography, a great resource for the painter

Foxglove, 'isolated' from the background

As the title of the post suggests, photography is a great resource for the painter. A photograph can be a work of art itself with the limitations of photographic optics often contributing to the artistic effect. One ‘limitation’ of the lens is ‘depth of field’. This onetime ‘limitation’ is very popular nowadays. The photo on the left illustrates ‘depth of field’. The flower is in focus and the background is out of focus. Whatever precise point the lens is focused on, a short distance in front of and behind is also ‘in focus’. This distance is controlled by the aperture setting in the lens (the F numbers, eg 4, 5.6, 8 etc.) and is the ‘depth of field’. A very high F number would have made the background sharp and, in this case, ruined the photograph. It is very much a photographically induced image.

And so to the point of this post. Using a photograph as a reference for a painting is very useful. But including this ‘photographic effect’ in a painting, is painting what a camera sees and not what a person sees. It is not one and the same thing. When I see this effect in a painting it seems to me that the artist copied the photograph and was not using the photograph as an ‘aid’ to producing the painting.

In a still life painting, for example, when the eye focusses on an object in the painting, the brain blurs the other parts of the painting and as one moves from item to item in the painting this is continually happening. Of course you have to ‘isolate’ objects but you do so by more subtle means than ‘photographically’ blurring other areas.

I think this is why a realist still life painting looks more ‘real’ than the photograph of the same objects. I have never heard the comment “I could almost touch these objects” in reference to a photograph but its a common comment when viewing a painting.

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