Why it doesn’t look just like the picture.

fax-faceIn the 1980s when photocopying technology became increasingly available, David Hockney made a series of prints using a Xerox machine.  I was looking at some of these prints recently and trying to overcome my initial dismissive reaction: these aren’t ‘prints’. But of course, they are. They were state-of-the art prints in their day.

Printing is and has always been a mechanical method of making multiple reproductions of an image. In the past artists used woodblocks, etchings, engravings, then lithography, screen printing and so on. Today, many artists sell giclée prints of their work, prints that are digital scans of their drawings which are then processed and printed on inkjet printers. And what if we skip the paper part of it all together and use an iPhone and a distant computer server. Isn’t that basically the same idea?

Our instincts say no. It’s somehow not hard or special enough. Where’s the craft? But of course a good digital scan take experience and tools and work. So that’s not it. Or maybe it’s posterity, the sense that an old Xerox or a computer print out surely won’t survive for hundred of years like a Dürer woodcut. But with archival papers and inks and proper handling, that’s probably not the case either.

No, I think the real issue is scarcity. If you can just push a button and bang out an infinite number of reproductions, it is no longer precious, a limited edition, valuable. If someone can make an infinite number of copies, then there’s no value to any particular one. A Work of Art is reduced to the same status as a call report or a lost pet flyer. So the Art Market has trained us to dismiss this way of looking at it. If it can’t be bought or sold for increasing amounts, don’t bother making it.

Now, if inventive, creative, curious people like Dürer or Rembrandt had been able to make thousands and thousands of copies of their images with just the push of a button, believe me, they would not have been sweating over blocks of wood. They weren’t burdened with the same market concerns that weigh down our view of art. They made limited editions mainly because it took a helluva lot of work to get even a dozen proper prints from a copper plate.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

Thinking about Hockney’s Xeroxes made me think about how technology is constantly improving the ways it solves basic human problems. Not just labor saving devices, but things that make our lives better and richer. Examples abound.

But what about image making? There was a point when people drew on cave walls with blood and mud, to make some point lost to the sands of time but they were using the best image-making technology they had. Eventually we figured out how to carve stone statues, to make fresco, to stretch canvas, and so on.

This image-making and image-sharing had a purpose. Usually it was to tell a story or pass on some vital information: this is what the Gods did, this is how we won this war, This is how handsome and powerful the King is, this is how Jesus came back, and so on. Nowadays, if Jesus came back again, we would probably use Vine or a Facebook post to share the news, not a fresco or calligraphy on a goatskin.

So if, in one split second and with no real experience or skill, you can use the phone in your pocket to make an image that is technically superior and precise to anything you can make with pencil, why make art at all anymore?

That’s a question people have been asking themselves for almost two centuries. And the answer that Manet and Monet and Seurat and Cezanne and Van Gogh and the rest of the gang came up with over a hundred years ago is that the purpose of art is no longer to reproduce physical reality, it’s to convey how we feel about it. To capture the human condition, the way we see the world through the veils of subjectivity, experience, emotion, history and all the rest of the stuff that make us who we are.

This is something we have to think about when we draw.  Stop assessing your work based on how close it is to “reality”. Don’t bother posting a snapshot of your dog next to the drawing you did of it. Who cares if you are almost as good as that camera in your pocket. ‘Cause in fact, you’re not even close. That photo is a far better way to make that image. More efficient, more accurate.

But that image isn’t really what you want, is it? What you want is to capture your soul, your inner state, the love you feel for that dog. You want to make a picture of the inside of your mind.

Don’t worry about Xerox®ing reality with your sketchbook. Focus on capturing You instead.

So far nobody, in Silicon Valley or elsewhere, has come up with an app for that.

43 thoughts on “Why it doesn’t look just like the picture.

  1. Perplexing conundrum isn’t it? Feeling versus reality. When you put your heart and soul into a sketch for an hour or so you will feel yourself in it. A snapshot of the same thing happens in an instant but there is no feeling. But the snapshot captures reality. That is where the difference lies.

  2. What a wonderful post. These ideas are why I believe sketchbook skool is so special. It allows us to see how skilled artist capture themselves and emcourages us to do the same, without the fear of putting ourselves out there or a cookie-cutter goal that would intimidate, and ultimatel dissapoint, us all. I have always had a hard time seeing reality in my drawings but I have always clearly seen myself, which I thought was a huge problem! This post made me think that accepting and liking our own art is an act of love. Because if we do that them we are accepting and loving ourselves. wow, brilliant post.

  3. Thanks Danny, thats a really helpful bit of advice. Plus I was feeling really down today and I thought switching on the computer to see what Danny Gregory had to say might help – finding this was a life raft. You are in my head alot, sometimes walking the dog can feel frightening and then I remember how early on in my recovery I sat on one bench day after day drawing what I saw and I did that because of you so you seem to be in the park now if you now what I mean. The storm has passed, I read your piece, painted a bit, phoned a helpline and talked to a stranger for 40 minutes and now Im in a nice dress and off to the shops – to look at me you’d never guess!!! Thanks x x

  4. People in my family do art. We always say if you want it to look like a photograph, then take one – that can be art too.

  5. A few posts ago I commented on how you validated what I thought. To be correct would say, You validate what I suspect. If my memory is correct, photography was not accepted as “art” for quite some time by some people.It seems that we not only have to struggle with inner critics, but with critics who have no idea about what art is or not. Your writing in ‘Creative License” says it quite well, the money…….

  6. I draw things from my everyday life. I draw them because their beauty strikes me or because they are lead players in events happening to my family and me. I could take a picture of them, but that is not the same. As I draw, my eyes caress the thing/the object. It forces me to really see. A picture is quickly taken but drawing forces me to slow down. It’s like meditation. A work of art, therefor, made by me is just so much better than a picture. .. to me. I don’t know if it conveys how I feel to a broader audience. I draw because it connects me more firmly to my own life.

  7. I enjoyed this…
    There is also the aspect of the process, the journey as it were. I was a photographer for many years and still enjoy the process of photography. I wish to draw for the enjoyment of the journey, for the meditation in the drawing process. I got a similar enjoyment out of crafting a print from a negative, not from the turning out of a limited number of art widgets, but from the physical mantra involved in the making.

  8. Very inspirational, Danny. The other day I sat outside to sketch. Two big cottonwood trees caught my eye. The day was pleasantly warm and there was a soft breeze blowing. In fact the heart-shaped leaves on the trees were moving and making wonderful music. This was the first time I had actually taken time to sketch a complete scene….I must have sat there for a good hour. When I had finished, I brought my trees back to my art board and, using watercolors, finished up with color. When I look at this pen and wash sketch now, I can still hear the beautiful heart-shaped leaves and feel the warm summer air blowing my hair. You can’t get that from a photograph.

  9. Danny, thanks for posting this! Over the past few weeks, I’ve been making an effort to draw what I feel rather than what I think I should see. Your post articulates all the reasons why it’s so satisfying to approach art in this manner. :-)

  10. A few days ago I was sitting on a seawall overlooking the beach and sketching in a small notebook I’d stuck in my pocket on my way out the door. ( I had no predetermined intention to write or sketch, just a creative instinct to be prepared for whatever might cross my mind while watching the waves roll in.) Someone came and sat down very close to me, a woman I thought. I could not see her with my back turned. I kept “doodling”.
    “I draw too, she said, “I always have my book with me.” She showed me her work – perfectly rendered almost architectural drawings of the famous resort hotel just to the north of us. She looked at what I’d drawn, a thumbnail of beach umbrellas and sun bathers. “You have to measure,” she said. And proceeded to give me the benefit of her expertise.
    I tried to explain that “reality” doesn’t interest me in that way, that I “work” (make art) from the inside out and that my favorite part is mixing and adding color and letting my imagination fill in the gaps. Studying art in London I came across a teacher who said, “Process Not Product” but I find few who agree. Endless sketches and preparation and refinement take the heart and soul out of Art in favor of, I suppose, verisimilitude ( fancy way of saying “accurate”) or, perhaps “perfection”, that killer of joy.
    In my darker moments of improvisation I recall something Matisse said, beautifully expressed in his native French) and meaning “Accuracy is not the Truth.”
    Thank you for your thoughtful post. It came at just the right time.

  11. Why draw or paint any more? Yeah, I agree with you, exploration, discovery, self expression, capturing a memory are all good reasons, but don’t forget slinging mud and blood on the wall is just good fun. Also, the problem solving aspect of it keeps me going – trying to get the stuff to go where I want. It’s fun to experiment. By the way, speaking of cave paintings, how come the animals are done realistically but the people always look like stick figures or aliens? And if they could blow paint around their hand, how come nobody blew paint around their buddy’s head or whole body for that matter? Makes you wonder what they were thinkin’.

  12. You have a great way with words Danny. I like this post. I keep trying to put feeling into my drawings, but I end up trying to draw realistically. My head gets in the way I guess. But I will keep trying.

  13. Not quite sure how you feel about the evolving technology, D. But this much we know — it’s here to stay and will be the tool of choice soon. Your point about the ends will always be true, but the means will be a digital stylus and a 32 gig sketchbook.

    • I love technology. I learned to write programs in BASIC in junior high. I got my first computer in 192, my first mac in ’84, my first website in the late ’90s (wanna see it 2001? ) and I’ve had this blog for a decade.
      I had a first generation Newton, the first iPod (it came on out 9/11/2001!), the first Kindle, the first iPad.
      That being said, a digital stylus will never replace my dip pen.

    • I agree with Danny. I’ve spent some time using a stylus and don’t like it at all. Danny also talks about how much more important is process than the end product. The process is why I will never replace my pointy devices with a dull one moving on a glass plate.

      Cheers — Larry

  14. Plenty of people are still doing traditional printmaking. Etchings, litho, dry point, collographs. We had to do it at art school. I knew nothing about it before that. It is a whole art form on its own. There’s a lot to learn and it is not easy. and with these traditional forms of printmaking, you can’t make an infinite number of prints. It depends on the type of plate, how long it will hold out. And each one can be inked up differently, so they don’t turn out all the same necessarily. You have to know about things like ‘a la poupee’ and ‘chine collé’. There’s a whole world of traditional printmaking and it is still out there.

  15. Great post, Danny. Another way of looking at the photo of subject and drawing, though, is that it allows the viewer to see how you interpreted what you were seeing, how much you improved upon it. I love such photos as they provide a window into the artist.

    Cheers — Larry

    • Sure, Larry, but we both know that’s rarely why people are posting photos. They want to be judged on how accurate what they made was. Especially since the photos they post are almost never ‘good photos’ just hastily made snapshots of a hand holding up a sketchbook.

  16. I agree with your inspiring words here – but there are times when some art is still realistic – and so while it is awesome to have the essence of the artist in their sketches and work – there are still times when we want duplication – like in a court artist role.

    Also, funny you should mention Cezanne because he actually tried very hard to be more of a realism painter – but he never learned how to fully “see” – and that was his thorn – which then led to “the essence of him in his work” that you write about – :) – which also led to a entire fresh and new wave of art to follow – to where moving away from academia was not only okay, but was novel and amazing. So isn’t it that new generations just sometimes want/need/must have “different” -? And the artists you mention – well they were not all that aimed at putting their feelings into their work – at least in my opinion, but they were experimenting – they were working their media options and they playing with light – with outdoor studios – with night – with texture – with paint – etc. And so while their art was expressionistic/impressionistic/fauvistic – etc. – well in some ways it is not better then the frescos or cave drawings we have – because those can be interpreted to have author hues too –

    and that ties into how technology is supposedly making our life better – I think this is very open to debate – while some advancements are maybe saving lives – the plastic used for those things – for those who need it in those richer countries – well the leftovers are now floating in the ocean killing birds/marine life- and who knows what the ripple impact will be – not to mention the many other hazards we have from our technology that is subtle. Also, tech sometimes has people sitting too much, with exposure to elements from all the tech, then we are eating chemicals in every meal – with big pharmacy dictating healing options – hmmm so I am not so sure all this tech is “making our lives better and richer” – it is just “different” and maybe better in some ways but in other ways – ?? hm?

    and while I am grateful to live in this day and age – seems like humans always have the same stuff to deal with – things just get packaged different over the years – and with art – the media options will evolve – but new generations will always want “different” – hmmmm

    well thanks for such a meaningful and thought provoking post….

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, prior.
      I didn’t mean that art shouldn’t be realistic. I strive for realism all the time. I mean that its proximity to what a camera could make of the same subject is not the most important criterion. That communicating one’s subjective POV is what truly gives art its power and that’s how, as making artists, we should consider the goal of what we are doing.
      And I also didn’t mean to suggest that post-impressionists were the first artists to convey feeling but rather that it was in the mid 19th century that art had its first competition as the image making form of choice. Therefore it became clear that simply depicting a subject accurately was no longer a sufficient reason for art to continue,; artists would have to put more of themselves into their work.
      As for whether technology has improved our lives, I know it has, despite the side effects. However, I don’t feel like debating that today. Maybe next week!

      • thanks for the reply – I respect your opinion a lot. :) have a nice day –
        oh, and I fully agree – and especially like how you said this:

        ‘communicating one’s subjective POV is what truly gives art its power’

  17. As a graphic designer and painter, I have thought about this a lot. Technology is wonderful, can do amazing things, and can most definitely produce art. But as someone who spends too much time creating on a computer I don’t equate computer work with fine art. Many disagree and that is perfect – makes for lively discussions! About 10 years ago I began to actually crave creating with my hands – pottery, basketry, and then painting. Painting won! To me, computer generated art is too cold, flat, has no life. There are people creating absolutely stunning images but it doesn’t do it for me. Computer art is commercial art – my opinion comes from almost 30 years in the printing field. And I know how easy it can be to create “art” on the computer – Photoshop has a watercolor button (!) and too many use it. Too many photographers rely on Photoshop to make their images “perfect” or hi-def instead of learning their craft and camera and taking a great photo to begin with. I sound so cynical! But i have personally seen too many people use a computer to “create’ art and yet they have no thoughts/goals/intentions behind what they are doing other than they are now an “artist” and going to make money. A repeat of the 80s when all you needed was a computer and you were a graphic designer – oy! the work I have seen! I want your heart and soul to scream from your art and very, very few people can do that using the latest and greatest geegaw. I am ready for my skewering now! ; )

  18. You might like the book by Lawrence weschler – really a series of very thoughtful interviews with david hockney – called ‘true to life’ (univ of California press). The whole book, the whole series of conversations really, is about whether a photo, or a drawing, or a painting, is more ‘true to life.’ Hockney has some damning, and funny, things to say about photography, even though he experimented with it in his famous series of ‘collages’ or ‘joiners.’

  19. Because each artist sees something different, or feels inclined to paint it differently. If you paint it JUST like the picture, like a photo copy as some artists do.. well you might as well TAKE a picture instead.

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