Are Painters' "Reference Photographs" a Form of Cheating?

February 5, 2015 12:23 PM

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"I have no difficulty with other people using photography as the basis of their painting," by which painter Steven Assael implies that he does have some difficulty. "It just has to be understood that there are dramatic differences between how the camera looks at and experiences the world and how we see it." That's his point, and his gripe, about the use of photographs by painters. "A camera records a scene in a split second, whereas we see movement over time. We synthesize our observations, and the resulting painting is the culmination of many moments. We selectively choose details and, in that selection process, meaning and surprises happen, giving the artwork a life of its own." A painting that is a copy of a photograph isn't really a painting or a photograph but something unpleasant in-between: The results, he believes, don't look convincing.

Assael discourages his students at New York's School of Visual Arts from relying on photographs, and he is hardly alone in his thinking. A growing number of figurative and landscape artists have been calling attention to the use of photographs by painters, claiming that they can tell the difference ...

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