Thursday, 30 December 2010

A painting is not a photograph

We can now capture moments of beauty with cameras that allow us to trap every detail in digital format. Why then attempt to paint beauty if a photograph will do? It's an argument that's essentially been around since the introduction of the camera and is probably more relevant today than ever before, because the quality of photographic imagery is so good. People can take and edit unbelievably good images these days.

For me the answer is that a painting is not a photograph and their superficial similarities are deceptive. Yes, both the painter and the photographer must decide on the composition of their image and make choices about lighting, etc., but there the similarity ends. What may be a great photo will often be an abject failure as a painting. This is not to say that as a painter one will not recognize potential paintings in photographs, because one does. It is just that a photograph can only ever be a starting point for a painting and never the final piece.

An interesting photo but not something that would make a good painting

A painting of the same horse

Much of my work focuses on horses in motion painted in great detail. Horses are a very complex subject with a difficult anatomy. Yet we all seem to have an almost instinctive understanding of how they should look and when an image is "not quite right". To paint a horse in motion requires the use of photography to truly understand their movements. Before the cinematography of Muybridge in the late 19th century, we had no real idea of how the legs of a horse moved at the faster gaits, and even the best painters of horses would paint them looking like rocking horses if they wanted to show them galloping. Yes, photographs are a huge bonus if you're trying to get it right, but they can also lie. They can flatten and distort causing muscle definition and even bones to seemingly disappear and they can foreshorten so that a head can appear to be growing straight out of a shoulder.

I take thousands of photos of horses in motion, yet I never paint any of them. I use my snapshots, together with my understanding of the horse, as a jumping of point for my work. I may use a particular image as the basis for my composition but there will be numerous other factors, including my memories, that play into the piece as I try to bring the horse to life on the canvas. It is why I have learned to insist that I must see and photograph my subject myself, because a painting is not a photograph and can never be.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder". It's true, we all have different ideas about what is beautiful. For me, there is beauty in the liquid grace of an arabian horse floating above the ground as it trots, or a bird of prey carving its path through the sky. Perhaps I find great beauty in nature because I know that it beauty masks harsh the harsh realities of survival and death. Which raises the question: how much of our response to beauty is related to the poignancy of loss and the awareness of our own mortality?

Regardless of what we find beautiful, there is no doubt that it has the ability to reach into us and stop us in our tracks. It has the capacity to directly communicate with our emotions and to change them and the way we view our lives, even if for a brief moment. Faced with beauty, we can step out of ourselves and perhaps feel at one with our world.

In nature, all beauty is transient because the flower will fade, youth will age, and a movement will end. They are fleeting moments that we may be lucky enough to witness. This is where art can fulfill a vital role, for it allows us to capture those moments and hold them fast, to be viewed at any time, in any setting, and for years to come. It means that beauty can inspire us again and again.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Ice Station London

It was bitterly cold when I delivered prints of the first three Household Cavalry paintings to Hyde Park Barracks. The thermometer said it was -4°C, but the wind made it feel far colder. The young men at the gate were obviously suffering as well, though putting a brave face on things despite the glowing pink ears and noses. They were absolutely charming as I waited to be taken to the Officer's Mess, and the young private who then escorted me kept up a lively chat that helped us forget how cold we were both feeling.  

I'd promised that I would provide the Mess with prints of any paintings I completed as a result of my visit to the barracks. Infinartum helped me to keep that promise in style, because they looked just amazing and I'm so happy that they will hang for the men I portrayed to see. It occurred to me that I've spent so much time looking at their faces — enlisted men and officers — that I feel as if I know them, even though we've never been introduced.  

Friday, 19 November 2010

What is the purpose of art?

A beautiful piece of art is a beautiful piece of art, and it usually follows rules known for centuries and which often mimic the natural world. But beauty has nothing to do with what is touted by the cogniscenti as being worthy of attention by collectors. The contemporary art of recent decades has been promoted as challenging and thought provoking; designed to stir emotions very different from those elicited by the sublime. This provokes the question: what is the purpose of art?

Art is no longer used as a record of life, because we have cameras to do that for us. In fact they're everywhere, recording every little mundane detail of ours and others lives. Cameras in phones, on computers, in the sky, and on walls above our head. The images they create aren't art, are they?

Those CCTV images can be thought provoking, but we don't tout them as art. Perhaps because we recognize that art can only be art if we set out to create it. In that case, art is essentially a profound form of communication. The artist sets out to say something visually to the viewer by speaking directly to their emotions.

Yet we've all been to museums where contemporary pieces are accompanied by long explanations of exactly what the artist is trying to say. But surely that makes these pieces a failure as art, because they cannot communicate on their own in this great age of communication, where people are probably more open to ideas than they have ever been in the history of man. And they need curators and experts to explain their message.

There have always been artists who have challenged the received wisdom and moved art forward. Movements that have been shunned later as reactionary, such as the pre-raphaelites, were avant garde in their day. Art needs to evolve and allow room for new ideas to develop. But it also needs to find a place where people will be inspired to care for it, because the work involves them and speaks to them.

So, what is the purpose of art? Is it always to challenge and provoke in obscure ways? Why do we need this in a world of 24/7 news channels and information overload? Cannot art be acceptable when it provides a haven of peace for us? Perhaps the purpose of art is also to feed our souls and bring us out of the mundane, not to remind us of the depths to which we can sink as human beings. Surely there must be space for all kinds of artistic expression, including those who simply want to tell the world that there is beauty out there.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Ask Me No More by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Lawrence Alma Tadema has been a favourite painter of mine for as long as I can remember. I've always loved the work of Millais and Waterhouse as well. For a long time it was considered in quite bad taste to say that you liked the Victorian painters — a bit like saying you thought Constable's "The Haywain" was great art (which apparently shows a person to be completely unsophisticated).

For years I remember that Stubbs was only spoken of with a snigger, now his "Whistlejacket" dominates the National Gallery in London and his work is highly sought after. Recently, Alma Tadema's painting, "The Finding of Moses" sold for $32m (£20.9m). It's not my favourite of his works, but it is still encouraging to see his artistry recognized. Twenty years ago you could have picked up his paintings for a song.

It's fashion that converts an artist's work from a guilty pleasure we won't admit to, to something that allows us to bask in it's reflected glory. So how do the cogniscenti decide that an artist's work can come out of the wilderness? Why do we relegate them there in the first place? How can someone transition from hating and mocking a body of paintings to singing it's praises almost overnight? Are they really seeing the value of the work, or is it a speculative fad? At the moment I can only be happy that Alma Tadema's work has found its way back and that narrative art, exquisitely painted and offering us something truly beautiful to behold, has found its way back from the wilderness.

Marked For Glory

Going to Menton this summer was quite the treat. I went there with the purpose of photographing some of the most beautiful Arabian horses in the world, and wasn't disappointed. Except perhaps with the weather. Having waited two days and enjoyed the brilliant sunshine of the French Riviera, I watched the clouds move in the hour before the show was due to begin. The rain timed it perfectly, and started with the show.

Still, nothing could take away the pleasure of seeing a stream of such beautiful creatures floating through the arena. They're really magical!

Marked For Glory was one of the first paintings I did based upon what I saw at Menton. He isn't just a stunningly beautiful stallion, he has a really kind expression in his eye and seems to be quite at ease with the showing and the applause.

I hope to do many more of the horses I saw in Menton, because they are very inspiring.