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.