“Can depicting something as it plainly appears be limiting in terms of artistic possibilities? Should we try rather to draw or paint not only what we see but also improvise and decorate from imagination?”
Yes, I think depicting something precisely as you see it is extremely limiting. Not only is it limiting, but there is nothing artistic about just copying what you see, it’s essentially a mindless, mechanical process. If your objective is to simply reproduce precisely what you see, in my opinion, you may as well get a camera and shoot a photograph. In our time, we have so much technology that allows us to instantly replicate high quality images, so there is no reason for us to try to transform ourselves into glorified xerox machines.
Even though there have been incredible advancements in technology, people are still painting and drawing. So you have to ask yourself, what is it that distinguishes the human eye and hand from a machine? What does a drawing or painting have to offer that a machine produced image will never possess? The difference is interpretation and opinion. The greatest artists who worked from direct observation offered an opinion. They had something they wanted to say about what their subject, and used their technique to communicate that opinion.
Portrait painter John Singer Sargent painted portraits from direct observation for nearly his entire career. Despite his paintings’ elements that are rooted in reality, there is a quality that is so deeply compelling about his portrait paintings that goes beyond just replication.
Back in 1999, I saw a major exhibition of Sargent’s work at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston which exhibited all of his major works. Walking through the exhibition, I was struck by how the paintings had a vibrancy and energy to them that seemed more real than life itself. His paintings created the illusion of what I like to call a “heightened reality”. The paintings were more than just images, and experiencing them was like hearing the sound of their breath as you passed by each portrait.
I don’t think the answer is to necessarily improvise and decorate from imagination. I think that would potentially clash with the observational part of the process. Rather I think the better route would be to concentrate on what your personal view is on the subject and to express that opinion. Do you love your subject? Do you hate it? Do you think your subject is ugly or beautiful? What is ugly to one person may be beautiful to another.
Student portrait drawing, charcoal
One example of the range of contrasting opinions that are possible on the same subject is when we do portrait drawings in my freshman drawing class at RISD. You have twenty art students, who are all drawing the same artist model. Although the physical features are fairly consistent throughout everyone’s drawings, each drawing always has a unique take on the model. One student will make the model appear menacing and angry, another student represents the model as quirky and whimsical, while yet another student will draw the model with a tranquil demeanor. Every drawing communicates each individual student’s opinion and view of the model, creating a unique perspective.
“How do you achieve a luminous effect in a painting through color and value?”
“What is the practical meaning of color theory?”
“How do you compose a striking painting with color?”
“Is hard work and experimenting continuously such a bad thing?”
“What can a painting student to do be relevant in a digital world?”