Ask the Art Prof: Does Painting What You See Limit your Artistic Possibilities?

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John Singer Sargent


“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.

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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.

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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.


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6 thoughts on “Ask the Art Prof: Does Painting What You See Limit your Artistic Possibilities?

  1. Rarely I can produce a wonderful image that’s not just a copy but also contains opinion that you (Clara) talk about. But most of the time, I am so bogged down in the task of getting down the details that I don’t have the chance to provide an opinion in my works. I really admire Frank Auerbach’s works because they are interpretations, not just visual copies.

  2. I believe drawing, painting, or sculpting from what we see is a bit limiting, but it still contains an artistic outlook, regardless if the piece is exactly like what we see. Just as we are able to type from our mind, sooner or later we will be able to directly draw what we imagine, but let us enjoy what we have now. Currently, I absolutely enjoy drawing from what I physically see, because I feel some sort of connection to the world. I plan to step out of this comfort zone, and mentally create. What I see is what I see, but how I draw what I see is an emotional feel. The way I utilize lines, and shading defines how I feel about the model and myself; either the way I read the pose, physical characteristics, environment, or simply how I feel. We produce images from our mind and translate it onto canvases; the foundation is still there, the fact that it is produced from what we see, but the process is a major difference – we visualize what we wish to see, and begin to transform it with our hand(s). It may be as if, what we imaginarily produced may objectively/subjectively look/feel real, and in the end it is how the piece connects to the viewers. Does the piece mentally bridge the gap of real and unreal? There will always be a connection from a piece to the viewers. Like reading a book, it illustrates with words to welcome the reader into the author’s world. The world may be new, but the reader can relate; houses may not look like a common house in our time, but it still has the core structure – a door, windows, a roof, et cetera. Why is creating something from our minds more ‘astonishing’ that what we physically see? Is it because a high percentage of our minds believe that something is not really real, but we subconsciously believe it is real. Or are we as humans sick of the world we live in, and wish to seek our own utopia? I guess we only want to reinvent what has been done with the expression of our minds and make a hit or a miss.

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