Why We Paint from Life

An essay by our Assistant Director, Sean Forester

At Golden Gate Atelier we believe that the truth of a realist painting comes from the vitality of the artist’s connection with another human being or the natural world.  When painting directly from life, new possibilities are constantly offered to the artist: a tree in shadow will suddenly become illuminated; the expression on someone’s face may reveal itself after hours, or indeed weeks, of study.  A painting made from life is a record of thousands of artistic perceptions, thoughts, and feelings.  This artistic search, this dialogue with Nature, was central to the art of the old masters as well as the 19th century realists and impressionists.

Consider Las Meninas.  By first creating a powerful composition, then carefully adjusting the sharpness of edges and the contrast of values and colors, Velázquez assigned each actor their role within a unified whole.  From the lowly dog to the reflection of the regents in the mirror, the degree of optical focus applied to the subject enriches the story.

Like Velazquez, masters from Titian to Sargent intentionally manipulate focus, paint quality, and brushwork to great effect, painting the eyes, the clothing, even the walls with varying character.   A camera cannot discern such importance. When an artist paints from a photograph – a single flat two dimensional image – there is no dialogue with nature.  And it is this dialogue, this artistic search, that gives a realist painting its vitality.  Painting from photos is like traveling to a foreign country and taking a tour bus directly to your hotel.  Painting from life is like walking the streets, getting lost, meeting people, trying new food, and after seeing strange and beautiful things, and arriving home exhausted and fulfilled.   As Andrew Wyeth says: ” I search for the realness, the real feeling, all the texture around it.  I always want to see the third dimension of something.  I want to come alive with the object.”

Drawing is central to the art of oil painting.  If an artist traces a photo instead of drawing what he sees, he will not be able to create the powerful and refined expression of the old masters.  Their figures have believable anatomy, dynamic rhythm, harmonious proportion, and a distribution of weight we can almost feel in our own bodies.  The unity and variety of organic form are clearly portrayed: bones feel like bones, flesh like flesh.  The tension and relaxation of muscles, the twist and torsion of the body, the carriage and bearing of the person come to life.

Painting and photography are unique arts.  As we see in the work of masters like Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, cameras capture a moment in a way that painting cannot match.  What a great painting captures instead is “the outward molding of inner feeling that is truer to the individual than any momentary expression” as Harold Speed describes it.  Photography can no more replace realist painting than film can replace theater, or a electronic music replace the sound of a violin.

New and exciting art has been created in the 20th century, whether it be abstract painting, photography, film, performance art, or installations.  But  there will always be a place for the timeless art of oil painting.  And artists will continue to insist on painting from life as Lucian Freud, Antonio Lopez, Odd Nerdrum and other leading realists do today.  Edward Hopper said:  “Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist . . . a vast and varied realm that does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design.  Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with life and nature’s phenomena before it can again become great.”  It is up to us as realist painters to use traditional techniques in a contemporary way, to honor the great artists of the past as we make our own paintings in the 21st century.

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