‘Great Darling – It Looks Just Like a Photograph!’

‘Great Darling – It Looks Just Like a Photograph!’

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 Is Your Goal to Paint Photorealist Images or your Learning Process?

On my Facebook group Pastel Artists Uk some amazing conversations regarding all aspects of the artists life take place.    The issue of photorealism is a current hot topic; in fact it is always a hot topic.

This post is not about pro or against a style of painting.   There are far more interesting issues.  Photography is very much a part of our world and our use of it is important as artists.

So what is photorealism?  And why is it so contentious?   In short it is artwork which is as close as the artist can get to imitating the role of the camera – a photo realistic rendition of a subject.   The opposite of photo realistic work might be Impressionism – an ‘impression’ of reality rather than a photo realistic copy.   
Now as an artist and a tutor I have a pretty broad opinion on the subject; one which comes with age and experience.   
Largely the issue seems to have been seen as cut and dried.    You are either a fan or your not.    You are a photorealist or your not.     But it isn’t that simple.  The issue of photorealism is part of all artists experience.
Above: Monet –  Bridge at Argentuil Right: John Singer Sargent – Lady Agnew of Lochnaw 1893 On the surface these images look ‘real’ but neither are photo realist.  They are both well known paintings which are considered Impressionistic.   Monet and Sargent were good friends and often painted together although their subjects were different.   Some would say ‘realism’ is in the eye of the beholder?

An Artists Beginnings

In this case mine.   I was a child artist and not from a family of artists.  What I learnt was from experience -and I can’t even think of any books that taught portrait techniques back then, but I was not in the ‘art world’.   So what I had was a passion to do portraits and no way of learning how to do them other than from copying from art books of great masters, and trying to do a half decent job on my favourite pop stars from photos in teen magazines.  
My father and the rest of my family loved to encourage me.  I found out early on that approval came from my work ‘looking just like a photograph’!   At that time – 13/14 years old I was OK with that.   They were adults, and knew better than me (even thought they didn’t of course).     Meanwhile I had a mini teenage ‘career’ capturing ‘amazing’ likenesses of my favourite people.   

Steady Improvement 

So on I went – getting better and better at making my portraits look just like the photograph – and eventually with time and practice I developed something more of my style and approach to my work.   But this happened gradually over a few years and almost without my noticing it.  
 I was also by that time researching my favourite artists and being influenced by them – which is inevitable.  ( That meant trips to the library of course)  Dad was still encouraging me along a photorealistic path – ‘Great darling – looks just like a photograph’,   and I began to feel ‘unsatisfied’ with what I was doing.     That was not my aim.    I’m not sure I could have told you what my aim was at the time but it wasn’t to just look like the photo.      He thought Canelletto was the greatest artist ever (his work is very photographic) but I preferred Monet, and Van Gogh and Rembrandt.     But I was severely limited to what I could learn from books I could access as a 13 year old.  
Later on in my research into Pastel I discovered the great French pastelist Jean-Baptiste-Simeon-Chardin along with so many others – whose work remains an influence to this day (portrait below of Chardin – his self portrait).  Probably one of the first to not use a finger blended approach to his pastels.  His work is a total tapestry of light; made up of a huge variety of marks in colour.  Click on the photo to see it in a lightbox.    
Chardin - self portrait with glasses 1771 Louvre Paris

Portrait Painters have a Special Relationship with Photographic Accuracy 

Without my passion to get the painting as accurate as possible I would not have been able to develop to the artist I am today. But the thing is – I recognise now that chasing photographic accuracy was part of my development and once the skills developed – I gradually moved on;  a natural development.  
It is very difficult to paint the same way – exactly the same way – for 40 years!     In fact were that the case I would have wanted to give up 39 years ago.  But in fact that is part of the idea behind photo realistic painting;  to reach photographic perfection, and once that stage is reached what is next? 
It is good to remember that chasing accuracy to photographic levels for most artists is a skill building exercise.  It is up to you to decide when to move on to other skills and levels of development;  or whether to become a fully fledged card carrying photorealist.    
A budding portrait artist can find it confusing, because of the added complication of capturing that all important likeness, which is all about accuracy of drawing.   Believe me when I say that capturing a likeness is rarely just to do with photographic skills.     Ask yourself this – think of your favourite artists – and I don’t mean those posting on the same Facebook groups as you – but some of the great masters ( I refuse to say ‘and mistresses’!)  of art,  how many are photorealist?     Your favourite artists are a clue as to the artist you might become.   

My Tutor’s Head thinks in a different way

Now many years down the line – I still love Monet and Sargent and Rembrandt, and a whole realm of fabulous women artists which until 1990 I didn’t know existed .   My opinions are not just shaped by my own artistic experience but by my life as a tutor, and increasingly more as a mentor.    I think as a tutor and a mentor.   When someone posts on my Facebook group I respond and react as a tutor and a mentor, and I do it without thinking because I am passionate that the information on Pastel Artists UK is as accurate as possible, for the benefit of the group member, and for pastel.

So what do I think of Photorealism and artistic learning?

This is the crux of the matter for me.
My stance on photographic realism is that too many beginner artists think that is where the ‘art’ is.  The ‘skill’.    It is just one small part of the success of a portrait.     If you a passionate to learn those skills, with practice the chances are that you will.  
But beginners confidence can be very fragile.    When I think back I didn’t develop my skills in the same world as Facebook, where every day budding artists log on and see a lot of work –  good work – some really good.   That can be demoralising on a daily basis when you are a beginner. But that apart, my real issue with photorealism is the idea that producing work which is a photographic likeness is the aim of the game.  Even in portraiture it is so much more than that.  Such skills in artists did exist before cameras were ever invented of course – when the realistic skills of artists was the first consideration; that is what artists did,  but with the invention of cameras, the need for artists to chase photographic accuracy diminished.   So in an ideal world for me – beginners would be inspired by nature rather than photorealism.   Well I did say ‘ideal’ lol.     It is of course all down to the kind of artist you want to be.  Artist or Artisan.
Luckily, like you handwriting, your artistic style will emerge out of your own particular character and personality – for good or bad!  

So I have an awkward relationship with photographic realism.    

Like anyone I can admire some of the skill, but I personally prefer a non photographic approach;   I don’t feel the need to compete with a camera lens, because with experience I realise that photos are all too often lacking – especially in the kind of ‘light’ I portray.  I can only get that from studying nature.  
But as a tutor,   I am all too aware that the issue is a more important one than mere ‘I like’ or I dont like’, or whether it is or is not ‘our style’,   it also touches on how we see ourselves as artists – and how we measure ourselves against a camera lens and also against each other; beginners especially; those most vulnerable to having confidence issues. So realising that sweating over the details is a valid part of your growth process might well be the time you too will realise that artistic development may well take you through many stages, not just this one.   It can be quite a ride!
Feel free to add your thoughts on this blog in the comments below.    It is an interesting subject, and I know it affects many of you.
Check out these links for more on photorealism:
photorealism revisited       (video)
I would very much appreciate it if you would leave a comment/question below.     It helps me to know how you see your own artistic development,   aand the more people who engage in the subject – the more interesting it will become!
‘Great Darling – It Looks Just Like a Photograph!’

So Why Am I Shelving My Own Career for a Mad Mission?

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Why I decided to Put My Own Work to One Side for as Long as It takes to Complete My Mission

Quite a few people have messaged me about this and I said I would explain it better in my blog.


Writing, Painting, Sketching &  Drawing, Planning, Photography, Documenting, Organising, Teaching, Exhibiting, Dealing with Galleries, Motivating, Self Motivating, Self Disciplining,  Advising, Encouraging,  Computing………Blogging……….

All these things are part of the life of a modern day artist.     That and a lot more besides.   All that and for many –  you can add being a Mum or a Dad, running a house, weekly shopping, keeping a job, a carer, or caring for family……the list never ends. Conclusion:    Your artwork is often difficult to fit in to you daily lives?   Sometimes you feel annoyed about that? In my last post I asked ,   ‘When did you know you were or wanted to become an artist?’  The response was wonderful, and heartwarming and many of you shared your personal stories.   For some of you I think it might have been the first time you had shared your thoughts and feelings about your work, and for others it was probably the first time you had even thought about the question. But it is important that you do think about these questions – in particular if you are trying to carve out a career as an artist.  ( Even if you are just what you regard as a ‘hobby painter’,   you probably care about your work enough to want to give time to it;  learning time and developing time.) So now is the real big question:

Why Do You Want to Be An Artist?

Lets be honest here – trying to earn your living as an artist is hardly a good game plan if you are looking for a regular income. Some of you reading this right now are probably wondering the same thing – and yet – for what ever your reason, your art is a part of your life,  and a part that you most likely treasure.       And what if you are not interested in earning an income from your work?  Let alone a living wage.    What makes you want to be an artist?

So here is the thing:

I grew up with a multi talented (or skilled – whatever you might call it), Grandmother – you know the idea – whatever my Nanna Ada did – she did beautifully.   During the 2nd World War she was a busy lady;  making clothes for the family, and wedding dresses for those who could get enough clothing coupons together to buy enough fabric to make a wedding dress.   Ada was also a knitting pattern designer, and an expert in knitting and crochet. (for those of you who dont know what rationing coupons were – Google wll keep you busy for weeks! )      Special clothes -even for men. She was an talented florist (the ‘go to person’ for a wedding for sure – she covered it all) – and spent hours ‘wiring’ flowers for lapels and bouquets. Her cooking was renowned – a real home cook of course – eating out was not something people she knew did during those years. Come Christmas – her artistry made the festivities memorable – special pies and Ada’s tarts,   and her Christmas Trifle was something the whole street came to see before it was eaten.  (It was made in a punch bowl). Her Christmas house decorations were amazing and cost nothing. On top of that – she was a Cap and Gown Pianist (in other words she was capable of pursuing a career as a professional pianist and did in fact have the opportunities offered her – but as the oldest sister of a large war time family it was not to be an option – she had to look after her siblings or go to work).

  • Could she draw?   I have no idea, but I took after her in all other things – anything to do with my hands,  came easy for  me. But my guess is that she probably would have been able to draw too, had she not been kept so busy with the necessities of life during wartime Britain. – keeping people clothed and fed.  If she was here today – I could teach her to draw for sure.
  • Did she earn a good living?  Absolutely not.  During the war needs came first.     Some would pay her two shillings for her skills in making a dress – but that was rare.
  • Conclusion – she gave more away than ever she earned or charged for her time her skills and talents.  Some of you will have similar stories in your own family.

It was second nature to her to give rather than charge for her skills.    Now of course part of that is because women had for centuries been expected to give rather than charge, and the idea of a woman having a ‘career’ in working class Britain back then was a bit ‘far fetched’.   Boy have things changed some 80 years later.

Of course the real issue here is ‘Was she happy’,  giving and providing and helping and ‘saving the day’ on many occasions when she sat up most of the night sewing a special dress for a special friend.     I don’t think she would have even questioned her role back then. It was rare that women did.   But this much I do remember – she felt she spent her time wisely – she  loved to learn, and of course back then it was the done thing for women to stay home and she never felt the pressure of having to go out for a wage.   Now that is a freedom many people today would value.

So What Did I Learn from This as an Artist?

Well there are a few things:

  •  It is natural to create – on any terms and in any fashion; at lease it was in my family.  (My mother considered herself the only non creative member of our family.    Not true – she created the fun, the laughter and the chaos which was the backbone of the family.   Amazingly she judged herself as non creative until she took up knitting.   But she did undervalue herself as a result of being surrounded by creative members of the family).
  • It was absolutely the expected thing for women in Ada’s day to be creative.   Homemaking and nurturing the family was expected of women; and that involved a lot of ‘improvisation’ which today we might call ‘artistic inspiration’ and ‘artistic licence’.
  • Being creative and being artistic – are the same thing.
  • I learnt that producing artwork – for me – was and remains something totally detached from financial considerations.    That said I have needed to earn an income.
  • I’ve discovered I cannot do anything without the ‘artists eye’ coming into to play.   Someone said recently that you can tell my garden is the garden of an artist.   Did I think of that?  No.    I do what I do – I cannot see with the eye of the beholder.
  • I can say now that the best work I produce, or the work I am happiest producing, is done for my own pleasure and gratification – not for clients.    (That of course is not unusual for successful commissioned artists to feel that way – one of my idols John Singer Sargeant felt the same, as have countless other artists).
  • I still love to learn and grow as an artist.    I never want to stop learning.   In fact continual growth is up there with my primary reasons for wanting to do what I do.    Just like my grandmother’s passion was for more and more intricate and interesting patterns.

Above All Else: I learned that to be an artist is to value the nurturing role.   This is true of me but may not be for everybody.   Maybe it is because of the wonderful role model I had that I link creativity with nurturing.   It is what makes me a passionate teacher. I absolutely thrive in the teaching role and seeing others develop and progress.   And true to say the older I get the more I realise that the wealth of knowledge I have may not be ‘passed down’ if I don’t take positive action.

So it means that for the forseable future I put my own work to one side and get on with the development of the courses.   The emails I have received from those concerned that what I am doing is career suicide (yes one mail actually put it that way and I understand her point).     But there is no other way and what I have planned re tuition needs time and focus to get it done properly.  A few select commissions I would never refuse, but those apart my studio has morphed into a recording studio.

In a way it is exciting were it not for the sheer size of this project.   But Onwards and Upwards, and if I am lucky I will have a few well trained and passionately dotty pastelists to show for it all in the end.



And that is what this blog has been about.   My Grandmother has been a lot on my mind lately.


SO please let me know if any of this resonates with you.   Did you have an Nanna Ada in your life?     Share your story – it will be much appreciated by many if the last blog response is anything to go by.  Comment below.

Ada doing what she always did
used her hands – this time knitting.
Me doing what I did when
Debs was asleep!  1974/5

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