Is Photography Still a Bad Word in Painting?

Cheryl Kelley

Cheryl Kelley  “396,” 2009. Oil on aluminum panel. (*)

Within 7 days in April, I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, then the OKCMOA to catch the tail end of their Photorealism exhibition. In a week immersed in art and landscapes, I also read Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, a  theoretical exploration of colour and form. Kandinsky and Dow’s “Composition” were major influences on Georgia O’Keeffe’s compositions and abstractions, along with the use of photography thanks to Alfred Steiglitz and Paul Strand.

These two exhibitions cemented some loosely held ideas and beliefs I have been carrying around for some time. Clearly, the photorealists shared with O’Keeffe an affinity for the use of the photograph as a launching point for their art – both as a way to abstract and understand their compositions. In some cases, the Photorealists went further, mechanically transferred their compositions to canvas. Photography brings to painting a curiousness and precision – a lens of sorts on modern life through the expansion or stripping of detail that the medium makes available.

It got me to thinking about how I create my own art and my own feelings about the use of the camera.

Georgia O'Keffe's "Shelton with Sunspots" with 'photographic' glare

Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Shelton with Sunspots” with ‘photographic’ glare

The use of photography and mechanical means remains controversial in the art world and I have to wonder why in an era of post-modern appropriation**. If you can use someone else’s composition and simply assign it another meaning and call it yours, I am inclined to wonder why this even makes it on to the ethical radar. The post-modern affinity with copyright infringement is far more worrisome and stands to have a far more detrimental impact on the future of art than the concern over an artist’s use of their own photography in their own paintings. But that’s another topic….

My sketchbook, per se, has been the camera for most of my artistic career. I tried carrying around a sketchbook making drawings and notations in the field. For many reasons over the last several years, painting in the field is undesirable to me and eventually my sketchbook became merely a place for notations and perspective corrections of photographs (if that is even desirable and I am finding it less so). Many of the derelict building locations were not places to linger, never mind paint or sketch and I rarely had the luxury of time. I sometimes required repeated trips to a location, if possible, to get the right images. When I get into the studio, I take the structure of the photo and sometimes alter the light and often alter the colour in order to achieve on canvas how I see a place.

A photo I took in July '09 for the painting "Window Seat". Unfortunately the drawing from it was binned for the cross-border move. I scaled it using the grid method, making changes in the drawing. The drawing was then transferred to the canvas by laying the scale drawing over the canvas and tracing over it.

A photo I took in July ’09 for the painting “Window Seat”. Unfortunately the drawing from it was binned for the cross-border move. I scaled it using the grid method, making changes in the drawing. The drawing was then transferred to the canvas by laying the scale drawing over the canvas, using pastel like carbon paper.

I love my camera. I have been known to walk into things using the camera as my eye, changing my view. I started with the camera years before taking up the brush, so it really shouldn’t be a surprise. For a long time I have downplayed this and now I am beginning to have second thoughts about being reticent in discussing my use of photography in my art and how that reticence encourages the disparagement of the use of photography in art in general.

Like anything else, it is not the tool, it is what you do with it. The camera can bring the viewer in, distort and create interest in a way that is not as easily done just sitting before a subject. It can narrow or broaden a composition, detail or abstract it. I have mostly done scale drawings of my carefully composed photographs and then transferred those to canvas. More recently, I have started using a projector to avoid worrying about scale, but I can’t afford a projector that is good enough for much more than line drawings, so going fully mechanical is not in my near future. At the moment, that is a good thing and in the next post, I’ll explain why.

The final painting "Window Seat", acrylic on canvas, 14x18

The final painting “Window Seat”, acrylic on canvas, 14×18, © 2009 M. B. Hendry

Abstraction and the 20th century movement toward the deconstruction of art has made photorealism possible because if you really look, these paintings are often more abstract up close than realistic. The theories of abstraction aren’t new. Abstract composition and the camera have played a significant role in the development of renaissance and academic painting. Learning how to see is what’s key and if the camera helps to do that, then all the power to the artist.

There are pitfalls, however… Next post!

* Here is a fantastic write up on the OKCMOA show and Photorealism

** (UPDATED) This is a good article with some astounding comments on the topic of appropriation and fair use using the the appeal of the Prince vs. Cariou case as an example. Click here to read the article.



  1. says

    Very interesting post; since you work from your own experience and observation and photographs, I see no conflict whatsoever in what you do. Photography is an artform, so how can art using photography not be. I love seeing your reference photograph side by side with the finished work, to see the progression of piece from the object of inspiration to the inspired work of art.
    The copyright infringement article, on the other hand, disturbing. It reminds me of why I don’t usually like ‘public’ gallery art, where the art looks less inspired than part of a game the ‘in-crowd’ plays.

  2. Michelle says

    Thanks, Ingrid. The more I learn about art and the way it is made truly helps me to believe that the art world is a reflection of society in every way. The greatest work is enhanced by experimentation and using every opportunity and technology to show the world in a unique way. The poorest is the work that steals and hides behind money and power with the audacity to call itself original on the backs of the true creators. When fair use is applied and real artists collaborate or get permission to do works that are commentaries on another – that is an important part of visual discourse. That is true post-modernism. Post modernism should not be an excuse for copyright violation and even less of a defense. The Richard Princes and Damien Hirsts just make all those who have made fortunes with questionable means be seen for what they are – empty. Sadly, emptiness and big money rule.

  3. says

    Back again, because, it made me think, belately, how photography figures in my own work. I rarely use a photo reference so I first thought, this does not apply to me, BUT how much of what I do is inspired or informed by photography, especially micro, and electron microscope and those glorious false colour images of exploding galaxies (I love science). Thanks for making me think about, and realize how I use photo and other technology as an artist, a great question.

  4. says

    Any trick in the book is the way I like to work. The “purists” really don’t know the history. Artists have been using photo optical means for a very long time. Things like the camera obscura, lucidia, etc. Landscapes were done by bolting ones head in a fixed place, and drawing on a sheet of glass between the artist and the scene, and on and on. Projectors are just a more modern version. There’s a real art to good tracing, whatever the means. It’s still about the quality of line, about getting the information out of a photo and knowing what it means. If you try using a projector, you’ll see what I mean the first time you turn it off, and think, what is that? Did you remember which side of the line you were referring to, or even what that means? It’s surprising how much drawing skill is needed to make it all work well. Personally I believe the “old masters” would have loved all the new fancy tools we have today. Same as what they used, only better. and more efficient. Trust me, if you haven’t honed your fundamental art skills, you’ll get no where no matter how fancy your tools are. Tools don’t make art, people do…..:)