Tracer’s Guilt

N. Ruston Way Digital image, ProCreate for iPad February 20, 2017

N. Ruston Way

Digital image, ProCreate for iPad

February 20, 2017

Over the weekend I spent a little time diving into Youtube watching demonstrations of digital painting. I was looking for hints as to how digital painters work with reference photos.

When I take my iPad to Thursday night figure drawing, I just prop up the iPad and draw from the model. But if I want to work on the train or on the couch while my wife watches Narcos, I’ll work from a photograph.

I struggle with how to work from a photo while on the iPad. The easiest and most obvious thing to do is to drop the photo on a layer, trace it lightly, and then work on a new layer above the photo. I have taken to duplicating the layer with the reference photo, scaling it down, and then floating it around the screen as a visual reference while I work. But then there’s the guilt. I shouldn’t trace.

On Youtube I found an amiable Englishman who talked quietly as he drew in Procreate on his iPad. I found lots of “speed painting” videos starting with a blank screen and ending with a hyper-real portrait. About 90% of these were portraits of Scarlet Johannson. The remaining 10% were split between Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. These artists will spend 20 hours with pixel-width brushes getting flowing blonde hair and manly stubble just right.

Reading between the lines (and the comments) I believe that these artists are either:

  • Working from a printed photo reference
  • Working from a digital photo reference on a second screen. This could be a phone, a second monitor, or a laptop beside an iPad
  • Or they’re just tracing the photograph like I described above

When I was in undergraduate and graduate school, any painters who made the mistake of working figuratively were heavily encouraged to first paint from life, then paint from their imagination, and then only use photographs sparingly. If you must use a photograph you must interpret the image and not “simply” reproduce it. This was a moral imperative. Naturally no such standard applied if you were making brushy, drippy abstractions or welding steel or stacking found objects.

Historically - when painting was a job, when there were no cameras, and the only way to have a picture of something was to make it by hand - successful artists hid their processes and techniques. These were valuable trade secrets. Painters allowed their patrons to believe that they simply had an eye graced by god. Of course, in truth, painters used perspective grids, viewfinders, mirrors, lenses, camera obscura, camera lucida, calipers, and who knows what else. Dega painted from his own photographs. David Hockney even wrote an art historical tome on the subject.

Why did this ahistorical myth persist in art school well into the 2000s?

Why don’t you just paint these?

This question “why don’t you just paint these?” was the best bit of feedback I got during my graduate education. Towards the end of my second year, I started experimenting with large works on paper. I took advantage of the large format printers in our computer lab and the large format photocopiers across from campus to make 60” by 40” mixed media collages of photos, transfers and paint. These works were big, they were expressive, and they were fun to make. I made enough work in a short time that I had to hold my weekly critique in an empty classroom instead of my studio. I needed all the walls.

I can’t claim that this work was any good - but I think a good instructor would have seen that I was up to something and then said “Ok, now make 50 more and see where you land”.

Our weekly critiques could have been scripted. The professors would walk in to look at your work. You would give a quick introduction. They would ask who you were looking at. You would list off some name from last month’s Art Forum. They would nod and then list off some names of people you really should be looking at. There was rarely any discussion of technique or motive or subject matter. This theater is what passed for academic research in a university graduate program in the fine arts.

During this critique though, one cranky professor asked “why don’t you just paint these?“ This professor’s paintings were of satirical scenes of academic art school students in caps and gowns with giant pencils stuck in their rectums. So you know he’s legit.

Why don’t I just paint these? Well thanks ‘perfester’ that clears the whole thing right up. This snide, dismissive remark taught me how conservative, fearful, and cultish the fine art world is. It’s why I rage-quit after school and found myself learning web development.

The history of contemporary art begins in 1917 with Marcel Duchamp signing a urinal, placing it on a pedestal, and titling it “Fountain”. In 1999 art professors were having a hard time with digital prints collaged with paint.

The painter’s myth is that art comes only from a trained eye and a steady hand. The art school moral code states that any traditional painting - a figure, a landscape, or a still life - must be created in strict accordance to that myth. Any deviation from this moral code and you will be banished and labeled an “illustrator” or a “commercial artist”. The painter’s myth is just pre-industrial advertising and trade secrecy. The art school moral code protects institutions from change.

None of this helps you be more creative, find a creative outlet, find an audience, or an opportunity. It does help a weird cult keep the lights on.

Whatever gets the job done

I sneered at the videos of Scarlet Johannson portraits. This was just snobbery on my part. I think it’s a valid and obvious criticism to state that reproducing a professionally shot photograph of a perfectly lit, made-up, and retouched actor isn’t all that artistically interesting. But maybe the joke is on me. If these digital painters are strict formalists, maybe the subject doesn’t matter. And if the subject doesn’t matter, why not render Scarlet’s beautiful noggin? Everyone wants to look at Scarlet. This way more people will want to watch your tiny one-pixel brush render perfect eyelashes. Also, isn’t interesting that most of these digital artists choose Scarlet Johannson and not some other beautiful white woman? Sure, all of these artists want to make popular videos and choose a popular subject. But why is she the most popular subject? Is she the Zeitgeist? Is her nose easier to draw?

I can look at these video portraits of beautiful famous people the same way an art historian looks at a replica Duchamp fountain. By bringing context, history, intellect, and empathy they can take on deeper meaning. Likewise I can choose to look at the efficacy and immediacy of digital tools as empowering and freeing.

tl;dr tracing is ok.

Michael Barrett

Tacoma, WA 98402