Archive for May, 2006

Studying images and style

Saturday, May 27th, 2006

Drawing or painting from photographs is inherently different from working from life, because when working from a photograph, the subject of the work is a static image. Studying images has always played an important role in art, although the images in the past were of course not photographs, but works by other artists. As Cennino Cennini recommended in the 14th century:

take pains and pleasure in constantly copying the best things which you can find done by the hand of great masters. And if you are in a place where many good masters have been, so much the better for you. But I give you this advice: take care to select the best one every time, and the one who has the greatest reputation. And, as you go on from day to day, it will be against nature if you do not get some grasp of his style and of his spirit.

The style and spirit of the artist to be copied is as important as the subject of the artwork itself. Cennino emphasizes this point by directing the student to study one master at a time:

For if you undertake to copy after one master today and after another one tomorrow, you will not acquire the style of one or the other, and you will inevitably, through enthusiasm, become capricious, because each style will be distracting your mind. You will try to work in this man’s way today, and in the other’s tomorrow, and so you will not get either of them right.

This idea of copying another artist’s work to study style is perhaps alien to our contemporary ideas of how an artist should develop. But the goal, development of a personal style, is something that all artists share:

If you follow the course of one man through constant practice, your intelligence would have to be crude indeed for you not to get some nourishment from it. Then you will find, if nature has granted your any imagination at all, that you will eventually acquire a style individual to yourself, and it cannot help being good; because your hand and your mind, being always accustomed to gather flowers, would ill know how to pluck thorns.

How can we relate this approach of copying other artists to the practice of working from photographs? Dan Bodner said recently, “We cannot separate how we see from the way photography has informed our vision.” This seems consistent with Cennino’s writing. An artist who works continually from the photograph will, intentionally or not, acquire the “style and spirit” of the photograph. The camera thus becomes the artist’s master. Dan Bodner seems to have escaped this because he already developed a personal style before turning to photography as a source.