Why paint?

November 24th, 2006


I see this building each time I visit Hanneke van Oosterhout’s nearby studio in Haarlem. The building speaks to me. I recorded its message with the press of a button.


I would be pleased if I had painted this condemned building. But why should I paint, when I can make a photograph?

. . .

24 Responses to “Why paint?”

  1. Colin Jago Says:


    Whatever works for you.

    This mp3 podcast might interest you.

  2. Steve Durbin Says:

    Would you be pleased to have painted the image exactly as shown? Then I hope you would have enjoyed the making of the painting, otherwise you took a lot of time you could have spent doing something else (life’s short). If your goal is a record of how the building looks, so that by cueing your memory the image can speak to you at another time, the photograph is the way to go. If you want the image to speak to someone else, in a way interesting enough they might buy it, you’ll need to become a better photographer — or try painting. Same advice if you want to deepen your own understanding of what the building says (or might say) to you.

  3. jafabrit Says:

    I enjoyed hearing the mp3, and needed to hear it today.
    why paint? Had I been there and moved by it the way I would paint it is to express something more than just the image itself.

  4. Diane Widler Wenzel Says:

    The process of painting on loation opens my eyes to things not noticed any other way. I notice changes in light for example. And most importantly impressionistic imagery is only the beginning. The building is not only different in lighting and season, I am not the same every day. I notice my own reactions and emotions as they unfold upon my painting. One of the most interesting series I did in 1999 was an old farm house that I visited daily for a year. I painted it differently every day. As time went by it was easier to slip into my emotions because I knew the subject so well. I did not have to think of the mechanics of pictorial representation. I was alive living in the moment.

  5. Diane Widler Wenzel Says:

    Personal growth is another big reason for painting not mentioned in my previous comment. Currently I am painting our field that we are selling. It is my proactive way of dealing with the loss of our field and forest and the change of our home place being once farmland and now becoming a city neighborhood. I am posting my paintings at http://umbrellapaintingjournal.blogspot.com
    Another example of proactive painting is working with my mother who was in the last stages of dementia. She retained an asthetic sense, the ability to sign her name and a joy in painting with me. Making a painting was a visual reminder that I had been to see her. A painting done in just a few minutes was quickly forgotten. But it was real evidence for her to remind her that we had visited awhile when it was time to go. Most importantly painting was a way to relate with one another. Another aspect of painting for her was her joy in learning as she painted. Painting allowed her to see her surroundings in a happier way. She said she thought about what she would paint during the many lonely hours of her existance when she was unable to do any of her life functions without help. The reason she could enjoy painting with me was her art background. She had a Bachelors of Arts Degree in painitng from the University of California in Berkeley in 1934. She had an appreciation of all kinds of art from all cultures. She could enjoy her non-objective abstracts. She had an asthetic sense that was never deminished by dementia.

  6. David Says:

    If you can get what you want, in terms of process, interaction with the subject matter and final result, by taking a photograph, then there’s no reason to paint the building. Taking the photograph accomplishes all of that for you.

    However, there are any number of reasons you might want to paint it. You might enjoy, and learn from, the process of trying to reproduce what you see. You might want to make specific choices about how to represent aspects of the building that you are unable to capture in the photograph. You might be using the building you see as a point of departure to create something that doesn’t look anything like the building. The building might be just one element of a larger work that contains other elements not present there in front of you for you to photograph. If you do take a photo and you want it to exist in some viewable form, you’ll have to print it, project it, or view it on a computer. You might find viewing a painting more satisfying than viewing a photograph.

    But then again, you might find the process and final result of creating a photograph more satisfying than making a painting. What are you going to do?

  7. birgit Says:

    Dianne, what wonderful reasons to paint. I am planning to paint the Sleeping Bear Dunes of northern Lake Michigan to understand them better. Photographing them has, so far, not worked because at many regions their expanse is so wide.

  8. Julia Says:

    As an artist who frequently draws from photographs, I ask myself this question all the time. For me there are two answers. The first is that I prefer to look at drawings. The second is that I enjoy making drawings.

    I saw a documentary about artistic exaggeration in human history, which posed another question that I ask myself all the time: “The trouble with realism is, why create when you can just go around looking at things?”

  9. Rex Crockett Says:


    I’ve used photos for years. I like the production enhancing capabilities. I like being able to capture and paint smaller increments of time. I like working in the studio instead of outside. But I never paint a copy of the photo. I paint what I saw in the scene that was worth painting. I use the photo to help. I often work from bad photos. Every once in a while, I get a good photo and don’t paint it because I think the photo got what I was after.

    I’m interested in your answer. Why indeed?

  10. Karl Zipser Says:

    Steve & Others,

    I’d be interested in what could I could have done better with this photograph. This is one of the first photographs I have taken in years — of something besides an artwork for the purpose of making a record, that is. I have no pretense of knowing anything about photography. What is lacking in this photograph, as a photograph?

    As a painter, I never paint from photos. But looking at this photo, I can see a lot in it that could make a good painting. This does not mean that the photograph itself would say much to another viewer.

    I’m interested in a multidisciplinary dialogue here. Feel free to critique the photograph as harshly as you like, and without the need to cushion criticism with praise, real or imaginary. The more negative things you can say, the more interesting it would be for me.

  11. Steve Durbin Says:


    As far as I’m concerned, an (not the) answer to your question would be the same whether it were a photograph or a painting, unless the issue were purely technique-oriented, for example relating to brushstrokes. Of course, which one it is determines what tools you have available for doing it differently another time or altering the existing image.

    You said the building speaks to you, and the existence of the photo means it had at least a minimal significance for some reason. But the main criticism is I have no idea what that personal meaning is. There’s no Karl here (at least that I can see). So I’ll just put myself in your place and try to imagine how I would go about getting some Steve into it (not that I normally thing of it quite this way while photographing). Keep in mind that I probably can’t get all the personal significance into one image; it might well take a series. And also, whether or not I’ve already articulated the “personal meaning” to myself, I’ll probably be discovering additional meanings as I go.

    The heaviest tools are viewpoint and selection. From the initial position, I’m intrigued by the Mondriaan-like possible compositions involving rectangles of red door, blue sky, light interior walls, dark interior shadows, and brown exterior walls. I would look at framings around the lower left of the building, shifting position as necessary to move elements. This could result in a playful image referencing my interest in art and perhaps the ongoing conversion of these old buildings into studios. A stricter order and more restrictive palette and be obtained selecting only the different tones or colors reflected by the panes in a window or group of windows. These might not be exciting now, but I would know in advance that I could adjust the contrast or color situation to enhance an interesting musical feel.

    What’s between you and the building that you’ve eliminated here? Maybe there are some low trees, and shooting through their branches could place the building in its context, giving a nice blend of geometric and organic shapes. The building itself might be out of focus but dominant in terms of shapes, giving it a slightly mysterious feeling that you or any viewer would fill in with personal associations. I would move around to the left, come closer, and try viewing the building through the scaffolding (and emphasizing it through its increased relative size). Or zoom in at upper left to contrast the flimsy, temporary scaffolding–evidence of renovation–with the solid, warm brick building. Or zoom further to make a nearly abstract image of warm-colored brick detailing, showing how the original structure was built with care and taste.

    If I could, I would definitely go inside and wander around, looking for interesting and lighting and patterns in the actual living/working space. Maybe I’m attracted by strong sunlight playing on the walls. Or maybe diffuse but rhythmic illumination of a hallway through a series of spaced windows or doors.

    So that’s how I would do it. At the computer, assuming digital photography, I would adjust lightness and contrast to help bring out or clarify the things or the impressions I cared about. If I felt a story in an old desk by a window, but discovered distractions in the image, I might crop or selective blur (as if I’d thought at the time to narrow the depth of field) or digitally remove the unwanted broken beer bottle (unless I wanted it to help convey how fallen the place had become).

    This has gotten rather long, but I hope it makes sense. I’m assuming you wanted more than purely technical suggestions for the existing photo, which I found impersonal and boring as is, but full of suggestive possibilites. I can easily understand how the building would matter to you, I just didn’t feel it in the image presented.

  12. D. Says:


    Back when I was in graduate school, I had an opportunity to work with an artist I admired greatly. We agreed to meet once at the end of the semester. I would work and then he would come to look. At our meeting, he walked around the room stopping to look closely at the little drawings I had made. There were only a few. He took his time. He then came up to me, faintly nodding, and then stopped and said two words. Those two words were worth the two years of tuition.

    I think your photograph is terrific. Formal qualities? Communication? Art? Boundaries?
    Who knows?

    My feeling is that we go through this world and inter-act with it in various ways and to limit those inter-actions is to limit our lives. I think that is what Raymond Saunders meant when he told me to Be Direct.


  13. Diane Widler Wenzel Says:

    I am continuing my comments in answer to Kark’s question, “Why should I paint this building? Is the photograph a good photograph in itself with no need of being painted?” My answer has nothing to do with the technical and all to do with the heart. If the heart is connected emotionally to the building it will tell you. Or if your heart doesn’t give a dam about the building but the intellect says yes go ahead and paint. If the intellect wants a Mondrian challenge then your heart will tell your intellect to go for it. Regarding the second half of the question :Does the photograph of the building stand on its own as art? It is a picture of destruction of a building which was once built with love and has seen history. The answer is another questions. Is this a photo of destruction or renevation? Can the subject of destruction or renevation be art worth making? My answer was yes when I was in art school. I did paint an urban renewal of a Jewish neighborhood as though it were burning. It was not burnt, it was only my interpretation to see it as though it was the same as being burned. I thought of my grandmother saying that like the Jews, where ever our ancestors lived their homes were burned and they were made to leave. My instructor thought my burning urban renewal was not art. Today I could defend my opinion better. TKarl’s photo does speak to my heart.

  14. Paul Butzi Says:

    I see this building each time I visit Hanneke van Oosterhout’s nearby studio in Haarlem. The building speaks to me. I recorded its message with the press of a button.

    Really? You recorded the entirety of the message that this building has for you by making a single photograph? What extraordinary economy!

    Warning: the preceding paragraph was sarcastic. I do not believe that, if you feel this building speaks to you, you have captured the message by making one exposure.

    That’s not the way it works, Karl. It’s not a matter of pointing the camera, pushing the button, and you’re done.

    If you were one of my students, I would have you make some large number of photographs of this building. 500 might suffice.

    Just about the time you start to struggle to make photographs you haven’t already made, you’d be starting to get the message the building has.

    And if you’re very lucky, some small subset of the photographs (say, a dozen) might capture the entirety of the message.

    So I think that you’ve made a start, but you’re nowhere near finished.

  15. Karl Zipser Says:

    Paul, Diane, D., Steve, Rex, Julia, Birgit, David, jafabrit, and Colin,

    Thanks for your comments. Being on the receiving end, let me assure you that they are a huge inspiration.

    I am approximately nine thousand miles from Haarlem at the moment. I can’t wait to get back and to get to work with this building again. I hope it is still standing when I return!



  16. Steve Durbin Says:

    I’m sure you will have great fun with the project. And I’m also sure that the building will become all the more meaningful to you. I hope you’ll share some images you like (or are puzzled by) when you’re ready to.

  17. David Says:

    Karl, I’m trying to imagine where nine thousand miles from Haarlem might be. Wherever it is, be sure to take some photos.

  18. Diane Widler Wenzel Says:

    I am anxious to see more of your work on this Harlem building.

  19. Karl Zipser Says:


    I’m in San Diego. That’s about seven thousand miles from Haarlem, plus two thousand miles of mental jet lag.

    I’ve been taking lots of photos . . .

  20. Leslie Holt Says:

    Why not do it all? If this building compells you, why not sketch, paint, take photos, take videos, make monotypes, write about it… Although I primarily use paint right now, I have found working in different media can really open me up to new ways of experiencing subject matter and thinking about art in general. Why make a mark digitally versus with your hand, versus through the wieght of a printing press? All great experiences and very different. I think the division between media is pretty meaningless in this day and age It depends on what your goals are.

    Is “mastering” the medium of paint your supreme goal as an artist? It does not sound like it to me…

  21. David Says:

    San Diego

    Oh, you’re just down the street :)

    There’s a good contemporary art museum in La Jolla. I don’t know what’s there now, but I’ve seen some fine shows there in the past. Also, UC San Diego has one of the best collections of outdoor site-specific contemporary sculpture I’ve seen, scattered around their campus. Don’t know if it’s anything you’d like, but some excellent works by Bruce Nauman, Nam June Paik, Terry Allen and others.

  22. Jon Conkey Says:

    Why do math when you can use a calculator?

  23. David Says:

    Jon, that’s a good question. I think there are several good answers. (I’m assuming by math you mean arithmetic).

    The first thing that comes to mind is that by doing it longhand, you learn the concepts, and develop an understanding upon which you can build in learning more advanced mathematics. Even if you’re using a calculator or computer to solve complex equations, you need to have an understanding of what you’re trying to figure out. Learning basic math skills is the starting point.

    But it also occurs to me that once you do understand how to add, subtract, multiply and divide, it doesn’t make any sense not to use a calculator in most cases. If my accountant insisted on figuring everything out with a pencil and paper, I think I’d be a little concerned. The math doesn’t come out any better by using a pencil (if anything there is more room for error). It also generally takes a lot longer.

    Doing math in your head or on paper is a good way to train your mind, to build a foundation for further learning, and can be enjoyable just for the process itself. But if the purpose is to quickly and accurately find the sum of a bunch of numbers, a calculator is the way to go.

    I think on the surface “why paint” and “why do math” seem like similar questions. But in fact they are quite different.

  24. bob Says:

    paint because all that is used is a paint brush while photography is complicated