Christopher Allen - video - photographic reliance in the Archibald Prize

Christopher Allen, regular arts writer for The Australian newspaper, at the 2010 Archibald Prize for portraiture.

Essentially he makes the case for why reliance on photography is damaging to an effort to paint a truly great portrait.

I essentially agree with what Allen says, and he makes some elegant points.  In particular, he talks about the craft of portrait painting or sculpture being done at its highest level when the artist synthesises observations across time to make a concrete representation of something that is transient and hard to pin down in visual representation: a person's character.

I did have a concern, which is a little bit beside his main point: I think some of his comments about perspective were unclear and may betray a lack of understanding of how perspective works in relation to drawing.  He describes perspective as being not exactly the way we see, a kind of artificial model.  I agree that the forced one point perspective of certain early renaissance paintings certainly are far from natural, and human vision and the cues of depth perception are more complex than the mathematics of the eye as a point receptor of light.  But the laws of perspective, particularly within a normal 60 degree cone of vision, are essentially true and must be obeyed if naturalism of appearance is sought.  

Why does this matter?  Well, later he describes the power of the human eye to see into space and apprehend volume in a physical, three dimensional way, whereas the camera will flatten the image by removing certain depth cues.  He is identifying, rightly, that the artist is often better off not having the camera as an intermediary between himself and the subject, in order to have access to the maximum perception of volume and depth.  But if an artist is to be able to translate this feeling of volume in deep space onto a two-dimensional surface, their understanding of perspective must be thorough enough that they can call on it intuitively to guide their placement of marks.   I am convinced that a general understanding of the mathematical model of perspective, as it applies to geometric forms in space, is critical to developing this ability.   

Allen advocates a view of painting as a craft that involves synthesising observations, not mere copying (and I wholeheartedly agree with this sensibility).  This means the artist has to engage in the long term process of studying the visual cues for a variety of qualities - anatomy, light, facial expression etc, so that they can be simplified, exaggerated, and variously manipulated to achieve an effect.  The laws of perspective are essentially a set of cues that relate to depth, and so are critical to any effort that relates to capturing or emphasising the feeling of volumes in depth via contour.

A separate question arose for me while watching Allen’s talk.  Many people argue that the artist should never work from photographs.  They say that the use of photographs, even as a rough guide or tool, will always be deleterious to the development of life and form in a work, but Allen specifically says at the beginning that he is not arguing this puritan position.  But the question that it raises for me is a more general one of process: how should the artist best organise their process, in relation to making and using studies (including photography)?  My tentative conclusion to this question is that it depends on the vision of the artist, and that it is a question that the artist would ideally continue to ask over the course of their career - as their skills develop and their artistic vision evolves.  But more on this in a later post.