It’s all about the paint, almost

Face First. Reed  Govert's oil portrait in the current exhibit at Manifest

Face First. Reed Govert’s oil portrait in the current exhibit at Manifest.

I had lunch with a couple friends a couple weeks ago, one of them fellow painter Rick Harrington. We had an interesting discussion about the importance of paint. Two painters talking about paint. Shocking, isn’t it? Rick was expressing his feeling that working from photography inhibits him and has a tendency to turn his attention away from paint and more toward fidelity to the image, the effort of duplicating a camera’s lifeless, flat image. (I disagreed that this is what a camera always gives you, though it’s often true of landscape photography, and Rick paints mostly outdoor scenes and landscapes.) Behind his reservation was the commonly held assumption that working from a photograph becomes an effort to simply copy the photograph rather than using it as a starting point, a fixed reference for doing something based on it. Often that effort can be nothing more than capturing a hyper-realistic duplicate of what the photograph shows, but usually it means altering quite a bit of the shot in subtle ways, or even radical ways. And sometimes it means combining half a dozen shots into a single image. But Rick was right about how, while working from photography, there’s a temptation to slowly inch your way across a canvas, perfecting each square inch as a replica of the corresponding inch in the photograph. (I think there’s pleasure and there can be some big rewards in doing that, but I understand what he’s saying. That kind of slavish obedience to the photograph can rob the painting of life and energy.)

I kidded him about being a brushwork fascist, but I came away thinking a lot about how the paintings I’ve been happiest with felt as if I’d painted them with a certain quality of paint: the physical quality of the act of painting had a lot to do with the success of the image, regardless of how assiduously I was trying to duplicate what I created with the photograph itself. Some of these successful paintings took weeks to complete and others only a day. In each case, the quality of the brushwork was quite different–often nearly invisible in the time-consuming work and almost bravura in places with the fast work. But in every case, the paint felt a certain way as it was being applied: not too thick, not too thin, moving off the brush smoothly and continuously. (Paintings that haven’t turned out well I can sometimes trace back to the fact that I wasn’t using paint in that zone where it feels exactly right as it flows onto the canvas or panel.)

So while I was meditating on all this, I got a little envelope from Manifest, a stack of invitation cards for the exhibit in Cincinnati that includes my oil of the cow skull. There are three fine exhibits right now at Manifest, all of them related to the animal and human body: skulls, hands and feet, and faces. On the front of the card was a reproduction of a large black-and-white portrait in oil by Reed Govert in Face First, one of the three shows. It’s not as big as a Chuck Close, but looks, from his website, as if it’s top edge might rise to eye level, with the painting sitting on the floor. It’s a masterful piece, and I think it’s almost certainly painted from a black-and-white photograph of his sitter, and yet, in an amazing way, my brain can almost feel the flesh tones–can my brain actually feel colors? The grisaille palette somehow conveys exactly the way flesh looks, that slight element of translucency, so that light bounces back from slightly different layers beneath the surface. The shine of the nose, the scruffy growth of beard, the subtle highlight, about an eyelash thick, riding on that moist lower lid, and the incredibly subtle rendering of very slight gradations of value from light to dark. This is painting. And precise detail isn’t actually replicated but suggested with thick paint and highly visible brushwork. I would guess that he works the image up very carefully at first and then finishes with a knife and a brush laden with paint, so that much of the incredibly careful early brushwork recedes behind bold marks that meet the eye first. The brightest patch just below the right cheekbone looks like once-and-done calligraphy. Whether or not Govert worked from a photograph doesn’t much matter: he easily could have, and so the painting shows how much a good shot can be the starting point for something that’s as much about the paint as it is about what the paint fools you into seeing.

4 Responses to “It’s all about the paint, almost”

  1. Richard Harrington

    As usual, I came away from our lunch conversation feeling as if I hadn’t expressed what I actually meant. So, here’s another attempt.

    I have NO problem with folks using photographs for reference. I do find the slavish copying of photographs to be the least interesting work to look at, but I’m perfectly comfortable knowing the it’s just my own opinion. As someone who loves land and specific places, I find the distortion of a place, inherent in the lens employed with a camera, to be antithetical to what I am after. But that aside, what I really find disappointing is when a painter, working with such a lush medium, gives no life to the paint. The act of applying paint can be an opportunity to ad to the image, rather than simply rendering. Brushwork, or more often in my case, rag and hand work, is to me the tactile artifact of the act of painting, and it can be another layer of meaning, of presence, in the finished painting. In my landscape work I don’t want it to be distracting, or simply stylish, but absorbing. To pull a viewer further in, to reflect the air filling the “space” of the painting, the surface of things, the tactile experience of being in a place- wind, heat, bugs, brush or undergrowth slapping at you as you move through. To not take advantage of the opportunity the medium provides is a short coming of a lot of work.

    But again, just my opinion. And as I said at lunch, Darb asked me recently, When did you get so opinionated? Ha.

  2. Richard Harrington

    Oh, I got distracted (I know you’re shocked)- I think Reed Govert’s portrait above is a great example of what I mean. A really powerful piece, that surface brings it life it wouldn’t otherwise have, but is not at all distracting from the power of the image.

  3. Reed

    Nice post Dave! The painting is from a photograph. It’s a constant struggle, working on such a large scale, but a photograph is the easiest way to capture a subject – without having said human stuck inside ones’ studio for months on end. I try my hardest to forget about the photograph fully once a painting is near a 75% completion point. After spending countless hours studying it, the only way to translate breath from the photo to a painting, is to view it solely as a painting; once in its final stages. That’s when things are allowed to get wild again! Works for me anyway. Have a great day!

  4. dave dorsey

    Sorry it took so long to see your comment Reed. My alerts come to an email I don’t use nearly as often as I should, so I just saw this now. I appreciate the response and agree with you on photography. A shot will only take you so far and then things need to be done that will make the painting work, regardless of what the photo is showing you. Glad I got to see what painting. Wish I could see the actual work.