Monday, July 21, 2014

The Art of Copying

Ilya Repin's portrait of Stasov

Photo of the copying room at the Da Fen Oil Painting Village in Buji, Longgang, Shenzhen, China,
which employs over 5,000 artists.
Blog reader Bob Walsh asked what I thought of the business of art copying.

Hi, Bob,
It's an interesting problem, though not a new one, except perhaps in the scale of the enterprises. I like to come at the issue from a lot of different angles:


Copying a master's work was and still is one of the best ways to learn. Here are some of the copies I did when I was teaching myself to paint. They include postcard-sized copies Rockwell, Bouguereau, Waterhouse, Moran, Cornwell, and even that same Repin painting of Stasov.

Many art students do copies at the same size of the original, matching it as closely as they can. Not surprisingly, the market for historical paintings is filled not only with forgeries but also with copies made as legitimate learning exercises, though they should be labeled as such to avoid confusion. 

"Young Girl Defending Herself from Eros," both by Bouguereau 

Many academic artists made replica copies of their own works and didn't consider anything wrong with having multiple originals. For example, Bouguereau painted more than one original oil painting of "Young Girl Defending Herself from Eros."

From a philosophical perspective, all images are real in a way and unreal in a way, too— and all copies are varying degrees of "faithful," "mechanical," "genuine," whether they're made by humans or machines, or some combination.

From the customer's point of view, as long as you know what you're buying, I suppose no one is hurt by copies. As long as some people merely want a hand-painted image to hang on their walls and they don't really care about who painted it, a market will rise to meet that demand, just as there has always been a market for reproduction antiques. 

From the creator's point of view, some artists regard copies as flattering and some as potentially infringing. That mainly depends on whether it's for sale and whether the attribution is genuine. American crafts artists have long been fighting Chinese knockoffs that undercut their market by matching their work exactly but for a much lower price. NPR did a report about New England crafts people fighting such a lawsuit.


Sometimes a copy can sell for more than the original, such as Glenn Brown's copy of a Chris Foss spaceship painting, which sold for 5.7 million dollars, while Foss's painting sold for only a few hundred. The legal and moral argument in that case is whether the recontextualization—the larger size, the new title — legitimized the work as a transformative new work. Whether such a high profile copy diminishes or enhances the work of the "real" original is a matter that's open for some debate.

Bob Dylan's "Opium," (2009) next to a photograph by Léon Busy, taken in Vietnam in 1915/ Left: Gagosian Gallery / Right: © Musée Albert Kahn, courtesy HuffPost
Other high profile artists have gotten in hot water for copying. Singer-turned-painter Bob Dylan received some adverse publicity a while ago when his "Asia Series" of paintings at the Gagosian gallery, which purported to be taken from his direct experience of his travels, turned out to be copies of historical, and sometimes copyrighted photographs.

Copying has its place in art, especially as a learning exercise. But originality and authenticity can be a rare commodities, even among so-called creative geniuses. The best thing is to be open and honest with what you're doing, and give credit where credit is due.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Trost Richards Plein Air Watercolors

The Brooklyn Museum has a good collection of sketchbooks and watercolors by William Trost Richards which give insight into his practice of painting studies on location.

 William Trost Richards (1833-1905) "Landscape with Tree"
This partly finished study is 10 x 14 inches. (25.4 x 35.6 cm) on smooth beige paper. It's mostly and transparent watercolor with some opaque touches in gouache. He used gouache for the thin twigs on the far left, but he carefully painted around the illuminated leaves in the center of the picture. 

In this case, his initial steps don't include a very detailed pencil drawing. The unfinished area of the fence shows a few light washes and some locator lines painted with a brush in watercolor.
William Trost Richards, American, 1833-1905, Rhode Island Coast: Conanicut Island ca. 1880
This study is the same size, carried through to finish. It uses a similar method: painting large shapes rather loosely (but accurately) with larger brushes, and then subdividing those masses into smaller textures and details.

Although this method requires large reserves of patience and concentration, I don't think it would necessarily take too long; I believe a painting like this could be done in an afternoon or perhaps two consecutive sessions.

Computer Time

I painted this watercolor study of my wife Jeanette doing computer time. Normally, of course, the computer gives off a blue light, but this light is from a lamp shining on the warm-colored wall in front of her.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Trost Richards seascape method

William Trost Richards "British Coastal View (Coast of Cornwall)" circa 1880
Oil on paper mounted on artist's board, 8-3/4 x 16 inches (22.2 x 40.6 cm)
Here's an oil study by William Trost Richards of the coast of Cornwall. If we had been able to see this painting half-finished, I believe that the areas of the water and the the headlands would have been stated as large, flat masses of relatively thin paint, and they would have been detailed later.

You can see the broader statement clearest in the shadowed bluff at the far left, where the brushstrokes from his large bristle brush carry down along the whole form. The darker subdivisions were added later with a smaller brush. At the far left are the marks of the same brush pounding downward to soften the bottom edge of the bluff and to pull the green of the grass upward. 

The preliminary statement of masses probably included the average color of the water, without waves or foam, and the light and dark masses of the headlands on the right of the scene. With that paint sitting wet but not too thick, he painted the smaller lines in the rock following the natural fracture lines. The waves also came in later. You'll notice that the wavelet lines never really intersect the vertical line of the illuminated bluff.


This method of painting the poster statement and then subdividing is in contrast to that of Frederic Church. Church finalized the brushwork from the background to the foreground. The sky would have been finished and the illuminated breakers in the middle distance would also have been finished before the jagged line of the rocks was carried across it.

Previous post shows a similar technique on a Trost Richards watercolor

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Rousse's Illusions


French artist Georges Rousse has been creating single-perspective illusions for several decades now. What appears to be a two dimensional design floating in front of a room is really an unadulterated photo of a painted room. Creating these illusions requires careful choices in site selection, photography, perspective, painting, and lighting.


This video, (link to YouTube) reveals the day-by-day effort required to achieve one of his installations in a narrow, window-filled room in Miyagi, Japan.

The second half of the video is a time lapse sequence showing the effect of changing light, with the camera locked into position. Finally the camera drifts out of position to show the illusion off-axis.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Forgot his brushes


Have you ever forgotten your brushes on a painting excursion? Sir Alfred Munnings did. Here's what happened.


"Once on Exmoor, not long ago," he writes in his memoir, "I arrived by car at Cloud Farm to paint Bagsworthy Water, some twelve miles away, and found I had forgotten my brushes. I have developed the habit of carrying my brushes separately in a brown-paper roll. A box holds a miserable handful, and I like at least one big brush among the twenty or thirty I choose to take...." 


"....With no brushes, I viciously chewed the ends of pieces of wood, tied paint-rags on sticks, sought out minute fir-cones washed down in spate to the stream's bank, some of these matted with fine strands of grass. A teazle was a grand thing on such an occasion. Cursing and raging not to be beaten, I found that with these tools I could do a lot, and the final result was much the same as if I had used brushes."


"I returned next day. Conditions were the same. I sat in the same place near the roaring foam. I made the same design and painted another picture ; this time with brushes. Afterwards, placing the two canvases side by side, and standing back to look, they appeared exactly the same, four yards away."


----
Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) on Wikipedia
From "An Artist's Life" by Alfred Munnings (free ebook)
Some of the images courtesy Sir Alfred Munnings Museum at his home, Castle House in Dedham, Essex. (thanks, Beth Munnings-Winter)