Art and the iPad
Updated: Jun 22, 2022
THE WASHED OUT HYPERREALIST
Ever wondered why so many hyperrealist paintings have a sort of washed out look, with no vibrant soaring colour schemes, no rich, plunging depths of value?
The short answer is that the technology used by hyperrealist artists (projectors) isn't fit for purpose: back in the 17th Century, Vermeer had better gear.
The problem is, we didn't know what that gear was, in fact, we didn't even know if Vermeer used such tools... until this guy called Tim figured out what kind of optical tool Vermeer used. He made a film about it and got nominated for an Oscar (Best Documentary).
So now we know. Vermeer is still a genius, and not just for his paintings and compositions (he was also a genius tool maker and optician). He just wasn't a super human draughtsman with an uncanny eye for the exact value of what he painted. Humans evolved to discard unnecessary information travelling along our optical nerves to the brain, and we throw out a lot of information about value, even though value is 7/10 of what makes an image look real. In other words, we use lossy image compression, great for spotting tigers who want to eat you, not so good for painting them.
Some people find that hard to accept. They like the idea of "genius". They want artists to be freaks of nature whose optical nerves are capable of unhuman feats. They want to believe that Vermeer didn't "cheat". They want to believe he didn't need to. Well, such people also think that the essence of art is reproducing what you have in front of you as precisely as you can.
It isn't. Art is about fooling the viewer's brain to get it to perceive something that you think it should. The more fun you have whilst doing this, the better.
THE LONG ANSWER
Still reading? Want to know more about what I outlined above? Well, here you are:
If you are interested in painting and you haven't yet seen the Oscar nominated documentary "Tim's Vermeer", then you are in for a treat... and a shock. It's on Amazon Prime, so you can rent it any day you want.
The Tim of the film's title is a self made man, who made his way in life making optical instruments. When his daughter gave him a copy of David Hockney's book "Secret Knowledge", he got interested in the optics used by old masters and, being who he is, he had no choice: he was going to find out how Vermeer did it. And find out he did.
Contrary to popular belief, intelligence isn't all about answering questions. Instead, it is primarily about asking them. And Hockney, in his book, asked a good question:
How did the old masters do it? How did they draw and paint value with such precision?
Hockney's thesis is that they must have used optics, and kept it secret. Why? Well, you wouldn't want your patrons thinking you cheated, would you? And you certainly wouldn't want your colleagues pinching all your techniques (and therefore, your patrons), now would you? So the optics used by the old masters were never documented.
However, that thesis is as far as Hockney got: He asked the question, but didn't answer it.
That took Tim. Tim dug deeper, and focused on one painter, Vermeer.
He found that camera obscuras wouldn't do the job: amongst other problems, the colour they projected was way too washed out... just like the paintings of modern day hyperrealists, who use modern day projectors!
Camera obscuras simply aren't good enough, Tim realised, to paint your own Vermeer. Something was missing. Tim found that something and that is what the rest of the film is about, so I won't spoil it for you.
All I will say is that it puts Vermeer, Art and the History of Art, into perspective. And you realise that what we call art is really itself just a perspective, the perspective that the patrons of art have and want the rest of us to have.
THE PATRON'S PERSPECTIVE
Patrons are myth makers and they makes these myths by funding them.
They put Art and the artist on a pedestal and then mystify both out of any human reality. A Vermeer just wants to pay the bills but the patron wants a myth. They want to believe that "their" artist can walk on water, they want to own a piece of "genius", not mere technical prowess. What the patron wants, the patron gets, and any Vermeer with bills to pay will go to considerable pains to deliver whatever delusion their patron fancies. No one wants to go to debtor's prison and so the "secret knowledge", as David Hockney calls it, gets erased from the history of art.
This patron's perspective imposes a gross misunderstanding of art and artists, one that is based on a distorted idea of "genius". I am not saying that artistic genius does not exist (more on that later), but I am saying that our idea of genius in contemporary art is distorted by the unquestioned assumption that anyone, including patrons, can recognise contemporary artistic genius.
As an illustration of this, consider how Vermeer's patrons conflated art with technical excellence. In the very same way, the patrons of hyperrealist contemporary art are in thrall to a competent depiction of every pore on the subjects nose. Both are missing the real artistic content (if any) of these paintings they have patronised: if there is any genius in them, it is not in the perfect colour of the bricks on a street in Old Amsterdam nor in the washed out depiction of scars left by juvenile acne. Such things are just the product (and the limitations) of the technology that the painter has mastered, to a greater or lesser degree.
Art, instead, is very obviously in what the painting conveys to us, what it expresses, the human knowledge we gain just by looking at it.
But if this definition of art seems so obvious, why then is the use of optical and technological crutches so horrifying to the patrons, that such things are erased from the History of Art?
The reason can only be that patrons, on average, are the least qualified people on the planet to have any opinion on art, let alone to set a historical perspective on art. Yet this is precisely what has happened.
You don't (or shouldn't) need to view another film about Vermeer, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, to grasp this idea about the statistical realities of who patrons of art are.
If you are thinking that we have moved on from the 17th Century, think again. The patrons of art, these days, are companies in search of tax breaks and the politicians who throw money at the art establishment to make the problem go away. What makes you think that the humans involved are any better qualified than the original patrons of Vermeer's art?
Either way, the patron's perspective still dictates what we call art, even in our own time. And that perspective will always be in denial of what doesn't flatter it.
Like the fact that artists use tools.
ART, TOOLS AND CHEATS
In art, you need to get the job done. If you don't, there is no art. Does it really matter how you do it? Surely what you express in a painting is more important?
There are some trivial ethical issues, where it does matter how you got the job done. If "getting the job done" involves killing or inflicting harm, then yes, it very obviously matters very much. But let's leave aside such trivial issues, this is a blog post after all, not an academic paper.
Think of paint brushes. They are a tool. One that the cavemen of Lascaux didn't have. So, 40,000 years later, are paint brushes cheating? No, obviously not. Is using artificial illumination cheating? No way! Tools are there to be used. End of.
Photographs, projectors, iPad, Adobe Fresco, Vermeer's technique... You name it, you should use it, totally guilt free, if it helps to get the job done.
I personally like to draw freehand. I enjoy the challenge and I find that the errors in my drawings introduce elements in my paintings that just wouldn't be there otherwise.
Do I ever use a projector? Yes, very rarely, for example when detail matters in a commission. But so what? Nothing of what makes my paintings art, or not, depends on what tools I use.
What I do use, and a lot, is the iPad.
I use it for making swatches of the colours, especially the shadows for a painting that is based on a photo. I'll write a blog post on some of these techniques, but here is an example:
This is a photo I took, that I loaded into Adobe Fresco on my iPad, then used the colour picker tool to pick out the colours and make swatches that I could then mix my oils to match those colours as precisely as I can.
And this is the finished result, a painting I called "Born to be Wild":
I'm pretty pleased with that result! It captures the dank stable, and the pony's abject loneliness and boredom. The drawing was done freehand, I did the painting myself, with a brush and oils and glazes, and burnt plate oil. The colours are rich and alive, and express what exactly what I wanted. I used the tools I needed to, and I used the best tools for the job.
If I had used a projector, the colours would've been "washed out" and lacklustre, with no depth or richness, just a certain degree of accuracy.
And if I ever want to do hyperrealism, I would, again, use the best tool for the job:
An iPad (or equivalent), an Apple Pencil (or equivalent) and Adobe Fresco. And then I would use photobox.co.uk (or equivalent) to print it off onto aluminium boards or canvas. Or paper.
The result of all this? See my portrait of Bruce below and judge for yourself.
Did I draw Bruce freehand, like I did with Born to be Wild above? No. That wasn't the point. I wanted to do a hyperrealist painting, not a portrait of domesticated, gelded boredom and loneliness. So I used the best tools for the job at hand.
THE ARTIST'S PERSPECTIVE
If you use the word "cheating" to describe this practice by an artist of making a hard job easier, then you do not see Art from the perspective of an artist.
Instead, you are seeing Art from the perspective of a patron, who mystifies the idea of what an artist does (ie, they don't have a clue).
So, I say:
GREAT ART, THEN, NOW AND TOMORROW
At any given time, the "Great Art" of the day was always about business:
Like any other business, Great Art needs to be efficient and it needs to deliver on its contracts. No fulfilled contracts, dead artist.
Yes, of course there have always been Van Goghs and Gaugins, who painted for the love of art, but they were NOT producing what their CONTEMPORARIES considered to be "Great Art". They did not paint for the Patron's Perspective. They painted for the Artist's Perspective.
The two things are very different:
What we think of as "great" today is often not what was thought to be "great" in the past, say, at the time a piece of art was created. And as a cautionary warning to wannabee collectors:
It will not necessarily be the same as what people think of as "great art" in the future.