I have been painting koi, and some might wonder what techniques lie behind the paintings. Ever since the French Impressionists, we’re accustomed to the idea of painting landscape from life “en plein air.” And I do sometimes visit my friends the koi with a notebook and make sketches.
However, most the drawing and painting I do of the koi grows out of photographs. Indeed, I could not pursue the images I make without the camera. And the use of photography in these koi paintings I make leads me closer than ever backward into the techniques of old masters. Prior to the 19th century when paint was first put into tubes, artists made sketches from life, but all their serious painting of nature took place in the studio and depended greatly upon drawings, imagination and imitation of works by other artists. Art has always been influenced as much by other art as by “reality.” And it’s still true, of course, though we are not always aware of the subliminal kinds of imitation in which we indulge.
My paintings develop from photographs because the camera can stop time, and thus it captures a natural effect that I cannot see with my eyes. For instance, while one can makes lots of drawings of individual koi swimming about (which is hard enough), one cannot capture the complex relationships of many moving fish to each other. Yet when I study my photographs I find that the koi navigate their watery paths in herd-like ways. Their passages through their “fluid-scape” is more than the sum of individual parts. Beautiful patterns emerge as they swim sometimes in concert, sometimes in solos, and sometimes in gentle and amicable “collision” courses during which they bump into one another and exchange a brief but cordial greeting.
Thus I need my photographs, yet I do not just copy them. I often make drawings — studies — from the photographs, just as one makes studies from life. Through this process of preliminary drawing, quite often new visual ideas emerge, and sometimes it’s these ideas that affect the painting as much as the source photo(s). Then too, I sometimes recombine elements of several photos to invent a new composition and in this regard I find myself doing a modern revamp of a very ancient “old master” process.
Sometimes I make “quick” sketches from the photos (as in the picture at the top of the post) — though I have “all the time in the world” to copy a photograph. I find that the quick interaction with what I see helps me seize some aspects of the imagery and — equally valuable — to ignore other features, distracting details perhaps, in the search for whatever visual gesture finally expresses this “je ne sais quoi” that I want.
The painting you make is never exactly the same thing as “reality.” Whether the artist stands before the motif, or works in the quietude of an insulated studio, the real subject of the picture is the interior landscape of the painter — the one inside one’s head. As Degas said: “L’air qu’on voit dans les tableaux des maitres, n’est pas l’air respirable!” And that goes double for the water!