I paint my koi from photographs. It would be an interesting experiment to do them entirely from life. Many years ago I painted from life almost exclusively, and back when I decided that I would be an artist, when I was trying to learn what I thought of as being the foundation of art, I worked from life. I’m glad I did. The habits I gained have worn well. But later on, I found that certain subjects did not fit into an approach devant le motif. Indeed, it became a kind of lesson in art history too — to become more aware of all the various kinds of artifice employed to create seeming “life likenesses” over the centuries.
The koi was something I wanted to do to explore abstraction in the wake of my renewed love for the work of Californian Richard Diebenkorn (one of my favorite 20th artists). I found something that was very perceptual and which had a lot of distortion built into it, but which was of course as “real” as one might ever desire. Yet I soon realized that I needed the photograph for practical reasons (the koi pond was not convenient to my home). But I also soon found that the photograph interprets the image so thoroughly that many of the effects I found most interesting could be achieved by no other means.
The camera stops time. In some of my photographs (I had no idea what I was doing, by the way), the water was frozen. Planes of the water’s structure were caught and carved out of their constant fluidity. The amazing shape of the water as it moves was there to draw — something that I cannot see with the naked eye.
Then the fish, also, were alterred in interesting ways. In some photos the fish are stretched out as they swim through the exposure, the exaggeration of their shapes simulating something of their movement.
Happily I found that the photograph was amenable to interpretation as readily as the real place. I began by drawing the photos very faithfully (I thought), but my own habits of vision interpolated something that wasn’t strictly there. One introduces “distortions” that arise from longing and attention. So I was in effect synthesizing the experience in ways parallel to what I would do when drawing from life. Only the photograph opens up a world not visible to ordinary sight.
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