The Challenge Comes With A Risk: Print, Or Paint?

The photograph (left) that inspired the painting (right). See both here.


As a photographer who paints, and a painter who photographs, there’s a challenge I’m often faced with: Print, or paint?

Photographing a scene in order to paint it later is often my motive. Yet when I’m back in my studio, reviewing my take, the images that I’d intended to paint sometimes cry out to become prints instead. And there’s the dilemma: if an image can stand alone as a print, what value is added by painting it?

At the risk of repeating my efforts in vain, only to discover that the substantial time invested in a painting didn’t really improve on the original image or lend anything else to its narrative, I sometimes still plunder forward and begin a painting. And therein lies the challenge, and the satisfaction.

Because once I’ve applied a base coat of lovely soft metallics to my sanded canvas, once I’ve sketched the image onto my undercoated canvas, once the oils are mixed and laid out upon my palette, once I’ve picked up an oil stick and boldly laid out the subject’s lines, once I begin to layer on those thick, creamy rich oils, I’ve already taken several steps away from my photograph and entered my own world of interpretation. From there it’s the bliss of the creative flow, of seeing how one loaded brush stroke of oil can fade into or mix with another, of feeling the layers of texture build up after several strokes of the palette knife, of moving into the rhythm of the painting and becoming part of it, and experiencing all of the sensations that even the most observant photographer never can.

And even if the painting is less perfect than the photograph, the process engages me in a way that making a print cannot. The painting process is long; it has the potential to frustrate me and to exhilarate me. It involves me and consumes me; there’s a commitment required that way exceeds the 60th of a second it took to snap the shutter, or the hour it took to post-process and print the image. The painting offers me pleasure and pain both, the fear of failure, with no command-z options when I regret some misguided paint strokes.

At best, when painting, I’m challenged, I rise to it, I learn, I improve, I am fulfilled by my creative achievement. That’s at best. But because painting can push me out of my comfort zone, it’s also a risk. I could make an utter disaster out of it. Or just make a mediocre painting. Or somewhere in between. The chances of success are considerably less than with a print.

That’s why I must paint. Making prints from my photographs is by far the easier path, and I never fear failure in that medium. But fear is the much stronger motivator when painting, and that’s why the two processes go together, each one spurring on the potential of the other. 

Do you have two complementary creative practices?

See paintings and prints from my Mission: Mexico series HERE.

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