Art Photography: Are Photography-Based Paintings Cheating?

Are Photography-Based Paintings Cheating?

An artist takes a photograph and then adjusts it in Photoshop. He projects the modified photograph on a canvas, traces it, and then paints in the colors according to the digital image. Is the resulting painting art? Does it have the same artistic value as a painting created by observation, sketches and chance?

In today's digital age, artists' use of and/or reliance on photographs has become a controversial subject in the art world. The practice is common amongst emerging young artists, as well as contemporary masters like Chuck Close, John Currin, David Hockney, Malcolm Morley, Gerhard Richter, Jenny Saville and Luc Tuymans, not to mention Andy Warhol. It's even said that Picasso's "Les demoiselles d'Avignon" was based on a photograph. Going further back in history, some argue that Old Masters like Vermeer and Caravaggio used the mechanical tools of the age to prepare their compositions.

While some artists see photography as just another tool, like Caravaggio's camera obscura, others decry its use, claiming that an artist who traces the lines of her painting from a photograph is cheating. Of course, tracing and painting are two different tasks, and many artists say that, photographic aids or not, the real challenge lies in the actual act of painting, in bringing two dimensional images to three dimensional life.

At worst, photography and Photoshop dilute or distort the artistic process--the connection between painter and his final product. At best, they allow artists to find and capture subjects that inspire them and then play with the images until they find a composition that can be translated to canvas.

As art and technology inevitably continue to mix, controversies over the purity of art are likely to blaze on.