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A question about the use of cell phones in portrait painting

Portrait artists using cell phones to capture subject.  From "Portrait Artist of the Year 2018"  copyright Sky Arts.  Under Fair Use Rules.

I have been watching an interesting competition on YouTube, from Sky Art TV: "Portrait Artist of the Year." It has brought up some interesting observations for me.

In many of the sessions, the model is first "bombarded" by a flurry of cell phone and tablet photographs before the artist begins to paint. Very few of the artists start painting from the live model in front of them (old school). Many of the artists in the series actually use the photograph as the model – replacing the live model with a photographic image.

When I was in Art school, painting from photographs was strictly discouraged, because it introduces visual distortions, and because painting with a living model in front of you is an important, intimate artistic experience.

I have noticed a marked change, since then. Many artists are now painting camera distortions into their artwork on purpose, as a part of the imagery; for instance, the use of "Bokeh" in backgrounds (out of focus blurry circles produced by a camera lens) – is widely utilized nowadays in artwork. Lens distortion, and out of focus field of view, are also happily painted into artwork, as a integral part of the imagery.

I am of two minds on this:

Artists have utilized technology for centuries. Camera Obscura is now believed by many, to be the key to Vermeer's masterful paintings, and you can even purchase modern Camera Obscura tools, to recreate the ancient process in your own paintings.

The downside is that cameras can distort the imagery, creating huge hands and small heads, for instance. This produces portraits with distorted bodies, out of proportion. The kind of errors that would never happen when painting from life, and viewing the subject with your eyes alone.

Cameras can also remove you from the experience. When I first started photographing live concerts, I often felt like I had missed the show entirely, as if I had never been there at all. As a portrait painter, your task is to immerse yourself in the experience, learn something about, and to present something personal about the subject. It is an experience of intimacy. The use of photography in painting can produce cold, distant imagery, isolating the viewer from the subject. Most good photographers know how to connect with their subject through the camera lens – however – Most painters are NOT photographers.

On the other hand...

Perhaps today's artists are using technology as a commentary about our culture. We are inundated with technology – so much that many of us simply cannot remove ourselves from our cell phones long enough, to speak to a live human being, standing right next to us. Many of our life experiences are shared via cell phone videos and the internet. We are a technological culture. We very well may be experiencing our lives – not directly – but through the lens of a camera, distant and removed from real life. We may be living our lives from a distorted, out of focus, disconnected, point of view.

Thus, artwork being created today, is likely a reflection of our technological culture. The distortions (visual, emotional and psychological) are integrated into our lives, and thus, into our artwork. Artists may be using these distortions, as a commentary about our current society.


I have no answers, just observations. Art Historians will figure this out over the years, but until then, what do you think about the purposeful use of cell phone/tablet distortions in artwork? Is it a commentary, a mistake, bad training, or something else?

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