I was having an interesting conversation with an old friend of mine from art school the other day about various “styles” of art. We both trained traditionally, by studying techniques of the old masters, however, our work has taken two very different directions. The purpose of painting up until the last century or so was to depict scenes of reality. The function of an artist has been replaced to a great extent by the camera. Where once an artist diligently copied what he saw, and went to great efforts to create compositional sketches, and oil studies, can now be captured in a single instant with the camera. However, what the camera doesn’t achieve, is the emotional component that always filters through the unique interpretation of the artist.
A photograph taken of a particular subject, in a particular setting, with a particular light, using the same camera and shutter speed, regardless of the individual photographer will produce the same image. In painting, every individual artist will have a different interpretation of the colors, shapes, tones, textures, etc., even if the subject itself is exactly the same. That is the distinct difference between photography and painting.
My friend in art school was a great realist, but as of late, has chosen to paint “abstractly”. According to him, he is and will always be influenced by traditional art as well as traditional subject matter. He applies the same rules of composition, value, color and texture to his art work that he learned from the old masters.
Reality is abstract. That is aparent in just about anything that can be seen in the world. Take an ordinary leaf, for example – when viewed closely, one can read the miniscule veins, organic texture, and jagged edges, as a completely abstract form. Out of context it becomes a work of abstract art. A great example of an “abstract” realist would be Georgia O’keefe, who painted close ups of animal skulls, and flowers. By enlarging these subjects to a monumental scale and observing all of the minute details, she allowed the viewers to experience them as something completely new, and in their eyes they became abstract images. There are of course many other artists who have used this concept as well, but Georgia O’keefe is the first one that came to mind.