In this article, Jeff Hein discusses his artistic journey and his transition from using photography at the beginning of his career to now solely painting from life. Jeff will be demonstrating at the 2017 The Art of the Portrait as well as serving on a breakout panel with fellow artists discussing the creative process.
After teaching a workshop in Houston, a few fellow painters and I visited the Museum of Fine Art Houston for a few hours. Walking through the museum, I saw a number of breathtaking paintings. Among them was “Portrait of a Young Woman”, by Rembrandt. While studying the Rembrandt piece I became enthralled with the subtle rendering of form, the variety of hue and temperature in the skin, details in the clothing and hair and the amazing illusion of depth that he was able to create. While these technical and aesthetic features might have been enough to hold my interest, something else about his work moved me. I felt something that I can only describe as the spirit of the model. I imagined the many hours, centuries ago, that Rembrandt spent with this woman as he painted her. Perhaps during breaks they would discuss their personal lives, Rembrandt’s past or future projects, her life as an aristocrat, or maybe they discussed their families or the weather. I can imagine her peaking around the easel to see the progress and perhaps even making comments such as “is my nose really that big” or “it's interesting how you see me”. To me the events that took place in the studio while this was painted had been infused in the paint in much the same way a historical event can seem to infuse to its place. As a child growing up in Hudson Valley, New York, I would occasionally visit such historic sites as Washington Headquarters and Knox Headquarters. I found it fascinating to imagine the revolutionary war period civilians, solders, generals and etc. going about their lives on that very ground. It was as though they left something of themselves in the buildings; as though the events and people were permanently connected to the place. A few years ago I visited a “historic” site here in my current home of Utah. As I stood in one of the buildings, I asked the tour guide if everything in the building was the property of the historic figure whose home this was. She said, “No, in fact the home itself and everything in it are replicas of the originals. He never actually lived in this home”. She followed by saying “but it is exactly like his home would have been”. While the site was still very interesting as an educational tool and even as a work of craftsmanship and historic detail, it now lacked the spirit of the man.
It's in part because of experiences like these that in 2008 I chose to discontinue the use of photography in my painting process. I don't want another one of my paintings to be a “replica of the original”. I want my work to be a record of a direct interaction between me the subject(s) and the medium. When I look at the work that I had done from photos, years ago, they seem emptier to me. My memories of the process consist of me, alone, with a monitor. No experiences, people or place are infused into these works. I may be proud of the design and craftsmanship of some of these paintings but they will never be whole to me. Don't misunderstand. I’ve never ‘copied’ photos. This is not an issue of creativity or departure from the reference material. I don't even ‘copy’ when I work from life. A good artist always edits. It's about creating paintings that are one with the subject being portrayed by building a collective history between the artist, the work and the subject.
An extreme example might be two portraits of the same loved one. Perhaps both are done by the same artist but one was done from life and the other was done from a photo after his/her death. If all other aspects of the paintings are equal which do you find more interesting?
For a variety of reasons, it wasn't until the age of 26, in the year 2000, that I tried my hand at painting. By this time I knew how to draw quite well, and painting came very easily to me. For the first few years it seemed that every painting I made was twice as good as the last. By 2004 I was able to support a family of four with my painting sales. Things continued to go well until 2008 when I began to feel burned out with my current body of work. I had been very successful but had plateaued. Long gone were the days of quick and steady growth as a painter. I began to think about how I could bring my skills to the next level. I wasn't taking any shortcuts. “Why wasn't I growing like I used to?”, I thought. As I assessed my situation, I asked myself what was different about me and my work habits than that of the masters, such as Rembrandt, who I admired. It didn't take me long to conclude that I was using photography in my work and he never had. I also concluded that it wasn't the photos themselves that were contributing to my dissatisfaction in my work. I knew this because neither I nor anyone else could tell the difference between a painting I did from life and one I did from a photo.
A few years earlier a very well respected art historian challenged me that he could tell the difference between any painting done from a photo and any done from life. I took his challenge with a few of my works and won. To this day I believe that photography is a very useful tool and if used appropriately can only serve to simplify and improve an artist’s work. In fact, almost all of the nineteenth century masters used photography with amazing success.
So if all of this is true than how could photography be hurting me? I wasn't sure at the time but believed very strongly that photography had become too good. It wasn't hurting me at all but rather helping me too much. With digital photography, editing software and other tools, ones reference could be made as good as or better than life itself. This is because with some training and tools one could make an exceptionally accurate photo with virtually all of the value and color information of a live model but without the movement, cost, inconvenience and etc. Also, with Photoshop, decisions such as color scheme, design and composition can be entirely resolved before painting even begins.
So, if photography is ‘too good’ why not use it to improve my work? Because I believed it had become my spell check or calculator. I didn't have to be as smart as those who didn't have these modern tools to do similar work. I wasn't being challenged enough mentally. I believed that to move to the next level I had to make my work harder. I'd painted many portraits from life up to this point. That was relatively simple. To push myself beyond my comfort zone I set out to do children, animals and multi figure composition without photography. I believed that, as with exercise, strength only comes with resistance. Since 2008 I've put this to the test. I haven't used a camera even when the task at hand seemed almost impossible without it. I believe that I have proven my theory beyond my expectations. I've had plenty of failures along the way because it's hard. Some aspects of my current work may not look as natural as if I had used a camera, but my skills as an artist have grown dramatically. As long as I can afford to I will continue to challenge myself in this way because it has opened up so many more avenues for personal growth.
I've already admitted that giving up photography has made some of my work look less natural then I'd like. I hope to conquer that in the future without a camera. Despite feelings of inadequacy, I am more fulfilled now than I was when I used photography. Before I was a painter I made custom furniture, all by hand. I wasn't the best furniture maker in the world but I thrived on the personal satisfaction of making something by myself, with my two hands and a few tools. Due to the slow nature of making furniture by hand I didn't make much money but I knew that if I invested in fancy tools, to increase productivity, I'd lose some of that personal satisfaction that I'd grown accustomed to. In my early painting career fancy tools, like cameras, were stealing a little of that satisfaction from me. I never felt like I was cheating when working from photos, only that I could put more of myself into my work without them. I was missing out on the high that comes from making something from nothing. I think I'm a lot like my daughter. “No Daddy, I’ll do it” is a phrase I've heard many times from her over the past twelve years. She always understood the thrill and fulfillment that comes from doing things by herself.