Sunday, October 8, 2017

Zorn and Photography

On a recent post about Swedish artist Anders Zorn, blog reader Tyler J observed: "Beautiful work but there is a photographic quality about some of it. I couldn't find anything about his methods in the internets but I'm wondering if anyone knows what his workflow was like?"
Tyler, there are a few direct examples of paintings that have reference photos associated with them. Like most artists of his period, Zorn was fascinated by the visual effects of photography. 
However, these examples date from early in his career, and the overwhelming impression I've gotten is that Zorn very rarely painted directly from photos, and went to great lengths to paint from living models on location. 

Read More:
There's a fuller discussion of Zorn's use of photography at the blog of Leo Mancini-Hresko, and that's where I got these scans. 

A Swedish book called "Fotografen Zorn" collects Zorn's photos. Here's a video flip-through of it.

Previously on GurneyJourney: Menzel and Photography, Shishkin and Photography, and my thoughts on Using Photo Reference


Peace said...

In the most recent catalog from the SF show there were many examples of him painting directly from photographs especially for his outdoor figure works. Especially some works of nudes in the stairwell of his sail boat.

James Gurney said...

Painter, yes, there are especially a lot of etchings that link up with existing photos, but a few outdoor nudes, too. I'd say that some of his omnibus paintings were influenced by the whole idea of the "snapshot observation" that photos provided.

But I think it would be a mistake to assume that the bulk of his paintings were based on photos. Photos in his day were small and black and white and didn't provide very much information.

Luca said...

One big step in an artist development is to realize that we think we know reality yet and we don't need to reference to it, while we actually have in mind just an impression of reality, not those small details we normally don't pay attention to but that are the core of rendering, actually. I found very interesting, in Greg Manchess' interview you did few days ago, that his daily routine in the morning was sketching and reference collecting. And you always point out the importance and utility of making a maquette (and taking a photo of it, at least for sake of simplicity) to realize how shadows and surfaces should look under the light you are going to use
Still, referencing to photos is still seen as a kind of sin or taboo by many people. As for everything, there's a good or bad way to do it, but i see this thing as one of the main causes of delay and frustration in artistic development: we should realize that "my works don't look realistic...simply because i didn't check how reality looks like, not because i was born with 0 talent".

Tyler J said...

Thanks for the follow up post, James. In reading the comments from that original post ( there were some good insights, too.

I looked not only at the images you provided in your blog post, but also those displayed in his Wikipedia article and provided by Google image search. The masterful soft lighting, the incredible water rendering and the compositions are what made me think of the photography question. None of that is unachievable without photo reference, but it sure would make it easier.

This one in particular made me think of photography ( Something about the way the figure, so close to the observer, is rendered in relationship to the background feels almost like a lens.

Even if he did use photography to some extent (and it seems like it might not have been much), I don't have a problem with it. Using every tool at your disposal seems like fair game to me if your goal is the final image. I suppose it could be argued that using "cheats" taints the purity of the process, but I don't personally subscribe to that way of thinking (although if you do, I'm not saying you're wrong).

Great stuff as always, thanks again for sharing!

James Gurney said...

Tyler, I also like the painting that you linked to, regardless of how it was achieved. As I look at it again, one of the things that strikes me is the daring stroke of putting those dark reflection shapes right behind her face silhouette, coming out of her nose and forehead and chin. I just accepted the reality of the image at first and thought what a daring move that is, then or now.

The whole bottom half is rendered with such simplicity and softness and economy — very little detail. Zorn's friend Liljefors talked about how obsessed Zorn was with this quality: putting in detail only where you absolutely need it. I think that's what Luca is getting at with your excellent observation.

As far as the use of photography, I think we all should throw the morality of the issue out the window. There is no "cheating" or "right way" or "wrong way" in how you do art. Results are all that matter, and we should be use any tools that help us achieve our goals.

Luca said...

It's nice to hear that, James!

I'm afraid my point of view on the subject is a bit biased by the fact i use PC to draw. Since the "undo" exists, for the majority of people everything done with PC is a kind of cheat, since they are convinced that we can just say to pc "ok, draw something cool while i take my tea" and we are exempted to study composition, anatomy, color theory, edges management, etc etc like everybody else interested in art. I admit i feel ashamed when i say to people that my drawings are made with a PC. No matter how much time i spent working on them.
And whenever i find articles like the one you wrote about Zorn and photos, i find a bit of relief, since i feel like even great artists are human beings and they find their way to make things a little easier. Well, anyway, everything seems a cheat, reading people opinions. Rockwell using staged photos, Caravaggio using camera obscura, Struzan or McGinnis tracing photos, etc etc.

Sometimes i figure a caveman saying to a traditional painter "cheater, real artists paint an cave walls, not on a canvas!" ah ah!

Sorry if my comment went a bit on the tangent from the original post you wrote!

Luca said...

PS: even if i use a totally different medium from you, your videos and books really changed my way to see things (and, like many other of course, i suggest them to other digital artists when they ask for a suggestion about something to read) since i think it's important to understand to see things the way you do, no matter the medium used to paint. Paradoxically, the fact that they don't talk about digital painting made them even more useful for me, because first i had to understand the core of what you meant, then transfer it to a totally different world.

With an exception. There's something i can't transfer to digital...

the gallery flambeu! :D

Leo Mancini-Hresko said...

Thanks for the nod James, and a tip of the hat to you. Love what you do.

a chris said...

Wow, that evokes an anachronistic photoshop sensation. My first reaction was to laugh at how Zorn "enhanced" his female reference subjects. Later came the realisation that this view is strongly coloured by the later use of photographic images in mass media.

Zorn wasn't altering photos, of course. Intuitively we know that a painting is a human work. Before photos existed, it took skill and labour to create an image approaching a likeness, so you wouldn't assume a true representation unless you could compare with the subject yourself. Commissioned portraits were likely to be idealised, and people liked pictures of pretty women.

A similar creative hand in the age of photography has an element of tampering with truth - the default "reality" projected by a lens. The medium and the reference have merged and there's no intuitive distinction between an out-of-camera photo and a heavily altered one, and this is routinely used to try to manipulate and deceive.

The urge to "idealise" has (in some ways) a more crass feel in the age of mass advertising for profit, especially knowing the damaging effects of broadcasting unhealthy/unachievable bodily and facial ideals, but this post illustrates the connection to historical practices so well!

I guess Zorn wasn't in any way thinking he was altering the women in the photos, but taking information from them as an ingredient in the painting he wanted to make. I'm sure that's how many pure digital artists view photographic reference now as well.

I admit I do still find some of the differences between reference and painting amusing.

Aside: Because of the ubiquity and capabilities of tools for altering photos now, I hope that younger adults and children don't have the same sense of photo as reality.