It all started with David Hockney; or more accurately, that stupid book of his. The old masters were a bunch of charlatans! They projected their motifs and traced them. Hockney was never much of a draughtsman, so he couldn’t understand how anyone, including the old masters, could draw so well. They must have been cheating! They were all using a camera obscura or some similar device. How else to explain their mastery?
One only has to look at the drawings of Rembrandt to see how ludicrous Hockney’s supposition is. The spontaneity and fluid character of the line in the Dutch master’s drawings belie Hockney’s assertion. Also, a camera obscura is a very clumsy device, hardly conducive to lugging around the streets of Amsterdam for impromptu drawings. And a dark room is necessary to use it effectively, with mirrors and candles involved. “Excuse me good sir, would you step into my tent while I set up my mirrors and candles. I’d like to do a drawing of you.” Good luck with that, Rembrandt, old boy.
We look at the drawings of these great artists and the line has a more organic character not present in the work of contemporary artists who use projectors. This is true not only for Rembrandt, but for Michelangelo, DaVinci and just about every artist I can think of since the Renaissance. On the other hand, the line in the work of contemporary artists who project and trace appears to have been drawn by a machine. The work is cold, mechanical and reflects the passionless method of execution. Very often, this dead quality carries through to the finished painting. I mention this because artists who rely on projectors always use as their defense: “What difference does it make? It’s how the finished painting looks, not the drawing to start the painting.” Exactly! That’s the problem. It’s not a question of cheating, although one might have a valid point when artists try to pass off traced drawings as original works; but rather it’s the dead quality of the finished painting. Does anyone really believe that you can start the creative process with something as robotic and mechanical as tracing and have it not affect the entire process and the final look of the work? The creative process starts with the first mark on the canvas, not somewhere down the road. The truth, their paintings have nothing to do with the art of painting and everything to do with the art of illustration. That’s exactly what they are—glorified illustrations, illustrations with pretensions. Might as well paint by numbers. I’ve seen a few paintings started this way and they do resemble elaborate paint by numbers kits. The only thing missing—the numbers.
And how does Hockney explain the artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who we know drew freehand from life with masterful skill? Degas comes to mind, among others.
A personal note: In my early twenties, I was drawing directly from life using a quill pen and ink. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I think the drawings damn good. If I could do it, I know damn well, Rembrandt, et al, could. And let’s be honest, most artists who use projectors do so because they can’t draw that well and are lazy to boot. All the rest is so much bull shit. Yeah, occasionally someone like Chuck Close does something creative with it, but that’s the exception. And don’t give me that, “one has to use modern technology to be relative,” nonsense. Tell that to Lucien Freud, Morandi, Balthus or Porter. Look at their work–just paint on canvas and without any modern technology, unless one wants to include the lamps that Freud used to illuminate his subject before going back to natural light later in his life.
An interesting side note: Hockney is a lot more famous than Freud who is a much greater talent. A hundred years from now, people will still be admiring the genius of Freud while Hockney will be relegated to the dust bin of art history—bank on it!
There’s been an explosion of representational painting done with projectors in the last ten years, almost all of it terrible, and it’s the result of Hockney’s rationalizations and the proliferation of digital cameras and projectors. Now it’s cheap and easy! No more film and expensive slides and clumsy carousel projectors. Worst of all, are the artists who project photo-shopped images. All these art majors, not to mention the middle aged schmucks “getting in touch with their artistic side” creating their kitschy attempts at surrealism. They buy cameras and projectors and presto! instant genius. Amateurism run amuck!
One last thing: Photo Realism is much more popular in the US than in Europe. I believe it’s because it’s easier to understand. “Hell, honey, that’s so realistic, it looks like a photograph! It must be good!” But for every Richard Estes or Ralph Goings, there are a thousand hacks churning out inept attempts, one after another, even with the aid of their technology. Yet their work gets bought. People don’t understand the language of painting and therefore grasp at what they do understand when looking at paintings. Too bad. They miss out on so much.