WEEKLY QUESTION No, 7 - What makes painting so special?

edited January 8 in General Discussion

Gosh, it's Sunday already. Time for another Weekly Question. 

We'll do an easy one this week. At least I think it's an easy one. But it might be more complicated than I think. Things often are.  :)

Anyway, here we go:

Fine art photographers can produce beautiful portraits, still lifes and landscapes that can generally be bought for much less than a fine original painting. So why do people still buy realist paintings for thousands of dollars? What is special about a fine realist painting that sets it apart from a fine (but much cheaper) photograph of the same subject?


  • A fine realist painting is a soulful hand-translation of the beauties of life.
  • I'm going to answer it in two parts. Sorry if it seems a little self-indulgent, but this question is kind of close to me.
    "A dominant impulse on encountering beauty is to wish to hold on to it, to possess it and give it weight in one’s life. There is an urge to say, “I was here, I saw this and it mattered to me.” Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel.
    'In normal life, if we encounter a thing of particular beauty— a pristine blue sky, a field of golden poppies, a quiet suburban street dappled in spring sunlight— we might note that the scene is rather lovely but never become fully conscious of its many aesthetically-pleasing qualities.  The result?  We only ever experience beauty fleetingly.'
    De Botton goes on to point to philosopher John Ruskin ran drawing classes - partly in response to seeing the emergence of modern tourism in 1800s - literally 'Cook's Tours' where people would tour Europe and rush from sight to sight and rush home again. 'For Ruskin, art is invaluable because it rouses us from our usual stupor of inattention. By requiring us to stop and study our subject, art sharpens our powers of observation.' He encouraged people to experience the scene of beauty more deeply and allow it to seep into our souls and understand what it was that moved us - through drawing and words.
    A painting is viewing that observation, that translation of the essence of some beauty through the eyes of the artist. Point and click does not resonate with people in the same way as the slow-motion reflection of the artist's soul expressed through pigment and brushstrokes.
  • Thanks, @allforChrist. Yes, it's the "hand-translation". It's the human touch.

    Thanks, @Abstraction. I agree with what you say, particularly with respect to "pigment and brushstrokes".
  • I heard this several years ago, but can't remember where or with whom it originated, "A painting is a poem about what you see.". To me you are recording on canvas not only what you see, at least in part, but also creating the feeling that was evoked in you and passing it on to others.  When you have accomplished that, you have a special painting.
  • edited January 9
    Thanks, @oilpainter1950.

    Yes, I think that's right. it's not just about recording what is in front of us. Cameras are much better at that. But cameras cannot interpret what they "see" or modify what is there to bring out elements that will heighten the viewer's experience. The can't make the visual poetry you spoke of. Fine art photographers can do a lot with a photo post exposure but painters have that special, physical, tactile stuff, paint, that they can push around in so many ways to achieve wonderful effects not possible on the mirror surface of a printed photo. We can feel the artist's presence in a painting. It's the human touch that makes the difference IMHO.  There are other things I can think of, too, but I'll wait to see what others say.  :)
  • I have been drawn, not exclusively, to realistic and hyper realistic paintings since I started painting, the work of James Hollingsworth for example.

    Of course I have mulled over in my mind `what is the point of making a painting that looks like a photo when you can just take a photo.

    I also have a love and appreciation of artists works that are not realist.

    I guess I am often in awe of the mastery of technique that some hyper realists and realists have.

    Of course the attraction and appreciation for that kind of work is subjective. 

    In the end we are dealing with illusion when we create a painting and paintings that give the illusion that they are or may be a photograph are all part of that.

    Perhaps some consider that a very good photograph can be taken in more or less an instant but a painting of that level will have taken many hours. So it may be partly to do with perceptions of the time put in creating work be it a photograph or painting and the value they apply to that.
  • There is beauty in brushstrokes and painting styles, otherwise impressionist paintings would never have been popular.
  • Thanks, @MichaelD.
    Yes, even if it's photorealism we are in awe of the artist's skill and effort. Non-painters wouldn't know where to start and, even if they did, they wouldn't have the staying power to pull it off successfully. I think part of the value of paintings is in the recognition of this skill and effort.

    Thanks, @Richard_P.
    I agree, brushwork plays a big part in many paintings. We instantly recognize the impressionists'  work because of it. The way brushstrokes break up colour and create texture is a great part of what makes their paintings so beautiful and valuable.  :)
  • Folks

    A painting worthy of a frame and a spot on a wall has a monetary value well in excess of the material components. As the painting ages it may be bought and sold many times attesting to its value of attraction, or perhaps it’s nostalgic value, emotive value or just plain investment value. The artist may become famous and their work more valuable. The artist may die further increasing value. Museums may compete at auction for public acquisition. The history of art may identify the painting as an exemplar of a style, icon value. A provenance containing a string of wealthy owners would increase the value. As a touring exhibition painting …..

    Photographs do not demonstrate these dynamics except for the few identified as art photography.


  • edited January 9

     @Dencal,  you are right that paintings can increase in value over time. But when someone buys a newly completed painting by a living artist for thousands of dollars they are not paying for history or provenance. The materials might be worth only a hundred bucks but that's not what buyers are paying for either. They are paying for the beauty, the skill, effort and artistry that went into making the painting. A large realist painting can take months to complete. That's a lot of labour. And a painting is generally a one-off and unique and that alone makes it special. A photographer can print off endless copies very quickly and very cheaply compared to a painting. Photos are fungible - if your photo gets destroyed you can buy another one or get another print cheaply. Paintings aren't like that.
  • I don't like reducing down a painting to monetary value.
  • Paint has a particular place in our historical and cultural memory, and a painting is simple, self -contained, and easy to display.  Given the various tools for artists today however, the real distinction I see is not so much between painting and photography, but the act of visual artistry (through various means) versus photography. 

    IMHO Photography to qualify as photography must remain somewhat of a faithful representation of the source, it seeks somewhat to record something which is or was, whereas visual artistry is not so limited, and in many cases does not even require a source.

    Today, 3D and 2D Digital artists can use a whole host of 2D 3D forms, media, textures, "brushes", photographic manipulation, blurring, lighting, virtual maquettes, arguably every possible image based artistic technique, to create visual art just as far removed from straight photography as paintings are.  I would argue that the digital platform is boundless and allows for anything and everything, in terms of composition, edge control (selective blurring or sharpening), local or global saturation, contrast control, placement of colors, blending, etc. etc. i.e. everything which is generally artistic as applied to imagery.  Throw into this, mixed media techniques, scanning, printing, and the combination of real media and digital media.

    So what aspects are particularly unique to paint... nothing looks quite like paint, even though software has attempted to simulate it, and nothing feels quite like paint because of its historical and cultural significance..

    IMHO  The poetry, the artistry, the translation of the essence of beauty all can arguably be achieved today without paint, and what is there on that screen can be just as good but just not have that particular feel of paint. 

    Arguably, the limitless possibilities have not quite yet been reached, but imagery and artistry based upon "mark making" has a wider definition and scope than it once had.
  • Richard_P said:
    I don't like reducing down a painting to monetary value.

    Agree. And much art that has more monetary value is often about marketing or other forces. The emperor's new clothes were paid for and greatly admired as well. Vincent's and many others' work wasn't.

    (In the question it is intended just as an objective measure that painting really matters to people. I know you know this I was just engaging with your stream of consciousness. I had to stop and think about the apostrophe on others.)

  • edited January 10
    Thanks, @Richard_P, @CBG and @Abstraction:)

    @CBG, your mention of visual artistry is very much on point. You also mention the changes and new possibilities brought about by technology and they are worth noting because their influence is increasing. Still, lets hope there will always be a special place for traditionally made paintings.

    @Richard_P and @Abstraction, it is true that the specialness of paintings is not (only) about the prices paid for them compared to photographs. The reason I mentioned the difference in price in the question was to highlight the objective fact that people see painting differently from photography. It is those differences that they are prepared to pay for. And it is those differences that the question is really asking about and not the price per se, which, as @Abstraction says, is just an objective measure indicating that painting really matters to people. So, what are the differences that make painting special? In earlier comments you both brought up the very pertinent point about brushstrokes and that is the sort of thing I had in mind.  :)
  • I think it is a mistake to elevate one medium over another.  There are some great photographers whose work is emotionally and artistically impactful.   This is true for other mediums.
    The emotional content symbolically and technical artistry (not necessarily realism) makes for a great work.
    I like the “plasticity” of paint.  The mutability of form and color.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate other mediums.
    I do think from a cultural aspect that it is interesting to see the effort of taking something like a photograph where it can be easily reproduced and now we see electronic imagery  turned into a nonfungible digital object that can be collected the way a nonfungible painting can be collected.
    It shows the human need to try to make something ephemeral permanent. 
  • CBGCBG -
    edited January 10

    Do you know of anyone who takes digital photography and then utilizes photochopping and "virtual" (digitally equivalent) fine art techniques to the pieces?  e.g. Compositional alterations, moving objects, edge control (selective burring or detail), local/object/area saturation control, local/object/area brightness control, added gradations to guide the eye.?

    Ian Roberts does a wonderful job explaining how these techniques can be very effective in composing and adjusting a painting that leads the eye in an intended manner.  I don't see why this cannot be directly used in digital art to generate impactful digital photos.

    For example, @roman has a number of photos ("instead of painting" thread) which would be perfect as a starting point for such an exercise.

    [As an afterthought... incorporating this sort of thing into the process of painting from a reference, i.e. generating the reference with all these alterations completed.... would be interesting...]
  • Cheers, @CBG. A lot of painters use digital photography this way. it's a wonderful tool for painters and photographers. I love Ian Robert's landscapes.

    I agree that @Roman's photos would be great for this. Many of them are works of art already.  :)

  • Thanks, @GTO. I hope this week's question didn't come across as devaluing fine art photography. That was not the intention. I probably should not have used the word "special" in the question. Masterpieces are produced in both mediums. What I wanted to discuss were the differences between these two different art forms and not their relative artistic value.  That would be an impossible question to answer.

    I agree that with the rise of IT and non-fungible tokens art is entering a new age.  :)
  • This question has intrigued me a lot these days. Photography has reached the level of artistry a long time ago. Today probably it reached a level of perfection in digital correction and modification. 

    I still feel that painting is here to stay for a long time because it still can move people and communicate more in a permanent way.
    When one looks at a painting more than once I think they open up other senses that are I think beyond just information gathering. Slightly ashamed to say that even I get similar feelings about some of my own artworks. Paintings grow on us. When stories are attached to these paintings, they become more than just sensory. I guess this is still slightly rare in photography because there's an element of chance here (esp. In Landscapes).

    There are more painters worldwide today.  With increased comforts in life there's an increasing need to express one's feelings. Painting, drawing, digital art etc. are as immediate as taking a good photograph. Therefore old visual craft will stay along with the technical visual medium. What I'm waiting for affordable 3D digital printing of images. That'll bring another change. We can ask the same question again.
  • Thanks, @KaustavM. You make some interesting points. Like you, I have often wondered about 3D printers with the ability to produce prints of original digital paintings with all the brushwork and texture you would see in a traditional oil painting. Will that do away with the old fashioned way of making a painting? I hope not. Photography didn't kill painting and I hope computers and 3D printers won't either.  :)
  • edited January 13
    Jean Renoir, in his biographic book about his father, says the following:

    Renoir loved to live surrounded by objects (things?) of luxury. Luxury meant  for him that a specific thing had some human behind who has made it.

    (This is my approximate translation of the passage that I remember).

    Technology has reduced the place for a human to be behind a photographuc work to a very narrow strip. One can argue endlessly about this, but one cannot argue that real painting can be done only by a human.
  • Thanks, @outremer. It's agree that it's the human touch that makes paintings special. Photos can be beautiful, too, but a fine painting shows the presence, and often the struggle, of the artist to create a work of art. I think this will always be valued whatever further progress occurs in  photography, computers and printers.  :)
  • Thanks everyone for your responses. I enjoyed reading them and folks made some interesting points.

    For what it's worth, here's my take on the question:

    IMHO, it’s the human touch that makes paintings special. This is seen in the paint, the brushwork and texture. These impart the human touch that shows the presence and struggles of the artist. Moreover, fine realist paintings require patience, skill, technical expertise, and usually a lot of time. They are labor intensive.  And they are one-offs, unique. Many people can have a copy of the same photo on their wall. A fine original painting can grace only one wall because there can only ever be one of them. Of course, people can paint copies of their paintings. But try reproducing with brush and paint every single brushstroke and every nuance of value and colour. It’s not humanly possible. I've tried. Each painting will be unique. I think it is this uniqueness, the human touch, and the physicality of paintings that attracts people to buy them.

    Thanks again everyone. A new Weekly Question will be posted shortly.  :)

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