This is part 5 of a 10-part series. To see the full series, see At the Confluence
The increasing prevalence of photography has fundamentally changed the way representational art is created and perceived in the modern day. At the Confluence examines how some of today’s artists have responded to the shift.
When people first lay eyes on a piece by Doug Bloodworth, they remark what a beautiful photo it is. Then they start pointing out familiar items from the curated chaos of sundry Americana: the Sunday funnies, a Marvel comic, a game of Monopoly, a toy cowboy gun. There’s no shortage of food—half-eaten pastries, M&M’s, devil’s food cake—anything Paula Deen would be proud of.
Then, upon closer observation, they realize it’s not a photo but an oil painting.
“They’re amazed that it was done from scratch on a blank canvas,” said David Muller, president of photorealism.com. Muller represents Bloodworth and several other photorealist painters and sculptors.
A Slow Art
That gratifying “gotcha” effect is a mere moment for the viewer but the work of two months for Bloodworth.
“First I get a rough idea what to depict, then my wife and I set up still lifes and light them with low lighting to produce long shadows,” Bloodworth said in a phone interview. “Then I take 20 to 100 photos, all the while rearranging and changing the lighting. My painting is a collage of information from a lot of different photos.”
What follows the initial setup is one of referencing multiple photos, life, and inching methodically across the canvas at an approximate rate of three square inches per four hours. A typical Bloodworth canvas is four or five feet wide.
It’s for this reason, Muller said, that photorealism as a genre does not have many practitioners.
“It’s almost impossible to find new people to represent, because the level of skill required to paint something good enough to fool the eye is almost one in a million,” he said. “And I don’t think anyone has the patience for it.”
Muller’s primary galleries are situated near heavily traveled tourist destinations in Key West, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
“Tourists come by and that element of surprise becomes part of the memory of that vacation,” he said. Of course, 90 percent of buyers take home limited edition Giclée prints. An original doesn’t come by often, considering the time it takes to prepare and paint.
Definitions of photorealism vary, but all agree that the artist uses photographs as the foundation for an artwork done in a nonphotographic medium. With an emphasis on visual detail and lifelikeness, photorealism is believed to have come about as a backlash to pop art, abstract expression, and minimalism of the 1960s and ’70s.
Bloodworth has a degree in commercial design and has many years’ experience doing billboards (back when they were painted by hand, not printed and pasted in poster-sized squares) and caricatures at amusement parks.
He’s used photos as references all of his creative life, yet it’s debatable whether Bloodworth—along with the majority of artists Muller represents on photorealism.com—can strictly be considered a photorealist. All of them take photographs as the genesis of their work, but it’s unclear whether any of them intend to follow a photo reference strictly. For the human hand to replicate a photograph exactly, without the slightest variation, is also virtually impossible. In a way, it’s pointless to determine who is or isn’t a photorealist, since there are as many ways to use a photo reference as there are artists who use them, and how “accurate” a painting is to a photo is only a matter of degree.
Bloodworth’s craft is to walk the fine line between accurately depicting the subject’s physical attributes while at the same time creating a mood to capture a viewer’s attention.
“I make deviations from the photo to exaggerate forms, to leave out things, and enhance things,” he said. “So you’re not a slave to the photo—the goal is to interpret, not duplicate, the photo to suit your needs.”
To do this successfully, Bloodworth, like any artist trying to make a convincing picture of reality, has to engage some of the same skills that makes a good life painter.
“You have to understand what you’re painting, not just copy color from photo to painting,” he said. “You have to understand the form of the object you’re painting. The whole process is making decisions what to leave in or take out.”
Whenever there’s a passage he’s unsure how to execute, he’ll stop and look at a photo reference. And if the reference doesn’t help, he’ll get up from the easel and look at the item in the studio. Turns out photography doesn’t hold all the answers, even for a celebrated photorealist.
Doug Bloodworth’s Influences, As Told by Doug Bloodworth
“Harold is a master of streetscapes. Every time I see one of Harold’s paintings, I feel like I am right back in New York City.”
“Jim’s matchbook series is a masterpiece of photorealism. But just as importantly, it brings the viewer back to their honeymoon, to a special anniversary or graduation meal or to a family vacation.”
“I love the relationship Johannes has with wine and all things wine. His Corkhenge series, in which he blends the wonder of Stonehenge with wine corks, is truly his pièce de résistance.”
“Mark is the mentor we photorealists all look up to. He has been the guide for all of us who are trying to portray flotsam and jetsam in oil paint. Mark’s most famous works include the theater candy counters and the series of scenes from the Brooklyn-based seltzer man.”
“The word I use to describe Ralph is ‘exactitude.’ Ralph does not go for the soft edges; he brings hard lines into his work in an exact way. I am most impressed with his Las Vegas series of paintings of blackjack. I especially love the casino chips.”
“Many curators ask me why I am obsessed with caricature. I love caricature because I believe that it is the polar opposite of photorealism, and yet the talents required are so similar. Rich Conley, I believe, is one of the great caricaturists in the USA today.”