Bring realism to
your watercolours
with photographs

Sandra Walker shows how your photographs can be the first step towards a Photo realist painting.

Whether artist think about it or not, every one of their works falls at some point on an imaginary scale that ranges from complete abstraction to I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-a-photograph Photorealism. While I may not be in the vanguard of the latter, a great joy for me as a painter lies in the magic that occurs when pigments applied to a two-dimensional surface suddenly look like a particular landscape, still life, or individual. This, it seems, makes me a Photorealist.
Photorealism is an extreme form of naturalist paining that had its beginnings in the United States in the late 1960s and relied on the use of photos to achieve extraordinary realistic images. Also known as Superrealism, it evolved partly in response to abstract art, Minimalism, and other non-representational styles.

Top: Lower East Side, watercolour, 56x76cm. Above: The selection of photographs used to paint Lower East side.

What made the Photorealist different from other realistic painters working at the time was that they didn’t attempt to hide their reliance on the camera. Instead the declared its use to be a virtue. One popular technique of these early Photorealist involved projecting photographic images onto large canvasses, and then reproducing them in minute detail.

Subject matter for these artist could be just about anything – except, perhaps, traditional views that, when rendered photorealistically, might have seemed too boring, pretty , or sentimental. Such proponents of Photorealism as Richard Estes and Chuck Close worked from colour photographs of storefronts, neon signs, petrol pumps, traffic lights, and in Close’s case, close-ups of his own head.
From the beginning, Photorealism was embraced by the public, which found it easier to understand than, say, abstract expressionism. But the art world itself was divided about what some regarded as little more than ‘living room art’. Indeed, as American journalist Tom Wolfe observed in his 1975 book, The Painted Word, one of the accomplishments of Photorealism “was to drive orthodox critic bananas.” That was then. In the last two decades, representational painters have quietly established an alternative tradition to the mainstream of late modernism.
To those of us who follow the alternative tradition, it’s acceptable to regard as artistic input the choice of a subject; the way it’s composed, edited, rearranged; the altering of colours and shapes to emphasize or de-emphasize certain characteristics; and the use of skills to apply paints to paper or canvas in order to achieve desired effects – even if, somewhere along the line, photographs were involved.

Above: I wonder the streets taking hundreds of photographs. Every one of these images could feature in one of my future paintings, since I often borrow from one photograph and include them in a painting that is based mainly on photos of another scene entirely.

Also, I have found that working from life, in cities in particular, is often impossible – and thus the use of photographs, for certain paintings, is virtually necessary. Wherever you are, inevitably a car will pull up and block your view; and in certain neighborhoods personal safety is a concern. (if you want to attract attention, one of the best ways – as most artists know only too well – is to set yourself up in a public place with a tin of paints.) Then too, shadows are constantly moving.
Like most realistic painters, I paint what’s around me. Because I live in England, this often means British scenes. But no chocolate box landscapes. I prefer city views, in the long tradition of such artists as Canaletto, Utrillo and Hopper. And in the category, even though I now live in a small Buckinghamshire village, the streets of New York City intrigue me perhaps most of all.
Thus when I begin a painting, my first step is often to seek inspiration in the bustling streets and brick tenements of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. (This is the site of the demonstration painting Delancey Street.) Here I wander the streets at random, taking hundreds of photographs of anything that catches my fancy.
Many of these will find their way into my bulging files back home of as-yet-unused photos. Because of the way I work, however, every one of these images could potentially feature in one of my future paintings, since I borrow images from one photograph and include them in a painting that is based mainly

Above: Harvey Milk Lives, watercolour, 56x76cm. I worked from two photographs to create this combined image.

“Working from life, in
Cities in particular, is often
impossible – and thus the
use of photographs for
certain paintings is a
virtual necessity.”

on photos of a different scene entirely. For example, my painting Harvey Milk Lives, incorporates a storefront I photographed years ago on what was otherwise a boring building.
After developing and printing my photographs, my next step is to consider composition. For me, the image I have chosen doesn’t necessarily dictate the size of the finished painting. In the past, I have compressed whole city blocks into a quarter sheet of watercolour paper, just as I’ve devoted an entire 56x76cm sheet to a relatively small detail I particularly liked, such as an intriguing window or doorway. And sometimes, I simply feel in the mood to paint something big.

The next thing I do as I look at the photographs I’ve assembled of the images I want to paint, is to take a sentimentality check – that is, make sure that there’s no danger my final painting will end up formulaic or banal. For the Photorealist, falling into the sentimentality trap can be surprisingly easy. My advice: stay as far as possible away from anything that smacks remotely of Norman Rockwell, and, avoid ‘cute’.
As I work out my painting’s final composition, I am sometimes obliged to rearrange seemingly commonplace details to bring about need, order and clarity. The shifting in position of a lamp post or the removal or addition of an automobile or a rubbish bin, for example, are among myriad intuitive decisions that ultimately make a painting done from a photograph into a work of art, and not just a slavish reproduction of a photograph image.
The last – but not least – of these intuitive decisions is knowing when to stop, with respect to the wealth of information most photographs provide. There is no hard and fast formula for this. It is simply a subjective judgment that must be borne in mind as the blank areas of paper begin to disappear.
My last word of advice is this. If you like to paint realistically, and you find that photos help you to do this, go ahead. Many representational artist do – even many who work from life, such as portrait artists.

If it helps, remember that David Hockney, in his book Secret Knowledge, suggested that such old masters as Caravaggio, Velazquez, Van Eyck and Vermeer used optical aids to assist them. And that Thomas Eakins, one of American’s foremost realists – whose works are currently being shown at the Metropolitan Museum in New York – often painted from projected photographs, a fact he never tried to hide (though after his death, his wife did).
There may be critics out there who would rather have root canal work than say a kind word about Photorealism. But I say, ignore them. Ignore them, get out your camera, take photographs… and paint.