Why a photograph of a painting is not the same as a painting

Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART
Mar 22, 2013 7:17PM

I think it is a common tendency to think of painting as a two-dimensional medium. As someone who photographs art for a living I can assure you that it is not! Of course there are the obvious examples of works which incorporate sculptural elements but even without such added structure the dimensionality of a painting is an essential part of the work and an important component of the viewing experience. The following, though not intended to be a comprehensive list, are some of the factors that add a third dimension to a painting:

- As mentioned above, 3-D elements. These can range from large objects that protrude from the surface down to small bits of foreign matter incorporated into the paint. Picasso's paintings that include the earliest examples of collage would fall into this category.

- The amount of paint applied. Though many have followed in his footsteps, Van Gogh was among the first painters known for his heavy application of paint (a strain on his brother Theo's bank account) so that the surface texture of the painting itself becomes sculptural.

- The method of application. Paint applied by a brush has a different texture than paint applied with a palette knife. So too paint will look different if it is put down with a stencil, silk screened, dripped or any of other numerous means of application.

- The material it is painted on. Canvas (or other fabric), paper, wood, Masonite, metal or other substrate each add their own texture - and therefore dimension - to the painting.

- Distressing of the surface. Cracks in the paint, rips, tears, folds, burns - whether intentional or the result of age or accident - all are all elements that exist in the third dimension.

- Sheen of the surface. Although the surface of a painting may appear flat (as in not having a third dimension) it is the microscopic differences in the texture of the paint - and therefore how it reflects light - that determine whether the surface will appear glossy or matte.

- Transparency of the paint. Paint is sometimes built up in thin transparent or translucent layers which allow the under colors to show through. While these layers may be measured in microns they do add an actual depth to the painting.

The bottom line is that even the most apparently two-dimensional painting does have a depth, a third dimension. Although it pains me as a photographer to say it, no matter how good the photograph, these qualities can be suggested or illustrated but they cannot be reproduced in a 2-D image. Which is not to say viewing photographs of artwork is of no value. It is the means by which art can reach a vast audience that would otherwise have little or no opportunity to see it. Photography is the reason Artsy and Art books can exist but it does not replace the real thing.

Tim Nighswander/IMAGING4ART