That’s not what the Photo Looks Like

I show my paintings to my wife and daughters. One of my daughters is an artist so I ask her to look at the painting first as I’m working on it. It’s not that I value her comments more but, being an artist, she sees things a little differently so I can show her the partially finished painting. My wife and younger daughter are actually more critical but their viewpoint is different. Between the three of them I get some very good feedback. I find it’s very easy to lose sight of the direction of a painting that I’ve worked on for months. A little well placed critique can completely change my view of an image. I always have the right to not listen but usually I do and I find it very helpful.

Paintings that I do almost never follow a photo exactly. At the moment I’m doing a still life and I took the photo, so the photo is very close to how I perceive the image. If I use a photo that I’ve found on the internet, or several. I invariably change a few things. I often use multiple images and put them together. I almost always find something that I would like to be different. I did a painting of Siwash Rock in Stanley Park, and I must have looked at 20 photos of the rock until I found one that I thought worked. I’ve taken many pictures of Siwash Rock but none of them had what I needed.

My wife and youngest daughter want to compare the painting to a photo but my oldest daughter doesn’t usually care. Sometimes I don’t have a photo to compare the painting to, but I still get good feedback. I recommend this to other artists, show your work to someone else. It may be as simple as a new set of eyes looking at the image. They may often see something useful.

What is the Reality Illusion?

Simply put it is when a painting gives the illusion of being real. I don’t get this feeling when I’m looking at a photograph.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time now. I recently saw a YouTube video that may have something to do with it. I’ve noticed that the illusion is often more apparent when a painting is first looked at. I can look carefully at a painting all day and it looks like a painting but if I look away and back, suddenly the painting looks real. If the reality illusion doesn’t last long and if it’s mine I usually equate that short time with more work required.

The YouTube video I was watching was:

So in the video the question of update speed comes up. How quickly do our eyes update? I should actually be asking the question; “How quickly does my brain update?” Clearly our internal reality visualisation does not update fast enough to see what is happening in the video. I saw another video that discussed how our brain processes visual information. There is a lot of back and forth visual information processing going on in our brain. The reality illusion may result from a disconnect between our eyes and brain resulting in a comparison of what we presently see (a delayed flawed and incomplete version) with our internal visual idea of reality.

If I’m looking at a painting and it looks real, I normally equate it to the painting resembling my internal image of reality. Sometimes I don’t think the painted image is particularly accurate but it can still create the reality illusion. I think that’s because the painting resembles my internal visualisation of colours and shape and this alone can trigger the illusion. This particular video also talks about visual persistence (look at 5:46 on the video). When I look away from the painting its image persists for a short time and that is what my brain is comparing with my internal visualisation.

So I’m looking at a painting and it’s creating an internal visualisation of it in my mind. I’m comparing that with my internal visualisation of reality. Neither one may be particularly accurate but if they happen to agree to some extent I experience the reality illusion. So I’m comparing two flawed visualisations of reality that result in the reality illusion. Doesn’t say much for my grasp of reality, does it?

I’ve noticed when in the bush, I see animals by quickly glancing around. If I notice something interesting I often have to sit down and stare at it for a few minutes before it materialises into a moose/bird/squirrel.

As an artist I’m looking for ways to make the reality illusion happen better and easier. It would be nice if I could reduce or at least focus on the main requirements. I just don’t know what they are. The painting I’m presently working on is at the stage that if I look away then back, certain parts of it start to look real. It needs more work. I’d decided I had finished Pebble Beach (a different painting) and was actually ready to discard it because it just wasn’t working out, but decided to add some final highlights. The highlights made it pop and it’s actually one of my best but also very unsatisfying. Why didn’t I notice that things were going well sooner? I don’t know exactly how the reality illusion works but sometimes it just takes a little more paint.

Daily Painting

Each morning I open up the image I’m working from in Photoshop. I compare the image to what I have on the painting board and decide what I want to enhance. I have no schedule for this, it’s just whatever catches my attention. Sometimes it’s little additions to a large area, sometimes it’s a single colour to a very small area. I keep doing this with medium sized brushes until I need to switch to a smaller brush.

Of course I start out by checking e-mail and a few other small housekeeping chores. Lately I’ve also had to shovel snow off the walkways. I believe in global warming but you wouldn’t know it looking outside. We’ve already had a lot of snow this year. I have a couple of winter snow scenes lined up for painting. It’s hard to find good snow scenes in the Lower Mainland. We rarely get snow, precipitation is usually in the liquid form.

I believe strongly in the necessity of painting every day. It’s a habit that I’ll cultivate and recommend for anyone else. I find it far too easy to get frustrated with what I am painting and just stop. The painting usually resolves into something interesting but half way through I usually start to doubt that. The painting I’m working on presently is a still life. I look at the original photo and there are lots of things that aren’t quite right. It’s not photo-realism but I see the differences (more every time I compare them) I struggle to see the things the painting needs rather than the differences between it and the photo.

Forming the Reality Illusion

So just watch the video. Particularly how quick and deft he is at making a Nerf Gun look real. I find him a little funny and very good. He is or was one/half of Myth Busters.

When he is adding paint he says not to make it too regular. When I paint trees or foliage I do it quickly and with various colours. The quicker the better. I need to stand back and look at the result often because regularity creeps in. As humans we are very good at making things regular/consistent/continuous. Nature isn’t like that so a lot of my art training involved making areas that I am painting look less regular and thus more realistic.

Inexperienced artists tend to make their work much too regular. I believe this is a learned behavior in both directions; perhaps an evolved behavior. In order to see a lion in the grass we have to make sense out of what we are seeing and this usually involves simplification so that the lion matches an inner image that we have. I think I have finally got to a point that I can slap together some paint in a way that might look real. Perhaps we need to thank the Lion for art as we know it.

What to write about next?

I was paging through the net looking for a Blog Post idea and I saw a classic sculpture. The sculpture was of an archer just after the arrow is released. The sculpture is classic in style but the timing is not. At least it’s not what I would consider a classic moment. Just after the arrow releases all tension leaves the archer’s body and he/she is concentrating on the arrow in flight. I would normally think that just before the arrow release is the critical moment but this moment is mesmerising.

The archer makes me think about timing. Most artwork is based on a particular moment. With landscapes and still lives the moment is longer but with animals it’s tiny. The trick of course is to select the exact moment. In art and photography the moment was always described to me as the height of extension or most energetic moment. This archer is different. The most energetic moment or greatest extension has passed, it’s just before the arrows release. Just after the arrows release is the most introspective moment, but it arguably has the highest tension even though the energy has all been released. So my take away from this is that the moment that I think of as the ‘peak moment’ isn’t necessarily so. I’m going to start consciously thinking about the moment that I want my painting to convey.


I often don’t know what to write about for my blog, hence my search of the net. My Blog is likely a failure as far as marketing is concerned. I started the blog because most Websites said I should but I ended up enjoying writing it. I love the cartoon in this blog. Maybe he just picked the wrong moment.

Finished Beaver Pond

I’m not sure if this one actually completed or if I just got too tired of it. It never actually gelled, meaning that the reality illusion never really took off. With some like Pebble Beach, I can’t look at it without the illusion that it is leaping off the canvas. This one never did that.

I usually start with the background, then I add details with a somewhat smaller brush. The reality illusion usually starts here. Occasionally it surprises me but usually it’s quite predictable. I continue adding more and more detail until the illusion of reality doesn’t change. This time the illusion didn’t show up until the very end and then it wasn’t very clear. At this point adding more detail is outrageously tiring and annoying. So I’m done.

I have to be patient with many paintings. With Pebble Beach the illusion didn’t show up until the very last but then it came with a vengeance. Parts of the painting that I wasn’t very happy with suddenly leaped off the canvas. So I’m not the best judge on which parts of the painting will ultimately contribute to the illusion. I’m sure that some people looking at the painting will never experience the illusion; others will experience it strongly.

This sudden illusory appearance of reality is what I enjoy about painting. When it doesn’t happen it’s very frustrating. Strangely once the painting is done I don’t value it much, even if the illusion is strong. A year from now when I look at it again and if the reality illusion is strong, it will likely surprise me.

I’m on to the next painting; a still life.