About the Painter and His Work
Tom Jewusiak has been a working professional painter all of his adult life. He worked his way through college (he is a graduate of Fordham College) by painting street scenes and architecturally interesting buildings and selling his work through private commissions. He has designed homes and presented them through his own architectural renderings in oil on canvas and pen and ink. His love of architecture has brought him to old historic towns, capturing their magic of place through his brush. He inhabits the places he paints always painting on location where possible (even if that location is the interior of his own imagination.)
He now paints only in oil on linen canvas in what at first may appear to be a highly representational or even meticulously detailed photorealistic or superrealistic style; but upon examination his work reveals itself as highly "impressionistic", subjective, idealized and even fantastic, a streetscape of the mind- of a bridge unbuilt, demolished or obscured. He is a photographer of the mind’s eye, committing his vision to ground pigment, linseed oil, turpentine and linen cloth.
The painter also produces fine art prints of his own work in archival pigmented inks on canvas cloth. Although limited in edition, numbered and signed by the painter, each canvas giclee print is in fact unique. Each one is individually hand embellished in oil by the painter.
PhotoRealism, HyperRealism, SuperRealism, Magic Realism or just plain Realism
["Photorealism is an ongoing pop culture phenomenon wherein painters use some mechanical means to recreate sterile photographic images of mundane subject matter often time depicted as an acerbic social statement of our culture and as an aesthetic. As a recognized subset of Photorealism, Hyperrealism takes into account a process of simulation that emphasizes digital degradation, defects and deficiencies of pictorial elements in modern photography and digital imagery. Therefore, content of subject matter is a separate medium through which viewers can connect to reality through the falsity and simulation of the image, which ironically is convincing."] a rigid, limiting though very illuminating set of definitions byDenis Peterson.
I reject the description of the style of my painting as photorealistic. I make no attempt to duplicate a photograph. Although there can be a valid artistic point in doing this, it is decidedly not my point. I attempt to communicate a reality or rather an illusion of actuality, as perceived by the eye and mind that is more intense, more concentrated than that which can be captured by the camera and lens alone. I also attempt a more honest portrayal of what is real than can be produced by the simple photograph. Since many of my paintings are purely conceptual, existing originally only in the imagination, or as a distillation or manipulation of many separate scenes that may exist, did exist or I think existed, the charge of “merely” duplicating a photograph is particularly galling. By representing the finest detail in paint I attempt to foster the illusion, (or foist the illusion), to give a perceived concrete existence to a pure product of the interpretive imagination. The sometimes excruciating detail is fundamental to the intended impression, a sleight of hand (or eye), where we are perhaps distracted by the minutia, enamored of it and thus lulled into a forgetfulness that the whole is artifice, an elaborate construct that takes on a life entirely its own, an exaggerated reality so real that it seems dream-like, a dream more real than waking.
There are those who mistakenly believe that a photograph is the most accurate pictorial representation of the real world. There are epistemologists who assert that: “photographs give us a firmer epistemic connection to the world than do other depictive representations”. Andre Bazin stated: “The objective nature of photography confers on it a quality of credibility absent from all other picture-making.” In an even more extreme statement Bazin asserted: “The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space which govern it.” Kendall Walton proposed that photographs are special because they are “transparent” that is, unlike other depictive representations they enable us literally to see their depicta. Similarly, Roland Barthes maintains in Camera Lucida: “Unlike any other visual image, a photograph is not a rendering, an imitation or an interpretation of its subject, but actually a trace of it. No painting or drawing, however naturalist, belongs to its subject in the way a photograph does”. Charles S. Peirce, stated that: "Photographs, especially instantaneous photographs, are very instructive, because we know that in certain respects they are exactly like the objects they represent . . . they . . . correspond point by point to nature." "Photography preserves moments like flies in amber" so said Rudolf Arnheim. Those who made these incredible statements could not have practiced photography or mastered the skills of the painter; many who have gone from photography to painting have experienced the exhilarating liberation from the limiting boundaries of the box (camera) and lens.
Thus, if someone who erroneously recognizes the photograph as a genuine depiction of the real mistakenly believes my painting is a photograph (or based on one), in a backward and unintended way I have succeeded. I have given flesh and blood to a phantasm, believable reality to a created image, a reality so unnerving, it seems, that there are those who have sworn they have been there (where my painting depicts) (deja vu with a twist) and gone hunting down every street in a town to prove it.
[An insightful and fundamental point is made by William Dyckes in discussing the paintings of Chuck Close. “ The fact that so many people persist in seeing these paintings as highly factual representations of people rather than as photographic representations of people is proof of our total assimilation of photographic syntax. ” I would put forward that Close paints a replica of a photograph and by doing so attempts to demolish our erroneous acceptance of the photograph as an accurate representation of reality.]
I would go so far as to say that the camera and lens have corrupted the way in which we see reality, or think we see it, substituting its fraudulent facsimile for the real thing. If it had not been for the camera obscura’s distorted representation of reality, solidified in the history of painting for hundreds of years, we would have rejected the photographic print out of hand when it arrived as a rather inaccurate, even bizarre, though very interesting, representation of the real. The distortion of our collective perception is so complete that it is nearly impossible for a painter to convey the real pictorially in a “representational” manner without resorting to the established protocols of the lens.
[Discounting the inaccuracies of the lens, even the pure photographer, who would rise to the level of artist, seeks far more than to show the world merely as it is: “Photographers never have much incentive to show the world as it is.” The photographer by his very selectivity both in his choice of what to photograph and his further choice in what to print (some print only one in a thousand) alters substantially the world that he sees.]
However, the mistaken belief that they are looking at a painting of a photograph provokes a certain amount of anger and resentment especially from non representational painters. I hear the comment, “If I want a photograph I’ll use a camera” or “Why bother when you can take a photo”. I had one particularly dense art gallery owner, with my painting right in front of her and the pungent smell of fresh linseed oil from my painting permeating the room, look straight at me with a crooked smile, like I was trying to play some kind of trick on her, “How do you do that?” “It’s a photograph, right, right?” One can say I did “play a trick” on her; I just never expected to succeed so extravagantly.
I do not believe the mechanical painting skill that it requires to duplicate a scene, a person, or a photograph with “exact” accuracy is necessarily an artistic achievement; it is principally a mechanical achievement, very much to be admired but primarily that. However, I believe that it would be advisable that this mechanical skill be mastered as a very first step by those who wish to call themselves painters. There is so much animus against accurate representational painters by non representational painters that I suspect that some of these non representationalists have not mastered these basics and that they vent their fury in frustration. (This is not to say that there are not painters that in a few hours and a broad free stroke of the brush create pure magic. These artists are extremely rare.)
The “Painted Photograph” and the Camera Obscura
I want to emphasize that I do not mean to denigrate painters who duplicate what the camera and lens gives to them. It is a very old tradition, much older than most people suspect.
We have become so accustomed to the gross inaccuracies and flaws of the camera and lens that we have come to mistakenly believe that a photograph is an accurate representation of the world as we see it. We have become so conditioned by these flaws that they have become conventions that we have subconsciously come to expect and even demand. These conventions are so ingrained because they are almost six hundred years old, much older than the photographic print.
I noticed while haunting the great art museums that many of the great paintings, especially from the 1600s on, were “painted photographs”; by this I mean that all of the flaws and shortcomings of the camera and lens can be clearly seen in some of the world’s greatest paintings. This is not to in any way impugn the artistry of these painters. They made these “flaws” integral to their art. I will not bore you here with the history of the “camera obscura”. There is no doubt that painters from the early 1400s became wedded to this device. The fact that they never mentioned it, that none of their friends talked of it, that none were found in the inventories at their deaths is entirely irrelevant. This is a trade secret they kept well hidden. However, one has only to look closely at the art. The “imperfections” of the lens shout out from the paintings themselves.
I’ll use only as an example one of the greatest of all painters, Vermeer. I choose Vermeer because of my admiration for him and the countless hours I have stood in wonder before his masterpieces. If I seem to attack his schema, the schema imposed by the camera and lens, it is only because it became a fashion structure so ironclad that it came to dominate not only the history of Western art but by so doing reshaped our very perception of what is real.
One of the most striking aspects of Vermeer’s painting is his limited tonal range, replicating the limitations of the lenses used in the camera obscura. There is very little shadow detail in Vermeer’s paintings; they tend to be very dark in the shadows, disappearing into black, even though the human eye and mind sees perfectly well into the deepest shadows. Also, Vermeer’s highlights are “blown”; the brightest portions of the painting are washed out to pure white, the detail lost entirely. The human eye and mind see highlights perfectly well in all their detail. The eye can differentiate brightness (a “dynamic range”) of more than 2,500:1 (11-14 f-stops). However, if we consider that the pupil opens and closes in different light and quickly adjusts as we scan a scene of varying light intensity the eye can actually see over a range of 24 f-stops. (The eye is so adaptable that in extremely low light conditions it adjusts to use “rod cells” for an even greater tonal range.) Ansel Adams’ “Zone System” divided light levels into 11 “zones” but he cautioned us to use only a narrow zone (tonal) range. (We have to remember that Adams photographed almost entirely in black and white and therefore did not examine the possibility of expressing depth and shadow through the accurate use of color). I think many of the great painters from the 1500s on discovered that the distortions of the lens, the exaggerated dark, disappearing shadows and the exploding light had a profound beauty of its own. (The play of deep shadow and dramatic light known as chiaroscuro is an attempt to exploit the beauty of this lens flaw and its ability to enhance the illusion of depth on a two dimensional surface.) Any representational painter who extends his tonal range to what the eye can see does so at his peril, violating the expectations of an entrenched convention and unless extremely skillful in his use of color risks flattening the illusion of dimensionality.
The Impressionists rebelled against the limited tonal range that had hardened into a strict code. It was as if finally the world had come back into the light; black shadows and highlights blown into white were banished; the gross distortions of the camera and lens overturned. The Impressionist Renoir is quoted as saying: “No shadow is black. It always has a color. Nature knows only colors … white and black are not colors.” What Renoir and the other Impressionists rediscovered is that shadows are not black and highlights not white but they are a different color. Every nuance of light produces a different color. If I ever write a book on painting it will be titled Waiting for the Light. The Impressionists chased the light, hunted it and as soon as they captured it, it escaped, and the colors changed. The color we wish to capture is so fleeting that unless we capture it in our memory (or paint very, very rapidly) it is gone forever. It was Monet, the magician of color, who said: “I’m chasing the merest sliver of color. It’s my own fault, I want to grasp the intangible. It’s terrible how the light runs out, taking color with it. Color, any color, lasts a second, sometimes three or four minutes at a time. What to do, what to paint in three or four minutes. They’re gone, you have to stop. Ah, how I suffer, how painting makes me suffer! It tortures me.” One art critic summed it nicely when he said: “The rule-laden art aristocracy of the time made the impressionists outcasts, because they broke the rules. Whereas the rules favored somber and subdued colors, the impressionists wanted to paint the bright colors produced by sunlight .” Although the Impressionists favored bright sun and the color it produced they were fully aware that the shadows, the cloudy days, the dark nights, the dimly lit interiors lit by artificial light were full of a myriad of colors that previous painters seem to have forgotten about. Certainly in their day critics condemned the impressionists for not using a “realistic” color palette. By what narcotizing mass hypnosis were the subdued colors of those painters that preceded the Impressionists thought to be real. Is humanities grip on reality so tenuous? It is doubly ironic that the Impressionists should reject the seemingly accurate verisimilitude of the photographic image while at the same time returning to a truly realistic, lifelike, color palette that preceded the camera obscura's gross distortion of color.
Representational painting to this day is still sometimes shackled by color "conventions" imposed by the camera obscura. One commentator told me that although he thought that my paintings were “photorealistic” (not a particular complement in his book) he thought my colors were fantastical, which he thought to be inimical to the supposed photorealism. It is time for representational painters to liberate themselves from their color strictures and take a page from the Impressionists.
In Vermeer’s paintings even when we look at the color outside the black shadows and the blown white highlights these colors are soft, subdued, “desaturated”. Even today, it is only the finest and most expensive so called “professional” lenses that even begin to capture the color we see in the real world. The comparatively primitive lenses of Vermeer’s time could not transmit accurate color, hence the muted tones that dominated painting for several centuries.)
Many great paintings, including Vermeer’s, reproduce what appear to be certain lens aberrations. These aberrations can have a beauty all their own. (Many photographers counterfeit lens flair through digital imaging techniques because of its inherent beauty.) Vermeer reproduces the phenomenon known in optics as a circle of confusion , (also known as disk of confusion,circle of indistinctness,blur circle), which is an optical spot ( seen as discs rather than points of light) caused by a cone of light rays from a lens not coming to a perfect focus onto the projected image surface. Even the best of lenses under the best of circumstances cannot focus all of the light rays perfectly. In Vermeer’s paintings this aberration creates the effect of the highlights seeming to sparkle or explode.
Also, Vermeer’s paintings have a very limited depth of field. The main subject is in focus but near and distant objects are out of focus, blurry, again, the errors of the lens. In contrast the eye and mind have almost perfect depth of field, refocusing imperceptibly as our eyes wander the scene from object to object. It can be argued that Vermeer is attempting to freeze his focus to emphasize his primary object of attention. However the difficult task of painting blurry (there is an exactness to the blurriness that perfectly duplicates the blurriness of the out of focus lens) when his eyes would inevitably have focused true (as soon he shifted his attention to background or foreground) is "solved" by the limited depth of field of the lens in the camera obscura. It was not the Impressionists who first represented reality in different focal planes and it did not take the invention of photographic plates or prints to reveal this to them. The lens and camera limits our depth of field leading to the accepted error that we can only see one object or rather one plain of view clearly at any one time. Hartman was wrong when he said: “Impressionistic composition is unthinkable without the application of focus. The lens of the camera taught the painter . . . that all subjects cannot he seen with equal clearness . . . it was the broadcast appearance of the photographic images in the eighteen-sixties that taught the Impressionists to see and represent life in focal planes and divisions." The Whistler Book by Sadakichi Hartmann. It is ironic that although the Impressionists freed themselves from the color constraints of the camera and lens they perpetuated and even glorified the distortion of the lens producing a limited depth of field.
Another obvious feature of Vermeer is his “mathematical” perspective, as captured by the lens. Vermeer’s far off figures tend to look too small, his close up figures too large. As any good photographer knows if you have two subjects of equal interest, one in the foreground and one in the background the foreground object will seem glaringly large even with a normal lens. This has been referred to as a distortion, but it is not. The eye and mind tend to mediate perspective, constantly equalizing the size of distant and close. A good example of this “mediation” or alteration is vertical perspective as distinguished from horizontal perspective. The mind doesn’t like vertical perspective and wishes most of it away. If the camera looks up at a building the top of the building is narrower than the bottom (this can be disorienting, even dizzying). This is called a distortion but it is no more a distortion that horizontal perspective. Many architectural photographers and painters get rid of vertical perspective entirely, manipulating their image so that the top of a building is as wide as the bottom. It is this purposeful falsification that more nearly pleases the eye. Even Vermeer could not tolerate the disorientation of vertical perspective and chooses a vantage point above street level to lessen it (as any good architectural photographer would do.) However a higher vantage point will give you perspective both up and down; so both must be altered but the alteration is less obvious. (A long lens will also reduce or eliminate vertical perspective (through distortion) by allowing you to view at a distance while bringing the image close up.)
These many distortions of the lens are so accurately represented by the great painters, including Vermeer, that I believe that they worked inside a large camera obscura with the image projected directly onto their work canvas. Vermeer certainly had the skill to finish his painting outside the box (camera obscura), to fill in the lost shadow detail and to paint in his blown out highlights. He also could have sharpened the “focus” adding sharper detail to distant and near. He may have liked to but he chose not to. (I am sure many artists painted over these lens imperfections and thus destroyed forever the hard evidence of their use of the camera obscura.) Vermeer needed to make a living. He incorporated these lens distortions into his work, making it a crucial and beautiful part of his art. To use a cliché, Vermeer made a virtue of necessity. (For a different but supporting point of view on the same subject see: Athanasius Kircher's Great Art of Light and Shadow, written in 1646, Philip Steadman's Vermeer’s Camera and David Hockney's 2001 book: Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters Also see Philosophy 113b Instructor: Professor Andreas Teuber.)