Jan van Eyck Arnolfini Wedding 1434
oil and tempera on oak 82x60cm
for more on Arnolfini see
The Mystery of Marriage at this Website
This work by Jan Van Eyck is the earliest example of Photorealism. Though it may not seem so at first because of the highly stylized hands and faces of the figures, and the somewhat stiff poses, it must be noticed how accurately vanEyck represented the scene and the attention paid to the small details. What very few people are aware of when viewing these portraits are the tools that these artists' had at their disposal to help them accurately render what they saw before them. By looking at this painting, it becomes clear that vanEyck used a tool called the camera obscura, which was most commonly used by fellow artist Vermeer in later decades. The artist would pose his subjects in the setting he wished to portray them in, making certain there was a light source that provided lighting from a single direction. In the case of  the Arnolfini Wedding, it was the window on the left hand side. In fact, if one were to look at a collection of work by Vermeer, it could be noted that in almost every painting the subject is seated by a window which is providing all the light for the scene. After setting up his scene, the artist would then draw a black curtain over the doorway of the room, effectively creating a closed box with the scene and the people inside it. there is a hole cut into the fabric and a camera obscura placed in front of it, the artist would then place his blank canvas in front of the lens and the scene in the room would be accurately projected onto the canvas, upside down, but allowing the artist to then make a rough tracing of where exactly the shapes were in the room and their size in relation to one another. This was a fast way for the artist to get an accurate layout of his whole painting and allow him to begin to spend time on the small details that in the end, make the biggest difference. The best example of this in the Arnolfini Wedding can be seen in the mirror on the wall behind the couple being wed, which accurately reflects them and the room, along with the cleric leading the wedding, whom is not portrayed in the painting at all when viewed straight on. Also, there is the remarkable chandelier, which would be nearly impossible to portray accurately without the use of the camera obscura because of the difficult perspective and amount of fine detail. This painting truly shows the effects of the invention of optical devices such as the camera obscura and camera lucida on the development of standards for painting, and are the beginning of other optical devices such as the camera, video, projectors, and now digital cameras which are widely used by artists' today in the development of their work.


Camera Obscura

 Here are some diagrams which show what a small camera obscura looked like, and give a short description of how it works. In fact, most modern day projectors sold in craft stores and art stores are merely fancier versions of the camera obscura, but work with exactly the same principle. With the advent of our modern age where images are everywhere around us, media ranging from posters to magazines and television and movies, there have often been debates about the validity of an artist today using these means of tracing images in order to create a painting or other work of fine art. Many have argued against the practice claiming that it cannot truly be fine art if it is not created freehand, and relying only upon the artists' own eyes. While it is true that in order for one to become a successful artist one must spend years learning how to see and render what is before them, it cannot be discounted that the practice of using optical devices as tools has been around almost as long as the idea of perspective was first realized. 

Jan Vermeer. The Lacemaker 1669-70
Oil on canvas transferred to panel, 
23.9 x 20.5 cm 
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Dutch, Baroque
 By observing the work of Vermeer in relation to the work of Van Eyck, it can again be seen how the camera obscura was used. Note that there is a strong light source coming from one direction, most likely a window in the room, and how accurately the face and hands of the young girl are portrayed, as well as the fine details of the implements she was using while making lace. What is especially interesting about this particular painting is the treatment of the red lace on her right hand side. While the entire painting is almost painstakingly rendered in detail, the mass of red lace belies an almost expressionistic portrayal, with quick loose strokes and what appears to be almost pollock-esque drips of paint to suggest the threads. This may even be seen as an early example of true expressionism, and while it may not seem to be very earth shattering by today's' standards, in the early 1700's this was quite daring, indeed.

Form:  This portrait is a very straightforward and naturalistic representation.  The composition is simple and there is no great range of space.  The value structure initially is very Caravaggesque but on closer examination the range of value and the subtlety of the tonal transitions is a bit more complicate. The same is true of the color in this image.  Vermeer does use some intense or saturated hues as well as a few non-local colors in the face and hands.

This image is one of those images that tends to support Vermeer's use of the camera obscura.  If you look closely at the detail below of the red lace you will find that Vermeer's lace becomes blobs of color rather than the red lines we would anticipate a painter rendering for individual strands.  If you look closely at the details of any photograph you will find that details become blurry in this same fashion.

Another facet of this detail also supports this conclusion.  If you look closely at the details of the strands you will also see that there are little disks or rings of color that seem to have no purpose for being there.  These disks are actually what one would see if you looked through a cheap or poorly made lens on a camera.  They are caused by some imperfections in the lens condensing or refracting light in an odd fashion.

Iconography:  Almost all of Vermeer's paintings are allegorical in some way.  As this the young woman makes lace her hands are propped up on a prayer book.  This juxtaposition of prayer book to her embroidery seems to pay homage to the cliché that "idle hands are the work of the devil."  This may be the case because there are many accounts of Dutch housewives obsessive creation of lace ornamentation,  however, this was not just to keep their hands busy.  Lacemaking was also a good source of extra income for many housewives.  If you look at almost any image from Rembrandt to Vermeer you will see that the clothing usually included an ornate lace collar and sometimes sleeves and other ornaments.  So lace is also a sign of wealth when it was worn. 


Chuck Close Self Portrait 1968 airbrush
Form: Black and white airbrush portrait.

Iconography: Chuck Close worked primarily from photographs of himself, taken in black and white. He worked on this painting using the grid and transfer method, in which he drew a grid over the original photograph, and then drew an identical grid over a larger surface and copied the photograph square by square using his airbrush until an accurate representation of the original photo had been achieved. 

According to the Brittanica,

"Squaring" in painting, simple technique for transferring an image from one surface to another (and sometimes converting the image from one scale to another) by nonmechanical means. The original work to be transferred is divided into a given number of squares; the same number of squares is then marked off-- with charcoal or some other easily removable medium--on the surface of the receiving area. The contents of each square of the original are then drawn in the corresponding square of the reproduction. The use of the grid ensures the accurate placement of images onto the reproduction.

The Egyptians used squaring at least 5,000 years ago. It has been used to transfer cartoons onto murals, to transfer preparatory drawings onto canvas paintings, and to alter the scale of any work in the same media.

According to Haber's Art Reviews (www.haberarts.com) ".....Through all those permutations, Close is up to one thing. His portraits imitate the photograph, hoping to understand it and yet out to trump it. He keeps trying harder and harder to fail, and he succeeds. He sticks to the formal, modernist vocabulary with which he began. Like a printer or a factory, he reproduces it endlessly. Yet he trusts only to his eye and hand. Close's very first black-and-white paintings were hardly all that precise. Paradoxically, he depends on the photograph for their hand-made look. The sketchiness of an ear, say, coincides with the blurring due to a narrow depth of field. Close is fascinated by how reality at a third remove can seem so real. He is in love with a photograph's lack of authenticity and yet determined to control it. Year after year he repeats his formal gesture, like Freud's child tossing a ball over and over to confront a sense of loss. He has lost the comfort of art's humanity and his own claim to genius, and again and again he replaces it with his outsize talent."
Though that is a somewhat lengthy and involved explanation for his work, it does bring the idea of the photograph into the fine- art- painting dimension. Chuck Close did not run away from the idea of photography, or try to hide the fact that he worked from photographs, as many artists do, but instead embraced it and played with it and successfully made it work to his advantage.

Context: According to the Washington Post, "Using a black-and-white photograph overlaid with a grid, Close created his earliest monumental paintings with an air brush and boundless patience. He took as his guiding philosophy the idea
that, as he says, "the process will set you free."

Bill II by Chuck Close
Chuck Close, Bill II, a 1991 
(portrait of William Wegman)
Oil on canvas. 36 x 30 inches. 
Bill II by Chuck Close
The same image shrunken down so that your eye mixes the colors.

Form: Chuck Close used the same optical theories of optical mixing that Seurat used in his pointalism but Close became very interested in the formal qualities of the process.  This image demonstrates how Close took the idea of grid and transfer (sqaring) that we saw in Daumier's work and makes the process more visible by making abstract designs within each square.

Chuck Close
Lucas, 1986-87,
oil & pencil on canvas,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Form: A later work by Chuck Close, done in color and in oil, on a huge canvas. 

Iconography: Watching the development of Chuck Closes' paintings, the viewer is able to see the ways in which an artist is able to expand and experiment using the photographs as a tool. Instead of being confined to just creating an exact replica of the photograph, Close  is here showing his skill as a painter and his knowledge of color theory and how it works in creating a realistic portrait. Much the way Seurat created paintings by using painstaking pinpoints of complementary color that are mixed to create a picture by the viewers eyes, Close is doing the same optical trick. Using saturated colors in a mosaic type pattern that, up close, wouldn't translate into much, but from afar create a breathtakingly realistic portrait of his subject. 

Context:  A review of his later works done by the Worcester Phoenix Newspaper helps to give a perceptive on his later works and how he developed the distinctive style found in his color works."....It's true that like all art students of the `60s he started out wrestling with abstract expressionism and trying to see who would become the next Willem De Kooning (1904-1997). But as his classmates began to drift toward minimalism, Close saw a fork in the road and headed directly to figurative realism. His breakthrough work in 1967 was a full nude. Not all that unusual, except that Big Nude was nine feet tall and 21 feet long. From then on, he concentrated on what he refers to as his "heads,"  monstrous close-ups of peoples' faces, mostly his own, but also friends, family, and other artists. These time-consuming and slickly executed images were almost too real and too scary, with flaring nostrils, bulging eyes, and every pockmark and wart magnificently defined. Somewhere along the way Close decided to let us in on how he makes his paintings. He shows us the expansion grid marks and indicates just how he applies the paint. These were no longer slavish blow-up copies of photographs (they never really were), but rather assemblages of thousands of miniature paintings, put together much like ancient Italian mosaics."


Richard Estes, Cafe Express, 1975, oil on canvas, 
The Art Institute of Chicago.
Form: Photorealistic painting done with oil on canvas.  What makes Estes process unique is that he would set up a tripod and shoot many photos from the same vantage point and combine the views into a single image.  What this allows him to do with his image is to make a painting that has both the qualities of a photo but the completely observed details of a painting.  In a phot, the range of focus of the lense would blur the buildings in the background, however, the buildings in the background here are in sharp focus because he uses many photos that are focussed on the background. 
Iconography: According to Stokstad, Estes can be classified as a 'super-realist' painter. His paintings so closely resemble a photograph as to be almost indistinguishable from one. What is also noted in Stokstad about his work is the elimination of all the people in the picture, which allowed him to '(emphasize) his interest in the refined compositional arrangements.' Compared to what we have been looking at so far in which the primary subject was a person or people, Estes' work creates its' own eerie tension and suggests that he finds urban landscapes and city life to be cold and devoid of human contact. Early n his career, Estes did a lot of figurative work and classic drawing, often influenced by painters such as Edgar Degas and Edward Hopper. By knowing about his background in classical art, it is easy to see how he has moved beyond the limitations of early figurative work, and set forth an idea for himself that comments on what is important to him as well as challenges his technical ability.

Context: According to a review of the work done by the the Smithsonian at the Hirsshorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington DC "....Estes is one of the foremost proponents of the Photo-Realist movement, a particular type of realism characterized by high finish, sharp details, and a photographic appearance. This movement began in the mid-1960s in America with such artists as Malcolm Morley, Chuck Close, Duane Hanson and Estes.

Photo-Realism evolved from two longstanding art-historical traditions: trompe l'oeil ("to fool the eye") painting and the meticulous technique and highly finished surfaces of seventeenth-century Dutch painting. Painters such as Vermeer greatly influenced Estes with their detailed observation of reality and their use of technical devices, such as the camera obscura. More modern precedents for Estes's painting can be found in the work of Charles Sheeler and the American Precisionist painters of the 1930s, who often used photographic sources to ensure accuracy of line and form. Estes is one of the foremost proponents of the Photo-Realist movement, a particular type of realism characterized by high finish, sharp details, and a photographic appearance. This movement began in the mid-1960s in America with such artists as Malcolm Morley, Chuck Close, Duane Hanson and Estes.

Photo-Realism evolved from two longstanding art-historical traditions: trompe l'oeil ("to fool the eye") painting and the meticulous technique and highly finished surfaces of seventeenth-century Dutch painting. Painters such as Vermeer greatly influenced Estes with their detailed observation of reality and their use of technical devices, such as the camera obscura. More modern precedents for Estes's painting can be found in the work of Charles Sheeler and the American Precisionist painters of the 1930s, who often used photographic sources to ensure accuracy of line and form."

Richard Estes, Central Savings, 1975, 
oil on canvas,
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 
Kansas City, MO
Form: A photorealist painting, oil on canvas.

Iconography: Contrary to the title this painting shows the interior of a diner shown through a plate glass window, the central savings sign is reflected in the window instead of being the main focus of the painting itself. Once again, Estes has eliminated the human element from his scene, choosing instead to let the trappings of society speak for him. It can be read that the diner is representative of the working-man, empty now as they return to their jobs, or possibly just waiting for the lunch crowd. The shadow of the ever-present savings bank is a reminder that society thrives and lives off the money that is spent or saved. This is why people work, and these are the places that everything they work hard for comes down to, places of food, comfort and commerce.

Context: The tension and meaning in this painting are derived from the composition and subject matter. The horizontal lines and cold glare off the aluminum seats tend to give a feeling of emptiness. Only the buildings reflected in the glass have sunlight reflecting off them, not the immediate picture plane the viewer finds themselves in. This is another example of his view on society as cold, bleak and impersonal.

Don Eddy, Untitled (4 VWs), 1971
acrylic on canvas, 66 x 95 in., private collection.

Don Eddy, Pontiac Showroom I, 1972
acrylic on canvas, 80 x 66 in.
The Robert B. Mayer Family Collection, 

Don Eddy, Harley Hub, 1970
acrylic on canvas, 28 x 28 in.
private collection.
Form: Photorealist paintings done with acrylic on canvas. Highly rendered.
According to Nancy Hoffman Galleries, representatives of a collection of his work,".... Eddy's painting technique is unique. He works in acrylic, first painting the entire canvas green, then brown and then purple. With these three layers he separates warm from cool colors. After the three layers of underpainting color, Eddy often adds 20-30 transparent layers of glazing in different colors to achieve the powerful visual impact of his palette." 

Iconography: Don Eddy works with Acrylic as opposed to oil in these paintings which is impressive because of the relative difficulty in achieving the same depth out of the plastic based paints as opposed to oil based paints. 

According to the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the campus of the university of Nebraska 

"...In his early years, Eddy became familiar with the airbrush as a painting tool in his father's car-customizing shop. His Photo-Realist paintings are totally airbrushed, and he is considered a master of that technique. During the first decade of his career, in the 1970s, his approach to painting was primarily analytical as he painted cars, scrap yards and showroom windows, then opulent shop fronts, silver and crystal displays. The objects that filled the windows were machine made--familiar parts of contemporary life. The objects provided bright, reflective surfaces that distorted the appearance of reality and created kaleidoscopic patterns of refracted and ambient light and color. These images were ideally suited to his camera (a mechanical device that captures the imagery of light) with which Eddy had become expert while working his way through college as a tourist photographer. 

Eddy's introduction of windows into his work serves the purpose of creating a triple situation: a window has a surface, its transparency allows the appearance of a second image, and it reflects a third vision. Because of the way the eye functions, we never, in reality, see all three as separate images at the same time. By incorporating information gathered from several photographs and forcing it all onto the single focused surface of his painting Eddy makes the physiologically impossible seem logical. A camera cannot achieve the same result because, like the eye, it focuses on either foreground or background. In dealing with color, Eddy does not strive for reality, preferring to paint from black-and-white photographs and to create color systems that are more concerned with formalist considerations. For instance, an orange car situated behind a red one may be reality, but a white car situated behind a blue one may work better as a painting. 

 Eddy's work of the early 1980s indicates his reinvestment in both vivid color and evocative content. His newest paintings are multidimensional layers of ideas as complex and personal as the artist's technique. His most recent work is the most comprehensive in terms of the artist's themes of nature, art history, personal experience and fatherhood. His work is no longer simply photographic or realistic, but contains elements of both--having abandoned the perceptual world of the eye to move in spaces of the mind. As an artist, Don Eddy is considered a thoughtful intellectual as well as a disciplined craftsman. 

Context:  "A realist artist, sometimes called a photo-realist, Don Eddy works in acrylic on canvas as well as in colored pencil on paper. Over the past decade Eddy has moved from images of toys floating in front of landscapes and majestic architectural interiors within the perimeters of one rectangular canvas to juxtaposing images in triptych and polytypch configurations." (www.nancyhoffmangallery.com)