Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Fishbomb Prints - Frizzell & Son street art collaboration

Just when you thought you had finally untangled NZ artists known as Frizzell (see our helpful Frizzell disambiguation article) along came Dick and Otis' street art collaboration, the so called "Fishbomb" series they painted under the moniker "Frizzell & Son".  This intergeneration collaboration between Dick "the godfather of NZ pop art" (as he was bemused to be introduced as on TVNZ's Good Morning progamme recently) and Otis, one of NZ's best known street artists, came about on the occasion of the recent Blockbusters exhibition held at Saatchi & Saatchi Gallery in Auckland.


Courtesy of The Area you can watch the creation of this series of graffiti style paintings in the above video of Dick & Otis Frizzell painting at The Area April 29th 2012.

There are four 'fish bomb"prints available, editions of 50 with the Frizzell & Son logo beneath the image. Signed by both artists and numbered by hand. They feature in our growing collection of street art at NZ Fine Prints.
Kahawai Graffiti style painting by Frizzell & Son (Otis & Dick Frizzell) - limited edition prints now available here


Tuesday, 15 May 2012

How Robin White learned to make prints

Robin White Self-Portait Print
This is me at Kaitangata | Screenprint
Credit: Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki 1979/66
In 1981 Dame Robin White was living near Dunedin at Portabello on the Otago Peninsula.  The series of silkscreen (screenprint) prints that White was in the process of completing are now some of NZ's most famous and valuable editions (see  previous article on the record price for a NZ print at auction) - a roll call of instantly recognisable works such as "A Buzzy Bee for Siulolovao" (1977), "Florence and Harbour Cone" (1975)  and "Mangaweka" (1974). In addition to her reputation as a painter White's silkscreens, taken together with the prints of E. Mervyn Taylor and Gordon Walters, are the most significant bodies of work by New Zealand artist printmakers.

In part of an interview she gave with Alistair Taylor for the long out of print monograph Robin White: New Zealand Painter published in 1981 I was delighted to find White telling the whole story of how her printmaking progressed from where she had just "mucked around around with a few things" at teachers' college to producing what are now among the most sought after editions for collectors of New Zealand prints.  

The story of how her printmaking practice evolved was recounted in such illuminating depth (and with plenty of fascinating detail for printmakers about the technical challenges of mastering the screenprinting method) that I asked Dame Robin her permission to re-print verbatim the questions and answers from the interview in NZ Art Print News. She very kindly gave me her permission and I am extremely grateful to her to be able to share this unique insight into NZ printmaking history with our readers.  I hope publicising this wonderfully candid discussion of how she began and developed her printmaking pratice will be an inspiration to other NZ printmakers because through reading this discussion you quickly realise that even for such a revered printmaker in the NZ canon the journey to artistic and technical mastery of the printmaking medium had to start at the very beginning - and cross many practical and inspirational hurdles along the way.

Perspective: Robin White talks to Alister Taylor* 

Alister Taylor: And then, in 1970, you began producing editions of screen prints. How did all that come about, because in some circles you're best known for your prints?

Robin White: I'd done a little bit at school, but not very much, so it was at teachers' college that I explored screen printing in a little more detail. Not to a very great extent, but I mucked around with a few things, then thought nothing more of it. I was at Bottle Creek doing a series of drawings and watercolors and oil paintings of state houses surrounding the school. At 3.30pm school would finish, and I'd stay on, after all the kids had left. School was empty, and I used to sit in the grounds and draw the hills surrounding the school, for a couple of hours until the sun went. Then I'd go home. Initially the hills were bush clad and parts of them were being bulldozed and in square geometric kinds of shapes. The hills in Wellington are very sensuous, much more so than the hills down near Dunedin. These hills where I live now are ancient looking, whereas the hills in Wellington really go up and down, they're very lively-looking. And the stark geometric houses in front of the hills had quite an attraction for me. I began drawing them and painting. It struck me that these images might work well as a mass produced kind of item. Just as the houses themselves were mass produced. And that got me thinking about how you would reproduce an image:  what's the best way? From there, I thought I'd look into screen printing again. So I did that. But in fact the first print I did wasn't one of those Porirua things, it was the Boatsheds at Paremata, which presented quite a simple format. Just a plain hill, a very lovely kind of simple solid shape. And then the elongated shape of the boat sheds in front. So that was my first print. And then I did the Mana Railway Station after that, and then went back to Porirua, and did some prints of the houses and shops there.

Alister Taylor: Did you do the prints as a completely separate thing from your painting, or complementary to it?

Robin White: As a completely separate thing. I've always thought of prints being completely separate. Initially, there's an idea; it may be the Mana Railway Station. If I do a drawing of it, or a painting, or a print, they're all separate, even though they're of the same image. They're all different inasmuch as each medium requires a different approach, a different way of translating the image. I conceive them separately; like the Mana Railway Station. The first image I produced of that was a screen print, then about eight months later I started a painting.

Alister Taylor: So the drawing isn't necessarily a preparation for the painting?

Robin White: In some ways it's a coming to terms with it, but always the painting presents its own battle, its own requirements. And a print is never a reproduction of a painting. It makes its own demands, it has its own life, its own thing going for it. This whole idea is becoming more and more pronounced in my work. Like this latest print I've done - Mere and Siulolovao - there was no preparation for that, the print developed almost as a painting. I did a linear drawing, a sort of basic format for the print, but I didn't do a complete drawing, not did I do any colour rough for it; the print was worked out as I went. When I started off the initial planning for that print, it involved something like 32 colours. It ended up with an awful lot more, because I changed the colours as I went. I overprinted and I reprinted some of the areas as I saw the print develop. So the prints are becoming more and more like paintings in a way.

Alister Taylor: Have your prints changed all that much technically since you started?

Robin White: Very much so. Well, obviously to start with, with the very first prints. I was not only trying to put an idea down on paper, but I was also trying to find out how to print. I was restricted by my own limited knowledge of screenprinting.

Alister Taylor: You hadn't learned that at Teachers' College as part of the course?

Robin White: Only the very basics. What I hadn't come to terms with at teachers' college was the problem of precision in registration. Nor had I bothered about the kind of paper to choose really - that sort of thing. So my first prints were pretty hairy, technically. I was using cotton organdie stretched over the screen, and cotton organdie is pretty coarse; and I was using Heatset dye, which is a water-based screen printing dye for printing onto fabric. The effect was really nice, but it had certain disadvantages. The coarseness of the cotton organdie on the screen, and the kind of semi-transparency of the ink I was using gave a really nice feeling of the screen on the paper; you can see the grain of the organdie. That was rather nice. But I was working with a very limited range of colours because of this problem of registration. I hadn't really figured out a good system to use, it was really just a trial and error thing. I was just making mistakes and figuring out how to put the mistakes right, and that's how I learned. The first print, that one of the Boatsheds at Paremata, had only about six colours, I think, and the Mana Railway Station had about seven: they got a little bit more complicated as they went along. As I solved some of the problems with registration, I started to use more colours, but this provided a problem, because the ink I was using was water-based - it tended to soak into the paper and I got problems with shrinkage, which again presented more problems with registration. So I had to devise ways of placing objects side by side, and using lines to cover the inevitable discrepancies in registration I was getting. Generally I was very limited, so I did two things to solve these problems. I really looked into the business of the kind of paper I was using and started to use a much heavier paper, and I also changed to using Morrison's oil base screen printing ink, which is more stable on the paper - it doesn't make the paper buckle or do funny things; it has a much more bland kind of finish, sort of opaque. Its finish is not as lively, perhaps. It's different, much thicker and more 'painted'. But the result was that I could increase the number of colours, which in turn means the complexity of the print increased. I was given a lot more freedom.

Alister Taylor: And how did you solve the problems of registration finally?

Robin White: Well, the problem of shrinkage almost vanished. However, unless you've got a temperature-controlled working area (which I don't have), your paper will vary in size according to the temperature and humidity of the day. You anticipate these kinds of things happening. So when you cut the stencils you allow for the colours to overlap in some places, and you put a few lines here and there where you might have trouble, and you hope for the best. The results are never perfect. There are always some mistakes.

Alister Taylor: And they add to the individuality of the print anyway.

Robin White: Right. I mean, you just have to be philosophical about certain things. You've got to say this is a hand-produced item which is bound to have certain defects which are consistent and therefore an acceptable part of the print. When I became more confident I upped the number in each edition. The first edition had about 15 prints, and now I produce 50 - well, I aim at getting about 50 good prints from an edition, usually. I don't always make it. Depending on how complex the print is and how many mistakes I anticipate in the course of the print, I choose somewhere between 80-100 sheets of paper to start with, so I'm printing about 80-100 prints and from these I try to get 50 good ones.

Alister Taylor: That must take a hell of a long time to produce, in terms of hours, apart from the pre-production work and conception.

Robin White: Some more than others. This last one I started in the beginning of March and worked on it full-time and finished it about the first week of April, so it took me well over a month - working every day, eight hours a day or sometimes more.

Alister Taylor: Why do you spend that amount of time on a print?

Robin White: Once I start on a print I've got to keep going. It's not like a painting. I can't stop and go and do something else and then come back to it. What I do is have the whole thing basically worked out in my head, but I make a note on a piece of paper of more or less what each run will be. In order to keep that sense of consistency going in my head, I've got to work on a print from beginning to end without a break, otherwise I'm afraid of losing the thread of what I'm doing. A decision you make about one colour at the beginning of a print may not have repercussions until towards the end of the print, so just to keep that thread of consciousness - and to keep control of it - I've got to keep going with it. Especially considering the complexity of some  of the ones I'm doing now. That last one I did was a hair raiser! If you make a mistake with colour you can go over it and reprint it but if you get one colour off register it throws the whole thing. You build up a sense of tension, and that tension in itself creates a kind of close relationship between yourself and the work, which is good.

Alister Taylor: And the sort of decisions you make along the way means that you wouldn't want it to go to anyone else to be printed?

Robin White: No. One print has been printed by someone else (the Print Club edition of Allan's Beach) and I still don't think of it as my print.

Alister Taylor: It's a basically simple print too, in terms of numbers of colours and complexity.

Robin White: Yes. The kind of print I've just done could never be printed by anyone else but me, because decisions are being made as I go. OK, I have the basic scheme in my head, but there are a million minor decisions which are continually being made and changed and redone and rethought as I go. 

Alister Taylor: Any other reason why you prefer to make your own prints?

Robin White: Yes, for example in prints involving large areas of landscape sometimes I paint directly on to the screen with shellac; when I'm building up textured areas, like the large Hoopers Inlet print, there are areas on the print where I paint directly on to the screen; that's something no-one else could do for me really.

Alister Taylor: What's the purpose of painting directly onto the screen, to change the image as you go along?

Robin White: One of the technical advantages of painting directly on to the screen is that you don't have to change the stencil. If you've got an area with three different colours, you can print the first colour over the whole area, block out parts of it, print the second, block out a greater part, and print the third colour. The alternative is to produce three separate stencils, but by painting directly on to the screen, somehow the effect is much more together. And it's also that you feel very much closer to the whole process - to what's happening. The final image has a sense of immediacy and closeness. Screenprinting can be repetitive, boring work. What makes it interesting is this kind of close contact with the final image. The fact that you're seeing it evolve, not as a preconceived idea, but as something growing organically of its own accord as it goes.

Alister Taylor: So in effect you'll carry on making your own prints rather than getting someone else to do them?

Robin White: I think so.

*Excerpt from an interview with Robin White by Alister Taylor, published in Robin White, New Zealand Painter, 1981, reproduced with the kind permission of Robin White 2012.


Wednesday, 9 May 2012

1938 review - Rita Angus portraits "harsh and unpleasant", Cass "too plain altogether"

In a delightful twist to a well worn narrative from NZ's art history NZ Art Print News discovers that the first critic to review Rita Angus's "Cass" heartily disliked the artwork that would become "New Zealand's favourite painting".

 "most unpleasant spot", the painting is "too plain altogether"
The usual version of the Rita Angus story is that Angus's famous New Zealand painting Cass appears "exhibited in the National Centennial Exhibition of New Zealand Art [in 1940], signalling critical recognition for her work."*

However listed under her married name "Rita Cook" the exhibition two years earlier of "Cass" and "Mountains Cass" at the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts annual exhibition was in fact recognised with a scornful critical review published on page 6 of Wellington's Evening Post newspaper 1 October 1938.**   

"Rita Cook gives two portraits. One is very harsh and unpleasant in colour, and the other is a plain statement with little to support it. The landscapes which have been taken from the most unpleasant spots are too plain altogether. They are so busy too, every mark on the hillside and railway station being given full prominence, and all backed by raging skies. Why should Nature be made to appear so unrelenting?"

What would become half a century later New Zealand's most popular painting was not even referred to by title. When the National Library kindly emailed this writer a copy of the exhibition catalogue so we could identify the actual titles of the paintings Rita "Cook" had submitted, we couldn't believe that of all Angus's landscape paintings to be condemned in such harsh terms it just happened to be the painting recently voted NZ's favourite.  The four paintings exhibited by Angus were "Cass", "Mountains Cass", a portrait of "Harvey Gresham esq" and one listed simply as "Portrait" that was not for sale, presumably a self-portrait.

The full review is fascinating reading, discussing significant mid twientieth century NZ artists who had submitted work that shows how their art was seen at the time by a reviewer who clearly saw themselves as part of the established order.  The reviewer struggles unsuccessfully to fit the work of the modern artists into the development of New Zealand art and decides that not only have the painters failed to acheive their alleged objective copying overseas trends but the experimentation has led to "in some cases the ability to use paint… to have unaccountably vanished."


THE ACADEMY EXHIBITION

DEPARTURE FROM ORTHODOXY

When the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts was founded some fifty years ago, it was by men and women who, after battling with Nature, wished to devote some time and attention to the higher things of life. Theirs was a vigorous culture of a high standard, built on a sound British tradition, and the foundation of the Academy was with the object of enlarging and fostering this culture.

Art in New Zealand has largely remained traditional, as a visit to the academy's fiftieth annual exhibition which is now open will show. So far nothing new has evolved, and even that which is termed "modern" is not new. It is simply imitative of work being done abroad. But the fact that New Zealand art has hitherto been built up on tradition is no detriment. It is good to have been built up on a sound tradition brought first hand to this country by artists such as Petrus Van der Velden and James Nairn, but it would be pleasing to be able to point at the same time to signs of the beginning of a distinctive school of New Zealand art. That, however, cannot as yet be done, although by the time the academy has centennial celebrations perhaps a different story will be told.

In the meantime there are hundreds of young people attending classes in New Zealand's schools of art, but very few seem to emerge with distinction. Between the artists who have gained a standing in New Zealand and the younger painters there is a big gap. If there were more true amateurs in the realm of art in the Dominion, and not so many who endeavor to make a precarious living out of art, the best might develop more fully and continue the good work commenced so well in days gone by.

The annual exhibition of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts is representative of the work of artists right throughout the Dominion. Most of the artists who usually exhibit are doing so again this year, the two most noticeable exceptions being Sydney L. Thompson and H. Linley Richardson, both of whom are abroad at the present time. It is a pity that they were unable to send something for the jubilee exhibition so as to make it absolutely representative of the Dominion's art. The present exhibition reaches a high standard, and gives an impression of brightness and vitality. The grouping of the pictures in panels is a distinct aid to serious scrutiny, since the continuous line line usually adopted can become very monotonous.

The most important oils are hung in the main gallery and occupy the north wall. Groups of brilliant watercolors are arranged on the two south walls. The pictures in the smaller galleries have been grouped according to outlook, and some of the very fine drawings in No.5 gallery should not be overlooked.

The centre panel confronting the visitor on entering the main door is very rich in colour, with a dignified portrait of Professor J. Hight by Mrs Elizabeth Kelly, M.B.E., occupying the place of honour. This difficult subject has been treated with restraint; character is given to the sitter, and the scarlet academic gown is not allowed to detract from the portrait.

Mrs Elizabeth Kelly is a very consistent artist who has not been led astray by the many phases of experimentalism which has taken so many off the right track. She has gone on successfully doing her work and advancing year by year. Honour does not come easily to artists in this country and all New Zealand was gratified when the distinction of M.B.E. was granted this year to this well-known painter. No.65, "Miss Edith Maes", is another example of Mrs Kelly's work. It is simple in composition, fine in colour, and contains all that feminine charm which is essential to a portrait of a woman. This work has been hung in the Royal Academy Exhibition, and received a silver medal when hung in the Paris Salon. That versatility belongs to this painter is shown in No.68, "Autumn, Christchurch". The facade of the Museum provides a very picturesque subject, well handled. The colour is a delight, quiet greys with the bright tints of the autumn leaves as accents.

Cecil Kelly, of Christchurch, exhibits an oil painting of houses in sunlight which will be one of the really bright spots of the show. It is lovely in colour and carried through with consistency and charm. No.68, "Sunlit Headlands", by the same artist, is not quite so happy. The sea somehow refuses to fit in, but there is some good painting in the cliffs and foreground.

Nugent Walsh has on this occasion given more oils than watercolors, and very robust oils they are. No.63, "Land Breeze", is vigorous and fresh, with such moving, drifting clouds as one sees on a breezy day. The dark masses of trees are beautifully placed. "A Fordell Landscape" is very well designed and has grace and dignity. No.62, "A Bend in the Road", is well conceived and carried out. It has a definite quality and vitality. These oils bring out the truth of the countryside, and show distinctly that they have been produced by a true lover of nature.

Archibald F. Nicoll always has something to say, and although his works are not large, they are admirable. No.61, "Brown's Farmyard", is well composed, the dark masses of the hayricks forming a fine pattern. A luminous sky is a satisfactory background. No.53, "West Welton Road", an avenue of trees giving shade, makes a very pleasing picture. The whole picture has decorative quality and serenity. "September" has a very vigorous quality. The moving clouds throw shadows on the pasture and this happy arrangement of light and shade sets off the landscape to perfection.

VITAL FIGURE PAINTING

A.H. O'Keefe does not often show in Wellington. His two figure subjects are among the most vital in the whole exhibition. No.35, "Charlie", is delightful in its truth. Here is a boy, quite natural, no attempt being made to dress up, clothes rather in a bundle, hair not carefully brushed. But is it full of life, it is flesh and blood. The colour is lovely, the background harmonizing with the pure greys used in the jumper. "Study in a Mirror" has the same fine sense of colour, but is not quite as successful as "Charlie". The artist knows how to handle paint and sees things in a less conventional manner than many portrait painters.

Basil Honour shows a versatility of subject and his work is always looked forward to in these exhibitions. He has a remarkable ability and tackles subjects which are not of an easy nature. The large canvas, "The Cockayne Icefall", is well carried out and rings true. It is a very fine effort, the feeling of depth in the abyss very telling. No.87, "Canterbury Hills", reveals careful observation on the part of the artist, and the picture is truly typical of New Zealand. No.88, "Evening, Routeburn Valley", charmingly depicts in colour that peaceful hour of the day, and "Puponga", with its colour scheme of blue and gold, will be a favourite.

Of the two portraits shown by Mrs M.E.R. Tripe, No.77, "The Corner Table", is the more complete. The colour scheme of warm browns is carried well through, the darker colour in the gown being brought out by by the marigolds, repeated again in the brass jug, and the gold stripe in the table  cloth. The background is quiet and helpful. No.45 seems to lack solidity, and the drawing of the eyes and mouth are not satisfactory. Three decorations of flowers by this artist have charm and distinction.

J. Cam Duncan shows three small canvases of delightful subjects. They are all carried out thoroughly, and possess a distinction of their own. The colour is restrained, but nothing is lost because of this.

THE WOULD-BE "MODERNS"

Work which will be termed "modern" by many visitors to the exhibition has as far as possible been grouped together. The New Zealand Academy always encourages any work which it feels to be sincere, no matter what the artist's outlook or method of approach may be. Much of what is exhibited in this "modern" group is by artists who, until quite recently, painted in a more academic manner but who have now been influenced by certain artists who are experimenting in new phases of art. "Copyists" rather than "modernists" might be the term to apply to some of them. In some cases it would appear that the subject which has been chased has eluded them: and in some cases the ability to use paint seem to have unaccountably vanished.

John Weeks shows a group of work sufficient enough to show his advance into another school of thought. His work hangs together and is as a whole a very fine colour scheme. No.202, "Afternoon on the Seine", is a pleasing arrangement but lacks the necessary life. It is good in colour and tells its story quite plainly. No.200, "Pots and Paintrags", is very rich in colour, but too scattered. No.202, "Circus Camp, Avignon", and No.198, "Jewish Women Washing", are the two most successful efforts, with good colour and design in both. It does not matter much whether the subject is immediately apparent, the canvas as a whole pleases. In the landscape which has been treated in the same manner the whole truth is lost, it becomes simply a dark mass.

Evelyn Page, whose work in the past was eagerly looked forward to, has also embarked on an adventurous and exciting path. As most of the subjects are of scenes abroad, it would appear that during a recent sojourn outside New Zealand she has been directly under the influence of a painter who has imposed his outlook upon her. While under that influence all is fairly well, but when away from it the results are not so successful. "Charles Brasch", No.173, is quite a vigorous portrait. It is good in colour and well arranged and is painted freshly and courageously. No.174, "Outskirts of Exeter", has consistency, a sense of rhythm, and again good colour. No.172 is the most successful of all. It is full of sunlight, contains life and incident. But this is more of the type of work received from Evelyn Page in the past before she commenced to make Nature conform to her idea of what it should be.

Rita Cook [nee Rita Angus] gives two portraits. One is very harsh and unpleasant in colour, and the other is a plain statement with little to support it. The landscapes which have been taken from the most unpleasant spots are too plain altogether. They are so busy too, every mark on the hillside and railway station being given full prominence, and all backed by raging skies. Why should Nature be made to appear so unrelenting?

Russel Clark's work is disappointing. It would be better if this artist devoted more time to serious study than trying to adopt the outlook of other people. Every work is imitative, and unhappily crude in colour.

Louise Henderson is working out a way which is individual. She simplifies very well and uses the essentials to the best of their advantage. Her colour is good, delicate, but harmonious. Her work has some relation to the subject chosen, but is not too traditional.

Owen Lee depicts the clarity of the New Zealand atmosphere with truth. His work is sound and carefully considered. At the present time one can see the influence of certain mature painters in it, but with such sincerity he must develop along his own lines.

GOOD WATERCOLOURS

The watercolour section of the exhibition is particularly interesting. It is numerically stronger than the oils, and perhaps pictorially, too. This medium suits the New Zealand light, and gives a brilliance which other mediums often lack. There are works which surpass anything shown before and which will give great enjoyment and pleasure to the visitor.

It is good to see the works of one artist grouped together. This allows the onlooker to see whether it is consistent or not. Often one brilliant work appears and that shown later is disappointing. This is not the case with T.A.McCormack. All his watercolours have a fresh quality and sparkle, and each one can stand up to the other. The still life which is centered is a happy starting off for surrounding work. It is beautiful in colour, the lovely colour and shapes of the spiky flowers being well set off by the dark notes introduced by the fruit and leaves, and the delightfully freely-painted plate. On either side are a landscape, and a seascape, both quiet but rich in colour. No.11, "Across the Straits", is very complete and satisfying. The harmony of browns and greys is delightful, the green of the sea being a perfect complement. Distant hills bathed in atmosphere add a feeling of glamour. No.15, "The Poplars", is dignified and serene. It gains considerably through its restraint of colour. No.12, "Geraniums", is crisp and well conceived. The manner in which the foliage is treated is a good lesson to any student. The crystal vase shows quality of texture. Both the cloud subject and the seascape on either side of "Geraniums" have beautiful colour and are very carefully observed. There is great luminosity in the seascape.

James Cook has only two watercolours on exhibition, but No.103, "Les Angles", makes up for lack in numbers. It is a very fine drawing thoughtfully approached and well carried out. One would like to see more of this sort of work by the younger painters in New Zealand.

Nugent Welch shows three watercolors only, fresh and charming. His work is always looked forward to at these exhibitions,

Esther Hope is most successful in her works where the native nikau palms make the motif. They are both very low in tone, but give a feeling of the density and sombreness of our native bush. No.127, "My Garden", is lovely in colour, but rather scattered.

Jean McKay has several flower pieces on view. These are bright in colour and show skill in execution. A little more thought regarding composition would help them along.

Olivia Spenser Bower has used the ballet for subject, and is most successful in "Beau Danube". This has very rich colour and a good sense of rhythm.

Beatrice Seddon shows a bunch of vivid rhododendrons which enliven the end panel.

F.H. Coventry exhibits some scholarly drawings, and Eric Lee Johnston some excellent lithographs.
**This review is one of the many millions of treasures recently brought to light through the superb Paperspast digitisation project at the National Library. NZ Art Print News gratefully acknowledges Paperspast as the source for a scan of the Evening Post that we have transcribed for this article.


Friday, 4 May 2012

How to photograph paintings to make perfect prints - a discussion with Auckland photographer Bret Lucas


At the Beach, Auckland Artist: Simon Williams
Fine Art Canvas Print 450 x 320mm
Auckland painter Simon Williams' first series of fine art canvas prints has just been published.  These superb quality reproductions printed on canvas right here in New Zealand (Simon's new print At the Beach, Auckland is shown at right) are an excellent example of the kind of technically accomplished reproduction that is now possible for NZ artists looking to sell prints of their paintings.  We have written recently about the vibrant digital printing scene in NZ but the arrival of Williams' particularly fine quality prints made us realise that we hadn't covered the vital first step in reproducing a painting as a print - the photographing of the painting.

So in this article we talk to Auckland photographer and lighting expert Bret Lucas of Fstopstudios (company motto "Light it Right"!) about how he ensures artists like Simon Williams will be able to create the perfect prints by expertly photographing their paintings at his specialist studio in Penrose.  NZ artists contemplating publishing prints will hopefully find the following discussion with Bret a valuable in depth technical explanation covering the techniques and experience that an artist requires from their photographer to ensure they successfully navigate their way over the image capture hurdle on the way to printing the perfect reproduction of an original painting.

Whether the end product is a canvas, offset or digital/giclee print the printing process nearly always now begins the same way with capturing the image digitally. We are very grateful to Bret for taking time out of his busy schedule to explain to NZ Art Print News what a professional photographer considers when photographing paintings at an incredibly high resolution so the artworks can be faithfully reproduced down to the smallest brushstroke like they are in modern reproduction prints.

NZ Art Print News: Photographing the painting correctly is such an important part of getting a good reproduction print or print on canvas.

Bret Lucas: Yes, this is often overlooked by many and it really is the difference between selling a few prints and a lot of prints.

NZ Art Print News: How do you make sure the painting is photographed perfectly? Light and reflection are so problematic. And how do you get a square picture! [I know from photographing prints for our catalogues at NZ Fine Prints that this is really, really hard to do - I sometimes end up having to crop corners off the pictures of the prints at pre-press time!].

How to light a painting so it photographs correctly
(Image courtesy Fstop Studios)
Bret Lucas: It's all about the light and how it's placed and reflected off the art work. All sorts of things come into play including the surface being photographed, the "family of angles", incident and reflective light, the lights depth of field, white balance, just to name a few.

I'll break this down and describe what I mean. Firstly the surface that's been photographed. If the painting or art work has physical depth due to paint brush strokes this can cause a problem with allowing unwanted specular reflections onto the final image. Understanding the family of angles allows the fix. It's a little bit like playing billiards with light. Aim the light at the surface and make sure it doesn't land in your lens when reflected off the artwork. If I'm photographing a large piece of work I'll back the light sources away to allow for the light to have less falloff across the painting. I'll also use an incident light meter to make sure the strength of the light is consistent across the entire surface of the artwork. White balance is also very important when captured a painting. The ideal is to have the colours of the painting the same as the colours in the print or canvas. I have a very good understanding of colour management and this comes in handy to make colours true both in print and on a monitor.

Getting the art work square is another thing that I pay particular attention to. Not only does the camera need to be lined up perfectly both horizontally and vertically to keep all vertical and horizontal lines true, but the distance the camera is to the artwork is equally important. Too close and you end up with a type of barrel distortion, too far away and you get a sort of pin cushioning effect. Both can be corrected in post processing, but why not get it right in camera first. The Hasselblad lenses I use allows for distortion free imagery.

NZ Art Print News: Do you have to take the painting out of the frame?

Bret Lucas: Ideally I'll take the picture out of the frame, but if that's not an option I can work around it as I have a very thorough understanding of light and how it works on surfaces.

NZ Art Print News: Do you photograph in your studio or where the painting is hung?

Bret Lucas: I have a 5000 square foot studio and shoot all types of work from cars and large sets to paintings. I have no problem shooting paintings on location but prefer total control over the environment so favour in studio shooting.

NZ Art Print News: What equipment do you use to photograph paintings?

Bret Lucas: I used to only shoot with a professional DSLR camera and still use it outside the studio but for all work in studio I use a Digital Medium Format Hasselblad camera. It has many times the resolution of a DSLR camera and provides perfect colours right out of the camera. A good example of where a DSLR falls short is how it captures reds, they are often overcooked and look nasty. The sharpness of a DSLR is also a compromise and is soft in comparison to medium format photography. The Hasselblad is the perfect camera to shoot art work and will guarantee perfect results every time. My lighting equipment is Profoto. The colour of the light is perfect from shot to shot and doesn't shift like many other brands of inferior studio lighting equipment.

NZ Art Print News: Once the painting is photographed is further processing of the image required before you hand the file over to the printers?

Bret Lucas: I use a tethered shooting process which involves hooking the camera up to a large monitor and viewing the images on the screen as they are captured. This allows for quick and easy post processing. I'll jump into Photoshop for the last bit of retouching.

Mt Eden View Artist: Simon Williams
Fine Art Canvas Print 450 x 275mm
Bret went on to tell us that although he has always photographed digitally he "found it hard to find professional photographic lighting courses that went into immense detail on lighting. New Zealand and Australia just didn't cut the mustard so I spent 5 years learning light on my own. Four years ago I purchased my own warehouse and now work from the studios I've built on a variety of projects." Bret's dedication to understanding the way that light affects the way a camera photographs a painting certainly shows when you view the brilliant new series of canvas prints from Simon Williams that illustrate this article.

As an artist having your painting photographed correctly by a professional photographer is a critical part of the process of reproducing a painting as a print, particularly with the extremely high resolution giclee prints and prints on canvas that print buyers are becoming used to buying.

More about the artworks from Simon Williams that illustrate our how to photograph paintings article:

Simon Williams has printed a selection of fine art canvas prints of his most admired paintings from a decade of successful solo exhibitions held mainly at Auckland's prestigious International Art Centre. "The contemplative beauty" of paintings by Simon Williams, writes International Art Centre's Director Frances Davies, "quiets the mind and refreshes the soul, reminding us of what we love best about New Zealand".  You can purchase Simon Williams' new prints exclusively from the canvas prints collection at New Zealand's favourite art print store.