For most of the twentieth and continuing into the twenty first century our perception of two dimensional images have been propagated by the lens. We accept a single unmanipulated photographic image as truthful, or at least indicative as to how we see our contemporary world. For example we do not register the peripheral distortions and colour variables on a mobile phone, we accept the image as the momentarily truthfulness of the event. This is in part because of the transitory nature of the images we produce instantly and promptly discard or forget.

The ubiquities of the images presented to us in advertising, marketing and our own desire to photoshoot/video all aspects of our social and personal lives embody images as something of little intrinsic value. This was not the case before the middle of the 19th century; images were produced by people and therefore generated many individual perceptions.

So what does this mean for the modern painter/artist who uses human optics to present an image to the world. Without the limitations of the mechanical and digital lens, the artist can allow their personal perception, imagination and experiences to soar. Initially to perceive the concept, observe the whole and express the emotion, to be free of the lens constraints and to be restricted only by the limits of the canvas.

It could be argued that the artists paintings (and other mediums) are more valuable because of the ubiquitous lens. Despite the advent of manipulative software, the lens shows us an homogenised view of our world. Artists, by virtue of being singular, announce an individual view of how they see and feel about the world: art has always acted this way.

We view photographic images with a known expectation, a reflection of our visual contemporaneous life. Fine art can make you see the world not as you know it, but as someone else connects with it, which is sometimes pleasantly surprising or disturbingly challenging.

Painting should not to be confused with the lens, if an artist wants to distort or use unusual colours, possibly because of an emotive response to the event or subject, it is not because the artist’s eyeballs distort or discolour, it is because their brain chooses to.

So should artists eschew the use of the lens? Denial of the lens is self deception, we have to recognise it as part of our world without allowing it to dominate our perception of it. When an artist views their chosen subject it is seen as occupying its dimensional space. A small movement left or right will change the prospect, this is easily seen with a close figure who inhabits and continually displaces mass. We know and feel the shared spacial volume, we are in a preprogrammed collaboration, be it figures or landscape.

The lens can provide a useful reference for the artist, but it needs to be post concept. To use a photograph as the basis for an artwork is to register a subject without having to experience it. Two dimensional input can only create two dimensional output, devoid of that emotional connection. However, unlike sculpture, one could argue that a painting is two dimensional anyway. All good art is imbued with the divergence of humanity and that is the difference, without it we are merely a lens.

An essay by Nicholas Robertson 3.3.24

Painting and the lens ▪ essay