Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Compulsory Figures

When craftsmen or even skaters are tested for their skills, they are often asked to make something standard - in the case of skaters, they have compulsory figures. In a way, it's too bad that the same is not required of hobby and amateur photographers. It is in photography school.

Think about it. Your assignment is to make another Pepper # 30. Sure the world doesn't need one, but think about it. First you need a suitably funky pepper, then some sort of setting for it, you need to light it or find the natural lighting that will give that pepper the roundness and the glow and the gorgeous highlights, and you need to compose the image suitably.

What has happened when I have tried that experiment in years past is a technically competent aesthetically horrible image, looking more like an illustration in a scientific text on breeding than a piece of art.

When you take on an assignment which has a 'gold standard' with which to compare your efforts, it is downright easy to see where you failed. You can then try again and keep doing it till you get quality that is at least similar to the 'master' image you chose to copy.

I think you will find it time well spent.

It's too bad that some of the 'art' photographers featured in Camera Arts didn't do this first, then we'd get to see their avant garde and alternative process images at their best.


Howard said...

Not sure what I think of your post this time. At first I thought "What a great idea. Wish I had such assignments to do. Maybe I could create a list of them myself." Then I got to thinking - why would I want to copy something else, someone else? Sure, the technique is important, but ... I was especially bothered by your Camera Arts comment. Were you saying that the images there weren't "good" because they didn't match what others have felt over time were "good"? If so, then I am bothered. If we keep getting the same pepper over and over, what is the good in that? Can't we look at something fresh and either like it or not like it? It's that whole question of 'standards' I guess. I see it with technique, maybe, but not overall. Oh well. Things to think about.

Jack said...

In the same way, how many of today's abstract painters can draw -- the human form, a tree, a building? Not many.

julie o'donnell said...

I think it very much depends on what kind of standards you are trying to apply to your work. It's one thing when you're trying to improve technically, to be able to produce an image with a range of tones, for example - but when you're looking for something else that simply can't be measured on a standard scale, it's close to impossible to judge, I'd have thought. Makes me think though...

George Barr said...

It is my impression that a lot of today's abstract artists did in fact come up through the ranks, learning basic figure work in school, then attending a fine arts programme in college during which they had to hone their 'compulsory figures' before moving on to their own creations and styles.

If you survey the modern master photographers, many of them have similar fine arts degrees or they apprenticed.

You can certainly make the argument that if you are going to drop paint on canvas from a height, you certainly don't need a course in brushwork, but the basics of colour and balance and composition still apply.


Robert Hoehne said...

A very interesting idea. Many 'new' photographers could do with such an exercise. Not demeaning camera clubs but at the one I used to frequent it was obvious that most of the members had never seen a well printed picture.
Trying to copy a classic piece of art means you have to go and actually see a very well printed version of it in the first place and that would be an obvious first step. Go to a gallery, buy a copy, it is the only way to see what you are aiming for.

Dirk Danneels said...


It is so strange that you should post this now on your blog. Because a couple of days ago I exactly started working on what you suggested. I bought myself what you described as funky looking ( green) peppers and started photographing them on Sunday using daylight. Got nothing anywhere near where I wanted to come out, but I have kind of a feel I continue working on the peppers some more.

Regards and I love your blog.