Dennis Wojtkiewicz is a practicing artist and Professor of Painting and Drawing at Bowling Green State University. Wojtkiewicz is best known for his large, hyperreal paintings of fruit and flowers. By incorporating the photograph as a reference tool, he is able to achieve a breathtaking level of detail. His work has been exhibited both nationally and internationally, in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Palm Beach, Santa Fe, Taipei and Toronto with work represented in major public, private and corporate collections.
Q: Can you tell me about when and why you first began working from photographs?
A: To make a long story short it was my great fortune, as a 21 year old art student, to be able to study at an atelier in Paris run by an artist/academic called Patrick Betaudier. Up until that point I had been painting exclusively from life. The great reveal at the atelier was that everyone was using slide projectors and photographs to inform their work. Combined with their immersion into the understanding of color, materials and technique the use of photography allowed each artist to achieve an incredible precision that gave all of the work the imprimatur of hyperrealism. To see was to believe. I became an immediate convert and never looked back.
Q: What are some important advantages to using photo references in your practice?
A: The photograph, or these days the digital or Photoshopped image, is a way to fix an idea along with the information needed to enter into the painting. I compare it to a roadmap that shows you how to get to where you want to go. You can choose a number of routes with different modes of transportation and can even choose to take detours or reroute completely along the way but in the beginning it’s a good thing to have an idea of where you’re heading and to make decisions based on that understanding. What separates making something of interest versus a bland replicate of a photograph takes place in the process. The maker has to assert their will on the painting, take ownership of how the visuals are articulated and then trust that their messaging will be properly received by the audience.
Q: As a professor at Bowling Green State University, what are some important things for student artists to know when beginning to paint and draw from photographs?
A: Work from life in order to gain an understanding of color, form and space. It’s important to know how these elements work in the real world. Photographs lie. The camera is looking with one eye rather than two so the image is basically flat and loaded with all kinds of misinformation. One must learn to use the information as a springboard into the image, to interpret that information rather than respond to it as a dogmatic trap or the only means to an end. The camera is a great tool for documenting, collecting and composing visual information but best not to rely solely on something that can be so unreliable.
Perhaps the best thing about the contemporary artworld is that there are no rules or restrictions anymore. When I was a grad student I was considered a pariah by my peers because I used photography. Thankfully we’ve gotten to a point where artwork is judged on its merits, not by some arbitrary set of rules. But we shouldn’t restrict our thinking to photography alone. Ideas and visual resources can emanate from a variety of sources. Appropriating or referencing images from Google isn’t unusual. After all there’s billions of images available (although one has to be careful with copyrights). Artists are free to cull information that meet their needs from all forms of print or digital media.
Q: What are some innovative ways you have seen artists using photographic processes in recent years to support their studio practice?
A: First read Hockney’s book called Secret Knowledge. It’s a great exposition on how many of the Masters actually relied upon optics (mirrors and lenses) to create their work. There’s a long list of contemporary painters that make use of photography and whose work. I admire. For painters that are fantastic technicians check out the Count Ibex collection (https://ibex-collection.com/). Tim Lowly has curated a long list of very good representational artists, most using photography as a tool (http://www.timlowly.com/resources/tgllinks.html).
And for artists that explore interesting social/political themes a short list that comes to mind would be Dotty Attie, Titus Kaphar, Kerry James Marshall, Ed Paschke, Jenny Saville and Zhang Xiaogang. If you don’t know of their work check them out.