the term “slavishly” has been thrown around for some time in artist’s circles, primarily with regards to using reference. an example would be, “an artist shouldn’t slavishly copy a photograph.”
for a long time i’ve agreed with this assertion, and to an extent i still do. artists shouldn't slavishly do anything. there is good and bad use of reference material, certainly. but over time i’ve noticed that the folk who level the charge tend to be referring to something larger, namely, they are critiquing artists who don’t simply draw from their heads.
maybe they don’t really mean to do so, but it tends to be those who work without photos who use the argument the most. to use a music analogy: it’s like carlos santana criticizing classical performers because they “slavishly copy” the notes on the sheet music while he riffs and jams and improvises his own path to a different musical end. the classical performer slavishly copies what’s in front of him because he is aiming to perform something in an exacting way. generally artists who use photographs aren’t trying to be all crazy with their anatomy, aren’t trying to seriously generalize their way to an impression of form. they’re trying to be true to the source to a greater or lesser degree, but minimally to a degree that requires the reference to be before them.
remove the photograph from the equation, for the moment. certainly saying one is merely copying a photo sounds easy and sort of cheap at first blush. so let’s say i had been working from a photo of a woman’s portrait, trying to capture the likeness of the model in the photographed environment as much as possible. i suppose i am slavishly copying that photo. so remove the photo and bring the woman back in the studio and have her sit for the 12 hours i might need her. what’s the difference? now i’m slavishly copying the woman, herself. but to disparage my efforts would be to knock centuries of brilliant painters who all worked with models in the studio, some of whom used the exact likenesses quite strictly.
it seems that poisoning the well by using words like “slavish” is unnecessary. there are more exact ways to criticize what i agree is legitimate misuse of reference materials. for instance if i paint a man with a falcon on his arm i might take a photo of the man, lit as he needs to be. not having a falcon handy, i’ll search for photos of some. now if i basically copy the pose from a photo and finish my painting but work “slavishly” in that i ignore the fact that the photo was lit differently than my man and i now have conflicting light sources, well that’s worse; in that case i’ll have simply made a stupid error by using conflicting lighting in a piece whose realism doesn’t justify it. if i took a photo of a falcon on its own and it was also lit appropriately, and painted the two to look seamless in their new painted environment, this would be good use of reference. but in either case i worked “slavishly.”
the coin can be flipped, of course. a more academic painter could say that a “head-drawer” works in the style he does because he’s too lazy to make it exact. the word “lazy” here fills the same purpose as the former complaint, and suffers from the same problem of over-generalization.
using a photograph tightly—provided the use of the photo does not break some basic rules of composition as i illustrated above—is no more slavish on its own than playing sheet music. after all, the notes in sheet music do not tell you absolutely everything there is to know about how the notes are played. witness the huge variety in performances within classical music and you’ll quickly see that. similarly, 30 artists could all copy a photo with exactness in mind and yet result in 30 different handlings, all of which would still look very much like the original photo. no matter how photorealistic, something still happens between kodak paper and canvas. that thing is called art.