Pierre-Marie Fenech - digital artist


My digital works explore an in-between between painting and photography. One could call them photographic paintings or pictorial photographs.

By using these two praxis, by uniting them in the same creation, I try to bring the spectator in a perceptive space where he will ask himself the question of the very different glances that we pose on painting and photography.

A photograph is made of pixels and a painting of touches. The characteristic of a photograph when it is enormously enlarged is to present a fog of pixels having colored values very close to each other without being completely identical.

No painter has ever painted like this – except the hyper-realist painters who have had fun recreating quasi-photographs with the help of projections and a great mastery of the airbrush, whose process of color dispersion is very close in rendering to the “pixel fog” of photography. What a painter does – let’s say for all the corpus of figurative, academic, naturalist, even impressionist or expressionist painting – is to put a touch of color of a more or less large size according to the detail represented. But this touch is always much larger than the pixel, even for artists like the Flemish masters whose touches seem almost invisible thanks to the skilful use of glazes that “melt” them by superposition. Even considering the most naturalistic painting possible, a painting is never painted pixel by pixel but touch by touch (including the pointillism of Seurat).

My work therefore consists of “de-pixeling” my original photographs by substituting an organization of strokes for the matrix of pixels. This does not mean that they are painted or repainted photographs, nor are they retouched photographs. It looks more like a translation where one would pass from one language to another, even from one language to another, from the mathematical one of the sensors, the mosaic of Bayer and the science of the colors to this very different language which is the look of the painters.

What I produce is a digital art since it is realizable only with a computer equipment. What is produced – the resulting image, the “painting” – is an object eternally floating between a photographic and pictorial impression. And this particular floating is precisely our gaze. The general theme of my works, whether the series are devoted to trees, flowers, animals, landscapes or still lifes, is indeed this strange object that we call “artistic look”.

We have to go back a long way in the history of painting to try to grasp this concept.

Let’s first admit that everyone can make the difference between a painting and a photograph. Perhaps an artificial intelligence could also do it by force-feeding it images of both genres. However, painting and photography are historically indistinguishable, and if we wanted to prove the contrary, we would have to demonstrate that the history of painting can only be conceived as resolutely independent of that of photography.

David Hockney in “Secret Knowledge” and then “A History of Images” has clearly shown that the use of optics from Van Eyck onwards made representation evolve from reality as perceived with two eyes in permanent movement, to the observation of a fixed image via the projection of a lens or a mirror on a flat surface. This essential mediation of the image, where the importance of light and shadows becomes crucial as well as the unique point of view, makes painting a pre-photographic technique through the use of optics at least four centuries before the invention of a film capable of fixing the image formed behind the lens.

Are Van Eyck or Vermeer, like Caravaggio and hundreds of others, photographers before their time? Yes, if we admit that they had to deal with their lens, lighting, framing and composition of objects and characters in the same way as a photographer. By the way, the first photographers worked like painters in a studio by “over-composing” their images, adjusting the poses and directions of light down to the smallest fold of fabric. Then photography became more instantaneous and painters used their easels as framing devices. Look at impressionist painting – I’m thinking of Joaquin Sorolla or Auguste Renoir – and see how their paintings are ”framed”: not composed according to laws of perspective or the golden ratio, but just f-r-a-m-e-d like a good photographer does when facing his subject.

To come back to our classical painters, of course they are painters – and even masters – even if one of their little secrets would be the mastery of optics. None of them considered lowering the minimal touch to the size of a pixel (there is no “magnifying glass” or zoom in painting!). The eye does not need the pixel. The level of detail of a painting depends on the eye alone, not on a mathematical construction. The pixel is a conceptual absurdity in the representation which is born from the necessities of the technical device (in silver photography, it is the same with the grains of silver, chemical ancestor of the pixel). There is no pixel in reality, nor at the bottom of our retina.

Plein champs - Arbre dans la brume - 90x60 cm tirage pigmentaire sur papier Hahnemühle Fine Arts - Pierre-Marie Fenech

When I substitute pixels for keys, am I then a painter? No, I am a digital artist and this comes from the fact that being a photographer on the one hand, and a great lover of painting on the other (in a very wide range of art history from the 15th to the 20th century), my true love is painting. Having moreover a (long) professional past in the world of the image (video, computer graphics and 3D animation), my artistic tekhnè is largely more on the ”dark side of the force”, that of the software of the digital image, than of the brushes and the tubes of color.

My technique is mixed for some of my works with a recourse to acrylic paint or watercolor. In this case, it is a work of digital compositing between the original photographic elements and ”passes” of acrylic paint previously scanned. But for most of my works, it’s digital painting, starting from my original photographs, and applying the strokes with digital brushes (there are thousands of them) using a graphic palette. This initial work on the strokes is accompanied by the transformation of the color spectrum of the initial photograph to a colorimetric palette specific to painting. I can also move elements, choose to ”stylize” certain textures. In the same way, certain photographic properties such as the blur must be translated pictorially, which leads me to transform the depth of field into atmospheric perspective (a pictorial technique which consists in marking the depth of space by the progressive gradation of colors and the progressive softening of contours). Finally, the micro-details of which all photography is full of are very attenuated, most often erased. Painters have never painted these details, just as they have ignored the “pixels”.

The eye (at least that of the Westerner) has been trained to an image with properties that only optics can give it. The first spectators who, at the dawn of the 19th century, saw daguerreotypes were perhaps not as surprised as one might have expected. They might have been more impressed by the presence of certain details, the complexity of the shading and the play of light, or even a certain chaos of the image. But certainly not by the visual structure of what they saw on these first photographs, which was identical in every respect to the representation of painters since the Renaissance. The whole history of painting has been sedimented in our gaze by the contributions of all the painters and great periods constitutive of the history of art, both in movements of tradition and revolution.

The work that I do on the “image” – I would like to be seen as much as an “imagist” as a digital artist – consists in playing between the images of painting and photography, the word “image” designating here the object of our look, or how our look becomes an image. The characteristic of this ”image” is to float because of the confrontation of two opposed forces: painting is a pre-photographic art by the very old recourse to the optics in the mediatization of the represented, and yet painting has never structurally taken into account the pixels that are digital or silver – which are essential to the photographic representation. It is this aporia that makes our gaze float, and it is ultimately this floating that I try to “paint”.