Most of us are more familiar with painting than with any other art form. In fact, mere mention of the word “art” probably calls to mind famous paintings and painters from da Vinci and Vermeer to Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock. Between the cave paintings of prehistory and sophisticated contemporary digital paint application processes, it’s both the oldest artistic medium, and the one that has undergone the greatest number of changes and evolutions throughout art history. And yet, for every artist employing cutting edge computer software or reveling in the ready-made qualities of off-the-shelf acrylics, there are just as many mixing their own paints from scratch, preparing oils, egg tempera and so on. Old and new methods coexist, creating the vibrancy and dynamism of painting as it is today.
Painting remains compatible with a stunning multiplicity of styles and aesthetics, tones and textures, always evolving in new directions while reinventing previous ones. Its compatibility with other media remains unparalleled, as in Henri Matisse’s architectural frescoes, Niki de Saint Phalle’s brightly colored sculptures, meticulously photorealistic pieces by artists like Chuck Close, or the work of experimental animators who paint directly onto film stock. However, beyond such radical reorientations and redeployments of painting, which have occurred throughout its history, it remains a medium predicated on a few very accessible formal principles whose greatest demands upon viewers are patience and attention to detail. Painting, for all its aristocratic history, has become the most widely enjoyed and appreciated of art forms.
The “Paint” in Painting
More so than perhaps any other medium, the richness of painting is dependent upon an in-person appreciation of subtle yet extremely powerful formal properties like texture and tone. The sleek, glossy surfaces of Old Master paintings are as much a measure of expertise as the embossed, virtually sculptural brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionists or the self-effacing smoothness of Minimalists like Sol LeWitt. Each mode of application suggests a different role for the artist: as a conduit for some higher, more perfect idea or meaning; as an imperfect, emotionally fraught being transmitting her or his experience; as an impartial investigator seeking to lay bare the formal essence of aesthetics. These understandings and appreciations, however apparent, are often completely contingent on experiencing an artwork in person. Such an infinitely modulated and differentiated medium as painting demands our engagement from the surface onward.
Save for certain works by painters like Kazimir Malevich and Ad Reinhardt, color tends to determine meaning more than texture. As with texture, however, the primacy of color makes access to original paintings all the more essential as reproductions generally misrepresent, for various technical reasons, the intensity or subtlety of painters’ preferred hues. Imagine one of Paul Signac’s pointillist seascapes, for instance, without its incredible range of booming pinks, oranges, reds and blues. Imagine not being able to step right up to the canvas and observe the meticulous detail of each daub of oil. Both in questions of tone and texture, experience of the original painting remains crucial, whether it’s a rough-surfaced Impressionist still life executed with a muted oil palette, or a postmodern rendering of found images transmitted in messy, neon acrylics. The innumerable interpretations of such artistic choices and subtle executions only become fully apparent in the presence of the original work.
Gaining a Perspective on Painting
Though a painting’s content can be anything from a bowl of fruit to a naval battle by way of the color red and the shape of a line, every painting in the history of art remains subject to the rules of perspective. These rules, determined by our habituated ways of experiencing the qualities outlined above, dictate how we look at a painting, and how an artist conceives their work. Paintings large and small, figurative and abstract, monochrome and rainbow-hued, minimalist and frenetic all engage these fundamental principles of perspective. And while artists like Mark Rothko and Piet Mondrian tried to subvert such ways of seeing, others like Wassily Kandinsky sought to overwhelm and transform our expectations of perspective with incessant activity. Through manipulations of perspective using texture and color, artists communicate to viewers in and through paintings, while allowing room for each viewer to shape their own experience of the work. Paintings link artist and audience on a more intimate and equal plane than any other medium.
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This article was written for ARTmine by Benjamin Sutton.