Research point: Application of paint

Updated on 25 March 2017 (Harvard referencing and some content).

20 December 2016. Apart from random effects achieved e.g. by allowing a pigmented substance to run freely and practically uncontrolled (as e.g. in Hermann Nitsch, *1938, controversial Austrian experimental artist, (Marc Straus Gallery, 2015)), the application of paint is usually a closely observed, tested and corrected process. In classical representational painting textural effects of paint are rarely used. It is applied in a way so as to reproduce as faithfully as possible what is seen and the characteristics of the paint become invisible behind the subject of the painting.
With the advent of the Impressionists, and later the Expressionist, there was a radical change. Not least due to accumulating knowledge in the natural sciences artists became increasingly interested in the physical and chemical properties of the paints they used and in gaining access to means of exploiting them for artistic expression.

Claude Monet (1840-1926, France) was name-giving to the Impressionist movement. He introduced a looser, bolder handling of paint in response of the directly observed environment. In his later years he started building fields of colour with small strokes, looking to introduce surface effects in a dialogue with the colours used (The Art Story, n.d.(a)). In his extensive series of paintings of London’s Waterloo Bridge, created between 1899 and 1904 in oil on canvas, he captured different atmospheric qualities in this way. As e.g. the fog increases and outlines of the buildings become indistinct (top to bottom) Monet adapts his method of applying paint from bold to soft, always with a main focus on the light (Fig. 1-3):

claude_monet_-_waterloo_bridge_-_google_art_project
Figure 1. Claude Monet: “Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect”, 1903a, oil on canvas. Source: Claude Monet (1840-1926) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
claude_monet_-_waterloo_bridge_w_1555
Figure 2. Claude Monet: “Waterloo Bridge”, 1900, oil on canvas. Source: Claude Monet (1840-1926) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
800px-claude_monet_-_waterloo-bru%cc%88cke_-_1903
Figure 3. Claude Monet: “Waterloo Bridge”, 1903b, oil on canvas. Source: Claude Monet (1840-1926) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903, Denmark/France) worked with similar ideas but in a less abstract way than Monet. His dashed brushstrokes he used to weave a fabric in which is subjects are embedded (The Art Story, n.d.(b)) (Fig. 4):

apple_harvest_by_camille_pissarro
Figure 4. Camille Pissarro: “Apple Harvest”, 1888, oil on canvas. Source: Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
Paul Cézanne (1839-1906, France) worked together with Pissarro over a lifetime  and is seen as the main pioneering artist paving the way to all new approaches to addressing the substance qualities of paint. He applied paint in discrete brushstrokes in order to construct and sculpt rather than paint his works of art (The Art Story, n.d.(c)) (Fig. 5):

paul_cezanne_160
Figure 5. Paul Cézanne: “Self-portrait With Pink Background”, oil on canvas, c.1875. Source: Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890, Netherlands) used similarly energetic bushstrokes. While less sculptural in a traditional “Cézanne sense”, their impulsive structural quality helps capture and translate the artist’s emotional state into something literally graspable (The Art Story, n.d.(d)). I went to have a look for examples other than his post-impressionist work “Starry Night”, but returned to it, because I believe there is no better painting to illustrate the above (Fig. 6):

757px-van_gogh_-_starry_night_-_google_art_project
Figure 6. Vincent Van Gogh: “The Starry Night”, oil on canvas, 1889. Source: Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
In one analysis of this work (Artble, n.d.) I found an attempt to attribute both his choice of colours and dramatic brushwork to his mental illness, although in his letter describing the development of this painting to his brother Theo he appears extremely focused and thoughtful (Blumer, 2002). It makes me wonder, why a gift of being able to see the world with other than purely rational eyes has to be turned into something insane. Could it be that, apart from the consequences of his long-term alcohol and drug abuse, part of Van Gogh was driven mad by his uncomprehending environment? Certainly with the advent of the Expressionist movement society slowly but gradually became acquainted with the new developments in art and learned to see with different eyes. I suspect that Van Gogh would have made a brilliant Expressionist or 21st century painter with nobody dreaming of branding him as his contemporaries used to do.

While during the period of Impressionism and beyond oil on canvas continued to be favoured by most painters, Expressionists started looking further afield (Boddy-Evans, 2016). With the advent of photography painting was “released from the need to copy nature”, as Henry Matisse (1869-1954, France) put it and artists thus became free in their choice of colour and way of applying paint. Colour, overall, started to be removed from reality, brushwork and paint application became liberal and generous (Tate, n.d.(a)). Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980, Austria, (Tate, n.d.(b))), for example, was one of its highly influential representatives working far into the second half of the 20th century. Abstract Expressionism (The Smithsonian Studio Arts Blog, 2010) at the other extreme end of the spectrum uses paint in a spontaneous way to recreate emotional states without a connection to reality. Any contributing element, including found objects, can be used and paint may be applied with any conceivable means (The Museum of Modern Art, 2016). Jackson Pollock (1912-1956, USA) (The Art Story, n.d.(e)) was one of its pre-eminent early representatives and famous for his very large size splatter and drip works. He explained – although furiously rejected by some critics analysing his work – that his application of paint was not purely random, but rather a focused dialogue with the developing work of art (The Museum of Modern Art, 2016).

Among the many versatile painting materials available today pastels appear to take a special position. They lend themselves with less ease to the copious and highly gestural use of paint typical of many contemporary art movements. Also, in my opinion, their properties produce neither paintings nor drawings, but a curious and pleasing mix of both (Fig. 7):

ants_laikmaa_1936_taebla_maastik
Figure 7. Ants Laikmaa: “Taebla Landscape”, pastel on paper, 1936. Source: Ants Laikmaa (1866-1942) [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons
I did not find many 20th century pastel painters as instructed by the study guide. They were most popular in the 18th and late 19th centuries, but not since then, which may be owing to the above fact of a relatively restricted field of application and uniform needs in application (mostly sand or velvet papers). It is more their brilliant colours than their structural proterties, which attract artists, so I am not sure whether the subject is truly one for this post. However, they allow the – careful – placement of a number of layers on top of each other, which gives the finished paintings unrivalled depth. The incredible ease of application is attractive for artists working spontaneously, too. A search on the Saatchi online gallery gives a good overview over the range of contemporary pastel painting (Saatchi, n.d.).

Overall, I guess that there may not be a single substance or item that has not yet been used in painting with more or less success. Whatever method is used it becomes clear very quickly that each requires practice, thorough planning and a keen sense for the appropriate. Otherwise there is a real danger of skilled spontaneity changing place with arbitrariness, which is something the human eye is programmed to detect.

References:

Artble (n.d.) Starry Night Analysis [online]. Available at: http://www.artble.com/artists/vincent_van_gogh/paintings/starry_night/more_information/analysis [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Blumer, D. (2002) The Illness of Vincent van Gogh [online]. The American Journal of Psychiatry. Volume 159, Issue 4, 1 April 2002, pp. 519-526. Available at: http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.ajp.159.4.519 [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Boddy-Evans, M. (2016) Techniques of the Masters: How to Paint Like an Expressionist. How the Expressionists used color in their paintings [online]. ThoughtCo, 7 November. Available at:  https://www.thoughtco.com/expressionist-masters-painting-techniques-2578608 [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Cézanne, P. (c.1875) Self Portrait With Pink Background [oil on canvas] [online]. Private Collection. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_paintings_by_Paul_C%C3%A9zanne#/media/File:Paul_C%C3%A9zanne_160.jpg [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Laikmaa, A. (1936) Tablea Landscape [pastel on paper] [online]. Enn Kunila’s art collection. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ANTS_LAIKMAA_1936_Taebla_maastik.jpg [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Marc Straus Gallery (2015) Hermann Nitsch [online]. Marc Straus Gallery, New York. Available at: http://www.marcstraus.com/exhibitions/hermann-nitsch/ [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Monet, C. (1900) Waterloo Bridge [oil on canvas] [online]. Santa Barbara Museum of Art . Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_Monet_-_Waterloo_Bridge_(W_1555).jpg [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Monet, C. (1903a) Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect [oil on canvas] [online]. Denver Art Museum. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_Monet_-_Waterloo_Bridge_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Monet, C. (1903b) Waterloo Bridge  [oil on canvas] [online]. Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Claude_Monet_-_Waterloo-Br%C3%BCcke_-_1903.jpeg [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Pissarro, C. (1888) Apple Harvest [oil on canvas] [online]. Dallas Museum of Art. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apple_Harvest_by_Camille_Pissarro.jpg [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Saatchi (n.d.) Results for: pastel [image collection] [online]. Saatchi Art, Santa Monica. Available at: http://www.saatchiart.com/all?query=pastel [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Tate (n.d.(a) Expressionism [online]. Tate, London. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/e/expressionism [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Tate (n.d.(b) Oskar Kokoschka [online]. Tate, London. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/oskar-kokoschka-1430 [Accessed 20 December 2016]

The Art Story (n.d.(a)) Claude Monet [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-monet-claude.htm [Accessed 20 December 2016]

The Art Story (n.d.(b)) Camille Pissarro [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-pissarro-camille.htm [Accessed 20 December 2016]

The Art Story (n.d.(c)) Paul Cézanne [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-cezanne-paul.htm [Accessed 20 December 2016]

The Art Story (n.d.(d)) Vincent van Gogh [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-van-gogh-vincent.htm [Accessed 20 December 2016]

The Art Story (n.d.(e)) Jackson Pollock [online]. The Art Story, New York. Available at: http://www.theartstory.org/artist-pollock-jackson.htm [Accessed 20 December 2016]

The Museum of Modern Art (2016) Abstract Expressionism: The Processes and Materials of Abstract Expressionist Painting [online]. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Available at: https://www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/themes/abstract-expressionism/the-processes-and-materials-of-abstract-expressionist-painting [Accessed 20 December 2016]

The Smithsonian Studio Arts Blog (2010) Tips and Techniques: Abstract Expressionist Painting
[blog] [online]. Smithsonian Studio Arts, Washington DC. Available at: http://startstudioarts.si.edu/2010/04/tips-and-techniques-abstract-expressionist-painting.html [Accessed 20 December 2016]

Van Gogh, V. (1889) The Starry Night  [oil on canvas] [online]. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg [Accessed 20 December 2016]

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