I recently took an unsold painting out of its frame so that I could reuse the metal leaf frame, and as I studied the oil landscape I realized why it wasn’t successful. The surface of the canvas was uniformly thin and flat, and there was nothing about the paint application to suggest the deep space and atmosphere I wanted to represent. I didn’t vary the thickness of the paint or the brushwork, and the finished painting failed to create the illusion of a real place and time.
I thought about watercolor, pastel, acrylic, and oil paintings I admire and realized that all of them expressed their subject matter through the physical differences in the opacity, brushwork, layers of color, or texture of the paint. The great watercolor paintings glowed where the paint was transparent, especially when those light passages contrasted with surrounding layers of semiopaque colors. As for the memorable pastel paintings, I thought about the warm underpainting below the gestured strokes of cool colors on top. And the thick, textured applications of oil colors conveyed the illusion of space while documenting the movement of the artist’s hand.
Abstract painters talk about the integrity of the picture plane, by which they mean that paint has an important physical quality apart from its ability to suggest the illusion of space, flesh, movement, or time. The abstractionist may think that creating that illusion somehow diminishes the integrity of the paint, but representational artists know that paint quality and illusion are qualities that can work together to convey thoughts and emotions. The more artists understand how to manage colors, values, shapes, brushwork, and compositions, the greater the content of their pictures.
I was reminded of all this during recent interviews with Ben Fenske and Marc Dalessio, two American artists who live in Italy but often visit family and friends in the United States. Dalessio, who will be profiled in the December 2009 issue of American Artist, showed me a small portrait he created of Laura Grenning (www.grenninggallery.com), the gallery owner who presented an exhibition of his work in Sag Harbor, New York. He pointed out that the painting was more successful after he scraped most of the oil color off the surface of the panel. “Whistler and Sargent used to do that quite often because they knew the stain left after scraping off paint can be richer and more intriguing than thick applications of oil color,” Delassio explained. Fenske showed me one of his large landscapes in which he allowed the strokes of oil color to remain independent of each other. “I like the kind of vibration that happens on the painting surface when I avoid blending all the colors together,” he explained.
I’d be interested in knowing how you adjust the application of watercolors, pastels, acrylics, or oils so that the medium supports your intentions in creating a painting.