The Meaning Of Paint

What gives a painting soul? What makes one painting of a chair just a rendering and another an expression of the artist? Why do I like my painting of this apple but not that one?

Clearly these are ongoing questions that all artists face. Each of us has to discover the answers that resonate in tune with our own sense of life and art. This may sound a little overwhelming, too serious or too esoteric, but actually, you’ve probably already started on this path.

Along with the emotional, gut-reaction to a painting like, “Oh my gosh, I LOVE this!!!” there are actual concrete concepts for helping you make “learned” decisions and choices. (These are really basic, about three years of art history courses wouldn’t hurt lifetime). It may go without saying that the following is my personal bias on the subject. You may (or may not) agree, and you may add some concepts of your own, but hopefully you will begin to see and understand what YOU respond to in art.

Composition:  Even in abstract paintings, composition is important. Think of it as balance. A painting needs balance to stand up to years of scrutiny and to keep singing its song.

Light: I believe that a painting needs a sense of light, even if it says, “I am about an absence of light.” (OK, now if that isn’t an artist talking?) But really...just think of a really dark, depressing Rothko. He was creating a mood with color, or lack thereof in this case, and value; thus a sense of light. Light is much easier to see and understand in realist paintings. Watch for light and how it affects you in a painting.

Color: Actually I think that color may be a subset of light. There are some pretty emotional, gut wrenching paintings with very little color, and mostly value, thus the light thing. But I do know that color hits the emotions faster than just about anything else when looking at a painting.

Value: You guys know all about value by now. (And if you don’t, it’s a topic for another blog!) I’m grouping value under light, for the same reasons as color. After all, what is light but value?

Texture: The longer I look at art, the more I react to oil paintings that “show the paint,” thick, juicy paint. Without a doubt, thousands of paintings express their souls and the hearts of their makers with very thin glazed paint. Vermeer’s work “glows” (that light thing); Rembrandt, Goya, and traditional Masters old and new painted layers upon layers to achieve a rich depth. Both thin-traditional and thick-more-modern layering techniques are an expression of paint and soul.  Which do you respond to more, thick goopy paint, or glazed layers?

Artist Intent: Probably the most important concept of all, the artist must be saying something with his work. This concept is the hardest to critique. The artist’s idea does not have to be political or maudlin. The expression can be something as simple as the quality of the light that day, or a mood, or the curve of a model’s back. As a viewer, however, you will feel it in the work. Ultimately this quality gives the painting soul. A great example of “Artist Intent” could be seen at our classes in October. One exercise required the students to express a mood with their simple paintings of a chair. When they concentrated only on color (eg. a cool chair) the paintings became renderings. When I pushed them to focus on a feeling or mood, the paintings came alive. It was not at all important that the chair was drawn in perfect perspective, the feeling was what counted.

Composition, Light, Texture and Artist Intent...four concepts to stir those creative juices and to get you to understand why Grandma Moses can be the cat’s pajamas, a good Kinkade is only that, and why your own masterpiece is just around the corner.