Choices

What we see when we look at a painting—the image and our belief in it—is the result of choices in painting media, physical components, and the methods employed prior to and during the painting process. To a great extent, the number of choices, the way they are made, and the sequence in which they are used are influenced by the environment of the artist. Availability of materials, training, common practice, the demand of imagery, scale, and placement of the completed painting all influence these choices. We certainly cannot discount skill and invention as contributing factors in the making of the object, for they guide the use of materials, and, when the artist is truly inspired, allow us to be transported into the life of the painting.

The choices made to satisfy the particular requirements of one painting may well provide the viewer with a distinctly different sensory experience from a painting requiring different choices. In the late 1520s, the Florentine artist Jacopo Pontormo painted the Deposition altarpiece and Annunciation (Color Plates 4 and 5) for the Capponi Chapel in S. Felicita, Florence. The altarpiece is painted in oil on a panel and has a glossy, luminous, rich surface. The colors are very intense and range from very light to very dark. On an adjoining wall in the small chapel is the Annunciation, a fresco painting much different in character. Fresco is a method of painting on a wall while the plaster of the wall is still damp, or "fresh," as described in Section 2.2. Part of the difference between the paintings can be attributed to the effects of nature and time on the fresco, but there is also a significant visual difference resulting from the unique method used in fresco. The method is determined in large part by the nature of the materials. Fresco also has a much drier, less reflective, and somewhat matte surface. In addition, one cannot overlook the fact that the images are a part of the wall. The Deposition is painted on a panel and is separated from the architecture of the chapel by an ornate frame. The panel support does not assert itself, so we are led through the frame into the space of the painting as through a window. The space is crowded with figures, and there is very little to indicate the particular environment they occupy. We are transported from the world of the chapel into the world of the painting. By contrast, the angel and Virgin of the An nunciation are part of the architecture that surrounds the viewer. These figures are close to us; we see them as a part of our space. They are intimately integrated into the space of the chapel, flanking a window—a real window, across which the communication between them takes place, and which operates as a source of light for the chapel.

The life of the painting itself is as dependent upon these choices as the image. Albert Pinkham Ryder, a much admired American painter (1847-1917), produced paintings that are often mysterious, full of large swirling forms depicting strange landscapes or seascapes (Figure 1.5).

Metropolitan Museum Figure Drawings

Fig. 1.5. Moonlight Marine by Albert Pinkham Ryder, late 1890s, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Oil on canvas, 11 1/2" X 12".

Cracks can be clearly seen throughout the surface of Ryder's painting. His unorthodox technique and choice of materials contributed to their presence. Although the cracks indicate a faulty and often delicate paint film, they somehow do not interfere with the appreciation of the painting. In fact, because of the prevalence of such cracking in his paintings, we have grown to expect them. A Ryder painting without cracks would be very surprising.

Fig. 1.5. Moonlight Marine by Albert Pinkham Ryder, late 1890s, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Oil on canvas, 11 1/2" X 12".

Cracks can be clearly seen throughout the surface of Ryder's painting. His unorthodox technique and choice of materials contributed to their presence. Although the cracks indicate a faulty and often delicate paint film, they somehow do not interfere with the appreciation of the painting. In fact, because of the prevalence of such cracking in his paintings, we have grown to expect them. A Ryder painting without cracks would be very surprising.

Many of the paintings are relatively small, and because of the scale, the texture and character of the surface are very evident when we view them either in a museum or in reproduction. Typically, passing across those painted large forms is a network of cracks. More than likely, the thickness of the paint, the materials used, and the process employed in building the layers of paint all contributed to the cracking. To the viewer the pattern of cracks seems to relate to the images; it is difficult to think of Ryder's paintings without them. But it is unfortunate at the same time that the unique qualities that make Ryder's paintings so compelling (the rich multilayer glazes, for example) also make them extremely fragile.

Painters over the centuries have been very attentive to the demands of particular materials. Methods of work have been developed to accommodate the characteristics of the materials used. If a pigment has proved to be unsatisfactory, it is either abandoned or used with a binding medium that allows it to remain stable. Often paintings incorporate more than one binding medium because the artist needs to use a range of pigments, some compatible with one binder, others compatible with a different binder. Likewise, the effects resulting from the use of one medium might be desired in one area of a painting, while the effects generated by the use of another medium are felt to be more appropriate for another part of the image.

The determination of what materials are suitable for a given situation, or indeed, what are suitable for the making of paintings in the first place, is often made through the study of the work of past masters. The methods of working and the application of a wide variety of materials to the process have been well documented. However, the innovations of painters of the past often fail to meet the demands of an artist's imagination.

Many artists have adopted materials designed for industrial applications. This has at times proved problematic, given the instability or impermanence of many synthetic materials, but it has also provided the artist with an ever-expanding source of permanent and easy-to-use materials. Well-established practices must frequently be modified, and unconventional materials or traditional materials used in unconventional ways may be called for. Experimentation of this sort is an integral part of the painting process and has advanced the craft steadily throughout its history. These investigations may also have the effect of liberating the artist's imagination. Some ideas lie dormant, waiting for the appropriate material to give them life.

Freehand Sketching An Introduction

Freehand Sketching An Introduction

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