What Is a Painting

Paintings present us with images that either represent things, ideas, or events familiar to us or that have no connection to our own experience. In either case, we are often inspired, informed, and given pleasure by what we see. And what is it that we see? Paintings are essentially two-dimensional—an image painted on a flat surface. Most typically the surface is rectangular, and we view it hanging flat against a wall. The three-dimensional volumes of the figure and the deep space of the interior in The Archangel Gabriel by Gerard David (Color Plate 1) are illusions. The effectiveness of these illusions is dependent upon the skill of the painter, for despite the complexities of iconography, narrative, and the attachment of the viewer to the activity being depicted, these are simply images made with paint. In most cases, the paint is somewhat evenly distributed across the surface, reinforcing the two-dimensionality of the painting.

The fact that paintings have a material presence is often overlooked or is not fully appreciated. This is due in part to the profusion of art reproductions that, while providing us with the image, cannot adequately portray the surface or scale of the painting. When we view an actual painting, its material aspect can become very apparent to us. We see the image, and simultaneously we may also acknowledge that it is made with paint. The images in Easter Monday by Willem de Kooning (Color Plate 2) are clearly made of material we associate with paint. The texture of the paint is an integral part of the image. We may see that areas of color overlap one another in some way or that some areas of paint may be thicker than others. The paint may also have different surface characteristics or topography. Some areas may be very smooth and others heavily textured.

The whole surface may be extremely smooth—resembling enamel or glass. In David's Archangel Gabriel (Color Plate 1) we are more aware of the figure in the interior than the surface topography of the paint. We assume that the images are made with paint, but the character of the material is not as evident as the illusionistic texture of fabric, hair, and feathers. The topographical character of the paint—whether smooth, as in the David, or heavily textured in the de Kooning—is crucial to initiating a response from the viewer.

Paint may be manipulated to produce a wide range of reflective qual ities from shiny to matte. These effects are, for the most part, imper-ceivable in reproductions, but are an integral part of the painting and carefully considered by the painter.

Paint, of whatever surface texture or reflective quality, is composed of the same basic components. The component we perceive as color is known as pigment, which is most typically a fine powder of organic or inorganic material. The pigment is dispersed in a liquid, which allows it to be spread out and which binds the individual powder granules together and to the surface to which the paint is applied. This liquid, called the binder, can be one of a number of oils, egg, gum, or a synthetic polymer (acrylic, alkyd). The binder has the characteristic that when it dries it produces a stable paint film. A third component (sometimes absent) is the vehicle, or diluent. The vehicle is compatible with the binder: water with egg, gums, and acrylic polymers; turpentine or petroleum distillate with oils. When mixed with the pigment and binder, the vehicle allows the paint to be spread more easily and makes it a bit more transparent. It may also assist in the drying of the film. In all cases, the vehicle evaporates as the film dries.

The surface upon which the paint is applied is known as the support. It may be flexible material like cotton or linen canvas (stretched over a wooden frame, the stretcher, to give it stability as shown in Figure 1.1), or rigid panels of wood, metal, glass, or plastic. The walls and ceilings of buildings have also served as supports for paintings. Canvas has a distinct texture that in most cases can be easily recognized in the painting. The nature of the support material influences the way we see and interpret the painting. Some materials, such as coarse canvas, impart a softness to the surface, whereas a painting on a wooden or metal panel looks hard and smooth.

The support is first prepared with an application of size. Size is a diluted glue, most typically made from animal skins. The size prevents the binder in the subsequent layers of the painting from being absorbed into the support, thereby weakening the painting. In addition, the size prevents the penetration into the support of binders and vehicles that may have a deleterious effect on the support material. In the case of canvas, size also

Fig. 1.1A,B. Canvas stretched over a wooden "stretcher" frame.

A: the surface that will receive the paint. B: the back of the canvas, showing how the fabric is attached to the stretcher.

Fig. 1.1A,B. Canvas stretched over a wooden "stretcher" frame.

A: the surface that will receive the paint. B: the back of the canvas, showing how the fabric is attached to the stretcher.

Fig. 1.2. The ground layer applied to the canvas.

This coating protects the fabric from the adverse effects of the paint. This view is called a cross section because it cuts across the layers of the painting, perpendicular to the surface view.

Fig. 1.2. The ground layer applied to the canvas.

This coating protects the fabric from the adverse effects of the paint. This view is called a cross section because it cuts across the layers of the painting, perpendicular to the surface view.

shrinks the fabric to a taut, smooth membrane (held, of course, by the stretcher).

A coating, or ground, shown in Figure 1.2, covers the sized support to further protect it from the adverse effects of binders and to block the absorption of the binder into the support. The ground is essentially a paint, made of materials compatible with the support material and the paint to be used over it. Gesso—a mixture of animal glue, chalk (calcium carbonate), and at times a white pigment—has been used for centuries as a ground for both wooden panels and canvas. The most common ground preparation used today is a gesso containing a binder of acrylic polymer, which replaces the animal skin glue used in traditional gesso. Traditional gesso grounds produce a white, opaque surface. In addition to its protective function, the ground also acts as a reflective surface beneath the paint film.

The illustration of a painting shown in Figure 1.3 is known as a cross section, which depicts the layers of a painting as seen from its edge, per-

Incident light Reflected light

Fig. 1.3. Light passing through a layer of paint and reflected by the ground layer.

Not all paint films allow light to pass to the ground, and the amount of light reflected is dependent upon the characteristics of the pigment and binder components of the paint.

Incident light Reflected light

Ground Canvas

Fig. 1.3. Light passing through a layer of paint and reflected by the ground layer.

Not all paint films allow light to pass to the ground, and the amount of light reflected is dependent upon the characteristics of the pigment and binder components of the paint.

Ground Canvas pendicular to the normal surface view. This view allows us to understand, in this case, how light interacts with the painting. As we will see in discussing the optical properties of paint films, light passes into the film and may penetrate as far as the ground. If the light is reflected back by the dense white surface, we will perceive luminosity in the painting, a quality cherished by many painters. Some grounds are not white, however. The painter may decide to add certain colors to the ground mixture to act as a base for overlaying colors. A cool tone (blue-gray or green) sometimes underlies the warm colors of flesh. A brilliant white ground may well impart desirable characteristics to the paint film, but to many painters it is a disturbing surface to face when starting a painting. A thin layer of color called an imprimatura may be applied over the ground to act in a way similar to a toned ground, and may also serve to seal a somewhat absorbent gesso. Painters sometimes find these colors useful as the painting develops. Areas of either toned ground or imprimatura may be visible in a finished painting.

The painting may be coated after completion with a thin layer of varnish. The varnish is a transparent liquid material that performs two primary functions: It protects the paint film from abrasions, pollutants in the atmosphere, moisture, and dirt, and it can alter the reflective characteristics of the paint. The painter may find that certain colors have dried matte while others have dried glossy. If the desired effect is a glossy surface, the application of a gloss varnish will make all colors uniformly glossy.

Figure 1.4 illustrates how these components of a painting fit together. Most paintings seen in cross section will resemble this drawing. The particular construction in Figure 1.4 has served the needs of many painters in the history of Western painting; however, there exist many variations on the theme. In an effort to satisfy the demands of the imagination, artists have experimented with many nontradi-tional painting materials and with methods that often stretch both traditional and nontradi-tional materials to the limit (and sometimes perhaps regrettably beyond the limit) of

Fig. 1.4A,B,C,D. A typical painting in exploded view. Overlaying the canvas (A) is a layer of ground (B), followed by areas of paint (C). Covering the various applications of paint is a layer of translucent glaze or transparent varnish (D).

their abilities to produce a stable, perceivable object. Woman with Hat (1916) by Alexander Archipenko (Color Plate 3) is a very successful example of the use of traditional materials applied in nontraditional ways. It has a rather complex support made of wood, metal, papier-mache, and gauze. The image is made partly in relief and then painted. Experimentation is an innate part of the painting process and will manifest itself in more or less subtle ways.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Freehand Sketching An Introduction

Freehand Sketching An Introduction

Learn to sketch by working through these quick, simple lessons. This Learn to Sketch course will help you learn to draw what you see and develop your skills.

Get My Free Ebook


Post a comment