Monday, December 14, 2009

Ask Stape, Dec.14

Dear Stape: Subject after subject matter has already been handled by the great historic painters. So it seems to me that it becomes more difficult to establish one's reputation on subject matter (or the subject or the narrative or the picture) alone. I think that paint handling alone does not make the painting art. In the end, though, isn't it their paint handling that distinguishes one artist from one another especially if they capturing the same subject or image, say something like Mt. Washington.No?

signed; Loratadine

Dear Lora;

How many times haves I asked myself;


There is a difference between meaning and the appearance of meaning. They are also not equal. Appearing smart is not the same as being smart either. Routinely we see young painters juxtaposing bizarre objects or dumping stinking offal on the floor of a gallery or mutilating various body parts attached to themselves or others, in the hope of baffling us into thinking how cerebral they are.
Those are examples of artists using "wild" subject matter to draw attention to themselves and their paintings. We have now had fifty years of this though, and there is so much outragous subject matter out in the art galleries that most of these attempts get lost in the crowd. Paintings by and large are more about HOW they are a picture of, than WHAT they are a picture of. Rembrandt could make a fabulous picture out of a sleeping pig. I think that trying to distinguish oneself with outrageous subject matter is a losing game and ultimately will strap you to a gimmick that will get real old.

The best subject matter is something about which you are passionate. I hate boats (they sink), but if you are excited about sailing, paint boats. Your enthusiasm may shine through your art. I happen to love being out in and recording the beauty of the landscape. There isn't too much out there that hasn't been painted before.

As you said, paint handling is a way that artists can distinguish themselves from another. It is a nicety unique to painting. Below is a painting that is full of handling, an Edward Potthast.

The brushwork of the artist creates the picture in the way the words of an author describe a scene in a novel. A great novelist may use one set of words, a lesser novelist another. But handling can make a painting into art, just as a well written passage may transform a mundane narrative into great writing. Think of the the descriptions of people and places in a Dickens novel. Handling is part of the artists decision making about what the painting is going to look like. A painting is about what it looks like.


There are great painters who did not use visible handling. Ingres would be an example of that. Here is an Ingres ;

Ingres intention here is to have a clarity and perfection . He has created a cool stillness and expressed the rounded volumes of his subject. Sometimes Ingres figures take on a tubular or ballooned look when he takes this too far. Ingres might have agreed with the statement that there is "no handling in nature". Below is a Sargent head;

In this rapid portrait of Vernon Lee, Sargent uses a visible brushstroke to create the facets or planes of the head. That gives almost the opposite effect than did the Ingres. There is an informality, an exciting immediacy and a boldly stated structure that is really the subject, as much as the person sitting next to the canvas to be painted. This isn't so much a portrait of Vernon Lee as it is a John Sargent portrait. I don't know that I can find this fault in Sargent because he was such a fine academically trained draftsman, but when this method is poorly applied, the result is a sloppy, poorly thought out trick, with more velocity than description, more flash than integrity.

So you will have to decide which way YOUR temperament leads you. I am very interested in brushwork and form created by visible paint handling , but I am not a super loose painter. You may want to lay down enameled surfaces of infinitesimally subtle and graduated tones passing across marble still forms like the silent progress of dawns cold light across the pale cheek of an anesthetized virgin. Your call, babe.

images from


Stapleton Kearns said...

Unbelievable! I'm blogging about anesthetized virgins and the lines aren't lighting up? What do I have to do to be provocative?

1A said...

This is the best, funniest blog of all time. I've said it before.----Renee Larson

Judy P. said...

The provocateur in you was overshadowed by your wise counsel, to aim for the true value of a painting vs. the contrived appearance of significance. Plus the beautiful examples you have shown are breathtaking; maybe that's why it's quiet so far!

Philip Koch said...

The white collars on the Sargent portrait are great, the Potthast is I think one his best, and that Ingres fellow might just be famous one day.

willek said...

I have thought about this a lot. I think painting is about communication and connection. ALL that the painting is should be about what is to be communicated and to whom the connection is to be made. So different strokes, media, colors, applicators... might be needed for different folks, for different ideas for different audiences for different subjects. I just wish I could do it all.

Unknown said...

Oh, I thought you were referring to my duct taped private detective.

There is of course, some very excellent information in this post.
Paint handling... ah.. I think that is what separates the virgins from the Real Housewives.

Off topic: will you post a materials list for the snow camp?

Linda Crank said...

I noticed that you said, "We have now had fifty tears of this [outrageous 'artistic' behavior]" - a classic Freudian slip...

James Gunter said...

If I can stop laughing long enough, I want to say I'm glad I found this blog. I'm in the process of reading through all your archived posts and find them useful and encouraging. Every day (or as often as I can) I'm eager to go out and try to apply what I learn here - I mean about painting, not anesthetizing anyone!

Quote: "I hate boats (they sink)"

Sounds like you might have some personal experience with sinking boats. Any stories? said...

I just love to provoke a good discussion. Nicely handled and all well said. Thanks. And I think you are so right..paint your passion.

Will, art is about communicating that passion, whether it be a dead snipe or an onion or a snowy moon lit evening. The trouble with a lot of art students and their lumps of meat is that they don't feel passionately enough about their lump. You can just tell.

Robert J. Simone said...

A painting of a sunken boat may also be called a seascape...what's not to love?!

The discussions begs the question, "What is Art?". Art is the soulful expression of feelings about our subject mixed with with a certain proportion of reason. It is decorative yet decoration is not it's sole aim.

"A work of art possesses a calm dignity that waits quietly to enthrall the eye and soul", says John F. Carlson, "It does not scream out, nor hide behind cryptic or esoteric symbols". said...

Hmm..I don't think anyone wants to ask THAT question. Cause,isn't art like pornography - you know it when you see it? BUT I think we can talk about what makes a painting artfully made. Maybe.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks. I am pleased you think so.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Judy P.
Thank you, actually that's about the ratio I want to hit. The faint hearted among us will want to split, but the information will be good enough to keep them.

Stapleton Kearns said...

It is nice to have access to such good art at the click of a mouse. The internet has its moments doesn't it.

Stapleton Kearns said...

You've got to make you own kind of music, sing your own special song....

Stapleton Kearns said...


Yes I will post the snow camp materials and costume list.Thanks for the reminder.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Freud himself has slipped.Notice how you rarely hear his name invoked much these days, He and Marx are toasting marshmellows in hell. I corrected that spelling though.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks . I have never been on a boat that sank, but they do, you can look it up!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Passion is good, lumps are deplorable.

Stapleton Kearns said...

That's a good quote. Art is what I do.

Stapleton Kearns said...

is pornography like art? If a=b then etc.
I still like the old modernist quote, art is what the artist does.

innisart said...


Ha! That reminded me of college! One professor I had always suggested in his critiques that my painting would look better if I "put an alligator in it."

Stapleton Kearns said...


Ive got a stencil for those, up to forty feet.

Deborah Paris said...

Costume list? Maybe I could come for that part..... and I LOVE the visual of Freud and Marx toasting marshmellows in hell!