Sunday, August 8, 2010

Looking at paintings

Alfred Stevens , courtesy

This is a continuation of a theme I began last night.

1) I will stand in front of the painting and look at it as an abstract, as "only an arrangement of lines and colors that set one another off".
2) Then I tend to think about what time in history this thing was painted.
3) I look at how the thing was made. Ives Gammell, my first mentor once told us to "jerk out the drawers and see if it is well made!"


I appraise its worksmanship, this would be all of the decisions that the artist made. I include in this, design, drawing, color, and surface. Pictures must be crafted into existence, just having an idea for a painting won't put it on to the canvas. That crafting is as much or more a part of the art than its subject. So I examine that craftsmanship carefully.
  • Is the drawing convincing (that is a different thing than accurate) does the design intrigue me?
  • Do the colors relate to one another in an interesting, exciting, moving or unexpected way? Is there light in the painting?
  • Does the painting "hang" together or is it several paintings on the same canvas jostling for my attention? Does anything jump out and bother me?
  • Is there paint handling, and if so is it interesting?
  • Do I see brushwork, is it expressive of the form of the subject. Is that handling fluid, beautiful, assured and eloquent?
  • How was the painting built, is it on a brown ground with glazes, or is it straight paint in an impressionist manner?
  • Is it ambitious, a tour de force, or is it a little gem? Does it thrill me with its refinement or is it full of meaningless detail that is complicated but not interesting?
  • Is the worksmanship overbearing, is there more flash than substance? Every pictures' worksmanship says something, sometimes only "look what a clever guy I am!".
  • Is it loose or tight painting? Both are good, this is not a question of valuing one over the other, however, each type has it's successes and failures. A loose painting can be merely sloppy and poorly drawn, or a tight painting can be matter of fact and uninteresting, less than the sum of its parts.
  • Are there exciting technical moves in the painting? Was part of it done with a knife, is that dogs' tail really just one broad stroke, is the girls' gown that appears so complex and detailed, merely a magical slashing assemblage of brushstrokes that assemble at viewing distance? In other words, am I intrigued or fascinated by the application of the paint? Rembrandt has lots of this, so does Sargent. When this type of painting is weak it is just flashy, and the brushwork is more overbearing that descriptive.
  • Or does the painting have an enameled perfection like a Bouguereau or an Ingres, this kind of painting can be awe inspiring too. When this goes wrong, it is slick looking or too photographic in its appearance.
  • If the painting is supposed to have depth or distance, does that work? If it is deliberately flattened like a mural, does it form beautiful decorative patterns?
  • Is the painting full of interesting shapes of great variety?
  • Does the color look clean, or glowing, is it light and ethereal? Is it luminous or dead? What do I think about the color?
  • When I like a painting I always find myself wanting to go home and make one using the same ideas that impressed me when I saw it. If I feel that way. I know it has "touched" me.
I could go on here, but I think you get the idea. I look at the painting like a painter and converse with it in the language of painting. Tomorrow I will continue with this post and talk about the things that art historians and docents like to point out. You may think all of this too coldly analytical, but tomorrow I will talk about the more expected manner of looking at paint on canvas.


Chris said...

Thanks again for your generous words.

I like how you keep presenting YOUR BIG IDEAS (ALL CAPS SO I NOTICE THEM!). You keep coming back to them from different viewpoints, a great teaching style I think. I don't have much opportunity to view great works in person, but hopefully when I do I'll remember your thoughts and make the most of my time with them.

barbara b. land of boz said...

You really have a way with words Stape,(ever thought of writing a book)? ;~}
I suppose it's not too early to say Happy Birthday!!
The last of the grandkids have left for home and Don and I leave for San Deigo Ca. on monday. Playing catch-up with you once more. Thank You for your time spent in the world of teaching. You wear it well....

Philip Koch said...

Great list! I like the idea of a painting having to be crafted into existence.

What an irony, that a painting ultimately can express deep emotion and spirit, yet its creation comes from hundreds of little practical decisions.

Mary Byrom said...

Great recent series of posts Stapleton. I love this list ! Painting is 3/4 mental , 1/4 physical? The more you think about what(& why) you are doing the better your paintings are...these pieces are not just bursts of "inspiration". I think it was Richard Schmid who on one occasion said "if you can see it finished in your mind before you paint it..."

Anonymous said...

Hi Stape,
These points are a great way of looking at my own completed work, to guide me in the direction where I need to explore, study, improve.
Great post! Thanks! Terry

D. Malcolm said...


I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog, but would love for you to discuss some contemporary artists that excite you and why?

Judy P. said...

I've gotten into the habit of running up to the 3rd floor of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where there's an impressive variety of paintings to easily study when I have a random 30 minutes to kill. You mention craftmanship and workmanship- Place Saint-Augustin, by Jean Edouard Vuillard is there, and it puzzles the poor art student in me.
I love it, but it's a mess- scrapey looking brushwork,rubbed out parts, lines of buildings that really should be straighter. It's big, at 60X76, and made with aqueous paste on brown paper, which probably explains why it looks like it does. The center distant building has wrought iron balconies that you can see close up is just a scribble, kind of a sloppy one at that. But the sense of place and light and color are so terrific, it probably wouldn't be any more successful painted 'correctly'- would you agree? I suppose it's because Vuillard knew all the 'rules', then could break them.
Then at the next wall I see that Degas painted his Hortense oil on mattress ticking- it still looks sharp. Makes you not worry so much about the proper 'how-to's', but more the 'what do I want to say?'.
Thanks Stape.

Bill said...

Judy's comment makes a case for repeated looking at particular paintings if you can have that opportunity. Sometimes something you didn't think you liked at first will grow on you, other times something you loved at first becomes less interesting over time. I find the former situation more common.