When I am deeply involved with painting my concerns are less with picture making than with unity: Color harmony, composition, and brushstrokes must work toward one end. Oil paint is such an engaging medium, so very sensory. I mix the paint to just the right consistency for the mark I want to make, and load the paint just so on the brush. When the brush contacts the canvas the paint can be stretched out or left textured, laid on top of another stroke, mashed in, or scraped off.
It can’t be taught, this choreography between artist and brush. It evolves, a range of marks that are unique to each artist, just as your handwriting is unique and evolves with your age and health.
I am grateful for the subconscious workings of my mind. It is there that most of these choices are made quickly and appropriately. Having studied for years what makes good brushwork, I no longer think much about it while I paint. But I am always aware.
Last winter, I took a workshop from Thomas Kitts. His mantra was, “No cat-licks!” When I used to teach, mine was, “This isn’t house-painting!” Every brushstroke on the canvas must be intuitive, teasing or bludgeoning an image out of that blinding white fog. Rembrandt mastered this. There are no cat-licks or house-painting strokes beneath his glazes.
I don’t remember being encouraged to explore brushwork at university: The brush was treated as a means to an end, and there was little or no discussion about the contribution of brushwork to the finished painting. Can it—should it—be taught? As long as brushwork is not taught in a formulaic way, I think student painters would benefit hugely by intentionally exploring and expanding their own brushwork in addition to studying that of the masters.
The brushwork an artist uses in a given painting is an inimitable part of the work. It expresses the psyche of the artist. Consider Van Gogh’s sometimes obsessive and sometimes uncontrolled brushstrokes, or Diebenkorn’s hard geometric compositions and airy brushwork. What would be lost had the artists applied their paint in a completely different way? What if they had cat-licked or house-painted?
Where does that leave the invisible brushstroke of a satin-smooth finish? Here, control of the paint is more important than the expressive capability of the brushstroke. Yet in minimizing the brushstroke, the painting is no less expressive. You have to understand, the brush strokes are still there!
Robert Henri (1865-1929 American) said, “Painting should be done from the floor up, not from the seat of a chair.” He is right. The calligraphy of the brush is not generated by a wrist action, as when you are writing. It takes the whole arm, the shoulder and spine, hips and legs. The bigger the painting, the more enthusiastically the artist has to use his entire body in making good brushwork.
When you are in the presence of a great painting look at the brushstrokes throughout. Notice the swirls, squiggles, slashes, dots, jabs and whispers. Look beneath the various layers. Ask yourself what all that variety contributes to just one painting. Then, compare it to a painting by another artist who, by applying paint differently, brings you to an entirely different conclusion.
Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community (VMRC) has accepted "Evening" into their Eighth Annual Exhibition. They had 532 entries from across the country, and accepted 103.
VMRC Eighth Annual Juried Exhibition
May 29-June 30, 2011
10am-7pm Monday through Friday
1-4pm Saturday and Sunday
PARK GABLES GALLERY (VMRC)
1491 Virginia Ave
Harrisonburg, VA 22802
(540) 564-3400 www.vmrc.org
Evening (5x7" oil on panel) was painted in southern California, inspired by the San Jacinto Wildlife Area. We went there often for walking and bird watching. Inquiries about this painting can be made through VMRC.