Analyzing your own work

Where do you fall in each of these scales? Where do you want to be?

The Calling of Saint Matthew, 1599–1600, by Caravaggio, courtesy Contarelli Chapel, Rome. This model of Baroque painting has an open structure, lighting unity and relative clarity.

I have written about painterliness here, and here. It’s an important concept in contemporary art that was first coined by the art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. He was trying to create an objective system for classifying styles of art in an age of raging Expressionism.  

Wölfflin was primarily concerned with the stylistic changes from the Classical to Baroque periods, but he was the first art historian to analyze paintings based on their internal, intrinsic values rather than just their place in social history. It’s too bad that his writing is so ponderous, because his pairs are useful tools for us to analyze our own work. Where do you fall in each of these scales? Where do you want to be? Remember, there’s no right or wrong answer, because each of these ideas has gone in and out of style many times in the history of painting.

Portrait of a Young Man with a Book, c 1540, Bronzino, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a linear, rather than painterly, painting. That doesn’t make it any less brilliant.

Linearity vs. painterliness:

Linear paintings have clearly defined, distinct shapes. Painterly paintings blur edges and forms to create a more unified surface.

La danse (first version), 1909, Henri Matisse, courtesy of MoMA, is a single-plane painting.

Plane vs. recession:

This is the contrast between a painting that operates with a simple foreground-background (like Mona Lisa, for example) and one with multiple planes coming together to create a form.

Nymphs and Satyr, 1873, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, courtesy Clark Art Institute, is a multiple-plane painting of the same subject. 

Closed vs. open:

Closed paintings are constructed using a structure of horizontal and vertical lines that contain them within the frame. Open paintings use diagonals, giving the feeling that there is an image continuing beyond the frame.

Annunciation, c. 1470, Benvenuto di Giovanni, is an example of clarity in lighting and a multiplicity of objects. Compare it to the Caravaggio above to see the amazing stylistic leap made in a century in Italian painting.

Multiplicity and unity:

Before the Baroque, paintings focused on detail. Individual items stood out independently, giving a sense of multiplicity. A united painting focuses on the whole and gives the sense of flow and motion. Unified light is a key element in making this possible.

Absolute vs. relative clarity:

In absolute paintings, the viewer can see everything that’s happening in the painting, and the subject is usually front-and-center. The light is even. In a relative structure, deep shadows draw and define our focus, which is unified across the whole painting.

Note: I have one opening in my Monday night class starting March 1. Additional information is here. If you’re interested, please let me know. 


Your brushwork is your handwriting, and that develops with practice.
Tom Sawyer’s Fence, by Carol L. Douglas.
The idea of painterliness was developed by Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin in his Principles of Art History (1915). In it, he contrasts painterliness with linearity. Wölfflin was primarily concerned with defining classic and baroque art, but the terms can be applied to any period and any media.
To Wölfflin, linearity was a focus on draftsmanship, contour, and fixed boundaries. Painterliness included tactile brushwork, non-local color in shadow, and patterns of shadow and light. The painterly artist used these things, instead of edges, to define shapes.
Best Buds, by Carol L. Douglas. Courtesy Trove on Main.
Today we have reduced his thesis to one point: a painting is painterly when there are visible, uncontrolled brushstrokes. By our lights, Lois Dodd is painterly; Rackstraw Downes is linear. That’s a gross oversimplification.
What are brushstrokes? They are so well-understood by non-artists that they’re used as metaphor (“broad brushstrokes”). Yet brushwork is highly individual and difficult to teach. Still, there are rules that painting teachers lay down about them, such as “when you’re Pierre Bonnard, you can dab; until then, it looks amateurish.”
Bracken Fern, by Carol L. Douglas
I have never liked my own brushwork. I recently decided that I’ve intentionally smoothed it over because it’s embarrassingly self-revelatory. This summer I stopped overpainting, and suddenly people have been telling me I’ve made a breakthrough.
A bad solution to brushwork insecurity is to become extremely stylized, especially in the manner of someone you admire. This is instantly appealing to uneducated audiences, so it’s a popular idea. It’s also a stifling trap. Far better to take the time to let your own brushwork emerge naturally.
Dry Wash, by Carol L. Douglas
Deborah Lazarposed an interesting idea to me a while ago. She compared brushwork to the envelopein musical sound. This has three parts. Attack is the changes occurring before the sound reaches its steady state. Sustain is the sound at its maximum intensity, and decay is how it fades to silence. Together, they create the distinctive tone color of a sound.
As painters get more experienced, they’re able to control the attack and decay better and hold the sustain longer. That, by the way, is one powerful reason to use a bigger brush. It holds more paint.
Spring thaw on the Pecos River, by Carol L. Douglas
Unlike the violinist, the painter has many brushes. Each has a different envelope. That’s why painting teachers generally don’t dictate what brushes students should use, any more than we teach the Palmer Method of Penmanshipin school today. We teach you how to make the shapes, and it’s up to you to develop fluency.
It takes most kids the better part of a decade to learn to write beautifully. The more you practice, the more fluid your brushwork will be, but if you don’t cut corners, it will be unmistakably your own.

Monday Morning Art School: how to be painterly

Bravura brushwork rests on a foundation of practice and skill.
Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, Vincent Van Gogh, courtesy Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
“Painterly” describes a painting that is comfortable in its own skin. It uses the paint itself to create movement and expression. It’s a quality found in every medium; even sculpture is sometimes described as painterly. Painterly works are loose and emotive, and they lead with their brushwork.
This is a sensual, rather than intellectual, quality. It comes from experiencing the paint itself. You’re there when you no longer fight the paint, but work with it. It’s the opposite of photorealism, where the artist works hard to conceal all evidence of his process. A painterly painting doesn’t fuss over the details.
Does that mean it must be impasto? No. Peter Paul Rubens, JMW Turner and Joaquín Sorolla were all painterly painters, and none of them wallowed in paint. There are many fine contemporary painters who work thin and expressively.
Cloud study, watercolor over graphite, 1830–35, John Constable, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We don’t usually think of Constable as painterly, but he was in his plein air work.
The term “painterly” was coined in the 20th century by art historian Heinrich Wölfflin. He was trying to create an objective system for classifying styles of art in an age of raging Expressionism. The opposite of painterly, he felt, was “linear,” by which he meant paintings that relied on the illusion of three-dimensional space. To him this meant using skillful drawing, shading, and carefully-thought-out color. Linear was academic, and painterly meant impulsive.
That didn’t make the Old Masters inevitably linear, however. Rembrandt and Lucian Freud are both painterly painters. Richard Estesand Sandro Botticelliare both linear.
Today, we don’t see accurate drawing as an impediment to expression. In plein air work, acute drawing is often overlaid with expressive brushwork. The idea of painterliness—of being loose and self-assured—is treasured even as we strive for accuracy.
House in Rueil, 1882, Édouard Manet, courtesy National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
How do we develop painterliness?
First, master the fundamentals. “You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way,” said basketball great Michael Jordan. “Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise,” he said. That’s very true of painting, where there is a specific protocol for putting paint down.
Then practice, practice, practice. “I’m not out there sweating for three hours every day just to find out what it feels like to sweat,” said Jordan.
Expect failure. It comes with pushing your technique. “I have missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I have lost almost 300 games,” said Jordan. “On 26 occasions I have been entrusted to take the game winning shot… and missed. And I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Beach at Valencia, 1908, Joaquín Sorolla, courtesy Christie’s
You can’t teach yourself to be relaxed; you can only get there through experience. The only way to be painterly is to paint. I can show you expressive brushwork techniques, but there are still no shortcuts. It happens automatically and naturally with experience. You stop focusing on the mechanics, and start focusing on what you see. Your eye is on the ball.
Many times, artists only realize their painterly styles in old age. That is when Titianstarted painting in blotches, in a style that came to be known as spezzatura, or fragmenting. “They cannot be looked at up close but from a distance they appear perfect,” wrotethe Renaissance art critic Giorgio Vasari. Rembrandt is another painter who started out painting precisely but ended up loose. Édouard Manet is still another. In fact, the list is inexhaustible.
Vincent Van Gogh is the personification of painterliness. He died at 37, but still managed to produce around a thousand paintings (that we know of).
Bravura brushwork simply rests on the foundation of all those paintings that went before.
I’m at Saranac Lake, prepping for Adirondack Plein Air, which starts this morning. I wrote Extreme Art: Painting inside the Blue Line just for this event. It’s not on my blog, so if you’ve ever been interested in what goes on at a plein air event, enjoy.