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Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Painterliness


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 Lazar posed an interesting idea to me a while ago. She compared brushwork to the envelope in 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 Penmanship in 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.

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