Hand & eye

Why can’t you be (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I persist with Deleuze because, like me, he cannot let go of the physical, sensuous nature of painting, the way the body permeates painting, invigorates it, enlivens it. Should we think of painting as a process, says Deleuze (2003: 160), it is one of a ‘continual injection of the manual … into the visual,’ and this claim stresses that painting is both active and bodily, even though it belongs to the visual domain. Painting thus offers us an unexpected opportunity to extend our idea of the visual, precisely because it exists in the overlap of hand and eye. Deleuze (2003: 161) suggests it might help us overcome the duality of the optical versus the tactile. Painting that is haptic subordinates neither hand nor eye, but through it ‘sight discovers in itself a specific function of touch that is uniquely its own’ (Deleuze, 2003: 155).

The hand, argues Deleuze (2003: 154-5), can surface in painting in different ways. It might be completely subordinated to the eye and hence merely a limp tool of an ‘ ‘ideal’ optical space’ (Deleuze, 2003: 154). In this case, ‘the hand,’ he (Deleuze, 2003: 154) forebodingly pronounces, ‘is reduced to the finger.’ This makes it, naturally, digital, which carries some lingering echo of Goodman (1976: 121; 160), no less for linking the discrete, pulsing, on-off series of digits with a code. Optical space proceeds by way of cerebral systems that make sense of and organise forms by way of an ‘optical code.’ But there is an optical space which incorporates some manual qualities such as depth, contour and relief, and we could call this a tactile breed of the predominantly optical space (Deleuze, 2003: 155). But when the hand takes precedent, in a frenzy of unthinking action, we are confronted with the manual. Form is obliterated and the eye is ravaged by roaming, nonsensical marks (Deleuze, 2003: 155).

Abstraction takes the intellectual high-road and develops an optical space that stills the quivering hand as much as possible; abstract expressionism, at the opposite extreme, aims for pure, sensuous but senseless physicality (Deleuze, 2003: 103, 104). And then there is Francis Bacon. Indeed, what should we call these pockets of directed fury, these tangled ferments of wildness carefully hemmed in by neatly landscaped contours? For Bacon, the code remains in the brain and fails to electrify us, it fails to directly jolt our nervous system because it is devoid of sensation. But the purely sensual is desperately confused. Bacon represents a third way, argues Deleuze (2003: 108-110), a way that pumps the volatile manual into the stable visual, but in controlled doses. Bacon’s formula, he (Deleuze, 2003: 98) continually reminds us, is to ‘create resemblance, but through accidental and nonresembling means.’

This appeal to accident can be troubling, but it is precisely here that the manual enters. Two important things surface here: that the artist never confronts an empty  canvas, and that her intentions are inevitably thwarted by the wilfulness of the paint. Deleuze (2003: 86; 93) explains Bacon’s reliance on chance as a method of wrestling with the ‘givens’ in the canvas—which can encompass everything from figurative conventions, the schema of photography, personal predilections and habits, and even the prescribed limits and centre of the familiar quadrilateral canvas, the parts of whose surface are thus not equally ‘probable’ before the poised brush. Artists are well aware of this invisible weight, they know that the unmarked surface is laden with preconceptions. Certainly, many dutifully slather paint into their well-worn grooves; the task of an alert painter is to find a new way out of the canvas, to create something, in the rawest sense of the word. Deleuze—creator of concepts—calls the improbable creation the ‘Figure’ (Deleuze, 2003: 94), and wants to see the painter extract it out of the low drone of clichés.

Bacon’s (seemingly misunderstood) way, as elucidated by Deleuze (2003: 156), is to seize upon chance. The method is simple: Start with the figurative form, with the intention to represent some particular thing or person, and thwart the representation by permitting the hand to become possessed. The chaos of the manual is invoked but carefully contained within the contours of the form; chance is permitted to wreak havoc in a designated zone. Deleuze—creator of concepts—calls this feverish scrambling the ‘diagram’ (Deleuze, 2003: 99). The diagram is whatever the demon-hand deigns to scar the canvas with: scraping, rubbing, scratching, smearing, throwing paint at all conceivable angles and speeds; revelling, in short, in the paint itself, in its unpredictability. I would suggest this manual violence is the logical extreme of an utterly banal—though crucial—fact of painting, which is that paint is always an unknown, that there is always some disconnect between the mark the artist tries to make and the mark that she makes. The most careful stroke can slip, bending disobediently, or its edge can violate another, mingling colours that were never meant to be mingled, more smoothly and thickly in a liquid manner, or abrasively and roughly as a dry brush trespasses an intended boundary. The manual is difficult to escape, and arguably those who get their marks down where and how they want them either have a practiced formula (which does not permit of healthy artistic invention) or they have mastered that happy skill of manipulating chance (Deleuze, 2003: 94).

For Bacon’s cleaning lady, Bacon (in Deleuze, 2003: 95) concedes, could indeed pick up a brush and summon chance, but the accident alone is usually not enough. The artist must wrestle with the aberrations of paint and find a way to take advantage of them, to manipulate them and reincorporate them into her greater vision. Rather than wielding ultimate control over the paint, the artist seeks to beat it at its own slippery game. The destructive ‘scrambling’ of the hand makes a defiant challenge to the artist’s intentions, but she may seize this opportunity to craft something unexpected and new, and regain control of the painting. Painting, on these terms, consists in the delicate balance between intentions and the hiccups of reality.

The question, then, is how the artist is ‘to pass from the possibility of fact to the fact itself’ (Deleuze 2003: 160). How to move from her intention, her nascent visual idea, finding a path out of the cliché-burdened surface, navigating the hazards of accident inherent in the act of painting, to the actual image made up of physical and three-dimensional marks that fossilise her movements. Deleuze (2003: 159) insists that the measure is whether a Figure emerges from this process, a Figure which delightfully deviates from ordinary representational formulae, without dissolving the picture into painterly anarchy. This middle ground marries the two: ‘The Figure should emerge from the diagram and make the sensation clear and precise’ (Deleuze, 2003: 110). If no such Figure materialises from the manual intervention of the hand, the process has failed (Deleuze, 2003: 159). That is, the artist has been defeated by chance, the hand has supremacy, and the haptic potential of the painting is lost.

By way of example, Deleuze (2003: 156) describes Bacon’s intention to paint a bird. In the process of painting, the physical reality of the paint intervenes; the form remains, but the paint caresses it in unexpected ways and the relations between the pictorial elements change—an umbrella begins to show itself and Bacon claims this Figure instead. ‘In effect,’ Deleuze (2003: 156) explains, ‘the bird exists primarily in the intention of the painter, and it gives way to the whole of the really executed painting.’ It is not simply that the form changes, out of sheer inadequacy or laziness, but that new relations are suggested during the act, and the artist can make up her mind to seize them. Representation is achieved by another course.

The scrambling can take place without a metamorphosis of forms: a head, begun as a portrait, could equally be scrambled ‘from one contour to the other,’ triggering new relations that distance the image further and further from a likeness, indulging more and more in the paint, in the movement of the arm, until ‘these new relations of broken tones produce a more profound resemblance, a nonfigurative resemblance for the same form’ (Deleuze, 2003: 158). We are back at Bacon’s solution for fighting against the already-laden surface, a fight that incorporates the belligerence of the hand in a controlled manner.

But let us inject a little skepticism into this discussion. Perhaps Bacon has simply discovered that a convincing enough outline, with, say, recognisable ears and chin, can be ruthlessly abused without entirely losing its claim on representation. Perhaps he has found a way to intellectualise his technical shortcomings. Why should we permit him such liberties with form; why should we find something compelling in these muddied faces? Why should we indulge him this chance-driven and thus possible unskilled ‘injury’ against his sitter (Sylvester, 1975: 41)?

For a start, his whole attitude to paint is worth some attention. The appeal of paint is inseparable from a desire to paint; an image alone is never enough for a painter. There are simpler means of recording images than struggling with uncooperative and toxic substances. If one is to paint, one ought to delight in the possibilities paint affords: the tactile, unpredictable and infinitely manipulable properties that paint alone possesses. Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 58) certainly relishes the materiality of paint itself, explaining that in contrast to the smooth and crisp texture of a photograph, which appeals to our brain, ‘the texture of a painting seems to come immediately onto the nervous system.’

Yet this is no kindergarten, and an artist ought not simply revel in the delightfulness of paint. As a thinking, observant, functioning adult, she can harness the possibilities of paint toward some directed purpose. Bacon cares for both: he thrills at the shock to his nervous system and he demands some order and sense. He doesn’t abandon his intentions entirely, but he reconsiders them as reality turns up new possibilities, precisely because he recognises the nature of paint and the way it interacts with his own movements, his own hand. A mature artist can be expected to push the possibilities of paint, to see what new and sophisticated relations she can wrest from it. The paint is both Bacon’s opponent and his accomplice; were it otherwise for any artist, we might question their motives.

(Copy after Bammes)

Ruprecht von Kaufmann is a painter who demonstrates a similar attitude. His work can be vividly true to life, it can actively represent things and events and people, with a sensitivity to form and to light and to space. But in his most representational work, the intoxication with paint ferments at the surface; he seamlessly weaves the quirks of paint into his steady design. I would venture that he seeks out the anomalies of paint, that he dares the paint to defy him, and when he brings his immense experience to the task he subdues the unruly paint with a surprising virtuosity—giving it that freshness and agility that Bacon (in Sylvester, 1975: 120) calls ‘inevitability’—and aligns it to his purposes. His portrait series probably comes nearest to Bacon’s process: these pictures feel as if they start out guided by a clear (representational) idea, but then collide head-on with paint. Swirls and smears and heavy dollops of paint reconfigure the face, and the question that remains is whether a Figure emerges or whether each face fruitlessly suffers this violence at von Kaufmann’s hand. And so, lastly, I would argue that Deleuze’s defence of Bacon holds if we grant that it is possible to say something truer about what we see by deviating from its actual appearance. Von Kaufmann’s portraits seethe with the human qualities a person might ordinarily keep submerged under their skin; he makes brutal observations a perceptive person might make, and his brush (or Lino-cutter) gives him the means to represent them.

But besides this, the diagram might have less to do with chance or accident, and more to do with the parameters the artist sets for herself. My own portraits, insistently representational, refuse to satisfy the usual preferences for lighting and colouring, being rather abruptly coloured and forcefully lit, and my attention is usually absorbed in sculpting a head on the stubbornly flat surface. My sitters must be alarmed at my ungenerous attention to their bulging cheeks and their sunken eyes, to the fascinating furrows beneath their sockets and to their heartily constructed noses. The scrambling that takes place within my contours is indebted to my obsession with volume and with lively but systematic colour, colour ordered by the logic of three-dimensional colour space rather than strictly by what I see—my lovely, hapless model serving more as a suggestion for the complex system of the physical world I have compiled in my mind.

Copy after Rubens

And this brings us, finally, to language. According to Deleuze (2003: 117), Bacon’s ‘middle way’ through the digital and the manual, the abstract and the abstract-expressionist, the optical and the tactile, constructs a language out of the diagram. He calls it an ‘analogical language’ (Deleuze, 2003: 113; 117), a ‘language of relations.’ As I understand it, the painter takes hold of the actualities of paint and orders them into a fluid and manipulable system that she can use to represent strong and clear ideas. I bend paint to my ideas of volume, of the way light and colour interact, but I also incorporate its temperamental nature into my system. With time, I build up a language not of symbols, but of relations of colour and tone and light and texture and edge, and a thousand other things. But the versatility of this analogue, rather than digital, language, is rooted in the chaotic partnership of hand and paint. The language is rich and infinite because it is continually reenergised by the manual, non-thinking impulses that Deleuze names the diagram. Conceptions that insist on a code, on symbols, on the binary constitution of the digital, restraining the hand as the countable digit of the finger, enter a discussion with painting purely through the brain and not through the body. Goodman (1976: 234) is right to find a code too rigid and discrete for the continuous flow of paint, which must be described as analogue. Deleuze distinguishes a fittingly analogue language by which sensations and not symbols speak to us.

This analogical language of painting, Deleuze (2003: 118) elaborates, has three dimensions: planes, colour and body. But he expresses a particular enthusiasm for colour, which guides us towards that particularly haptic painting that he craves (Deleuze, 2003: 140). He esteems colourists above all other painters for their delicious facility with the entire language of painting, for if you can sensitively modulate colour and powerfully manipulate its relations, ‘then you have everything’ (Deleuze, 2003: 139). Colour incorporates tone (or value, the black and white scale of lightness and darkness)—yellow is already a lighter tone than blue; to darken it one must modulate through browns or greens, at the same time coping with neutralisation. In lightening a blue, adding white immediately neutralises it, and one must also think through the colour of the light that brightens it, which might be of a stark yellow-orange, demanding a shift in hue towards its opposite. Colour incorporates edge and thus line. It demarcates planes that describe form. Tone (or value), concerned solely with the presence or absence of light, is much more straightforward: a ‘pure code of black and white,’ binary, digital (Deleuze, 2003: 134).

Tonal painters are able to achieve dramatic results by punching in their high-contrast code; the code renders their work sensible in spite of nonsensical colours. But their simpler codification of light is, argues Deleuze (2003: 133), limited to the optical function of light. It sits primly and politely in optical space and only appeals to our intellect. But colour bites directly into our nervous system. Though it engages our eyes, it engages our whole body through our eyes. It wrenches us into haptic space. The language of painting, then, in all its analogue complexity, in its infinite variability, its carefully modulated relations, remains rooted in the body—in both the movements of the painter and in the sting that the viewer’s raw nerves suffer. Invoking the body electrifies painting and expands our otherwise quickly-shrinking conception of the visual.

Copies after Rubens

Deleuze, Gilles. 2003. Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation by Gilles Deleuze. Translated by Daniel W. Smith. 1 edition. Continuum: London.

Goodman, Nelson. 1976. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. 2. ed. Hackett: Indianapolis, Ind.

Sylvester, David. 1975. Francis Bacon, Interviewed by David Sylvester. Pantheon: New York.


Notation, language & painting

Cracked (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Cracked (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Robert Nelson’s (2010: 167; 169) treatise on The Visual Language of Painting dwells on an analogy between painting and language, an analogy deemed ‘ill-considered’ by Richard Wollheim (1987: 181) for the way in which it ‘foists upon painting something akin to grammar’ with its array of syntactic and semantic requirements. But Nelson (2010: 178) pleads that ‘it is unfair to judge visual language by the prejudicial, logocentric criteria of verbal language,’ conceding nonetheless that this ‘seems like an almost anti-intellectual deflection of dialectic and intelligent responsibility.’ Nelson (2010: 181) insists that ‘the semantics are less important than the consciousness that they scramble for,’ and I would like to cast a sympathetic eye over his book and ask whether there is, after all, something valid to be gained from an analogy between painting and language, or whether he is indeed wading into dangerous territory.


To begin, let us consider his motivation for pursuing this analogy. Nelson (2010: x), familiar with the internal machinations of a fine art academy, opens his book with the premise that painting needs rescuing: ‘The only power that will resuscitate painting and give it long-term sustainability is language: verbal language that recognises visual language, the visual language proper to representational painting.’ Nelson is operating under the assumption that painting is stuck with words: whether it be artist statements, catalogue notes or doctoral theses, the written word clings to painting as a child to its mother’s skirt. In many ways, all this talk obscures painting itself. Our literacy perhaps hinders our visual attentiveness, our perceptiveness. Perhaps we can better learn to approach paintings, surmises Nelson, if we borrow this reassuringly familiar concept of language and describe what it could metaphorically mean in the visual realm of painting. Perhaps we could encourage a comparable ‘visual literacy’ in order to actually liberate painting from words. Words might then accompany painting, rather than smother it.

In no way does Nelson want to establish a strict framework for painting, then; he sees it already constricted by verbal language and he is seeking salvation by means of language. Language literally, in that we will write about painting and discuss it in words, and language metaphorically, in that we will apply the concept of language to the visual realm. This is a vastly different project to an analytical investigation of aesthetics.


Nelson’s metaphor leads him to consider what might be most salient about language, and to then import this trait into painting. Among the many uses and virtues of language, Nelson—like Tolstoy (in Wollheim 1980: 119)—gravitates most strongly towards its communicative possibilities. ‘Visuality,’ he explains of a term he uses interchangeably with ‘the visual language,’ ‘is implicitly a recognition of the visual as being recognisable and capable of transacting communications, a form of language, then, which presents the contemporary world with a certain urgency’ (Nelson, 2010: 167). The visual language is grounded in the intention of the artist and her desire to communicate to others. Not everything that is visible is in a language: rather, it is only when things seen make a ‘purposeful address to the eyes, [that] they become linguistic in character’ (Nelson, 2010: 168). And even when he considers the development and expression of individual thoughts by means of language, he insists on the status of language as a ‘social system’ which above all enables the ‘transaction’ and ‘recognition’ of those thoughts (Nelson, 2010: 176).


At this point we might pose a little interjection from Wollheim, who does in fact entertain the analogy between art and language, though he uses it to demonstrate flaws in what he calls the Ideal Theory of art, which I shall not consider here. First, he very cautiously asks the crucial question, ‘how are we to use the analogy?’ (Wollheim, 1996: 118). Then he firmly states that ‘a point is reached at which the analogy runs out’ (Wollheim, 1980: 137). Wollheim (1980: 137) notes that there is some discomfort at the idea of calling art ‘communicative,’ when it might be pitched precisely against language as ‘expressive.’ That is to say, art and language have different and incomparable functions. But he brushes this objection aside with the simple observation that ‘the theory that language is essentially concerned with communication of ideas is a dogmatic notion, which does not even take account of the variety of ways in which ideas are communicated’ (Wollheim 1980: 137).

There are three things we might say on this. First, Wollheim seems very sensible to caution that the analogy between language and painting might hold, but perhaps not unconditionally. It might only be relevant for demonstrating one point (such as the validity of the Ideal Theory), but we might push it too far if, for example, we demand an actual visual grammar. Should we want to wield this analogy, we must be very precise about why and how we are using it, and upfront about its limitations. Painting is not, after all, literally a language, and metaphors are poetic illustrations and not statements of logical identity.

Second, Wollheim is right to note that there are many important traits of language, possibly co-equal ones, and we might equally consider the way language functions as a medium for private thought, a tool of analysis, a descriptive record of information, a poetic mode of expression and so forth. Then we would need to ask whether it is legitimate to import all of these functions into painting, and why such a correspondence should hold. This motivation might have something to do with finding a lack of generosity in, for example, contemporary painting, in its persistent refusal to visually connect with its viewers, necessitating the dependence on actual text.

And third, Wollheim does something quite spectacular when he says language does not hold a monopoly over communication. And he is correct: ideas are conveyed in many ways, though the types of ideas may vary by medium. Much is conveyed through body language, for example, or diagrams, or music, or the extremely controlled movement of the body that we call dance. Certainly, a ballet does not communicate the same thoughts as a scientific report. But it can wordlessly transmit other ideas about the human condition. In fact, Wollheim’s dismissive observation invites us to think of many things as being at least partially analogous with language. Though perhaps what he really wants to emphasise is that communication and language are not identical, and that painting might be more closely analogous to some other mode of communication.


The way that Nelson uses the analogy between language and painting is rather loose and imprecise. He senses that there are limits, and thus centres all his comparisons on his chosen principle trait of communication, which is arguably the most obvious trait of language, without necessarily excluding the nuance of a perspective like Wollheim’s. As for why, Nelson is motivated by painting’s existing bondage to verbal language. He wants to defeat language with language.

Let us look at how Nelson conceives of the visual language of painting—how he applies the analogy. He is very quick to emphasise that the visual language of painting does not consist purely in technique, though technique turns out to be a fruitful way of investigating it. He argues that a ‘visual perspicacity and mental agility’ necessarily merge with the material when the visual language of painting is used effectively (Nelson, 2010: xi). This makes his position psychological rather in the way that Wollheim’s (1987: 22) is, because he necessarily incorporates the inner life of the artist—particularly her thoughts and intentions—into the manipulation of the medium. Keeping this attitude in mind, Nelson turns to the complicated and interlocking technical components of painting—each chapter dealing with the nebulous themes of colour, drawing, structure and composition, tone and plasticity, gesture, edge control and atmosphere, detail and weight, and layering and luminosity—in an effort to build up a rich tapestry of the visual language. Music, he concedes, lends itself much more easily to parallels with language, mostly because it is easier to compare them since it is easier to identify their ‘quantum units’ (Nelson, 2010: 170). It is easier to point to a note, a word, and compare—for example—their symbolic possibilities. Painting offers no obvious quantum unit; only a gently fluctuating integration of such elements as those listed above, and quite probably more. As such, painting ‘is harder to recognise as a language’ (Nelson, 2010: 172).

Here the analogy becomes a little hazy. Nelson (2010: xi; 170) starts dropping words like ‘symbol;’ right from the beginning he talks about the thoughts of the artist being ‘pictorially encoded’ in the medium. Again, we might defer to the thorough Wollheim (1980: 132): ‘The analogy… is one between art and language. The insistence is necessary: for there is another analogy, which bears a superficial resemblance to mine, and which may, deliberately or in error, be substituted for it. That is the analogy between art and a code.’ Wollheim (1980: 132) identifies two corresponding streams of thought, both of which he says lead into error: the first, that the more apt analogy holds between art and code than art and language; the second, that language and code ‘become so confused or transposed’ that the analogy slips, and ‘in point of fact it is to a code, not to language, that art is assimilated.’ In Robert Nelson’s case, the confusion is only slight, and his resistance of syntax likely saves him from labouring the idea of a code too far. But in the case of Nelson Goodman, the analogy undeniably shifts to code, and, as I see it, leaves the question of language and painting unresolved, and certainly not refuted.


Goodman, in Languages of Art, is cautious in his approach, starting with the theme of pictorial representation. He tentatively proposes an ‘analogy between pictorial representation and verbal description,’ that is, between one aspect of painting and one aspect of language (Goodman, 1976: 40). ‘The temptation is to call a system of depiction a language; but here I stop short,’ says Goodman (1976: 41), with immense restraint. And from here he embarks on a long, technical investigation of ‘what distinguishes representational from linguistic systems’ (Goodman, 1976: 41). He makes a fundamental division in the arts which leads him to focus on notation, and that division stems from the puzzle of forgeries: ‘in music, unlike painting, there is no such thing as a forgery of a known work’ (Goodman, 1976: 112).

Goodman identifies that there is something importantly different about ‘single’ and ‘multiple’ arts, and, explains Wollheim (in a supplementary essay to Art and its Objects, 1980: 167), ‘thinks that the more fundamental division within works of art is between the ‘autographic’ and the ‘allographic.’’ For an autographic work of art, the original and the copy are importantly distinct (Goodman, 1976: 113). It matters very much how the work came into being: its history of production—for whether it was or was not painted by, say, Van Dyck makes a spectacular difference. Each autographic work is a one-off. But we may perform a Chopin Nocturne without compromising the integrity of that work of art. ‘Thus painting is autographic, music nonautographic, or allographic’ (Goodman, 1976: 113). Wollheim’s (1980: 168) terms are a little less imposing: he simply speaks of ‘individuals’ (paintings), and ‘types’ and their ‘tokens’ (plays, books, musical pieces and their instances). Yet their categories are drawn up a little differently: Wollheim (1980: 167; 170) considers history of production across all art forms to be essential. Goodman (1976: 122), however, considers it only relevant to one-off works, simply as the means of identifying them. Allographic works, he argues, are severed from their creator and freed of their history of production, and because of that we need an alternative way to identify them: a notation.


‘Why,’ Goodman (1976: 121) asks, is the use of notation appropriate in some arts but not in others?’ In short, because some can already be identified by their history of production. The purpose of devising a notation is to ensure we are in fact encountering this specific work of art in one of its instances. And, further, they are necessary for the kinds of works of art that would overtax an individual: notations enable us ‘to transcend the limitations of time and the individual’ (Goodman, 1976: 121). By means of a score, a script, a manuscript, we can both reproduce and identify a work of art, divorced from its author (Goodman, 1976: 122).

And thus, on Goodman’s (1976: 121) terms, painting does not qualify as amenable to notation. But nor, he goes on to explain, do any of our natural languages qualify as notational systems (Goodman, 1976: 178). Goodman’s (1976: 225) analysis of musical scores (an arguably arbitrary choice which sets up the framework for his entire book) leads him to submit five semantic and syntactic requirements for a notational system; language is only able to meet the first two syntactic requirements. His analogy remains firmly between painting and code, and in rejecting any congruence between painting and notation, he does not reject possible parallels between painting and language. And I am quite happy to abandon this conception of a painterly notation (in the very literal sense of encoding meaning into a strict painterly grammar). As, I am sure, is Nelson, who takes great pains to describe the fluidity and unpredictability of his proposed visual language, while nevertheless insisting that painters hold fast to their communicative responsibility. And Wollheim (1980: 83) is unimpressed when he entertains the idea of notation permeating the entire range of the arts: ‘With such a notation there would no longer be any executant arts: the whole of the execution would have been anticipated in the notation.’ Painting, along with the other art forms, would collapse into a display of ‘mechanical skills’ (Wollheim, 1980: 84). Painting as notation is not an attractive analogy and is not the idea being put forward.


Yet Goodman (1976: 192) perseveres: ‘A sketch,’ (and by extension other autographic works of art like paintings) ‘is not in a language.’ No, he considers these works to be in entirely nonlinguistic systems, which ‘differ from languages … primarily through lack of differentiation—indeed through density (and consequent total absence of articulation)—of the symbol system’ (Goodman, 1976: 226). Painting would belong to a representational system, which must be dense, which one might imagine as continuous like an analogue gauge. Language does not represent, but describes; and descriptions, by contrast, are articulate, like discrete digital measures (Goodman, 1976: 230). Painting, Goodman (1976: 234) is trying to get us to understand, is too flexible, too nuanced, too direct (where it actually exemplifies the colour, shape, or feeling represented) to be subsumed under a structured, differentiated and abstracted system like language.

But to insist on the articulacy of language would be to discredit its qualities of subtlety and expression. Wollheim’s (1980: 135) level-headed remark brings that back into focus: ‘The elements or alphabet of a code are denumerable, whereas no precise limit can be set to the vocabulary of a language.’ Language itself has enough fluidity to perhaps rival the density of painting. And perhaps painting would profit from finding limits to its unbounded physical possibilities—perhaps this very limitlessness is what leads painting into incomprehensibility. Perhaps language teaches us (only by analogy) that if we want to capture meaning, to even make ourselves understood, we need to find common ground with our audience.


Language thus may still be nebulous enough a concept to import into painting, but we must ask ourselves seriously what for, and how far we are committed to drawing that analogy—and at what point it runs out. If Nelson’s reason for seizing a metaphorical visual language as a way to escape the tyranny of a limited verbal language in the current practice of painting is compelling, I do not see a reason against it, at least not from Goodman’s notation-focussed perspective. It only prompts us to consider whether other, better, analogies might exist—between, perhaps, painting and music, or painting and dance—and forces us to examine our obsessive preoccupation with language and our tendency to view it as the key to unlock all our problems. Literacy has swollen into the panacea of our age, but perhaps illegitimately so.



Goodman, Nelson. 1976. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. 2. ed., [Nachdr.]. Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing.

Wollheim, Richard. 1987. Painting as an Art. 1. publ. London: Thames and Hudson.

Wollheim, Richard. 1980. Art and Its Objects: With Six Supplementary Essays. Reprinted 2. ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University.