If I could kindle your enthusiasm about just one thing, it would be paint. If I use overly impassioned language when describing paintings, it’s not to be floridly arty—it’s not to transfigure paintings into words, and thus do away with the picture. I only want to show you how to be caught up in what you see, to guide you with a language you already understand. I want to show you a way in, and expose my own thoughts so you might feel confident in your own.
I feel so strongly about the physicality of painting. Every day I paint, and far from confining itself to a neat, two-dimensional substrate, paint subdivides and multiplies and sticks to everything. In my haste I smear it on my hands, I lean into it and get it on my clothes. The stuff has a mind of its own; like amoebic eighties horror film monsters it exists in three-dimensional space. With patience and determination, the painter tames it and uses it to describe something. This is why much contemporary painting disappoints me so much. Paint has lost its body. It has become a hesitant filler. It is so often reduced to a broad medium for covering an expanse in sloppy colour, as though with the click of the fill-bucket button.
My eyes are ravaged by it everywhere: just enough paint is used to block in a shape, a thin scratchy film, cheap bleached white canvas and its prickly texture shouting through it, proclaiming its cheapness. No wonder painting is so unpopular, when cheap paint smeared thin as vegemite across cheap canvases presents such a shamelessly insipid surface.
Robert Nelson cautions against the ‘fetishisation of paint,’ but a little over-enthusiasm might be needed to correct this scourge of painterly apathy. Painting can be more than colouring-in: paint, as German so poetically (in its beautifully literal way) reminds us, is farbe—it is colour itself. Nelson (2010: 39) argues, ‘Paint as colour is less interesting than colour as paint, because paint gives to the very concept of colour a willfully mutating character.’ Rather than thinking of paint as the filler that wedges between the lines of your drawing, you might embrace paint as ‘mobilised colour’ (2010: 42).
Yes! Far from stretching like a skin over empty space, paint—embodied colour—can sprout from a surface, can clamber over itself, undulate, amalgamate. Colour as paint is nothing like a grid of pixels, an expanse with no depth. Paint allows us to move colour around almost as if it were clay. Of course, we are still constructing a two-dimensional illusion, and I am not arguing that one ought to paint in relief. But we ought not forget that we have a real substance in our hands and that its expressive properties are every bit as physical and substantial as clay. This is our advantage, as painters, over digital painting and photography. The quickening of our surface is what sets us apart from our sister arts. And it is the reason paintings need to be seen in the flesh, and why their pixelated reduction to disembodied colour is so dissatisfying.
John Dewey draws an interesting comparison between physics and the arts which perhaps makes a good analogy for Nelson’s conception of ‘mobilised colour.’ Nelson describes paint by way of its fluid application rather than by its dried and polished result. ‘Paint,’ he writes (2010: 39), ‘which first arrives on the palette in distinct colours, is nevertheless contrived in analogous viscosities so that each colour slips into its neighbouring colour and becomes another colour entirely (or other colours, prolifically mutating), often imperfectly dragging two or more discrete colours into a kind of staggered spectral section.’ For the artist, paint exists not only as a clever arrangement of colours, but it exists as colours struggling with each other in time, dancing about each other, harmonising, violating each other. Paint exists as colour-in-application: as colour in time. And this is Dewey’s contention: we are misled when we separate space from time in the arts, just as physicists were forced to wrap their heads around the concept of space-time. ‘For the extension and volume of an object, its spatial properties cannot be directly experienced—or perceived—in a mathematical instant,’ he (1934: 183) explains, ‘nor can temporal properties of events be experienced save as some energy displays itself in an extensive way.’
None is more conscious of this than the artist herself, and it is something I am eager to convey to people who like to look at paintings. Perhaps it is something people make some attempt to come to terms with when they ask such questions as, ‘how long did this take to paint?’ But rather than quantifying a painting (and probably attempting to see if the price matches the labour), recognising the marriage of time and space in painting will bring a richness of understanding to a picture. A colour spans some distance. But paint, pulled by the vigorous action of a stroke and grooved with the bristles of the brush, is distance over time.
v = d/t
Dewey elaborates (1934: 183-4):
‘The separation of temporal and spatial in the fine arts was always inept. As Croce has said, we are specifically (or separately) conscious of temporal sequence in music and poetry, and of spatial co-existence in architecture and painting, only when we pass from perception to analytic reflection. The supposition that we directly hear musical tones to be in time and directly see colours as being in space, reads into an immediate experience a later interpretation of it due to reflection. We see intervals and directions in pictures and we hear distances and volumes in music. If movement alone were perceived in music and rest alone in painting, music would be wholly without structure and pictures nothing but dry bones. …
Any section of the music and any cross-section of it has precisely the balance and symmetry, in chords and harmonies, as a painting, statue or building. A melody is a chord deployed in time.’
In fact, Dewey insinuates, we sort of already experience the arts as both temporal and spatial. It is only when we try to describe them that we build these artificial distinctions. The painter knows it when she drags a loaded brush across a canvas, and the pianist knows it when he visualises a chord as the shape of his hand or as a numerically arranged hieroglyph on a stave. And the viewer and the listener taste it when they are absorbed into the aesthetic experience, or else something likely rings false to them.
Perhaps, then, trusty English has something to offer us that German cannot. For the word ‘painting’ describes a process, a happening, an event. And this is Nelson’s (2010: 40) point, which clarifies Dewey’s: ‘The medium intrinsically narrates the events of the process.’
And this is why I live in hope that painters will express something bordering on a fetish for paint in their work. That their disturbing obsession with it might infect the viewer. For painting, as Nelson (2010: 39; 40) so satisfyingly insinuates, is very sexy: ‘Paint, … certainly, you can keep it neat, but the substance is made for creamy interaction. In any intercourse with another wet colour, the paint visibly mutates by the muscular caress of the brush. … As one colour works its way into another—according to the slewed interpenetration just mentioned—traces of the process are left visible, because the pre-existing strokes remain manifest even as the dramatic stage in which fresh impulses have collided.’
And perhaps Nelson (2010: 42) is right to insist that paint as mobilised colour, as colour through time, with its ‘inestimable expressive potential’ is more than ‘pretty extravagance’ or ‘material fetish,’ and rather something so lofty as ‘an existential resource.’ But I’m not above admitting to a little predilection for paint bordering on the prurient.
Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.
Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.