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.




Philosophy demands a certain arrogance. Clear and deep thinking requires a solid grounding in and familiarity with the thought of our forebears, as intelligent painting requires an intimate communion with painting of the past. But the type of philosophy that hovers over the past, circling like ravenous vultures, and only cautiously picking at things that have already been thought, tentatively offering patches for small tears in the fabric, or perhaps safely offering an historical overview of thinkers long deceased, is desperately timid.


This acceptable sort of philosophy, while courteous and respectful, seems to discard the real purpose of philosophy, the true inquisitive nature of it. Philosophy is a razor-sharp tool that can be turned upon the world to make incisive insights, to fundamentally change our view of it. Wittgenstein (1953: 47) says decisively and dramatically, ‘Die Philosophie ist ein Kampf gegen die Verhexung unsres Verstandes durch die Mittel unserer Sprache.’ (‘Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.’)


It’s difficult to imagine Wittgenstein diligently attending seminars on how to narrow the scope of his research questions, how to situate his small contribution among the multitudinous academic literature, how to structure his dissertation—beginning with the immovable words of some philosophical heavyweight, detailing the near impenetrable ideas and only at the end offering some humble amendments. Did Wittgenstein’s potential supervisors chide him, ‘Herr Wittgenstein, don’t be a hero’? Imagine the number of scholars who would be put out of work had Wittgenstein been deterred by advice that philosophy should not be visionary!


My philosopher friend Kim Solin (2013: 57) notes in his own dissertation that ‘there is sometimes an assertive tone in Wittgenstein’s writings, since the descriptions and objects of comparison need to be taken seriously, so that they will change the way we view things.’ Wittgenstein’s arrogance stems not exactly from disrepect or disregard for the past, but from a firm belief in how philosophy operates, and why. Unlike in science, Wittgenstein (1953: 47) is at pains to make clear, we are not proposing and testing some hypothesis with the goal of piecing together a theory. We do not need an army of lab-rats filling in gaps and completing Kant’s or Descartes’ or Hume’s ‘theories.’ Philosophy, rather, turns a light on the problems we encounter in life, be they moral problems or aesthetic problems, mathematical problems or political problems. It allows us, at a distance from the practical domain, to inspect the nature of those problems, to deepen our understanding and to help us find a new way forward:

‘We must do away with all explanation and description alone must take its place. And this description gets its power of illumination—i.e. its purpose—from the philosophical problems. … The problems are solved not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have always known.’

This healthy disrespect for restrictive academic processes is a sort of intellectual self-preservation: Solin (2013: 61) writes that it is not exactly that we lack respect, rather that ‘one should try to protect oneself from being taken into possession by [in his case] mathematics. … Showing some disrespect might just well be what is needed for that.’ The structures within academia attempt to preserve rigorous standards of thought. They prevent crackpots from publishing incoherent madness; they extend a tradition rather than permitting ruptures; they encourage common languages among scholars, rather than letting them rave unintelligibly past each other. I have nothing against this. But these firm structures should not paralyse us with fear—they should not possess us. We have something to say, and it might not only be a counter-claim. We are observing the world, too, and probing into the nature of problems. Our backgrounds—some practical, some theoretical—afford us different insights. Facing the wall of opponents we are expected to politely challenge, we feel nothing but an indescribable fatigue. Perhaps we can leave such work for others—perhaps we have some new and optimistic description to offer.

Copy after Rubens

Copy after Rubens

Of course, this does not mean the world is unbounded. We stand firmly upon the work that has gone before, we read and read, we learn to think by thinking through the thoughts of others. We set meaningful and useful parameters for our own work, we attempt to define limits. We strive after clarity and humbly keep quiet and listen when we meet an idea worth attention. Our attitude reflects Wittgenstein’s, as elucidated at the outset of his Tractatus (1963 [1921]: 7):

‘Was sich überhaupt sagen läßt, läßt sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht reden kann, darüber muß man schweigen. Das Buch will also dem Denken eine Grenze ziehen, oder vielmehr—nicht dem Denken, sondern dem Ausdruck der Gedanken: Denn um dem Denken eine Grenze zu ziehen, müßten wir beide Seiten dieser Grenze denken können.’

(‘Anything that can be said at all, can be said clearly; and what one cannot speak about, one must keep quiet about. This book wants to draw a limit for thought, or rather—not for thought, but for the expression of thoughts: for in order to find the limits of thought we must be able to think on both sides of that border.’)

Copy after Maler

Copy after Maler

We do not deny the significance of what came before us, neither in art nor in philosophy. We do not seek to upend and discard everything and begin afresh. We only hope for enough room to advance our own ideas. We fear that, like Nelson (2010: 161), we might be forced to ‘come laden with contemporaneous references which plug up my case with footnotes, as though art were a leaky vessel, the flow of whose life-humours only art-historical paranoia can staunch.’ For we agree with Nelson (2010: 161) that ‘no number of footnotes carries as much intellectual authority as a poetic insight.’ And we do not forget that it was Wittgenstein (1963 [1921]: 7-8) himself, that revered pillar of philosophy, who brazenly commenced his work with a shamelessly visionary attitude:

‘darum gebe ich auch keine Quelle an, weil es mir gleichgültig ist, ob das was ich gedacht habe, vor mir schon ein anderer gedacht hat.’

(‘Hence I am also not providing any sources, because I am indifferent as to whether what I thought was already thought by another before me.’





Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

Solin, Kim. 2013. The mathematician as mathematics: Theories of computation in light of Wittgenstein’s thought. Uppsala: Filosofika institutionen.

Wittgenstein. Ludwig. 1953. Philosophische Untersuchungen / Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Basil Blackwell: Oxford.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1963 [1921]. Tractatus logico-philosophicus Logisch-philosophische Abhandlung. Suhrkamp.


Habit and curiosity

Steffi (2.5 hour oil sketch)

Steffi (2.5 hour oil sketch)

There is an inherent tension between a painter’s sensory encounters with the world and her own habits. As I push myself to paint and draw with increasing intensity, I am driven by conflicting impulses to improve and to investigate. Improvement requires repetition and practice, but investigation tends to tear down all this dedicated work. My understanding and my repertoire broaden and deepen with investigation, but my improvement stagnates, or worse, everything I was so anxiously holding together comes completely undone.

Steffi drawing

In moments of doubt, I return to trusty Robert Nelson (2010: 121), who reassures me, ‘We all have habits.’ In his judicious way, he writes that habits have their advantages and disadvantages. Hard-earned habits through which we have assimilated knowledge ‘are at the root of our fluency, our readiness, our comfort in tackling the lofty task of representation by the senses and the hand’ (2010: 121). Without such dependable tools, we would face each new picture completely disarmed, unprepared and overwhelmed at the formidable task before us. And these tools, once acquired, need maintenance, and permit refinement, and generally positively benefit from regular and sustained attention.

Copy after Rubens, Selbstbildnis

Copy after Rubens, Selbstbildnis

My attention has turned rather feverishly toward copying: with religious zeal I am flooding pages and pages of my sketchbook with wholly unoriginal drawings; copies of old master paintings, copies of anatomy drawings. It can be a very passive way to draw: the burden of having an original idea or making an original investigation is gently taken away from me. It could yet be investigative—with due concentration, I could, through such copies, begin to unpack the decisions of the artists who produced the originals. And sometimes I do. But sometimes I just copy, pleasantly pulling my pencil across the page, enjoying the motion, and daydreaming a bit. This pleasure drawing has its advantages: the habit of going to the gallery, of plunging into the anatomy book, means I give time to some form of drawing with dedicated regularity. And each time I start, there is the possibility that my brain will actively engage. The act itself, begun unthinkingly, can trigger thought.

Copies after Gottfried Bammes

Copies after Gottfried Bammes

But as I practice and practice, investing in my favoured media, becoming more accustomed to their limitations (and my own), I fall into patterns of working, and the patterns lead to ruts and their accompanying frustration. What looks like fluency and adeptness and confidence to outsiders actually feels like being stuck. Showmanship can get in the way of honest engagement with the physical world, and instead of turning afresh to sensory experience we rely on mechanistic motions. ‘By and large,’ writes Nelson (2010: 130), ‘a mechanical application of directional gestures is about superficially looking flash or stylistically sophisticated, or emotionally confident, or artistically full of panache and bravura rather than serving exploration and curiosity.’

Pregnant lady (oil sketch, 2 hours)

Pregnant lady (oil sketch, 2 hours)

And so despite the benefits and even necessity of forming (hopefully good) habits, Nelson cautions the painter against a ‘mechanistic’ approach, a mindless, formula-driven mode of working that crowds out the possibility of active picture-making. ‘Making art from habit,’ he writes (2010: 121), ‘has questionable consequences.’ For we are not simply producing polished products, little one-man factories. We are constructing pictures by means of a certain kind of logic: an organic, integrative logic that brings together all of the knowledge we have collected about tone and colour and gesture and space and texture and so on (2010: 117; 124). Though we can separate out each element and map out distinct stages of a painting through time, the most thoughtful pictures are those that weave everything together, and this unity, argues Nelson, has its origin in the sensory experience, and not in well-oiled mechanistic habits. ‘All of the painting is about building, constructing forms, constructing spatial relationships and constructing rapports in colour; and these are integral to looking, seeing, remembering and imagining’ (2010: 124).

‘The painting conceived in this way replicates, on a somewhat clumsy and grandiose scale, the process of perception itself, constantly gauging relationships and skipping all over the field in order to assess the spatial calibre of what is observed.’ (2010: 122-3)

Such alertness means we have to sacrifice some of our hard-won ability. Confronted with a real subject, with differing light conditions, with the air shimmering at the horizons of the forms, with compositionally compelling shapes that compete with descriptive and meaty forms, we find our assortment of tools to be lacking. What served us well in countless previous situations is not up to the task at hand. The world is ever lavishing new sensory experiences upon us, and the genuinely curious painter responds to the experience, indulges his senses, rather than repeating his well-rehearsed performance.

American girl

And this is the tightrope we walk: trying to furnish ourselves with tuned and ready instruments that are fit for the sensory experiences we are constantly greeted by, but remaining open to those experiences, adaptive, and seriously investigating them. It’s no good to throw away what we’ve learned and start from zero every time, but we must also open our eyes and engage our brains. Nelson (2010: 129), ever eloquent, describes the clash of habits entrenched in the body and the inquisitive encounter with the world thus:

‘The brush is constantly invoking the seen: it requires a certain nerve, a zeal for finding out what is perceived or imaginatively solicited and then for correcting what is conjectured. Unless somehow designed with a Platonic conceptual remove, it is all chop and change at a sensory and intellectual level. Add to that the co-ordination of the hand by impulses, the way that the process draws upon the muscles and uses the body: it demands a stance before the canvas and a rhythm of subliminal choreographic vibrations.’

It would be foolish to be dogmatic about either emphasis, for both are crucial. Each destroys the other, but only to rebuild it more firmly, and more enmeshed with the other.

American girl (2.5 hour oil sketch)

American girl (2.5 hour oil sketch)

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



Solution (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn

Solution (Dr Jacques Pienaar) © Samantha Groenestyn

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.

Kunst Handwerk

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.’

Physics roof



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.

Belvedere storm

Belvedere, Vienna


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.


Composing as emotional construction

Wien funkelt © Samantha Groenestyn

Wien funkelt © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I’ve spent some time lately in the galleries trying to come to an understanding about composition. Not really knowing what I was looking for, I took my sketchbook and pencil and set about collecting some information, reducing it, simplifying it, hoping to see some sort of pattern emerge. In fact, many different patterns emerged from my little thumbnails.

Composition thumbnails 1

In Van Dyck’s Gefangennahme Samsons (1628/30) the heavy weave of the fabric of the painting showed a tightly constructed image, the whole picture electrified with energy and motion, though the frenzy offers no relief for the eye. His Mystische Verlobung des Heiligen Hermann Joseph mit Maria (1630) concentrates the action into a similarly dense knot, with figures and drapery tangling together, but the rhythms run three-dimensionally, not confined to the flat pictorial space. An oval slopes deep into the picture, running through the loop of arms at the centre. Similar retreating ovals swing through Rubens’ Heilige Ambrose und Kaiser Theodosius (1615/16) and Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum (1630/32), intersecting with the two-dimensional arrangement.

Titian’s Diana revealed complex braids of arcs through the dizzyingly busy picture. Actually each curve is a wonderfully simplified statement that seems to keep the picture in motion, a liquid in suspension, not snagged by unnecessary points of elbows or knees. And Degas blares out as the most unselfconsciously shape-loving painter, with his charmingly intimate square pastels, both Nach dem Bad, almost pieced together from strong, insistent shapes rather than representations of interiors. And yet, despite the prominence of these shapes, Degas never relinquishes the fullness of forms.

Composition thumbnails 2

While these investigations turned up some interesting ideas, the jumble of thoughts they produced in my mind left me no clearer of how I ought to approach composition. And despite the importance of concrete examples, I was looking for a more unifying, fundamental way to grasp the concept. It was at this point I returned to Robert Nelson.

The main point to hold in your mind when thinking about composition is that it is, at heart, about construction. You’ll forgive my constant sideways remarks about photography, but our aesthetic vision is currently somewhat obscured by the lens, and in the matter of composition, by the viewfinder. ‘Photography as a process, certainly in its documentary incarnations, might be described as a roving rectangle in search of a motif,’ writes Nelson (2010: 99), continuing sympathetically but firmly, ‘The nomadic and scavenging character of documentary photography makes for an art of great complexity; but it is essentially different from the constructed technologies of the past.’ As a painter, I know my own understanding of composition was clouded by this idea of finding and framing. Yet the painter suffers no such constraints: she is at complete liberty to compose, exactly as the musician may draw notes from his mind and not wait to capture them. Dewey (1934: 75) compares it to the ordering of thoughts of the writer: ‘As the painter places pigment upon the canvas, or imagines it placed there, his ideas and feeling are also ordered. As the writer composes in his medium of words what he wants to say, his idea takes on for himself perceptible form.’

Sankt Marx composition

Nelson (2010: 95-6) argues that, despite the popularity of the idea, there are no ‘design principles,’ no rules to be taught, no natural laws to transform aesthetics into a science. Conventions of the past were simply that—conventions, not eternal ideals. Golden means and overlaid geometry reek of ‘numerological witchcraft’ to him. Yet composition remains vital to painting because of the deliberateness it entails. The painter actively arranges not only elements, but space and even, he (2010: 98) argues, ‘the way that you encounter the motif.’ The whole is a carefully contrived experience, deliberately built up from nothing.

Rather than groping fruitlessly after scientific justifications for the success of compositions, Nelson (2010: 96) suggests turning to the poetic. Composition, far from submitting to rules, is rather a matter of expression, and perhaps even, as Dewey suggests, of emotion. Dewey (1934: 70) writes of the deliberate arrangement of the whole: ‘The determination of the mot juste, of the right incident in the right place, of exquisiteness of proportion, of the precise tone, hue, and shade that helps unify the whole while it defines a part, is accomplished by emotion.’ The painter has complete control over how the stage is to be set, over how the experience is to unfold. The balance or imbalance is completely at her disposal; the weight of the tones may set the mood she desires, the space may be moulded or the shapes emphasised or the rhythms interlaced as best suits her own expressive purpose. Dewey (1934: 62) is quick to clarify, however, that this expression, however emotional, remains calculated and controlled:

‘To discharge is to get rid of, to dismiss; to express is to stay by, to carry forward in development, to work out to completion. A gush of tears may bring relief, a spasm of destruction may give outlet to inward rage. But where there is no administration of objective conditions, no shaping of materials in the interest of embodying the excitement, there is no expression. What is sometimes called an act of self-expression might better be termed one of self-exposure; it discloses character—or lack of character—to others. In itself, it is only a spewing forth.’

In order to express something clearly, to honestly transcribe emotive experiences, the painter must keep the whole before her, and work in a flexible way. Her medium needs to be pliant enough to push around, to adjust, to exaggerate, to search out (Gombrich 1996: 214). Drawing is the most obvious starting place, offering a reductive description, a non-committal, experimental visualisation of the unborn painting. Without labouring details, the painter can think through the unity of the whole and observe the interaction of the ill-defined parts. She can crop and re-crop. She can design, she can grow the image organically. In keeping the whole at the fore, she can keep the emotional experience tight and true. Da Vinci (in Gombrich 1996: 213) confirms this fluid mode of working and the connection between emotion and composition in both his hairy drawings and his writings:

‘Now have you never thought about how poets compose their verse? They do not trouble to trace beautiful letters nor do they mind crossing out several lines so as to make them better. So, painter, rough out the arrangement of the limbs of your figures and first attend to the movements appropriate to the mental state of the creatures that make up your pictures rather than to the beauty and perfection of their parts.’

I expect I’ll continue to collect thumbnails at the gallery, but with renewed purpose: There are no codes to decipher and assimilate, no universal truths to unearth. There is only the deliberate hanging-together of the whole—directed by the emotional impulse of the author—to unravel and to admire. And my own emotional intent to orchestrate in my own paintings, beginning with my ever-pliable pencil.

Sankt Marx

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Gombrich, E. H. 1996. The essential Gombrich: Selected writings on art and culture. Ed. Richard Woodfield. Phaidon: London.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.


The Duchess’s bookshelf of becoming super excellent


I love books, and there is a small cluster of core books that accompany me on my journey to painterly enlightenment which I would heartily recommend to other painters. These are the books I turn to again and again: reference books, philosophical books, history books and diaries which have profoundly shaped my learning and my views on art. If you need to be your own teacher for the moment, there are some wise dudes you can depend on for guidance.


Gottfried Bammes: Complete guide to life drawing

This book has consumed me since I first met it, and travels the world with me. Herr Bammes, who taught in Dresden, has a clear way of describing the human body in simplified volumes and muscle groups that help one think structurally about the body. Rather than overwhelming yourself by starting out with hard-core anatomy, working through Bammes’s guide will help you ease into more complex anatomical study by giving you a broader understanding upon which to hang such knowledge. He begins with exercises on proportion and movement, setting a firm foundation of both accuracy and expressive liveliness. From here, he explains the parts of the body in greater detail, with many of his own examples reducing the forms to blocks in perspective. His diagrams on knees and feet in particular are works of teacherly genius. Bammes diagrammatically explains the mechanics of the bones and muscle groups, as well as reducing their construction to simple linear frames. Right from the beginning he gives the student a firm way of indicating a solid foot, which when rehearsed and developed only serves to cement the structural understanding.

Says Bammes (2010: 222), ‘If skull drawing is not practised as if it were architecture, with a perpetual ordering of primary and secondary aspects—if it is not done with awareness—it will degenerate into nothing more than clever copying and will not provide any gain in knowledge or vision.’ Yet he (2010: 10) never loses sight of why we demand so much of ourselves: ‘When we draw people, we are growing towards others and ourselves and we reveal things that were lost before to our fleeting glances and inaccessible to our experience.’

The margins of the book are peppered with a fine selection of master drawings, including those of many lesser-known German draughtsmen, while all examples are drawn by the elegant and controlled hand of Bammes himself. I cannot recommend this book enough. I’m still working slowly through it, using it as a companion to all further anatomy study, and revisiting earlier chapters again and again.

Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing [Menschen zeichnen Grundlagen zum Aktzeichnen]. Trans. Cicero Translations. Search: Kent.


Eliot Goldfinger: Human anatomy for the artist

This book is an investment, but a good anatomy book is a necessary tool in your belt if you’ve any real interest in the figure. The delightfully named Goldfinger turns his Midas touch to one bone, one muscle at a time, displaying many angles and overlaps and cross-sections. The text explains function, origin and insertion and many other enlightening aspects of each part, but clear drawings illustrate most of the information. These drawings are accompanied by some photographs of an extremely ripped model, to help locate things under the often-obfuscatory surface of flesh. And several straight-lined diagrams explain difficult-to-conceptualise mechanics or simplifications to help remember the main features of a part.

Goldfinger (1991:. 64) encourages a deep understanding of the figure, not just a grasping after surface variations:

‘During complex actions, note the sequence of the contraction and relaxation of the numerous muscles that are functioning. Observe the action, visualise the skeleton deep in the body and what changes are taking place at its joints, then determine which muscles are working.’

This book is an artist’s dictionary. It will also make you sound clever at parties because you will learn a lot of scientific words.

Goldfinger, Eliot. 1991. Human anatomy for artists: The elements of form. Oxford University: Oxford.


Robert Nelson: The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique

This book has affected me deeply. It made me appreciate how genuinely scholarly painting and drawing could be, while never losing sight of how physical and sensual it is. Nelson’s (2010: 27-28) project is an admirable one of finding a way to unite the studio and academic practice:

‘I would like to see a philosophy of technique which positions technique as the necessary correlate of poetic vision and the basis of visual language, a philosophy which is non-instrumental and anti-mechanistic. I would like to cultivate a discourse which deals with the motivation, the aesthetic benefits, the almost physiological processes of perception, but also the wilful staging, the theatricality of expressing what happens in the mind, the eye and the hand. … The project, if it could be pursued as I hope to demonstrate, would bring studio technique into the heartland of scholarship in the humanities.’

Nelson writes knowledgeably and generously on delightfully mundane topics, validating painterly excitement at painterly preoccupations: on drawing, on composition, on edges, on shadow. Yet he is able to articulate better than most artists what it is that is so thrilling and relevant about these topics: that painting, not merely writing, may be ‘a vehicle for discourse’ (2010: 10); that ‘drawing, in short, is a deliberateness in seeing which declares itself and argues what it wants to define’ (2010: 55), that it ‘manifests your will to possess intellectually’ (2010: 54).

Every time I pick this book up I am filled afresh with new thoughts directly related to the practice of painting, and intellectually energised as well. We can speak clearly, intelligently and unashamedly about the physical and visual aspects of our work, not just about concepts and symbols and statements. For our work does make investigations by means other than words and symbols, and we would do well to argue for the standing of our visual language.


Salvador Dali: Diary of a genius, an autobiography

The diaries of artists are pure gold. Sometimes they divulge their painting secrets, or elaborate on what, specifically, drives them wild about Rubens, or, as in the case of Dali, bestow an entire philosophy upon you. ‘The uniform is essential in order to conquer,’ Dali (1966: 53) proclaims (Dali only makes proclamations. This is in itself a lesson). ‘Throughout my life, the occasions are very rare when I have abased myself to civilian clothes. I am always dressed in the uniform of Dali.’ And to a young man who is willing to accept the sort of despicable, filthy, poverty-stricken life an artist is expected to lead he admonishes with devilish wisdom (1966: 53-4):

‘If you want to eat beans and bread every day, it will be very expensive. You must earn it by working very hard. On the other hand, if you can get used to living on caviar and champagne, it doesn’t cost a thing.’

He smiles stupidly and thinks I am joking. …

‘Caviar and champagne are things that are offered you free by certain very distinguished ladies, wonderfully perfumed and surrounded by the most beautiful furniture in the world. But to get them, you must be quite different from the you who comes to see Dali with dirty fingernails, while I have received you in uniform.’

Dali, Salvador. 1966 [1964]. Diary of a genius, an autobiography. Trans. Michel Déon. Picador: London.


Ernst H. Gombrich: The story of art

When you find this ubiquitous book for a couple of quid in a charity shop, buy it immediately. The Viennese-born, Oxford-dwelling, self-professed non-art-historian wrote this book as honestly and clearly as he could, intending it to avoid the hormonal scorn of the teenage audience for whom it was written, and to whom the book intends to introduce art. The premise of this book is that ‘there really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists’ (1972: 4) and that a history of artists thus reveals a saga of cosmically different aims and forces. Gombrich trips lightly and eagerly over his words, ever able to see merit in the visual works of humankind. It’s impossible not to get caught up in his enthusiasm for and appreciation of our varied collective efforts. Everything has its place–and time, rather than linearly measuring our progress, merely greets us with different demands. Learn to truly appreciate art, to discover the joy of paintings and sculpture and architecture, and instantly become ten times smarter.

Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art. Twelfth ed. Phaidon: Oxford.


John Dewey: Art as experience

This surprising book throws heavy punches. It clearly expresses the things about art that make you angry and explains why they should go away. It could only hurt your foes more if you socked them in the face with it.

First of all, Dewey discusses the mysteriousness of art—its detachment from life, its artificial isolation in museums, its role of showcasing imperial conquests. Rather than being removed from our experience, he argues, art should be in the thick of it: it should be the very substance of our lives. ‘The times when select and distinguished objects are closely connected with the products of usual vocations,’ he argues (1934: 6), ‘are the times when appreciation of the former is most rife and most keen. When, because of their remoteness, the objects acknowledged by the cultivated to be works of fine art seem anemic to the mass of people, esthetic hunger is likely to seek the cheap and the vulgar.’ If we live in a world of cheap thrills and throwaway entertainment, it is because we have been told we can’t have nice things, locking them away as mysterious artefacts of Art.

Dewey also addresses the strange introspective tendencies of contemporary artists. Not only has art been excluded from ordinary experience, but ‘because of changes in industrial conditions the artist has been pushed to one side from the main streams of active interest’ (1934: 9). The non-integrated modern artist is forced to turn to ‘a peculiar esthetic “individualism”’—relying on ever more obscure ‘self-expression’ (1934: 9). Art becomes even more foreign to ordinary experience. Seriously, is anyone reading this book?

And in case you were willing to defend art’s reincarnation as ‘self-expression,’ Dewey has a few sucker-punches lined up for thoughtless paint-spilling, which he considers little more than ‘discharge’ (1934: 62):

‘To discharge is to get rid of, to dismiss; to express is to stay by, to carry forward in development, to work out to completion. A gush of tears may bring relief, a spasm of destruction may give outlet to inward rage. But where there is no administration of objective conditions, no shaping of materials in the interest of embodying the excitement, there is no expression. What is sometimes called an act of self-expression might better be termed one of self-exposure; it discloses character—or lack of character—to others. In itself, it is only a spewing forth.’

Dewey demands serious and honest thought from artists, and sees their intellectual processes as differing only in emphasis from that of the scientist (1934: 15). The main difference between the intelligent artist and the scientist is her medium: rather than working in abstracted symbols, ‘the artist does his thinking in the very qualitative media he works in, and the terms lie so close to the object that he is producing that they merge directly into it’ (1934: 16).

The only question left to ask is, how did art fester into the hideous mess presently molesting our eyes while this book has been kicking around for eighty years?

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.


David Galensen: Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity

If you are discouraged at not yet being famous, this soberly-written book ought to give you a good dose of optimism and dispel a lot of silly ideas about creativity and inspiration. Instead of resorting to wild speculation, Galenson has spent years doing research into the way artists work and describes two broad approaches. He calls them the ‘conceptual’ (or deductive) and the ‘experimental’ (inductive). In identifying whether you are good at quickly synthesising ideas and conceiving entirely new ones out of them, or whether you are consumed by a single idea which drives all your investigations, or rather somewhere along this spectrum, you will free yourself from expectations and judgements that don’t actually apply to you. And that means you can just get down to work instead of taping brazen Picasso quotes to your wall.

‘Aptitude and ambition are more important factors in allowing people to make contributions to a chosen discipline than the ability to think and work in any particular way, either deductively or inductively.’ (2006: 166).

Galensen, David W. 2006. Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity. Princeton University Press: Princeton.


Kenneth Clark: The nude: A study of ideal art

I am steadily drawing my way through this book. Not all nudes were created alike, and as you progress through this book you will gain an appreciation for the subtleties of purpose that the bared human form has risen to meet. ‘The English language, with its elaborate generosity,’ Clark (1985: 1) gushes at the outset, ‘distinguishes between the naked and the nude.’ From the outset, he is at pains to emphasise that the nude, rather than being the very essence of art, is ‘an art form invented by the Greeks in the 5th century B.C., just as opera is an art form invented in 17th-century Italy’ (1985: 3).

Our artistic tradition is heavily shaped by the elegant foundation laid by the Greeks, and not just through their mythology. I have been amazed, however, at how the gods and goddesses effortlessly step from one role into another—with lion-skin-wearing Hercules transforming into the honey-eating-from-inside-the-lion Samson, with Apollo and David interchangeable youthful heroes in the mind of Michelangelo. But beneath the stories themselves lies the earthy Greek philosophy which embodies every idea and passion in human form (1985: 20; 21):

‘The Greeks attached great importance to their nakedness. … It implies the conquest of an inhibition which oppresses all but the most backward people; it is like a denial of original sin.’

Of course, the other half of our heritage is the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the nude suffers painfully under the Christian worldview, disrupted though never entirely abandoned (1985: 203): ‘While the Greek nude began with the heroic body proudly displaying itself on the palestra, the Christian nude began with the huddled body cowering in consciousness of sin.’ The awkwardness of our artistic tradition seems to rest on this unhappy marriage of earthy and heavenly philosophies.

Don’t expect a dry historical account of statues, though. Clark winds back and forth, attending in turn to Apollo and Venus, energy and pathos, ecstasy and the grotesque. The book is full of pictures to copy in the absence of life models, and will open your eyes when you return to the gallery to dutifully copy from the antique.

Clark, Kenneth. 1985 [1956]. The nude: A study of ideal art. Penguin: London.



Words, words, words. Time to draw.



Three (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

Three (oil on linen) © Samantha Groenestyn

I’m thinking a little more, as I’m painting, back in Brisbane, of shadows and the way they cradle and nudge the light. Not just as blank shapes, jagged voids piercing a picture, but as quiet and thoughtful terrain in their own right, and as the unshakeable support for the regions washed in light.

Nelson (p. 159) questions the modernist preference for light. ‘Things which stand out are privileged over conditions which recede,’ he writes, ‘but upon which the outstanding paradoxically depends. Shadow is relegated to the background, as though it were not integral to the image.’ He calls this modernist bias ‘photocentricity’ (p. 159), considering it the symbol of our current artistic malaise; a retina-burning dependence on flood-lit, full-chroma colours ignoring the gentle nuances of recesses folding away from the gaze, the hushed down-planes and the subdued forms shying away from the light. The quiet mystery of the dark side of the moon. Our pictures are flatter, brighter, and possibly rely more often on crisp linework to divide form from form, with shadows seeming heavy and mood-killing; overly dramatic. Modern comics, drawn on digital tablets and coloured boldly. Modern illustrations, wispy and watercoloured. The modern aesthetic is as light-obsessed as a moth.

The great eighteenth-century Western project wears the title baldly and proudly: the enlightenment extolls ‘light as intelligence and shadow as ignorance,’ (Nelson, p. 161). Shadows are dubious, guileful and deceptive. We want back-lit, fluorescent, LED brilliance, lighting our paths and shining the way forward.

In physics, one can create light by constructing electric currents and attaching filaments and such, and, in a more abstract sense, one can fill a space with light. But it is nonsensical to talk of filling a space with dark—shadow is the natural default which science allows us to manipulate. Painting equalises this bias—the painter creates shadows in just the same way as she creates light. This is the sort of super power you want to make good use of.

Campagna di Roma. Grabmal der Caecilia Metella, 1894. (c) Rudolf Bacher; Belvedere Wien.

Campagna di Roma. Grabmal der Caecilia Metella, 1894. (c) Rudolf Bacher; Belvedere Wien.

In the Lower Belvedere I found myself mesmerised by the subdued, neutral colours of Rudolf Bacher’s Campagna di Roma – Grabmal der Caecilia Metella. The girl is described with delicate modelling, her skin soft and pink, her blue dress airy in the breeze, but she rests completely in shade. Her understated colours are set starkly against the bright void of sky, the light, for once, supporting the shadow. Again, Bacher’s Redeemed, seemingly softly lit, but defiantly in shadow as evinced by the brilliant shape on the wall cast by light pouring through the window. I’ve wanted to toy with these ideas, accepting that though light is ever present, it might not reveal the truth, and it certainly doesn’t hold the secrets.


Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.