Wednesday, 18 June 2008

How unfinished your painting should be

This article was first published in my newsletter "Notes From My French Easel" – May 2008.

During a visit at the Neue Pinakothek in Munich I was struck by one of Monet’s paintings titled “The bridge at Argenteuil” (1874). This work is located near the entrance of the room and I therefore saw it close-up first. I could see the raw canvas apparent in many places: in the sky, in the foreground and in the reflection of one of pillars of the bridge. Monet used a thin layer of paint apart for the light boat hull in the foreground, which were painted with great vigour if not with much detail. The work is signed and dated in the lower right corner so, at least in Monet’s mind, there was no doubt it was a finished painting. After looking at this painting for some time, I carried on with my visit around the room. When I reached the opposite side of the room and turned back, my eye caught Monet’s painting again. From afar, not only the painting looked finished but it appeared full of details I knew were just marks on the canvas. The illusion was perfect.

I have had this experience several times when visiting museums and exhibitions. What I have learnt is that, as an artist, you need to leave room for your viewer to fill-in. By not showing everything, an artist can get his audience more engaged with his work and involved in the creative process.

What factors are at play when it comes to the finished or unfinished look of a painting?

I would discount ability as being relevant. There are numerous examples of masters painting in a loose way by choice rather than because of any skill limitation.

History should be considered:

  • The degree of finish of paintings has varied over time. Modern taste is more accustomed to a freer touch and does not see an unfinished look as untidiness. Jonathan Mayne, in the introduction he wrote for C.R. Leslie’s book “Memoir of the life of John Constable”, explains how Constable was ahead of his time in this respect:

    “The lack of ‘finish’, for which he was constantly criticized during his lifetime, has if anything enhanced his present-day popularity, and the pendulum has swung so far that the oil-studies, which he made as preliminaries to his larger paintings, not only are superior to the complete work, but were considered to be so by Constable himself.”

  • Portrait painting was probably the first genre to introduce free strokes in the background. The emphasis being on the face of the sitter (and his hands if they are painted), the rest can be executed in broad strokes that reinforce the intricate work of the portrait itself.

  • The advent of photography has in many respects influenced the degree of finish in paintings. First of all, photography liberated painting of its duty to record reality in a photographic manner. In addition, a photograph tightly focused on the subject let the background blurred and brought home the idea that the background can be almost abstract.

  • Maturity and the evolution of an artist personal style are determining factors. Paul Signac in “The subject in painting” observed that, as artists get older and more experienced, they tend to simplify their painting and go to the essential. As an illustration, he compared two versions of the same subject “Norham Castle on the Tweed” painted by Turner in 1815 and then again in 1835. A castle which was painted with great details in the first painting is merely suggested in the later one. The second painting has more strength, more drama. In the same way, Monet painted the water lilies series at the end of his life and went beyond the subject, towards a stronger yet looser sense of colours, shapes and textures. Signac summarizes this effect of maturity in the following way:
    “The more advanced an artist gets into his career, the more he masters his craft, and the more he understands the necessity to repudiate picturesque, to sacrifices it to pictorial qualities. He does not fall into all the delicious traps that nature plants everywhere; he distrusts postcard picturesque; he realizes the uselessness and danger of the useless and contradictory details that present themselves to him. He ignores anything that is not essential; he tends towards simplicity and synthesis; he moves away from anything that does not contribute to create drama.”
    Simple does not mean simplistic and it takes a great deal of work to convey the richness of reality in a simple way.

Finally, a certain degree of imperfection is the mark of human nature. Although I may admire the craft involved, I am not often moved by hyper-realistic paintings or works of art which present a mechanical perfection. They lack a human touch, a wild mark that says: “I am free”. Nobody expressed this idea better than John Ruskin in his book “On Art and Life”:
“Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.”

Related resources

Penguin Great Ideas : On Art And Life by John Ruskin

No comments: