Monday, January 31, 2011

Brushwork and Color

Brushwork is a bit of an enigma to a lot of people, it certainly was, and to a certain extent still is, to me. I think that, for many individuals, brushwork only conjures up specific types of brushwork such as Sargent's but there really is so much variety that it isn't quite so simple and to learn brushwork from a teacher is to really only learn a style of brushwork but not the organic decision-making process we really need. It's primarily that decision making process (not a technique, not formulaic) that defines the application and thus the look of the brushwork. Granted, certain techniques in paint such as wet-on-wet or wet-on-dry, contribute to the final effect but they are part of this decision-making process. So we can make different decisions for the same subject depending on a number of factors. I've heard a lot of teachers/artists, say "it's just shape, value and color" as if to say it's that simple. What they don't emphasize is that based on what shapes, values and colors you see (which can change drastically depending on body shifts, how long you look at something and other factors) and then based on your decisions to emphasize or focus on specific aspects, this then translates to shapes, values and colors on your canvas/surface. There is a tremendous equation and gap between the things you see and then what you paint, REGARDLESS of how realistic or abstract your painting is.

This quick and broad sketch of a skull in my studio was done with pretty large brushes (greater than 1/2 inch) for a relatively small sketch (painted height of skull is no more that 5 inches). This limitation of brush size directly affected the color and values used, on top of the color and value design choices I had already made. Just like a pointilist approach affects the available color choices ( by allowing for purer colors to blend optically), a broader approach creates different limitations/design potential. So, in this case, I had intially chosen to push the yellow color caused partially by the light source and the skull itself but, because I had larger brushes I was restricted from pushing the light effect (of color) any further as this would have conflicted with the bigger brush strokes (i.e. there would have been a discontinuity of color across the skull). When I refer to discontinuity I'm referring to the fact the skull is essentially the same local color throughout. The more you push atmospheric color the more difficult it is to represent the concept of the object having a local color. In many Impressionist paintings like Monet's, since the atmospheric effect of color is the main goal, the local colors are subjugated to serve this concept and the brushwork is chosen to push that atmospheric look. Had I wanted more of that in my sketch I would have had to reduce the brush size or scale up the sketch.

So brushwork is not an entity unto itself, it is connected to many other factors and choices, one major one is color (in color painting, of course). To pursue brushwork without the knowledge of such factors and without a personal decision making process is to become mechanical and technique driven vs. idea driven. You need that process in order to create a look that YOU want and that fits your temperament and the project itself.

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