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Morning musings: speaking the ‘unspeakable’(the non-verbal activity of painting)

"so what kind of painting do you do?"

Homestead from the series “Landscape under Fire”, mixed media and oil, on Belgian linen.

W = 110 cm x H = 172 cm, signed: nash




I decided to postpone the subject of Time - it can/may wait its turn, because I now have a direction for my musings - let’s say my meandering thoughts now have a composition(or rather a list of connected themes). The distinctness of painting as a pursuit and its unique position as a learning tool for human understanding, makes it appealing to both practitioners and art lovers.

So, for today I selected notes from: What Painting Is, a book by James Elkins(2000),

Rutledge, NY.

Elkins’s selected comments are a good follow-up to my last blog: Smoosh and Schmear: an appropriate language to describe paint matter and brushstrokes (current jargon = “mark-making”).


“To an artist, a picture is both a sum of ideas and a blurry memory of ‘pushing paint’, breathing fumes, dripping oils and wiping brushes, smearing and diluting and mixing. Bleary preverbal thoughts are intermixed, rush, a speed and insistence in the face of mindless matter: and it does so at the same moment, and in the same thought, as it captures the expression of a face”.

“Recently, some art historians have become more interested in what paint can say. They suggest that since art history and criticism are so adept at thinking about what paint represents (that is, the stories and subjects, and the artists and their patrons), then it should also be possible to write something about the paint itself. What kinds of problems, and what kinds of meanings, happen in the paint? Or as one historian puts it, What is thinking in painting, as opposed to thinking about painting? These are important questions, and they are very hard to answer using the language of art history”.


“So this is not a book about paintings, but about the act of painting, and the kinds of thought that are taken to be embedded in paint itself. Paint records the most delicate gesture and the most tense. It tells whether the painter sat or stood or crouched in front of the canvas. Paint is a cast made of the painter’s movements, a portrait of the painter’s body and thoughts. The muddy moods of oil paints are the painter’s muddy humours, and it”s brilliant transformation, and unexpected discoveries. Painting is an unspoken and largely un-recognized dialogue, where paint speaks silently in masses and colours and the artist responds in moods. All those meanings are intact in the paintings that hang in museums: they preserve the memory of the tired bodies that made them, the quick jabs, the exhausted truces, the careful nourishing gestures. Painters can sense those motions in paint even before they notice what the paintings are about. Paint is water and stone, and it is also liquid thought. That is an essential fact that art history misses….”


“A painter knows what to do by the tug of the brush as it pulls through a mixture of oils, and by the look of coloured slurries on the palette. Drawing is a matter of touch: the pressure of the charcoal on the slightly yielding paper, the sticky slip of the oil crayon between the fingers. Artists become expert in distinguishing between degrees of gloss and wetness - and they do so without knowing how they do it,…..”the texture strokes are themselves built up in layers, and the layering went on continuously and without premeditated method until the paintings reached the magical point where it became impossible to tell how they had been painted. In Monet, as in other very different painters, part of the object is to work until it is no longer possible to tell what paint is on top and what is underneath.”


“Long years spent in the studio can make a person into a treasury of nearly incommunicable knowledge about the ‘powderiness’ of pastels, or the woody feel of different marbles...that kind of knowledge is very hard to pass on, and it is certainly not expressed well in books on artist’s techniques”. As every artist knows, a single brush mark can never be retrieved: if it is painted over, it is gone, and no matter how many times the same hand passes over the same inch of canvas, the mark can never be reproduced.


“I am using very small details of paintings in this book to make the point that meaning does not depend on what the paintings are about: it is there at a lower level, in every inch of a canvas. Substances occupy the mind by invading it with thoughts of the artist’s body at work. A brushstroke is an exquisite record of the speed and force of the hand that made it, and of what I see. Painting is scratching, scraping, waving, jabbing, pushing, and dragging....”


Well done James. There is no point in me mumbling what another states so eloquently.

For an excellent example of a painter immersed in paint, try looking up the British painter Frank Auerbach. There is a painterly lineage of British painters David Bomberg, to Francis Bacon, to Lucian Freud, to Frank Auerbach.


I’ll leave you with a quote from T. S Eliot applicable to painting: “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood”.


Next up sometime soon: How to look at a painting…



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