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February 26, 2003

Oil Painting and Sex


I hear you're doing some oil painting. A bit daunting, isn't it, with paints and medium and turpentine and all. I've done oil painting, although I was never systematically instructed in it (another legacy of going to a contemporary art school.) I remember being quite frustrated by the complexity of oil-paint "logistics" when I was first forced to confront them. And I'll admit that over the years I've had a few paintings go down into a death spiral when I simply couldn't get parts of them to dry in a reasonable time frame. Of course, I seem to have a strange fascination with painting wet-into-wet, which can create some dazzling passages when it's working but invites problems when its not. As a result, I've generally chosen to paint in acrylic, since I know it'll dry pretty fast and I won't be smelling up the house with turpentine. The downside of spending time painting in acrylics is that it hasn't trained me to pay close attention to the whole very important issue of thick paint vs. thin paint, smooth-paint vs. textured-paint which is a natural part of oil painting.

I gained a greater interest in this particular painting issue when I recently visited a traveling show of the Phillips collection at the Phoenix Art Museum. I spent my time in the exhibit looking at how the paintings were painted and how that process impacted their sense of space. I also tried to figure out why the painters had chosen to paint them the way they did, although this is a much tougher intellectual problem.

For example, I know that early in his career Monet often started his paintings with thin, semi transparent washes which he then overlaid with heavier, more textural touches. [Note from an irritated art-school student: "Classic" or 1870s Impressionism is all about layering--don't let sloppy instructors pawn off that nonsense on you about broken brushstrokes being the essence of the Impressionist style. As a practical matter, broken brushwork won't work unless it's been set up by layering. Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.] In painting this way, Monet was following "standard" oil painting practice, since the human eye perceives heavily textured objects as close at hand, while distant objects are much more purely visual, like thin washes of color (objects in the distance always have a kind of watercolor-y look). Granted, Monet applied more visible brushstrokes (both thick-and-meaty and runny-uneven) than was standard in his day, but he was still respecting the process and visual principle of thin/distant and thick/close.

Then, as he got older, he started to use heavy, chalky paint throughout his image. There's a grey-day landscape looking over cliffs along the Normandy seacoast and then out to sea in the Phillips collection (painted around 1890, I think) which was a bit startling. Although it "read" properly in the line drawing sense, when you squinted at the painting and deliberately ignored the "subject matter" the whole painting sort of bulged forward around the linear elements. The painting didn't really recede, it came forward like dough rising in a bread pan. What was weird is that the distant sea and sky bulged out as much as the foreground cliff. I didn't really like the effect, and I'm still trying to fit it in with other things I know about Monet's life and practice in his post-"Classic Impressionist" period: his deliberate elimination of people from his paintings, his retreat to the his garden and his water lillies, his embrace of modern technology (he owned a car), his rather cynical use of patriotic French subject matter like haystacks and Cathedrals to pump up his prices...hmmm, maybe I just find him too damn ego-centric: as an older man, he seems to have been disinterested in anything much other than his own painterly playpen. Perhaps the illusion of depth--at least in a male painter--is all about sex and penetration, and Monet (once his biological imperatives were satisfied) just retreated to a sort of infantile universe.

In contrast, a monochromatic sketch by Constable which hung nearby--also very "impressionistic"--worked differently. Constable kept to thin, dilute dark washes to show a tree-shadowed river boring back into the canvas, while he used rough, textured white paint to convey the brilliance of light. Of course this confuses the standard scheme a bit, since most of the (very distant) sky was thick white paint, as were highlights on nearby objects. No matter how you squinted at it, however, there was no way that the painting went flat; and after a while you got used to the idea that the "sky" was in front of the objects and not behind them--apparently that's just how Constable felt it to be--the light leaping forward to smack him in the retina.

Psychologically, I find this is consistent with my painterly depth = sex hypothesis above, since I've always felt that Constable was, and remained, a strongly sexed man throughout his life (which makes his obvious grief at outliving his wife even more poignant.)

P. Cezanne, Self Portrait, 1878-80

And then I got to Cezanne, that zaney weirdo. Being able to see a great self portrait--in the flesh, so to speak--helped me to understand what his art in a way no amount of looking at reproductions of his work can match (including, sadly, the thumbnail above). The painting is quite simple; Cezanne is sitting at a 45 degree angle to the picture plane, so his right shoulder is the closest thing to you. Behind him appears to be a blank wall. Our point of view is close enough to him that the painting is only bust-length. Spatially, the painting is apparently straightforward--a catalogue of items from near to far--shoulder, head, wall. But Cezanne doesn't use the standard thick-to-thin paint, near-to-far schema. For one thing, he's always using a lot of medium--there are no touches of "chalky" paint at all (and people reproach John Singer Sargent for drowning his paints!) But that's not all.

P. Cezanne, Self Portrait, 1878-80 (Details: Shoulder, Face, Background)

The nearest item, Cezanne's right shoulder, is painted with thin dark washes--normally used to indicate recession (as in Constable above.) Moreover, it is so thinly painted that a lot of the canvas is at best stained, or left blank. Then his head is indicated with thicker paint, although it is still so dilute with medium that it retains a somewhat liquid appearance, almost as though the hills and valleys of his face might shift at any minute. (The effect is quite elegant; it would have been at home in a society portrait.) Then the wall behind him is quite fully covered with paint, and in places is even "built up" with lighter paint to a certain degree of tonal drama--the light-dark contrast in parts of the wall is almost as strong as anything in his face. So even though the portrait "reads" properly (because we all know how human bodies orient themselves in space) and because the tonal schema is plausible, the paint--applied in this oscillating, contradictory fashion--tells a different story. Instead of spatial clarity, it is shouting spatial ambiguity. Maybe this painting helps us understand Cezanne's unhappy sex life.

So have fun in your oil painting class--and remember, how you paint may say a good deal about you...!



posted by Friedrich at February 26, 2003


I'm semi-enjoying my oil-painting class. Surprised how much it's like cooking -- that same sense of playing with organic ingredients in order to come up with a treat for the senses. (It'll be years before any of my paintings are treats for the senses...) I like all that: organic, scrumptious, tactile. The going-to-a-hell-of-a-lot-of-trouble and putting-up-with-smells-and-poisonous-things I'm not so crazy about. (Note to self: buy a bunch of surgical gloves. Turpentine on hands=skin rash.)

I have a theory (maybe to be blogged about someday, maybe not) that the field or artform you wind up in is usually less a matter of something you're dying to do and more a matter of being able to put up with it. Maybe the field you wind up in generally. There was so much I simply couldn't put up with as a kid in school, for instance. I was pretty good at a lot of subjects, but could only stay awake and semi-interested in a few. Guess where I wound up? And it wasn't out of what I'd think of as drive.

The arts (doing 'em, not thinking about 'em) have always been an annoyance, or a puzzle anyway, because much as I enjoy the doing, the people in most of the fields are a pain. Acting? Loved it, but actors are sweet and sexy but completely self-absorbed and emptyheaded. Drawing and painting? I enjoy the talents of visual people but find the spoiled-brat attitudes and near-total lack of verbal articulateness a drag. Movies? The moviebiz was just full of the worst people I ever met in my life. So I sit at home at night, dicking around with my Imac, wondering if there'll ever be an art form I can fully enjoy.

Hey, I wonder what the pottery world is like...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 26, 2003 2:02 PM

Fine post!

Another artist to look at, especially given your headline, is Cecily Brown. She brings a female touch, eye and tactility to sex in a completely painterly way. She's in the Directions show up at the Hirshhorn right now, and she has a solo show that is either up or just closed at Gagosian Beverly Hills.

Posted by: Tyler Green on February 26, 2003 4:42 PM

Cecily's paintings are sexy stuff indeed, and I discovered her work through Tyler's superb blog Modern Art Notes. Check it out here:

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 26, 2003 5:35 PM

Hmm, thinking about what my oil-painting style may reveal about my sex preferences ...

Well, not coming up with much. Beyond carelessness, ineptitude and mess, that is. I notice the Wife nodding her agreement...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 26, 2003 9:14 PM


Posted by: MOJAN on April 20, 2003 1:15 AM

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