Painting in Contemporary Art
On first seeing a photograph around 1840, the influential French painter Paul Delaroche proclaimed, 'From today, painting is dead!'. As it turns out the demise of painting was greatly exaggerated, and it continues to be one of the key methods of creating contemporary art.Read More
The term usually refers to the application of a coloured pigment to a static supporting surface (i.e. oil on canvas, acrylic on linen, or watercolour on plaster panel) using a tool (like a brush, palette knife, airbrush, roller, silk screen or digital printer). In terms of fine art, the term is usually associated with the expression of emotions and ideas in a two dimensional form, often on a flat surface, using media such as oil or acrylic paint.
If innovation is desired, then the above definition can be radically broadened, especially when expanding notions of what the applied substance may be; the textural or linear qualities of the tool; or the absorbent, frictional or conceptual nature of the supporting surface. Such experimentation is a 20th-century mindset, and is part of the ethos of modernism (emphasising materiality) and postmodernism (introducing ideational content by referencing art history or unusual methods).
Then there is the nature of the image itself—whether it is figurative, realistic, abstract, symbolic, narrative, appropriated or process-based—and what it might represent or mean to the viewer. If text, photographs, movement or audio are included, the work may remain a painting if that is the artist's intention.
The Western history of painting can be traced back to cave paintings, to 15th century artists such as Jan van Eyck and Robert Campin, and of course to Leonardo da Vinci. In the 19th century Impressionist painters like Monet, Pissarro and Sisley rendered the effects of light across both figurative painting and landscape painting in a shimmering manner. Instead of constructing their work in a studio using watercolour studies or pastel sketches on paper, painters began working on their canvases directly—outside and with the chosen vista in view.
During the following decades of post-Impressionism, oil painting methods like impasto (thickly applied paint) with artists like van Gogh, pointillism (dots of colour) with Seurat, and scumbling (thin agitated brush marks) with Bonnard and Vuillard began to emphasise the picture-plane, stressing the object-ness of the painting. New materials, formal qualities and subject-matters soon began to appear, along with an abandonment of traditional perspectival space.
In the early 20th century, European Western art incorporated paper collage (Cubists Picasso, Gris, Braque), intensely saturated colour (Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck), non-objective abstraction (Mondrian, Malevich, Kandinsky) and angular bodies (Expressionists Heckel and Kirchner). In the 1950s in the United States, Abstract Expressionism grew out of Surrealism's interest in the unconscious, but moved away from symbolic imagery towards sweeping gestural marks (Kline, de Kooning), shapes (Motherwell), dribbled lines on a horizontal loose canvas (Pollock), and stained stretchers (Rothko, Frankenthaler). In this period, artists used many kinds of oil paint, even those developed for house exteriors, and also other water-soluble paints
After World War Two, acrylic polymer paints appeared, becoming popular with painters like Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland because they were quick-drying, penetrated the canvas weave when diluted and didn't rot supports. In the 1980s, with the ascendency of the post-Modernist quoting of historic styles or iconic images (Imants Tillers, Juan Davila) and postcolonial embracing of symbolic materials and anti-Eurocentric conceptualist structures (Gordon Bennett, Eugenio Dittborn), traditional painting techniques and subject-matters were no longer dominant, and other disciplines like photography, performance and film-making rapidly became popular art forms.
Today a painting need not be an exclusive activity. A work of art can be both a painting and sculpture. Painting can be combined with any number of other projects like video, installation or performance, or be part of the mixed media applied to an art work, and extend to a collaboration with researchers in other disciplines such as science or political activism. The days of an atelier apprenticeship are gone. With digital processes, a laptop is as good as a studio.