n the Western tradition, painting is the queen of the arts. Ask ten people to
form a quick mental image of “art,” and nine of them are likely to visualize
a painting. There are several reasons for the prominence of painting. For
one thing, paintings usually are full of color, which is a potent visual stimulus. For another, paintings usually are framed, some quite elaborately, so that
one has the impression of a precious object set off from the rest of the world.
Even without a frame, a painting may seem a thing apart—a focus of energy
and life, a universe unto itself. Whatever the painting shows, it establishes its
own visual scope, sets its own rules.
If we consider some of the earliest cave images, especially the more elaborate and colorful ones, to be paintings, then the art has been practiced for at
least thirty thousand years. During that long history the styles of painting have
changed considerably, as have the media in which paintings are done—the
physical substances the painter uses. In the latter case it might be more accurate to say broadened, rather than changed, for few media have been completely abandoned, while many new options have been added to the painter’s
To begin this discussion of painting, we should deﬁne some terms that allow us to understand how, physically, such a work of art is put together. Paint
is made of pigment, powdered color, compounded with a medium or vehicle,
a liquid that holds the particles of pigment together without dissolving them.
The vehicle generally acts as or includes a binder, an ingredient that ensures
that the paint, even when diluted and spread thinly, will adhere to the surface.
Without a binder, pigments would simply powder off as the paint dried.
Artists’ paints are generally made to a pastelike consistency and need to
be diluted in order to be brushed freely. Aqueous media can be diluted with
water. Watercolors are an example of an aqueous medium. Nonaqueous media require some other diluent. Oil paints are an example of a nonaqueous
medium; these can be diluted with turpentine or mineral spirits. Paints are applied to a support, which is the canvas, paper, wood panel, wall, or other surface on which the artist works. The support may be prepared to receive paint
with a ground or primer, a preliminary coating.
It is impossible to tell which painting medium is the oldest, but we know
that ancient peoples mixed their pigments with such things as fat and honey.
Two techniques perfected in the ancient world that are still in use today are
encaustic and fresco, and we begin our discussion with them.
Encaustic paints consist of pigment mixed with wax and resin. When the colors are heated, the wax melts and the paint can be brushed easily. When the
wax cools, the paint hardens. After the painting is completed, there may be a
ﬁnal “burning in” as a heat source is passed close to the surface of the painting to fuse the colors.
Literary sources tell us that encaustic was an important technique in
ancient Greece (the word encaustic comes from the Greek for “burning in”).
The earliest encaustic paintings to have survived, however, are funeral portraits created during the ﬁrst centuries of our era in Egypt, which was then
under Roman rule (7.1). Portraits such as this were set into the casings of
mummiﬁed bodies to identify and memorialize the dead (see 14.33). The colors of this painting, almost as fresh as the day they were set down, testify to
the permanence of encaustic.
The technique of encaustic was forgotten within a few centuries after the
fall of the Roman Empire, but it was redeveloped during the 19th century,
partly in response to the discovery of the Roman-Egyptian portraits. One of
the foremost contemporary artists to experiment with encaustic is Jasper
Johns (7.2). Numbers in Color is painted in encaustic over a collage of paper
on canvas. Encaustic allowed Johns to build up a richly textured paint surface
(think of candle drippings and you will get the idea). Moreover, wax will not
harm the paper over time as oil paint would.
With fresco, pigments are mixed with water and applied to a plaster support,
usually a wall or a ceiling coated in plaster. The plaster may be dry, in which
case the technique is known as fresco secco, Italian for “dry fresco.” But most
often when speaking about fresco, we mean buon fresco, “true fresco,” in
which paint made simply of pigment and water is applied to wet lime plaster.
As the plaster dries, the lime undergoes a chemical transformation and acts as
a binder, fusing the pigment with the plaster surface.
Fresco is above all a wall-painting technique, and it has been used for
large-scale murals since ancient times. Probably no other painting medium
requires such careful planning and such hard physical labor. The plaster can
be painted only when it has the proper degree of dampness; therefore, the
artist must plan each day’s work and spread plaster only in the area that can
be painted in one session. (Michelangelo could cover about 1 square yard of
wall or ceiling in a day.) Work may be guided by a full-size drawing of the
entire project called a cartoon. Once the cartoon is ﬁnalized, its contour lines
are perforated with pinprick-size holes. The drawing is transferred to the prepared surface by placing a portion of the cartoon over the damp plaster and
rubbing pigment through the holes. The cartoon is then removed, leaving dotted lines on the plaster surface. With a brush dipped in paint the artist “connects the dots” to re-create the drawing; then the work of painting begins.
There is nothing tentative about fresco. Whereas in some media the artist
can experiment, try out forms, and then paint over them to make corrections,
every touch of the brush in fresco is a commitment. The only way an artist can
correct mistakes or change the forms is to let the plaster dry, chip it away, and
start all over again.
Frescoes have survived to the present day from the civilizations of the
ancient Mediterranean (see 14.31), from China and India (see 19.6), and from
the early civilizations of Mexico. Among the works we consider the greatest of
all in Western art are the magniﬁcent frescoes of the Italian Renaissance.
7.1 (above, top) Young Woman
with a Gold Pectoral, from Fayum.
100–150 C.E. Encaustic on wood,
Musée du Louvre, Paris.
7.2 (above) Jasper Johns.
Numbers in Color. 1958–59.
Encaustic and collage on canvas,
5'61⁄2" ."2⁄11'4 ן
Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New
7.3 Raphael. The School of
Athens. 1510–11. Fresco,
26 .'81 ן
Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican,
While Michelangelo was at work on the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel
ceiling (see 16.11, 16.12), Pope Julius II asked Raphael to decorate the walls
of several rooms in the Vatican Palace. Raphael’s fresco for the end wall of the
Stanza della Segnatura, a room that may have been the Pope’s library, is considered by many to be the summation of Renaissance art. It is called The
School of Athens (7.3) and depicts the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle,
centered in the composition and framed by the arch, along with their followers and students. The “school” in question means the two schools of philosophy represented by the two Classical thinkers—Plato’s the more abstract and
metaphysical, Aristotle’s the more earthly and physical.
Everything about Raphael’s composition celebrates the Renaissance
ideals of perfection, beauty, naturalistic representation, and noble principles.
The towering architectural setting is drawn in linear perspective with the vanishing point falling between the two central ﬁgures. The ﬁgures, perhaps inﬂuenced by Michelangelo’s ﬁgures on the Sistine ceiling, are idealized—more
perfect than life, full-bodied and dynamic. The School of Athens reﬂects
Raphael’s vision of one Golden Age—the Renaissance—and connects it with
the Golden Age of Greece two thousand years earlier.
The most celebrated frescoes of the 20th century were created in
Mexico, where the revolutionary government that came into power in 1921
after a decade of civil war commissioned artists to create murals about Mexico itself—the glories of its ancient civilizations, its political struggles, its
people, and its hopes for the future. Mixtec Culture (7.4) is one of a series of
frescoes painted by Diego Rivera in the National Palace in Mexico City. Mixtec people still live in Mexico, as do descendants of all the early civilizations
of the region. The Mixtec kingdoms were known for their arts, and Rivera has
portrayed a peaceful community of artists at work. To the left, two men, probably nobles, are being ﬁtted with the elaborate ritual headdresses, masks, and
capes that were a prominent part of many ancient Mexican cultures (see
20.10, 20.12). To the right, smiths are melting and casting gold. In the foreground are potters, sculptors, feather workers, mask makers, and scribes. In
the background, people pan for gold in the stream.
7.4 Diego Rivera. Mixtec
Culture. 1942. Fresco, 16'15⁄8" ן
Palacio Nacional, Mexico City.
Tempera shares qualities with both watercolor and oil paint. Like watercolor,
tempera is an aqueous medium. Like oil paint, it dries to a tough, insoluble
ﬁlm. Yet while oil paint tends to yellow and darken with age, tempera colors
retain their brilliance and clarity for centuries. Technically, tempera is paint in
which the vehicle is an emulsion, which is a stable mixture of an aqueous
liquid with an oil, fat, wax, or resin. A familiar example of an emulsion is milk,
which consists of minute droplets of fat suspended in liquid. A derivative
of milk called casein is one of the many vehicles that can be used to make
tempera colors. The most famous tempera vehicle, however, is another naturally occuring emulsion, egg yolk. Tempera dries very quickly, and so colors
cannot be blended easily once they are set down. While tempera can be
7.5 Andrew Wyeth. That
Gentleman. 1960. Tempera on
panel, 231⁄2 ."4⁄374 ן
Dallas Museum of Art.
diluted with water and applied in a broad wash, painters who use it most commonly build up forms gradually with ﬁne hatching and cross-hatching strokes,
much like a drawing. Traditionally, tempera was used on a wood panel support
prepared with a ground of gesso, a mixture of white pigment and glue that
sealed the wood and could be sanded and rubbed to a smooth, ivorylike ﬁnish.
A 20th-century painter who has cultivated a classic tempera technique—
although not on panel—is Andrew Wyeth. His painting That Gentleman shows
the luminous qualities of the medium at their best (7.5). Executed in a
restricted palette of earth tones, That Gentleman is one of a series of paintings
that Wyeth made of friends and neighbors around the farm where he lived in
Pennsylvania. Wyeth’s patient technique seems particularly suited to evoking
the digniﬁed presence of an old man staring into the shadows, remembering.
The painter’s favorite detail was the battered pair of slippers, and he painted
a separate study of them alone. He thought they said all anyone needed to
know about the man, and that the rest of the painting was almost superﬂuous.
A different approach to tempera can be seen in the work of Jacob
Lawrence. Lawrence said he was drawn to the “raw, sharp, rough” effect of
vibrant tempera colors. Cabinet Maker (7.6) is a wonderful image of a carpenter, the curves of his powerful organic form about to burst out of the geometric shapes that constrain him. He holds the symbol of his profession, the carpenter’s square, which guarantees that his work will be true. Before him lie
more tools and a squared length of wood. At the outer edge of the carpenter’s
square and elsewhere, Lawrence allows his own ruled lines to be seen, emphasizing that he too used a straightedge in his work, and that his painting too is
a well-made thing whose parts ﬁt precisely together.
Oil paints consist of pigment compounded with oil, usually linseed oil. The oil
acts as a binder, creating as it dries a transparent ﬁlm in which the pigment is
suspended. A popular legend claims that oil painting was invented early in the
15th century by the great Netherlandish artist Jan van Eyck, who experi172
• PA I N T I N G
mented with it for this portrait (7.7). While we know now that Van Eyck did
not actually invent the medium, we still point to him as the ﬁrst important
artist to understand and exploit its possibilities. From that time and for about
ﬁve hundred years the word “painting” was virtually synonymous with “oil
painting.” Only since the 1950s, with the introduction of acrylics (discussed
later in this chapter), has the supremacy of oil been challenged.
When oil paints were ﬁrst introduced, most artists, including Jan van
Eyck, continued working on wood panels. Gradually, however, artists adopted
the more ﬂexible canvas, which offered two great advantages. For one thing,
the changing styles favored larger and larger paintings. Whereas wood panels
were heavy and liable to crack, the lighter linen canvas could be stretched to
almost unlimited size. Second, as artists came to serve distant patrons, their
canvases could be rolled up for easy and safe shipment. Canvas was prepared
by stretching it over a wooden frame, sizing it with glue to seal the ﬁbers and
protect them from the corrosive action of oil paint, and then coating it with a
white, oil-base ground. Some painters then applied a thin, transparent layer of
color over the ground, most often a warm brown or a cool, pale gray.
The outstanding characteristic of oil paint is that it dries very slowly. This
creates both advantages and disadvantages for the artist. On the plus side, it
means that colors can be blended subtly, layers of paint can be applied on top
of other layers with little danger of separating or cracking, and the artist can
rework sections of the painting almost indeﬁnitely. This same asset becomes a
liability when the artist is pressed for time—perhaps when an exhibition has
been scheduled. Oil paint dries so very slowly that it may be weeks or months
before the painting has truly “set.”
7.6 (left) Jacob Lawrence.
Cabinet Maker. 1957. Casein
tempera on paper, 301⁄2 ."2⁄122 ן
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture
Garden, Smithsonian Institution,
7.7 (right) Jan van Eyck. Man in
a Red Turban (Self-Portrait?).
1433. Tempera and oil on panel,
131⁄8 ."8⁄101 ן
The National Gallery, London.
A RT I S T S
HE NAME “HARLEM” is associated in many people’s
minds with hardship and poverty. Poverty Harlem
has always known, but during the 1920s it experienced a tremendous cultural upsurge that has come to
be called the Harlem Renaissance. So many of the
greatest names in black culture—musicians, writers,
artists, poets, scientists—lived or worked in Harlem at
the time, or simply took their inspiration from its intellectual energy. To Harlem, in about 1930, came a
young teenager named Jacob Lawrence, relocating
from Philadelphia with his mother, brother, and sister.
The ﬂowering of the Harlem Renaissance had passed,
but there remained enough momentum to help turn
the child of a poor family into one of the most distinguished American artists of his generation.
Young Lawrence’s home life was not happy, but
he had several islands of refuge: the public library, the
Harlem Art Workshop, and the Metropolitan Museum
of Art. He studied at the Harlem Art Workshop from
1932 to 1934 and received much encouragement from
two noted black artists, Charles Alston and Augusta
Savage. By the age of twenty Lawrence had begun
to exhibit his work. A year later he, like so many others, was being supported by the W.P.A. Art Project, a
government-sponsored program to help artists get
through the economic void of the Great Depression.
Even this early in his career, Lawrence had established the themes that would dominate his work.
The subject matter comes from his own experience,
from black experience: the hardships of poor people
in the ghettos, the violence that greeted blacks moving
from the South to the urban North, the upheaval of
the civil rights movement during the 1960s. Nearly always his art has a narrative content or “story,” and often the titles are lengthy. Although Lawrence did paint
individual pictures, the bulk of his production was in
series, such as The Migration Series and Theater, some
of them having as many as sixty images.
The year 1941 was signiﬁcant for Lawrence’s life
and career. He married the painter Gwendolyn
Knight, and he acquired his ﬁrst dealer when Edith
Halpert of the Downtown Gallery in New York featured him in a major exhibition. The show was successful, and it resulted in the purchase of Lawrence’s
Migration series by two important museums.
From that point Lawrence’s career prospered.
His paintings were always in demand, and he was
sought after as an illustrator of magazine covers,
posters, and books. His inﬂuence continued through
his teaching—ﬁrst at Black Mountain College in North
Carolina, later at Pratt Institute, the Art Students
League, and the University of Washington. In 1978 he
was elected to the National Council on the Arts.
Many people would call Lawrence’s paintings instruments of social protest, but his images, however
stark, have more the character of reporting than of
protest. It is as though he is telling us, “this is what
happened, this is the way it is.” What happened, of
course, happened to black Americans, and Lawrence
the world-famous painter did not seem to lose sight of
Lawrence the poor youth in Harlem. As he said, “My
belief is that it is most important for an artist to develop an approach and philosophy about life—if he
has developed this philosophy he does not put paint
on canvas, he puts himself on canvas.”1
Jacob Lawrence. Self-Portrait. 1977.
Gouache on paper, 23 ."13 ן
National Academy of Design, New York.
Another great advantage of oil is that it can be worked in an almost inﬁnite range of consistencies, from very thick to very thin. Van Eyck, for example,
did much of his painting in glazes—thin, translucent veils of color applied over
a thicker layer of underpainting. Though less often used today, glazing remained
an important technique in oil painting through the 19th century. Jean-AugusteDominique Ingres’ exquisite portrait of the Countess of Haussonville shows the
smooth, ﬂawless ﬁnish and glowing color that glazes can produce (7.8).
Painting as practiced by artists such as Van Eyck and Ingres is a slow and
time-consuming affair. The composition is generally worked out in advance
down to the least detail, then built up methodically, layer after layer. A classic
procedure is to complete the entire painting ﬁrst in black and white, a technique called grisaille (gree-ZYE), from the French for “gray.” Colored glazes
are then ﬂoated over the monochrome image, whose lights and darks show
through as modeling.
Artists who favor a more spontaneous approach may work directly in
opaque colors on the white ground, a technique sometimes called alla prima
(AHL-lah PREE-mah), Italian for “all in one go.” We can see the difference in
effect by comparing Ingres’ portrait with a painting executed some forty years
later, Berthe Morisot’s Girl Arranging Her Hair, also known as The Bath (7.9).
While Ingres’ brush strokes are nowhere to be seen, Morisot’s bold, slashing
brush strokes are an important part of her style. In places the paint is layered
quite thickly, a technique called impasto, from the Italian for “paste.” At its
7.8 (left) Jean-AugusteDominique Ingres. La Comtesse
d’Haussonville. 1845. Oil on
canvas, 517⁄8 ."61⁄363 ן
The Frick Collection, New York.
7.9 (right) Berthe Morisot. Girl
Arranging Her Hair (“The Bath”).
1885–86. Oil on canvas, 353⁄4 ן
The Sterling and Francine Clark Art
7.10 Joan Mitchell. La Grande
Vallée XVII, Carl. 1984. Oil on
canvas, 9'21⁄4" ."61⁄56'8 ן
FRAC Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.
• PA I N T I N G
most extreme, impasto can look as though the paint has been applied like
frosting on a cake—and in fact miniature spatulas and trowels are available
for just this purpose.
Morisot, like most of her Impressionist colleagues, favored broken
color. The white of the girl’s slip, for example, is made up of individual
stokes of many different whites and tinted whites, as opposed to the single,
uniform hue of Ingres’ glaze. Like Seurat’s technique of pointillism (see
4.32), broken color produces a lively, vibrant surface and mixes partially in
the viewer’s eye.
The thick, loaded brushwork that oil paint made possible added a new
expressive element to painting, and painters were quick to take advantage of
it. During the 20th century, this sort of brushwork came to be appreciated for
its own sake. The energetic brushwork of Joan Mitchell’s La Grande Vallée
XVII, Carl (7.10) is reminiscent of the background in Morisot’s painting, but
here it no longer portrays anything but itself. The title asks us to view the
painting as a kind of landscape or interpretation of a landscape. Reﬂections in
a lake, blue shadows of morning, wild ﬂowers, rain, a view through a window—all of these associations may come to mind, though the painting will
never limit us to any one of them.
Oil paint is a sensuous medium—it has a distinctive feel and a distinctive
smell—and working with it can be a pleasure in itself. The sheer joy of handling paint is part of the message of Joan Mitchell’s La Grande Vallée XVII,
Carl, and we ﬁnd it again in Elizabeth Murray’s The Lowdown (7.11). Murray
makes art from ordinary, everyday moments—listening to a record, looking
for your sneakers, running to answer the telephone. She takes her memories
of moments like these and abstracts them into lively, bulging, cartoon shapes.
She cuts the shapes from wood, covers them in canvas, and paints each one
so that it has a character all its own.
Looking at The Lowdown, we can spot a head with a watchful eye, a
raised arm, circular forms on a path, and small, scattering white forms. Are
we . . . bowling? Possibly. And perhaps there are other games going on as well.
The elements of Murray’s giddy compositions are like a toddler’s oversize puzzle pieces, except that they don’t interlock. Instead, Murray herds them into a
tottering unity, like a juggler keeping an impossible number of objects in the
air. The paintings suggest a life that is a bit chaotic, but also a lot of fun.
7.11 Elizabeth Murray. The
Lowdown. 2001. Oil on canvas on
wood, 7'4" ."2'8 ן
Courtesy PaceWildenstein Gallery,
Watercolor consists of pigment in a vehicle of water and gum arabic, a sticky
plant substance that acts as the binder. As with drawing, the most common
support for watercolor is paper. Also like drawing, watercolor is commonly
thought of as an intimate art, small in scale and free in execution. Eclipsed for
several centuries by the prestige of oil paints, watercolors were in fact often
used for small and intimate works. Easy to carry and requiring only a glass of
water for use, they could readily be taken on sketching expeditions outdoors
and were a favorite medium for amateur artists. Yet watercolors can be large
and/or painstakingly executed as well, and we should bear in mind that the
entire painting tradition of East Asia, with its monumental landscapes and
lengthy scrolls, was created with water-based colors.
The leading characteristic of watercolors is their transparency. They are
not applied thickly, like oil paints, but thinly in translucent washes. While
opaque white watercolor is available, this is reserved for special uses. More
usually, the white of the paper serves for white, and dark areas are built up
through several layers of transparent washes, which take on depth without ever
WAT E R C O L O R •
becoming completely opaque. John Singer Sargent’s Mountain Stream (7.12) is
a perfect example of what we might think of as “classic” watercolor technique.
Controlled and yet spontaneous in feeling, it gives the impression of having
been dashed off in a single sitting. The white of the paper serves for the foam
of the rushing stream, and even the shadows on the opposite shore retain a
Elizabeth Peyton makes even greater use of white paper in this watercolor
of her friend Tony asleep in a hotel bed (7.13). White sheets and white pajamas
are indicated by their contours and shadows in a dance of pale, slurpy brush
strokes. Peyton allows, and perhaps encourages, the color to run down in drips,
like rain running down a window—a good day to sleep in.
7.12 John Singer Sargent.
Mountain Stream. c. 1912–14.
Watercolor and graphite on paper,
133⁄4 ."12 ן
The Metropolitan Museum, New York.
• PA I N T I N G
Gouache is watercolor with inert white pigment added. Inert pigment is pigment that becomes colorless or virtually colorless in paint. In gouache, it
serves to make the colors opaque, which means that when used at full
strength, they can completely hide any ground or other color they are painted
over. The poster paints given to children are basically gouache, although not
of artist’s quality. Like watercolor, gouache can be applied in a translucent
wash, although that is not its primary use. It dries quickly and uniformly and
is especially well suited to large areas of ﬂat, saturated color. For example,
Indian paintings such as 3.15 and 4.42 are done in opaque watercolor,
although of a formula slightly different than gouache. The Cuban painter
Wifredo Lam exploits both the transparent and opaque possibilities of
gouache in The Jungle (7.14). Human and animal forms mingle in this fascinating work, which contains references to Santería, a Caribbean religion that
combines West African and Roman Catholic beliefs.
7.13 (above) Elizabeth Peyton.
Pierre (Tony). 2000. Watercolor on
paper, 16 ."02 ן
Collection Lorenzo Sassoli Bianchi.
Courtesy GBE (Modern) New York.
7.14 (left) Wifredo Lam. The
Jungle. 1943. Gouache on paper
mounted on canvas, 7'101⁄4" ן
The Museum of Modern Art, New
The enormous developments in chemistry during the early 20th century had an
impact in artists’ studios. By the 1930s, chemists had learned to make strong,
weatherproof, industrial paints using a vehicle of synthetic plastic resins. Artists
began to experiment with these paints almost immediately. By the 1950s,
chemists had made many advances in the new technology and had also adapted
it to artists’ requirements for permanence. For the ﬁrst time since it was developed, oil paint had a challenger as the principal medium for Western painting.
A C RY L I C •
7.15 David Hockney. Mount Fuji.
1972. Acrylic on canvas, 60 ."84 ן
The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
• PA I N T I N G
These new synthetic artists’ colors are broadly known as acrylics,
although a more exact name for them is polymer paints. The vehicle consists
of acrylic resin, polymerized (its simple molecules linked into long chains)
through emulsion in water. As acrylic paint dries, the resin particles coalesce
to form a tough, ﬂexible, and waterproof ﬁlm.
Depending on how they are used, acrylics can mimic the effects of oil
paint, watercolor, gouache, and even tempera. They can be used on both prepared or raw canvas, and also on paper and fabric. They can be layered
into a heavy impasto like oils or diluted with water and spread in translucent
washes like watercolor. Like tempera, they dry quickly and permanently.
(Artists using acrylics usually rest their brushes in water while working, for if
the paint dries on the brush, it is extremely difﬁcult to remove.)
David Hockney’s Mount Fuji illustrates two very distinct ways of working
with acrylics (7.15). The tranquil blue background with its view of the famous
mountain was created by diluting the paint to the consistency of a dye or stain
and pouring it onto unprimed white cotton canvas, which partially absorbed
the color. The vase of ﬂowers and the ledge in the foreground were painted
with brushes in a fairly heavy impasto.
Hockney presents us with an enchanted tourist’s view of Japan, focusing
on a traditional picturesque sight. From Japan itself, however, comes quite a
different sort of image, Takashi Murakami’s The Castle of Tin Tin (7.16).
Murakami uses yet another technique that acrylic paints facilitate: airbrushing, in which diluted paint is sprayed onto a surface. Here, an airbrush was
used to create the ﬂat silver background, but the technique can also produce
ﬁne, detailed images. Murakami’s style and subject matter are indebted to the
wildly popular Japanese animated cartoons and feature-length ﬁlms known as
anime. In Murakami’s hands, however, the large eyes of anime characters stare
out at us from strangely colorful mushrooms and mutating organic forms.
Murakami also links his work to what he views as the traditional Japanese
preference for ﬂatness, as opposed to the longtime Western obsession with
modeling and depth. To see what he means, compare The Castle of Tin Tin with
Toshusai Sharaku’s portrait of the famous actor Otani Oniji (8.4).
7.16 Takashi Murakami. The
Castle of Tin Tin. 1998. Acrylic on
canvas on board, 10 .'01 ן
Courtesy Blum & Poe, Los Angeles,
and Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki.
BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES
Like other traditional media, painting has been pushed in new directions by
younger artists eager to stake out fresh territory to explore. This chapter ends
by looking at two ways in which the practice of painting has been transformed
by artists questioning its boundaries, both the boundary between painting and
life, and the boundaries between painting and other media.
In representational painting, objects from the real world are transposed into
art by the hand of a painter, who creates a likeness. This seems so basic that
we rarely even consider it. Yet at the beginning of the 20th century this
assumption received a shock from which it never recovered, a jolt that opened
up an entirely new relationship between art and life. In the hands of two
extraordinary artists, objects from the real world passed directly into art without any transformation at all. The artists were Pablo Picasso and Georges
Braque, and the technique they pioneered is known as collage.
Collage is a French word that means “pasting” or “gluing.” In art, it refers
to the practice of attaching actual objects such as paper or cloth to the surface
of a canvas or other support, as well as to the resultant artwork. It was Pablo
Picasso, in the spring of 1912, who ﬁrst used the technique, pasting a piece of
patterned oilcloth onto a painting of a still life. But the idea lay fallow until
BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES •
7.17 Pablo Picasso. Guitar and
Wine Glass. 1912. Collage and
charcoal on board, 187⁄8 ."4⁄341 ן
Collection The McNay Art Museum,
San Antonio, Texas.
• PA I N T I N G
the fall, when Georges Braque began including shapes cut from wallpaper and
newsprint in his drawings. Picasso saw what his friend was up to, took the
idea, and ran with it.
Guitar and Wine Glass (7.17) is one of Picasso’s earliest collages. In the
lower left corner he has pasted a bit of the daily newspaper (in French, Le
Journal), with the partial headline “La Bataille s’est engagé” (the battle has
begun). As printed, the headline referred to the current Balkan wars, but what
did Picasso mean? Did he go to battle to enrich the possibilities of art by the
then-shocking practice of gluing objects to canvas? Or was his battle that of
upstaging his ambitious colleague? Probably some of both. Elsewhere Picasso
includes a corner torn from sheet music (both artists were absorbed by musical themes), a wood-grain fragment suggesting a guitar, and a sketch of a wine
glass. All are pasted onto a patterned paper resembling wallpaper.
After Picasso and Braque, many artists adopted this method of composing a picture by gathering bits and pieces from various sources. An artist who
made very personal use of collage was Romare Bearden. Pieced together from
bits of photographic magazine illustrations, Mysteries (7.18) is one of a series
of works that evoke the texture of everyday life as Bearden had known it growing up as an African-American in rural North Carolina. In Bearden’s hands,
the technique of collage alludes both to the African-American folk tradition of
quilting, which also pieces together a whole from many fragments (see 12.15),
and to the rhythms and improvisatory nature of jazz, another art form with
African roots. The face on the far left includes a portion of an African sculpture (the mouth and nose). In the background appears a photograph of a train.
A recurring symbol in Bearden’s work, trains stand for the outside world, espe-
cially the white world. “A train was always something that could take you
away and could also bring you to where you were,” the artist explained. “And
in the little towns it’s the black people who live near the trains.”2
More recently Fred Tomaselli has been breathing new and strange life
into collage with works such as Head (7.19). On a black ground, Tomaselli has
assembled photographic images of ﬂowers, birds, insects, and body parts to
form a human head seen in proﬁle. Images of noses cluster around the nose
region; images of mouths swarm toward where a mouth would be. A thick
layer of clear resin seals the pasted images and provides a surface for painted
additions such as the colored planets in the background and the branching
7.18 (above) Romare Bearden.
Mysteries. 1964. Collage, polymer
paint, and pencil on board, 111⁄4 ן
Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts,
7.19 (left) Fred Tomaselli. Head.
2002. Photocollage, gouache,
acrylic paint, and resin on wood
panel, 11 ."11 ן
Courtesy James Cohan Gallery, New
BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES •
form that grows outward from the eye, like a root system reaching hungrily
into the universe for nourishment. Like most of Tomaselli’s work, Head evokes
both mystical visions and drug-induced hallucinations. In both, the altered
mind sees beyond everyday appearances.
Off the Wall!
7.20 Polly Apfelbaum. Big
Bubbles. 2001. Synthetic velvet,
fabric dye; diameter
approximately 18'; 1,040 separate
Courtesy D’Amelio Terras Gallery,
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However adventurous the collages of Picasso, Bearden, and Tomaselli may be,
they leave certain traditional aspects of Western painting unchallenged. All
three are ﬂat, rectangular surfaces, for example. And all three are portable objects designed to be hanged on a wall for viewing. Contemporary artists have
pushed at these formal boundaries as well, making paintings that break out of
the traditional rectangular frame or even leave the wall altogether. We looked
at the work of one such artist earlier in this chapter, Elizabeth Murray, whose
paintings consist of clusters of shaped canvases (see 7.11).
Like Elizabeth Murray, Polly Apfelbaum also paints on individual elements that she then arranges in clusters. The support she favors is not canvas
or paper, however, but white synthetic velvet; the paint she uses is not oil or
watercolor, but fabric dye; and she arranges the elements not on the wall, but
on the ﬂoor (7.20). Big Bubbles is a radiating, circular composition that consists of a single shape repeated again and again. Looking to anchor Big Bubbles in the world of art, we might compare it to the mosaics that often blanket
the walls and ceilings of a mosque (see 3.3), or to the circular stained glass
windows of medieval cathedrals (see 15.23), or to a mandala, a circular diagram of a cosmic realm (see 5.7). All of these forms suggest ways of imagining inﬁnity.
Apfelbaum would probably not object to our thinking about Big Bubbles
in these terms—she has said that she tries to keep the content of her work indirect, so that viewers can bring their own experiences to it. Her titles, however, often hint at what she herself had in mind. Bubbles turns out to be the
name of one of the Powerpuff Girls, an animated cartoon series about a trio
of adorable kindergarteners who happen also to be superheroines. Armed with
this information, we could see Apfelbaum’s radiant form as gigantic puff. We
could also imagine it as a ﬂower or a ﬁrework in celebration of strong female
role models, including perhaps the many women artists who have recently
claimed a place within the art establishment. Go, Powerpuff Girls!
Polly Apfelbaum began her artistic career as a sculptor. Perhaps because
of this, critics sometimes refer works such as Big Blossom as ﬂoor sculpture,
even though they are most clearly linked to the 20th-century tradition of nonrepresentational painting. We might think of her as a sculptor who has colonized territory that once belonged exclusively to painting. Our next artist,
Matthew Ritchie, has taken the opposite journey, beginning as a painter and
then reaching out to annex the third dimension, which once belonged exclusively to sculpture. Ritchie’s works may begin on the wall, but they are likely
to sprawl across the surface, invade both the ﬂoor and the ceiling, and even
spawn independent three-dimensional components, as here in Parents and
Ritchie’s chosen ground is sintra, a thin, lightweight, easily cut plastic material. Sintra is easily bent and molded, allowing Ritchie’s works to cascade
down the wall, curve onto the ﬂoor, and continue out into the room. As here,
he often supplements painted elements by drawing or writing directly on the
wall. Ritchie’s works are visual epics inspired by science, including the far
7.21 Matthew Ritchie. Parents
and Children, 2000. Acrylic
marker on wall, enamel on sintra;
dimensions vary with installation.
BLURRING THE BOUNDARIES •
frontiers of contemporary research and theory. His compositions seem to
generate themselves according to their own laws, growing like crystals over the
centuries or evolving like organisms across generations. Here, sinuous elements coil like dragons or swamp vegetation outward from a raging vortex, ﬁring off diagrams of molecular structures and mysterious equations. On the
ﬂoor sits what looks like a topographical fragment, its colors interlocking as
precisely as camouﬂage or countries on a map. Is this the “child” of the cosmic
“parent”? Ritchie was once asked what message he hoped that viewers might
take away from his work. His response? “Life is as complicated as it appears.”3
This brief survey should have demonstrated that the various painting
media and the artists who use them yield endless possibilities. It would be difﬁcult to say which comes ﬁrst—that artist’s imagery or the material. Did the
ﬁrst cave artist have the impulse to paint something and search about for a
material with which to do it? Or did the cave artist ﬁnd some pigmented material and then speculate about what would happen if the substance were
applied to a wall? The answer is not important, but the two aspects—idea and
medium—feed upon each other. No visual image could be realized without the
medium in which to make it concrete. And no medium would be of any consequence without the artist’s idea—and the compelling urge to paint.
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