Surface matters

In a previous post, Redux Deluxe, I received this question in one of the responses, "I was getting a little hung up on the surface quality resulting from painting over dried paint. Does that bother you or do you think it matters?" Boy do I and how. I think it matters a lot. First let me say that the surface is a matter of personal preference, just like anything else... ties, ice cream vs gelato, football teams, front lawn/no front lawn, Roe v Wade, egalitarianism or left-libertarianism.... where was I? Oh, surface. Here's my point, surface is one of the many x-factors in painting, it's the thing you don't see but you notice. It's like a song that's produced really well, you don't even think about how it's produced but a song that is poorly recorded, well, that's all you hear. Remember the movie "A beautiful mind"? Fabulous movie (Russell Crowe was totally overlooked for the Oscar) and a great story, but in the end when they cut to Jennifer Connely's character in her later years... the make-up was so bad, it blew the whole movie for me. In great anything, every detail matters. And in art there are only so many factors; drawing, value, color, form, concept, edges, composition, surface, presentation. Each item is something to be mastered. I've talked ad nauseum about drawing, value, color, etc. But surface has become a thing to think about. I have heard from more than one gallery owner, use more paint, which translates into give us more surface. So, a few examples.

I went to a museum in Baltimore and they had this painting by Abbott Thayer. I love this painting and always have; strength, innocence, beauty, simplicity, drawing and good ol' mastery of everything. What struck me was the surface. It had a variety to it, like the flavors in a good wine. The face was smoooooth as satin but the rest was layered and chunky with a mystery as to how it was done. If you see the strings over the levitating body, the mystery is shot. It can be that way in painting too. Give me some of that "how did you get to that?" feeling when I look at the work.

You can't quite get to it in a pixelized iPhone shot and this is why we go to museums. But I will tell you, for me, a great painting pulls you in from a distance and as you get closer and closer it offers something more. You can zoom in on any detail and there's more to it than meets the eye from 20 paces. That's what good painting is, it gets you from the hill and closes the deal mano a mano.

The above is a section of a Lucian Freud painting. It's rich and chunkalicious and rife with topography. His work grabs you with it's frankness but finishes with the textures that are unknown to flesh. If you have never seen one of his big figures, you should. He painted in heavy impasto layers using semi-dried clumps of color. His painting works on multiple levels.

This little chunk of a Scott Christensen painting has that thing. How did he get there? What's underneath the stuff on the top? It's compelling like an old photograph, what is the back story? In the full panoramic view it's a stellar landscape but the little chunks keep us looking. The people who get this are at the museums leaning as close as they can to the painting to discern the history behind the surface.