A Painting’s Surface: Battlefield or Sanctuary?

Surface detail, Pond Series, November

It’s a chilly afternoon at the pond, where I am beginning my eighth month of work. A gunshot rings out from somewhere across the stands of bay and fir to the northeast of where I sit. A dense flock of small black birds bursts out of the tree before me and takes to the sky. Their reflection passes across the water like a dust cloud and is gone. I become aware that I hadn’t even assigned meaning to all the tiny black shapes in the tangle of branches but had been intent on painting them nonetheless. Their sudden absence completely changes the “surface” of the bare tree which responds by seeming to blush a deep coral at the edges. Without the birds the tree looks like a blurry smudge, the color of smoke. I’m also startled by the shot, excited, exasperated, compelled to follow the changes before me, to reach for the new effect. Possessed, I flip my brush around and start scratching into the surface of my painting, making the texture of branches. The color turns to mud. I grab my palette knife and scrape much of it away. Then, loading a small hair brush with a dusty violet color, I start to draw small structures, but soon my eyes are lost in the blur of branches and I shift to painting larger blocky shapes instead. How should I do this? My cheeks flush with the cold wind.

Surface detail, Pond Series, December

As a painter of Nature, I often spend time looking at three dimensional (3D) space and translating it to an image with two dimensions (2D). But that’s not the whole story. A painting is both an image and an object. Oil painters often use the unctuous buttery quality of the medium to build up, layer and sculpt the surfaces of paintings even as they compose and realize their images. So when challenged by the task of painting both a 2D image and at the same time creating a 3D object, how does one proceed? How will the landscape of my paintings surface be related to the landscape I am observing?

The way artists paint is often referred to as a “style” or technique. Some artists have a “signature style” that doesn’t vary much from painting to painting, subject to subject. You can always tell a painting was painted by them. For me, style is a choice driven by the dynamic relationships I have with my surroundings, and with myself. 

It amazes me that the simple act of putting paint down on a surface turns out to be so complex and variable. The surface can be a sanctuary or a battlefield, a field of contemplation or struggle. Come close to the surface of a painting and you will find another landscape there unfolding before your eyes. The surface has its own topography, hills and valleys, gorges and plateaus. If I look closely at the surface, I find a record of every move I have made.

Surface detail, Pond Series, December

My style is an echo of what is running through my mind and heart and how my nervous system is responding to my view. When I see Nature in terms of shapes, I express that by drawing and the surface becomes an accumulated collection of lines, contours and boundaries. Other times I am focused on the leaves that flutter in the wind and my arm vibrates with my eyes as I make dots and dashes, marks that dart around and dance across my canvas. When I paint still water, my brush wants to just glide across the surface, leaving the paint continuous and smooth. Every time I pick up a brush, I am aware that there are a thousand different ways to paint. Which brushes do I choose? The fine ones or the rough ones? The scratchy ones or the stubby ones? Styles are like worldviews, they are approaches, languages, like the different ways that we make food or music. They are rooted as much in socialization, culture and training as in temperament and taste. Styles express a painter’s values: formal accuracy, color, the pure sensuality of paint itself. Style reveals if I am thinking about the painting more as a window or as an object, a medicine bundle of assembled truths from my experience.

I don’t think the quality of a painting is strictly about style, just as one can say that poetry is not strictly about language…a poem can be translated, and a subject can be well painted in any style. Yet there is something interesting there to consider, flavors, subtle qualities, the sensuality, speed and volume of the strokes, nuance of textures, all are part of the work of art.

Now a sliver of glimmering light falls across the shadow side of the water. I chase it with a thick impasto trying to lay the paint down with just the same attitude honoring the seventeenth century adage “light equals paint.” My brush reaches the shore and encounters the upright ridges of  paint that are there, sharp little blades of grass. Tiny bits of light get caught on the slope and spring to life. These dots and dashes of color, gobs and daubs and drips, each represents a thing in my landscape even as they form an enchanted landscape all their own.

Version 2
Surface detail, Pond Series, December

8 thoughts on “A Painting’s Surface: Battlefield or Sanctuary?

  1. “Style is a byproduct of the intensity, compression, objectivity, subjectivity, sustained attention, gathering, ruminating, eliminating, arranging and finally expression of the artistic process. Style is an inevitable consequence of this activity in concert with the limitations confronted int eh process. To start with too much interest in style, I believe, is a mistake.”

    “Johnny Cash once said, ‘Your style is a function of your limitations, more so that a function of your skills.'”

    Ann Bogart, What’s the Story? p. 43

    Thanks for our conversation and for your thoughtfulness.


  2. Interesting treatise on what is involved in moment to moment perceptions of external shapes as dictated in part by internal states,technical capacities,interests-attraction.The compelling mystery of it all as we try to impact this large thing called painting into its constituent parts.A worthy if not impossible endeavor.


  3. The first image in particular puts me in mind of a scarred landscape. Scars are testament to liminal moments when the world punctures the surface of the skin. Scars remind us that our imagined notion that we are separate from the world is illusory. The canvas is skin, stretched over its frame, the crust of paint, the epidermis bearing witness to every interaction with the world. Each brushmark leaves a scar by which we trace the actions and deduce the character of the painter.


  4. “My brush reaches the shore…” — a beautiful image, as if you were painting in a canoe, gliding across the water. Of course I want to see the painting you describe, alert to the details you provide, that I might otherwise miss.


  5. Thank you for this, Adam. Useful to my painting practice and at the same time, feeling that your writing is as much of your artistic expression as the paint on canvas. Keep them coming.


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