A Matter of Surface


Paul King - detail, Empty Handed Leap

Common word, complex subject. Painters deal with surface every time they apply a mark. But the real understanding of this subject is an issue that seems to be less and less appreciated along with the understanding that first and foremost, painting is a visual experience. In oil painting, ‘surface’ refers to the quality of the paint, its texture, transparency/opacity, luminosity and viscosity. What creates the variety of experiences is in how the painter manipulates his brush, what kind of brush or tool is used, how she utilizes her medium, what surface is painted on and ultimately what the intention of the painter is in how they want light to read through or on the paint layer. Terms like scumbling, velatura, glaze, and impasto all refer to different ways the paint is applied to create different effects. Not wanting to get too technical, my aim here is to speak of an appreciation for a too little considered quality that is often at the heart of how we see a work of art.

Surface is not merely a byproduct of the act of painting, but can and should be a conscious quality that is sought while creating layers of beauty and complexity. An appreciation and manipulation of surface is not limited to any mode of painting or genre. But too often it is forgotten in the rush to describe subject matter or concept. One of the primary reasons oil paint has been the choice of masters for centuries is because of its versatility. When there is a command of oil, the variety of surface qualities is practically unlimited. Rembrandt would utilize underpainting with additional glazes and velaturas to create a pulsating quality to flesh and then only a few inches away, would employ thick impasto to describe a ruffled collar. This dexterity and manipulation of surface effects how the light interacts with the paint layer creating luminosity, density and texture, all with conscious direction towards the effect he wanted to create in a particular area. Every means was employed to create the astounding qualities he achieved.

Paul King - detail, Phoenix

What I’m ultimately speaking about here is a deep sensitivity to craft, that is, the craftsmanship in building a painting. Whether appreciating or creating, look at how the paint feels and what effect this evokes. Does the mark drag off leaving a trail of the underlying layer that the weave of the linen imposes, or is the paint put down thickly with a painting knife where most of the mark is smooth allowing the light to penetrate deeply but leaving a ridge on the top of the mark that the light hits as a shelve creating an effect of ‘thingness’. Or is the paint put down in a creamy way with a smooth brush on a smooth surface or more dryly with a stiff brush on a rough canvas mixing color in an ocular way.

In my work, I invite the viewer to participate in the variety of my surfaces that hopefully elicits a rich visual experience. Relationships of space, form, color and light weave together to form a whole that has both mystery and definition. It is in the friction of these elements that a lasting impression unfolds to reveal depth and layered experience.

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