Why Paint Quality Matters

I recently took an unsold painting out of its frame so that I could reuse the metal leaf frame, and as I studied the oil landscape I realized why it wasn’t successful. The surface of the canvas was uniformly thin and flat, and there was nothing about the paint application to suggest the deep space and atmosphere I wanted to represent. I didn’t vary the thickness of the paint or the brushwork, and the finished painting failed to create the illusion of a real place and time.

I thought about watercolor, pastel, acrylic, and oil paintings I admire and realized that all of them expressed their subject matter through the physical differences in the opacity, brushwork, layers of color, or texture of the paint. The great watercolor paintings glowed where the paint was transparent, especially when those light passages contrasted with surrounding layers of semiopaque colors. As for the memorable pastel paintings, I thought about the warm underpainting below the gestured strokes of cool colors on top. And the thick, textured applications of oil colors conveyed the illusion of space while documenting the movement of the artist’s hand.

Abstract painters talk about the integrity of the picture plane, by which they mean that paint has an important physical quality apart from its ability to suggest the illusion of space, flesh, movement, or time. The abstractionist may think that creating that illusion somehow diminishes the integrity of the paint, but representational artists know that paint quality and illusion are qualities that can work together to convey thoughts and emotions. The more artists understand how to manage colors, values, shapes, brushwork, and compositions, the greater the content of their pictures.

I was reminded of all this during recent interviews with Ben Fenske and Marc Dalessio, two American artists who live in Italy but often visit family and friends in the United States. Dalessio, who will be profiled in the December 2009 issue of American Artist, showed me a small portrait he created of Laura Grenning (www.grenninggallery.com), the gallery owner who presented an exhibition of his work in Sag Harbor, New York. He pointed out that the painting was more successful after he scraped most of the oil color off the surface of the panel. “Whistler and Sargent used to do that quite often because they knew the stain left after scraping off paint can be richer and more intriguing than thick applications of oil color,” Delassio explained. Fenske showed me one of his large landscapes in which he allowed the strokes of oil color to remain independent of each other. “I like the kind of vibration that happens on the painting surface when I avoid blending all the colors together,” he explained.

I’d be interested in knowing how you adjust the application of watercolors, pastels, acrylics, or oils so that the medium supports your intentions in creating a painting.

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

20 thoughts on “Why Paint Quality Matters

  1. The manner of application of any medium is what separates artists who are painting the same subject matter. It’s what defines style. Emphasizing textural differences adds interest, so in my pastel paintings I utilize a variety of application techniques to create these differences. By utilizing underpaintings, stroke making, different degrees of blending and combining hard and soft pastels, the silver pitcher appears shiny and reflective, while the chenille cloth is knubby. The brick appears heavy and rough textured while the marble looks transparent and smooth. The varieties are endless with this fabulous medium.
    Betsy Kellum http//www.betsykellum.com

  2. Steve, at a recent workshop with Donald Demers, He explained how he applied darks (oil) with a bristle brush – scrubbing them so that the undertone on the canvas showed through. This gave the impression of having “air” in the shadow areas.

    Then Don added opaque paint – much thicker to the sunlit areas – mostly on the tops of rocks so that the thick ridges in the paint would physically pick up light and appear brighter. He also varied the direction of these opaque brushstrokes- making interesting patterns with the paint..

    Thanks for sharing this experience here. It gets me thinking about how I can make the surface of my paintings work better.

  3. Hi Steve,
    Good points. Generally, with oil paints, I stick to principles like “Fat over Lean” and I try to keep my shadow areas thinner and my light areas thicker for effect. I also try to vary my brushstrokes according to the planes of the object. For instance, if I am painting a sea shell, my brush will follow curves of the shell. I believe that a sensually painted surface is much more appealing to the viewer when they see the painting in person.

  4. Thanks for this topic Steve. This has been on my mind quite often. I notice that when I am in front of a work that I admire I am drawn closer to it when the paint surface is interesting. My own personal struggle is with the opacity of the paint. With my technique (a modified indirect method), I need to keep the under layers, with all their interesting strokes and hues, fresh and viable throughout the process. I also want to keep the surface texture interesting. Achieving all that can be like juggling. Too much opacity blocks out the previous layer, to little and I will have to paint it again and again.

    Lately I have made it a little easier by using impasto gels and modeling compounds in acrylics and oleopasto in my alkyds and oils. I add these in earlier in the painting in areas that need a lot of texture and surface interest. Sometimes I mix them with the color and other times I lay them in, wait for them to tack up a bit before going in with a knife or a brush handle or some other tool to “carve” out some surface interest. Using these mediums near the end of a painting can help to make a detail pop or a light to glow by literally bringing it out to catch more illumination when viewing.

    I keep going on a painting using varied opacity in the paint, scumbling color over the previous paint layers. Now, with the surface texture and the previous hues to paint over, I can get all sorts of interest happening, even in areas of seemingly flat color. Many of the end results happen purely by chance in those areas. This allows me to stay fresh and excited about the possibilities. I know it when I see it. After spending countless hours in front of great paintings that have visual interest in their strokes and application of paint I try to bring that inspiration onto the surface of my work.

  5. And I thought “paint quality” was a description I made up, meaning a certain thickness of paint, but not as thick as impasto. I teach my students to have a “buttery” paint quality to their work on canvas. I love going to museums and seeing the paint quality and brush strokes of the old masters. That certain thickness of paint or paint quality shows such vitality and the energy of the artist and even their thought process as well.

  6. Thank you, Steve, for this post. I paint portraits as well as abstractions, and I often do as you wrote Whistler and Sargent did in the wiping off of color to expose stain. I was unaware they did that, but the effect is often be the perfect remedy for an overworked piece as well and renders back its life.

  7. Steve, excellent article. Thickness is highly mentioned in the books by David Laffel. I try to use it more an more in my work especially in highlights. I think every artist goes through a metamorphosis through learning and experiences and the thickness of paint in discrete areas becomes the crowning touch to our work. I think adding thick paint for the sake of imitating a style or master is a mistake if it’s disregarding the foundations of drawing, composition or heart-felt attractions to your subject. All frosting and no cake is just not appetizing. There’s great pieces of work that are totally flat and smooth, so it’s a choice we make and if used well, it’s an artistic joy.

  8. I like for a watercolor painting to reflect the wonderful ways of watercolor. I wet the paper and mix the colors on the paper letting them flow into each other in only the way it can with this technique. I paint realistically but within this format I can show how watercolor creates its own special painting.

    Martha in Florida

  9. Excellent post. In my opinion, all representational art should have the same integrity of the picture plane that abstract artists pursue.

    In my work, the mark-making is a direct result of the process of combining video and paint. My signature “Pixel Impressionism” paintings, are “Paintographic” in quality; that is I am getting my style of paint application from the effects generated by photographic processes (in this case video). The scan lines, pixels and motion blurs inspire my mark making to enable me to bend naturalistic painting to conform to abstract ideas. The marks themselves and surface of the painting resulting from those marks are crucial to conveying my form.
    For a look at my work, go to http://www.WarrenKeating.com

  10. You and your commenters have eloquently made clear why contests that judge paintings based on photographs, then present awards and publicity for “best painting”, are at best, misleading. Add to the items presented here such things as the distortion and loss of “presence” of large paintings, the loss of true color and subtle values, and so on. The majesty, mystery, exquisite beauty, and emotional impact,.. and the craft …that make great art what it is are diminished or more likely lost.

    Art is not being assessed… rather “paintings that photograph well”. And those who enter to win will gravitate to creating paintings with that as their goal. Even if one chooses to call that art, it is a narrow segment and I think much below those works built on the sensibilities and craft described here. (the first thing that happens is that the surface is rendered “uniformly thin and flat”) .

    I understand there are logistics issues that are very real. But at the very least, perhaps ti should be made clear what such contest are judging —-and missing.

    To respond to your request, I paint with oils, using numerous thin glazes. Luminosity coming through. And rather than mix pink for example, I will glaze red over white. Also sometimes enhancing the reality of shadows by applying the shadow color just on the top of the canvas weave. diminishing chroma underneath but leaving its true color. All of which adds to create very real depth and volume. I of necessity have photos on my website, but do not submit work to competitions requiring digital images.

  11. For Plein Air work I use pastels; however for studio work I use oils. There is one technique I use for both mediums: once I have my surface covered and it looks like I’m about finished, I use a soft cloth to reduce the painting down to its surface, leaving just a stain. From there I will build the painting or pastel back to life with thicker applications. This technique gives me a second chance to convey what I wish to paint; the first was just a warm up – now for the real painting! TD Wilson http://www.icapturethelight.com

  12. I believe that abstraction can demand MORE from the paint in any number of ways, and even then it is still essential that it not distract from whatever it is you’re doing with it. A great abstract painting concept lives or dies by the way the paint goes down. But realist, abstract, whatever – you’ve got to learn to be able to handle that element.

  13. eastwood –

    Your comment is spot on – how many times have we been thrilled that the image of one of our pieces has succeeded more in the photo, or been disheartened by the piece we just can’t seem to get to “work” as well in the photograph as it exists in person? I use extremely reflective resin, and laser diffraction mylar with my paint, and I have yet to get photos of the pieces that even remotely look like what I am trying to do. I get so frustrated it feels better to just go draw sometimes! LOL

  14. Hi Steve.

    Thanks for this article. Although it seems intuitive that quality of paint and application matter, it sometimes surprises me to see what even well established artists will do.

    With regard to my own work, I often scrape an area and leave just the stain, as you mentioned. This is especially effective when the canvas has been previously toned and scraped with a light color. This gives a sense of light and dimension that I really enjoy.

    Painting with a knife, there are lots of effects I can acheive that cant be done with a brush. (Certainly, the reverse is also true.) People often comment about how knife painting requires great loads of color, or else “you have to be so delicate”. I find that I use less paint with a knife, but I’m by no means delicate.

    A question that I nearly always ask is, Why do you want to save on materials? Do you want your homebuilder or your mechanic to do that? Quality of paint is essential to longevity. Of course, even inexpensive paints will long outlast the original owner. Still, if someone’s paying hundreds or thousands of dollars, wont that cover a few dollars extra for good materials?

  15. Recently, a fellow artist and I were painting plein air together and it started to rain. We retreated to the studio for a second session and set up a still-life. Upon completion, I wasn’t happy with my rendition. It just didn’t say what I was feeling. I started to wipe it off……luckily, it was a gentle wipe! Presto, the painting now had some mystery instead of all found edges. I wiped a few more select spots and called “Rainy Day Blues” a success.

  16. I read something someone in the 19th century wrote about Whistler’s work, and it seems to sum it up nicely for me and I try to remember it as I work: allow the materials to have a ‘voice.’ I see too many artists who appear to want to obliterate the identity of the materials they’re using. If memory serves, I believe my instructors in art school referred to this as ‘slickness.’

  17. Thanks to everyone for expanding on this discussion about paint quality. We may all disagree about what that quality should be, but we seem to be in agreement that there is no substitute for the original work of art. Reproductions and digital photographs may be a convenient way for us to share images, but they will never convey the scale, paint quality, and exact appearance.

    I judge contests from digital images and I enter my own digital photographys in art contests, and I agree with eastwood that in both situations I am dealing with an approximation. The approximation may have it’s value and it may be necessary, but it will never provide the same experience as the original drawing, painting, or sculpture.

    An family friend used to quote Confuscious: “Men often praise an imitation and hiss the real thing.” Perhaps that applies even more in the age of digital images.

  18. dont u think that a non-traditional surface adds interest that may make up for raw talent? as a 5 yr painter, i am to the point where people are telling me what i do is “really good” but seems that comment comes more often on paintings where i have painted the canvas with glass beads, for example, and then put over it, a gesso toping. makes for a rough surface, and it helps me not be detail oriented cause u cannot paint a straight line over those beads. have also used sand, lava, or other commercially available products…