Many people say they love a vigorous and direct brushwork that shows the touch of the hand. We all take pleasure in dazzling technique. But there’s a risk in making the brushstrokes the main subject of painting.
Above is a detail from “Pigs in a Wood, Cornwall” by Sir Alfred J. Munnings. Evidently he painted this from life with the pigs moving around in front of him in the dappled light of a forest. The technique is impressive, because every brushstroke describes form, movement, light, and local color.
Good technique like this happens when you try to convey the most complete illusion in the least time with the simplest means. The goal should be to make an accurate statement in the time allotted, not to dash off some eye-catching brushstrokes.
Above is another example of fine paint handling, this time by Anders Zorn. It’s painted with urgency and directness. He worked from life in a limited amount of time, probably an hour or two. We see beyond the paint surface to the musician’s chiseled face, the rosin from his bow, the cool light from the window.
Here’s a small detail from a magazine illustration in gouache by Harry Anderson from the 1950s, showing a group of sisters conferring about their grieving mother. It’s another example of a functional bravura that stops short of being self-indulgent. There’s no wasted effort. Most of the passages are kept wet together, softening the modeling and immersing most of the strokes.
All of these are quick paintings, all virtuoso efforts. Great paint technique can also be manifest in a carefully crafted month-long effort. In this case, the brushwork can still be economical, but it’s evident on a smaller scale of reference.
For example, here’s a painting from 1885 called “Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach” by Stanhope Forbes, along with a detail of the fish. Click to enlarge.
The painting took Forbes weeks to complete. He worked entirely outdoors from life. When you look at the painting, you see more than just the paint. You practically smell the fish.
Good technique always draws attention beyond the surface of the painting and toward something else, something intangible, something invisible—light, atmosphere, character, or story.
OK, so if these are examples of true virtuosity, where is the pitfall?
Unfortunately, by the end of the 19th Century, many artists became concerned primarily with the paint surface as an end in itself.
Here’s a detail of a painting by Frederick Frieseke from 1913. The paint strokes have taken on a life of their own. It’s a bit hard to tell what the strokes are trying to represent. They’re painted in a completely different style from the woman’s knees.
This detail is from a painting by Childe Hassam called “The Bricklayers.” Hassam seems to be stuck on the surface, too, as if he was just frosting a cake. What has he told us about these bricklayers, or about the environment they’re in, or about the light shining on them? Not much, because the paint gets in the way. It's not a problem with a lack of drawing ability. Both of these guys could draw well if they wanted to. The problem is with the thought process.
It’s easy to make a painting look like paint. But it’s a lifelong challenge to use paint to evoke the chill of autumn or the smell of a rose.
A century and a half ago, Asher B. Durand wrote that when execution “becomes conspicuous as a principal feature of the picture, it is presumptive evidence, at least, of a deficiency in some higher qualities.”