Sunday, December 16, 2012


"Houding" is a term from the art theory of the Dutch Golden Age which has no equivalent in English. But like a lot of foreign art terms, figuring out what it means can give us an insight into the thought process of artists from previous traditions.

Houding has to do with the "pleasing and effective evocation of space." Another translation renders it as "the tonal and spatial organization of the picture as a whole." 

It combines several factors, including color, chiaroscuro, and atmospheric perspective, all working together to achieve a sense of depth and illusion. If the houding is successful, the colors are chosen and modified with depth and atmosphere in mind, with "the powerful at the front, and the less forceful further back according to their nature." 

(Above, Andrej Schilder, Russian, 1861-1919, The Ravine

According to a definition by Goeree from the time of Vermeer, houding is "... that which binds everything together in a drawing or a painting, which makes things move to the front or the back, from the foreground to the middle ground and hence to the background to stand in its proper place without appearing farther away or closer, and without seeming lighter or darker than its distance warrants; so that everything stands out, without confusion, from things that adjoin and surround it, and has an unambiguous position through the proper use of size and color, and light and shadow, and so that the eye can naturally perceive the intervening space, that distance between bodies which is left open and empty, both near and far, as though one might go there on foot, and everything stands in its proper space therein."

Concepts such as houding remind us that the language that we're accustomed to using in twentieth century color theory is inadequate for painters interested in realism because it defines the universe only in purely 2D abstract terms, detached from concerns of depth, light, and atmosphere.
Goeree quote from the website Essential Vermeer
Many thanks to Ed Ahlstrom for telling me about this.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting James, I wasn't familiar with this usage of the term.

Today, the word 'houding' in Dutch literally means 'attitude' or 'posture'.

The word stems from the root 'houd-' (with the verb 'houden', which can mean anything from 'to hold' and 'to keep' to 'to love', depending on the context).

An English cognate would be 'holding'.

Anonymous said...

Would you say most of the delicate 'houding' effects of positioning and atmosphere were achieved by glazing/scumbling? - mp

Anonymous said...

Is this as opposed to "hoo-doo-ing," in the form of the great American master, R. Crumb?

Craig Banholzer said...

Houding. Awesome! This term will join the "windmill principle" in the lexicon I share with my students. Deepest thanks!

Kevin Mizner said...

Great post. I too, have never heard that word, but I think of it as "spacing". More than the effective use of perspective, but arranging objects in a composition so that one feels the air around them. I personally struggle mightily with this in my paintings, so I really admire the artists that accomplish it. Thanks!

James Gurney said...

Kevin, yes, "spacing" would seem to be a good synonym. "Houding" would be a really useful word for stereoscopic 3D in films, where things have to be held in their proper place.

Anonymous 1, I think you could achieve good houding in a variety of ways, which may or may not include scumbling or glazing. I usually try to hit the mixtures opaquely and then adjust with those techniques.

Thanks, Andrei for explaining the root derivation.

Anon 2, yes, if hoodooing means "Magic healing and control, especially in African-based folk medicine in the United States and the Caribbean" then I guess good houding could hoodoo a painting with depth problems.

Mario said...

I think something similar, maybe a subset of "houding", is what is sometimes called "tonal painting". The word "tonal", of course, is used in many different meanings, but here it means that every part of the painting has a particular color and value which is determined by its position in space and by the objects surrounding it. Light and soft shadows link every object to its environment. This is different from the traditional chiaroscuro of, say, the early florentine painting, where every object was shaded with a light and a dark side, regardless of its position in space. I was taught (but my teachers were possibly "Italy-centric") that tonal painting was invented by venetian artists, in particular by Giorgione in this painting:

here a different photo:

Anonymous said...

First time commenter here, be gentle please!

I love the concept of houding and it is a fascinating subject. Perhaps one of the best passages of writing on houding can be found in the book "Rembrandt: The Painter at Work" by Ernst Van De Weterling. By far one of the best books I've read on the technical process of Rembrandt's studio.

In the book he touches on something called "Dutch Houding" which seems silly considering the idea of houding (at least the term maybe not the idea) is singularly Dutch in nature. Anyways, he separates regular houding from Dutch houding by way of texture. The idea that objects close to us contain more texture and should they be rendered with "heavier paint" and as such they would appear to advance into the foreground. For example, imagine a lovely afternoon scene of a couple at a picnic on a clear sunlit day. The sky is forever out of reach, seemingly infinity far away with no texture, any texture in the sugary sweet blue purple of the sky stands to possibly impede the illusion of the sky being what it is. Where as the red and white hatched blanket on which the couple shares (if significantly close enough in the composition) would be rendered with an impasto texture, perhaps indicating the fibers that make up the blanket. The balance of the texture versus the smoothness adds to the sense of space within the picture plane. See the links at the end of this overly long diatribe for an example.

I seriously do De Weterling a huge disservice and will leave my rudimentary description at that, but note that he describes it much more eloquently. None-the-less, interesting topic and Mr. Gurney, as an artist I wish to thank you for such a wonderful resource. it does not go unnoticed in the artistic community and it is a cherished treasure!

The sleeves on the man in the Jewsih Bride are indicative of the concept of Dutch houding as I've come to understand it. The same can be seen in the second link as well.

Thank you for your time.


Izak van Langevelde said...

""Houding" is a term from the art theory of the Dutch Golden Age which has no equivalent in English. " Well, it doesn't seem to have an equivalent in Dutch, either. That is, it seems to have been a very specific artistic notion, which never made it into the common Dutch dictionary. I am a little wary about the fact that hardly any source on this seems to be Dutch...

James Gurney said...

Izak, I would recommend reading Paul Taylor's paper, which is 43 pages long and very thoroughly documented. It's not surprising that an art term used more than two hundred years ago is not familiar to modern speakers, even practicing artists. So, too, in English, a common 19th century art word such as "breadth" is not commonly known today.

Izak van Langevelde said...

I will look into it!

Anonymous said...


That's true about words changing from generations to another: I am a native Dutch speaker but seeing the term in an art context is completely new for me. The word houding with its current meaning (attitude/posture) is a very common, everyday word; which makes association with a concept in art even harder - while at the same time, precisely because of its modern meaning, it makes the artistic meaning easier to grasp (doesn't it essentially just mean the "attitude" or even physical posture of a painting?) - unless of course I understood the artistic meaning wrongly in the first place beacause of the association with the word's current usage!

Izak van Langevelde said...

Unfortunately, I won't be able to look into it for now, as the article is not available online, and I will not have time to visit a library over the next months...

ace maxs said...

reallly nice post, i like it

Craig Banholzer said...

I am only vaguely familar with it, but I remember reading that in French, the term "effet" was once used to refer to the disposition of light and dark masses in a composition. Like "houding," this usage seems to have vanished from contemporary usage of the language, but I'd love to know more, if you should happen to come across it.

Roberto said...

This reminds me of another similarly obscure technical art term: ‘Doodie.’
Doodiing has to do with the "pleasing and effective evocation of objects in time.” Another translation renders it as "the temporal and objective organization of the picture as a whole." It combines several factors, including local-color, chrono-scuro, and temporal perspective, all working together to achieve an illusion of tense (past, present or future).
The word stems from the root 'dood-' (with the verb 'doodle', which can mean almost anything, depending on the context). An English cognate would be 'doodling'.
Putting these two concepts together creates a believable rendering of a scene in both time and space. ;) -RQ