Friday, February 10, 2012

What Is "Painterly" Painting?

“Painterliness” generally refers to works with visible brushstrokes, “the result of applying paint in a less than completely controlled manner, generally without closely following carefully drawn lines,” in the apt words of Wikipedia.  

I’d like to offer a possibly clunkier, but arguably more useful working definition. Painterly paintings openly express, rather than absorb or synthesize, the aesthetic choices made at each stage of the creative process. 

Henri Matisse, Fruit and Coffeepot, c. 1898
In painterly painting, the painter’s presence is palpable in various aspects of the work (especially brushwork, but also composition, coloring and object relations, and tonality). The artist gives us the object depicted dynamically, the depiction visibly fused with the thought process behind depicting it.

William Nicholson, Still Life with Cup and Books, c. 1910
Such painting is often said to be primarily “about” painting or “about” seeing rather than primarily (or just) about the subject chosen. It invokes and includes the process of painting (as well as the more or less conscious act of "seeing") in the service, simultaneously, of realism, subjective expression, and an exploration of the processes at the heart of art and perception.

Stuart Shils, Big Sky, Sun Breaking Through Lackan Haze, 2003.

What's your take, and could you suggest any favorite "painterly" painters or paintings we should know about?


  1. Isn't that when a painter has paint on their shirt and especially spatters on their shoes? "Boy, he sure looks painterly." Right?

    The most painterly I can think of would be Nicolai Fechin. T.C.Steele was darn painterly. Of modern painters, Victor Wang may take the cake. Many of his paintings are huge and I think he uses a backhoe to apply the paint. ;-)

    1. Ha ha- well, I'm quite the painterly one myself if that's all it takes! :-) Thanks for the tips on Steele and Wang. I'm finding Fechin downright fetchin' myself lately :-P

  2. Giorgio Morandi, painterly and an amazing colorist- molto bene!

  3. One of my all time favourites is an British artist, Fred Cuming

  4. Lynne - wow - thank you so much for introducing me to Cuming- didn't know him and I sense HE IS a guiding light!

  5. We usually associate 'painterliness' with a certain sort of free, bravura brushstroke making a rich, sensuous mark, often a notation that stands in for something, rather than reproducing it. I'd like to suggest that painterliness is, in fact, actually conceptual. It is a manifestation of the belief that a painting can be,simultaneously, both an image and a conversation about paint itself.

  6. From my own personal experiences, I believe that only oil paint, a brush, and a true artistic perception of the link between you and your surroundings produce a "painterly" piece of work. Watercolors, for me, are too fleeting and controlled by the environment. If done well, as in the work of Mary Whyte, they are "painterly", indeed. I have realized that oils are "forgiving", providing the painter with that creative window of time that he needs to record his vision. However, I have also noticed (and am delighted in the fact) that oils will "settle" into a mix of colors and brushstrokes upon the canvas in a truly synergistic fashion, provided your vision is true. What a joy to return a few days later to a piece of work and see how this synergy has taken place! For me, the work of George Innis is the ultimate example of what working in a "painterly" fashion means. I'm looking forward to a discussion on Innes as a "Metaphysician".