Painting - The Aromatic Art


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I grew up with a dad who was a Sunday painter. That is, he painted for the sheer enjoyment of it, on weekends when he wasn’t otherwise working. His medium of choice was oil paint, and to this day I look at canvases created by that time-honored method with my ears and nose, not only with my eyes. Plant me in front of a freshly painted oil and in the background I hear classical music-usually Handel or Bach–or perhaps, Bob Dylan’s early LPs, and sometimes, Judy Collins, warbling one of those then-new folk-rock songs.

But it’s the smell that really grabs me: rich linseed oil and the juniper sharpness of turpentine. These days, many painters choose less toxic substances, and with good reason, of course. Still, there is nothing better, aromatically, in an artist’s studio or gallery than the redolence of newly daubed oil on canvas.


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Watriquet de Couvin 14th Century

My profession, however, is not that of a technician of pigment on canvas or paper. I am an art historian, not an artist (by preference– I love the big ideas behind art), and have come to learn, through a lot of looking, just how incredible a painting can be. From the earliest marks on stone walls to icons of saints, from precisely detailed Renaissance portraits to dramatic Baroque scenes, from modernist manifestos to monochromatic planes of pure color, I love it all. Spend some time looking at a painting by the great Romantic artist Eugene Delacroixe–note how daubs of white paint applied in thumb-sized smears light up the whole surface, and indeed, the subject itself–and you will soon have a deep appreciation for the application of color on a flat surface.

When we discuss the general topic of painting, most of us, perhaps unconsciously, reference oil painting. Traditionally this is defined as the process of mixing powdered pigments, gotten from mineral and plant-based sources from around the world, with oily mediums, most commonly linseed oil from flax, in order to make richly hued and supple paints. Although the oldest method of painting is with watercolors (simply adding water to pigments until they are miscible), neither this ancient technique nor that of oil painting came into widespread recognition until the high Renaissance period, a return to classical Greco-Roman values in art and philosophy that flourished in Italy in the early sixteenth century. Watercolors have been around since Paleolithic cave paintings, and were prominent in the remarkable art of medieval manuscript illumination. Also outstanding during this era, often in the form of religious pictures of the Madonna and Child, were paintings created on wooden panels with quick-drying tempera–a nearly edible approach to mixing colors with egg yolks, or occasionally, water, honey, or casein from milk. Anyone who’s ever washed the breakfast dishes will realize how durable and water-resistant tempera can be.

Julian and Maria Martinez

Claude Monet
Bridge over a Pool of Water Lilies of Love 1899

Oil paints became available pre-mixed in tubes in the mid-1800s, causing a revolution in painting. Impressionism, with its emphasis on plein-air painting (quick sketches in paint made outdoors on location) changed how we look at paintings, loosening our expectations about photographic realism and increasing our delight in color and luminosity itself: the very stuff of painting. Without those portable tubes, we wouldn’t have our Monets, our Renoirs, or our Georgia O’Keeffes, not to mention the pure pleasure of painting outside on a lovely day.

Each system for the delivery of color to canvas has its own plusses and minuses: oil paintings usually result in the most profound tones, textures, and expressivity. Raphael’s lovely Madonnas would certainly have disappeared from art history had they been done in flat watercolor or tempera! However, one of the chief drawbacks of painting with oils is that it takes so long to dry, professionals don’t consider an oil painting truly dry for upwards of 50 years. The artist who uses oils conventionally learns to paint from “fat to lean,” so that the under layers are less oily, and thus quicker to dry, than the top layers of the painting. Also, oil paintings have proven to crack and turn yellow with age–some natural pigments are less stable than others–creating the need for a final step, after a drying period of six months to a year, of varnishing the surface with gum crystals in turpentine, a paint thinner made from pine resin. Then, varnish itself has to be removed and reapplied as decades go by. As you can guess, the art of conserving historic paintings is a whole vocation unto itself. Witness Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and its narrative of preservation over the past 500 years.

In modernity we have seen an explosion of new painting practices–beginning with the experiments done by the Mexican muralists as they searched for new ways to put paint on public walls. Although the muralists’ best known practitioner, Diego Rivera, studied in Italy in the 1920s the traditional art of al fresco mural painting–so-called because it requires painting on freshly wet stucco so that the paint becomes one with the wall as it dries–he and his compadres, particularly David Alfaro Siqueiros, were interested in the plastic-based paints that came out of the home and auto industries. (For the last 50 years artists have used water-based acrylic paint: quick-drying, compliant, and available in a wide palette of colors.) The new paints would have a great effect on the imminent New York School of Abstract Expressionists, many of whom studied with the Tres Grandes of Mexico: Rivera, Siqueiros, and José Clemente Orozco.

Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, huge canvases spread out on the studio floor that the artist physically dominated with the sheer force of his will, were much more than just oil paintings. Working with thinned enamel paint and aluminum as well as oils, Pollock liberated painting from the restraints of easel and brush. Since then, it hasn’t been the same–a problem for those whose taste run to the time-honored in art. For me, though, modern art presents opportunities to explore various issues in painting, such as its relation to nature (Piet Mondrian’s De Stijl movement), its flatness (see Helen Frankenthaler or Morris Louis, for example), its very structure (look to Jasper Johns and Frank Stella, and even the Minimalists such as Donald Judd). In contemporary art, we have everything from the most intimately detailed paintings by artists such as Fred Tomaselli to the completely abstracted white paintings of Robert Ryman and the nearly monochromatic, highly meditative works of the late Taos artist Agnes Martin–all exhorting young artists today to push the medium, to see what paint can do.

From what I’ve been able to see, it can do a heck of a lot of great stuff. And it smells good, too.


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Hans Namuth
Jackson Pollock Painting, Summer 1950
Courtesy Pollock-Krasner House
and Study Center

Thanks to Kathryn M. Davis, art historian.

Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 22

Related Pages

Glossary of Painting and Drawing Terms article

Southwestern Landscapes: New Mexico Artists article
Still Life Paintings article

Collector’s Resources

Santa Fe

DR Contemporary rem 123 Galisteo Street |
McLarry Modern | 505-983-8589
The Karen Wray Gallery rem 2101 Trinity Drive Suite B-2 | 505.660.6382
GVG Contemporary | 505-982-1494
Alan Barnes Fine Art rem 402 Old Santa Fe Trail - next to The Pink | 505.989.3599
Pippin Contemporary | 505.795.7476
Michael Billie rem FireGod Gallery - 217 East Palace Ave | 505-592-4884
GF Contemporary | 505.983.3707
Selby Fleetwood Gallery | 505-992-8877


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