Using the vocabulary of painting

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Using the vocabulary of painting

A painting is an object crafted by human hands. Its visual vocabulary reflects this hand-wrought sensibility. Rather than machine-like precision, painting reveals the hand of its maker via small imperfections and accidents. The viewer then senses a painting as a unique object, rather than a reproduction. By understanding the visual elements that make up the vocabulary of painting, a photograph can act as a source framework upon which to replace its language with that of paint.

In this video, we'll take a look at the vocabulary of painting. Well, first and foremost, probably the key element that identifies the language of painting is brushstrokes, or as I call it sometimes, brushwork. Each one of us, just like our own signature, is unique, and the way each of us apply color, how our wrist, hand, and arm all conspire to craft expressive marks on the canvas are different for each one of us.

Even each of us it will be different in various times of the day, depending on how much sleep, how much caffeine, how excited--all of these things will affect how your brushwork appears. A professional lifelong artist can't help but paint a certain way, and that becomes their style, or the way their brushwork is expressed through their painting. So brushwork is a key element of the vocabulary of painting. It's the atomic structure of the imagery made by painting.

Another key element in painting is you have to build a painting up, so it's very common to start with what is called an underpainting. An underpainting defines the loose framework that is the composition, and it also heralds what some of the color choices are going to be later on in the composition, but underpainting is a signature of painting. And quite often sometimes some of the underpainting ends up being visible in the final paining, so it isn't always something that gets completely covered up; elements of it will often appear in the final work itself.

So this technique of underpainting is another element of the vocabulary of paint. Next, we get into what I call indication, or selective indication. A photograph of this would be every little element in the image completely detailed in fine, sharp focus. A painter, on the other hand, chooses which elements from a scene, whether it's a photograph or they're looking out at it in the field, either way the painter is not going to mimic the exact precision of all of those elements of the photograph.

They are going to selectively pick things out that they consider important, and they will accentuate those via the choices they make through selective indication. A good example of this is a tree. When we take a photograph of a tree we see in fine detail every leaf on that tree that's facing the camera. When an artist paints a tree, more often than not, rather than paint exactly every leaf on a tree, they will start with something of an underpainting that models some highlights and shadows and green tonalities, so that they've got the rough model and form of a tree, but then they will go in afterwards with brighter green and darker greens and paint in selective areas to portray the illusion of all the leaves on the tree, and this is what I call the Connect-the-Dots theory.

A skillful artist can use these dots, these visual elements, selectively to get the viewer's mind to complete the image. So a well-done representation of a tree with simplified indication will be far from every leaf on a tree, and yet anybody who looks at that image will recognize it, oh that's a tree, and that's all we have to worry about. Selective indication is a way to represent reality through a simplified means, and again, this is another key element of the vocabulary of painting.

Now the artist will eventually add greater detail, but again, it's selective. In fact, the little example I just gave right here, when we look at this, this does look very much like all of the leaves on the tree. Well, when we go up and look at it, you can see there's really very little tree in it. It's a bunch of lines that are scrambled in such a way that we get an illusion of the complexity of trees without that actual complexity. Same thing here.

You can see, I mean I didn't paint every leaf on that tree. Just a few well-chosen marks in the right places, right tonalities over the underpainting goes a long way towards fooling the eye to seeing what it thinks is a tree. So selective detail again is another form of painting that is unique to this particular medium, and it goes against the grain of photography. But knowing how to take all of the detail found in a photograph and reduce it through this simplified indication and simplified detail, we can still portray the same scene, but in a way that is not nearly as information rich as the photograph.

Finally, we have color. I'll just bounce back and forth between these. This is the original colors I did this in, which largely came off of the photograph. But then I went in and I just tweaked them up a bit, so that they would have a little bit more richer color. Remember that colors coming from a tube of paint are composed of pigments that are much richer and more saturated in color than is typically possible with a photograph or an inkjet printer. So a true painting has a wider color gamut, so to speak, than a photograph does, because it's using a completely different form of to arrive at the finished image.

The photograph is limited in a number of colors used to create it, whereas the artist has an entire array of colors straight, from the tube and it can be mixed, that can be used to create a definite range that is far different than photographic color. So what we've learned here is that each of these languages has their own unique qualities, which I refer to as languages. In the form of a language you have verbs and nouns. What we are going to do throughout this course is take the language of photography and replace it with the language of painting.

Using the vocabulary of painting
Video duration: 7m 1s 4h 0m Intermediate


Using the vocabulary of painting provides you with in-depth training on Design. Taught by John Derry as part of the Digital Painting: Street Scene

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