|In the realm of painting, the meaning of a given work is most often announced in the bold, straightforward presentation of a subject. Sometimes, however, meaning can be indirectly invoked through the strategic use of symbols. And at still other times, meaning can be even more subtly whispered to us in the particular inflections of thought or mood that the artist brings to bear in his or her work. It is this third articulation of meaning that we will focus upon here, in our brief examination of line, color, and texture in painting.|
|We begin then with line. In painting, the term "line" can refer to the "contour lines" surrounding and defining figures and shapes, to the visible lines of the artist's brushstrokes, or to the linear orientation of shapes and figures within a composition. In any case, the lines in question can be smoothly curved or rigidly angular, thereby suggesting alternatively a fluid harmony, or a series of discordant, interrupted movements. If lines are straight, they can be predominantly vertical, horizontal, or diagonal. A preponderance of vertical lines in a composition tends to inflect it with connotations of strength, courage, and authority. Horizontal lines tend to emphasize the right and left borders of the painting. Diagonal lines create a sense of movement in a painting, while simultaneously enhancing the illusion of depth, which is to say, the effect of perspective in the work. Whatever the type or direction of a given line might be, the function of linear orientation upon the viewer is always to catch his or her eye and guide it through a scanning movement. Thus the lines of a painting will direct our glance towards or away from specific points in the composition.||
Line: Mondrian's Rhythm of Black Lines, 1935/42
Color: Pissaro, Pear Trees in Bloom at Eragny, Morning, 1886
|Color presents us with an additional
range of expressive nuances. Reds, yellows, and oranges are sometimes
referred to as "warm colors," and they very often connote
active movement or intensity. Blues, greens, and purples are the
so-called "cool colors," and they tend to connote harmony,
tranquillity, or sadness. Black, white, grays, and browns are the
"neutral colors," and they are very often used either as a
backdrop to set off more striking colors, or as a means of adding
touches of realism to a work. Sometimes colors are said to be
"saturated," which means that they are pure and unmixed with
other colors. This creates a sense of intense vividness, or when used
excessively, a sense of artificiality akin to cartoon animation. "Desaturated,"
or "muted" colors, on the other hand, can diminish the effect
of vividness and thereby enhance a painting's realism. Furthermore, the
colors used in a composition can be coordinated to achieve different
effects. For instance, when colors that are adjacent on the color wheel
are juxtaposed, the result is something that art critics call
"analogous harmony." Thus, for example, a green hillside might
meet with a blue sky that is gradually purpling as night approaches.
This coordination of colors creates the effect of a smooth, continuous
transition. Alternatively, in a painting exhibiting "complementary
harmony," complementary colors (i.e., colors on opposite sides of
the color wheel) are being used to create the effect of intense contrast
in which the juxtaposed colors forcefully stand out against each other.
A word of caution regarding the meaning of colors is necessary here: the expressive qualities of color that I have been pointing out are by no means universally employed. These formulations of the relationship of color to expressive meaning are rather just general tendencies in art. Many artists will very often work against these tendencies and use colors in highly personal and idiosyncratic ways to express their own unique moods and ideas.
|Turning finally to texture, we note that here too the medium of painting offers a range of expressive possibilities that we might learn to appreciate. At one extreme, we have the paintings of Rembrandt, with their thickly applied quantities of paint making it seem as if his figures are sculpted upon the canvas. This massive application of paint is a common feature of many baroque paintings, and art critics designate it by the term, "impasto." Rembrandt's extreme impasto results in a palpable layering of paint upon his canvases. To reach the meaning of Rembrandt's works, one feels that one must penetrate these layers and look for the profound (usually psychological) insights that seem to lie beneath.||
Texture: Rembrandt's Portrait of Jan Six, 1654
Texture: Monet's Giverny: Spring, 1900
Texture: Warhol's Big Campbell's Soup Can, 1962
Another, less extreme textural deployment of impasto can be seen in the work of the impressionists and post-impressionists. Their thick application of paint allows them to call attention to the highly innovative brushwork that is a characteristic feature of their respective styles. Here the highly visible brushstrokes effectively underscore the experimental treatment of visual-perception that artists in these movements pioneered. Impasto thus serves the impressionists and post-impressionists as a kind of blackboard on which they artistically inscribe the way in which overall visual perceptions can be broken down into specific micro-perceptions of line, point, and color.
If Rembrandt's heavy impasto stands as one extreme of the expressive use of texture in painting, the glossy, commercial-inspired works of the Pop artists stand as the other extreme. Thus, in certain works of Pop art, meaning appears to reside neither beneath massive layers of paint, nor within the virtuosity of brushwork. Rather the meaning of such paintings is plainly dispersed across the depthless surface of the works. Contrary to the impressionist and post-impressionist practice of demonstrating the artist's personal control over the viewer's perception, the Pop artists sought to create works that seemed to be more like the anonymously produced images found in commercial advertisements. The depthless quality of such paintings seems calculated to suggest that there is no underlying theme behind the works, or more precisely, that the underlying theme is simply that there is no underlying theme. All that remains is a surface of highly-finished, visually arresting forms. And this seems to be as much a general statement about our postmodern culture as it is a specific statement about art. Thus, from the heavy impasto of the baroque masters, to the foregrounded brushwork of the impressionists and post-impressionists, and on to the flat, glossy surfaces of the Pop artists--the quality of texture serves as a crucial expressive feature in the art of painting.
As we have seen, line, color, and texture can effectively invoke the subtlest dimensions of artistic expression in a painting. Where subject-matter and symbolism are the sledgehammers of meaning, line, color, and texture are the finely calibrated instruments that effectively "finish" the meaning of any given work of art. It therefore follows that our interpretive analyses of art will be all the more "finished" (in every sense) when we learn to move smoothly from discussions of subject-matter and symbolism to discussions of these subtler points of artistic technique.