Sunday, February 04, 2007

Thoughts on Painting IV - JPEGs, Details and Density

Hans, an artist and blogger from Tbilisi, Georgia, posed the question in the comments section of the previous post which I found interesting. Hans asks, "But is a painting on screen still a painting, a translated painting ?"

I would respond: No, it’s a digital reproduction of a painting, but that’s the obvious answer. As painters we have always had to rely, much of the time, on reproductions of paintings, the originals are hidden away in private collections or in museums somewhere where we are not. So we make do.

Part of the problem with reproductions has to do with their size compared to the size of the painting. The image of the Fra Angelico painting "Saint Francis Receives the Stigmata" in the previous post is 800 pixels wide. So, this painting is actually relativly small, only 33 cm (13") wide so there are 800/33=24 pixels per cm (62 px/in.) so the finest detail that can be resolved is 0.04mm (less than an 0.02 in) which is quite a lot.

However, if we have a 200 cm (79 inch) wide painting and still only a 800 pixel reproduction we have only 4 pixels per cm (0.635 px in.) which means each pixel represents a 2.5mm (about 5/8 in) square area of the painting’s surfac. The resolution goes way down because the information in a pixel is only the average color and tonal value captured for its resolvable area. This means that while we may still be able to see blurry evidence of a small drip of paint, the resolution of the details and at the edges between different elements of the painting lose their distinctness and clairity.

Never the less, there are a number of things we can discern from a reproduction. In a reproduction we can identify the ‘image’ or subject of the painting. We can see the overall composition and the other formal characteristics where we do not need the fine details. For example in one of my earlier posts, I made an analysis of the composition in Fra Angelico’s painting Paradise and for this the jpeg works just fine. From the standpoint of a viewer who might be just interested in seeing what is happening in the artworld a reproduction might also suffice quite nicely.

Pablo Picasso, "Still Life with Compotier and Glass", 1914-15
Oil on Canvas, 25 x 31.5" (63.5 x 80 cm)
Columbus Museum of Art

However as a painter, I find myself interested in the details more often than not, I want to see the painting as it exists as a physical object. This point was made evident to me recently. I had been looking at a lot of jpeg reproductions of Picasso’s paintings. What I was interested in was not cubism per se, but how inventive Picasso was and how his ideas progressed from work to work over time. Today, rather than looking through an art book, I have a hand selected collection of Picasso jpegs on my computer. This is not something that was easy to do only 6-7 years ago before the internet.

At about the same time, the Whitney Museum here in NYC had an exhibition "Picasso and American art" which had several Picasso’s juxtaposed with "Max Weber, Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, John Graham, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, David Smith, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jasper Johns." The exhibition received mixed reviews but I found it very interesting to see how these different artists tried to deal with Picasso’s influence or legacy.

Touching on the question Hans raised for a moment, since Warhol and Lichtenstein’s paintings are based upon commercial technologies, they come across fairly well in reproduction but the other paintings less so for the reasons I stated above. So when I went to the museum, I was able to reconnect with the physicality of these paintings again. Although I ‘knew’ all the Picasso’s and many of the other paintings from reproductions, I wasn’t quite expecting the positive response I had seeing them grouped together.

At the time I made my visit to the museum, I was in the middle of working on a painting which had reached the state of defining itself as a general image but still had a ways to go to completion. I often find this ‘middle stage’ the most difficult part in the process of making a painting, the painting more or less looks all right but I know I have to be willing to push it over the edge, to either resolve it or just create another set of problems. So this was on my mind when I went to the museum and when I thought about it a bit, I realized that what I was responding to was the physical presence of the paintings, not just their ‘look’. As I noted, a reproduction can provide a lot of information about how a painting ‘looks’ but in most cases it cannot give one the experience of how a painting feels, the actual experience of its scale and physicality.

My earlier remark, "A painting is just a painting." is not unique, other painters have said the same thing. It does say something about the very nature of painting itself, that painters use their media with the intent of making a painting. It is a visual history of all the tiny decisions, many totally subconscious, that coalesce into what we call a painting. A painting is, in most cases, made by hand and this process involves a complex series of iterative decisions, it may utilize a process of painting in and then painting out until the final result is achieved. Even if one cannot ‘see’ what us under the final layer, the ‘hidden’ work informs the final result, what the painter saw - in the painting - that led to the final solution.

Pablo Picasso, "Three Musicians", 1921
Oil on Canvas, 80 x 74" (203 x 188 cm)
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Click image for a larger but differently appearing and cropped version.

For example, in Picasso’s Three Musicians, the area at the lower left with the diamond patterned leg, in the underpainting, there is a continuation of the red rectangle which makes up part of the right leg. It’s painted over by the pattern, but not totally painted out, leaving evidence of an earlier state. Additionally, the diamond pattern in the right leg is cropped, and the red in the pattern is very close in color to this tilted rectangle.

Does any of this matter? I think it does. Although subtle, this small detail adds another small piece of information which reveals the process and intent of the painter. This information builds up as a painting is resolved, it can add a sublayer of complexity to a painting. It is visible information which may not be fully appreciated in a quick look but which, never the less, is there. I believe it is perceived by the viewer, even if only in a subconscious way, and therefore enriches our visual experience of the painting.

Another aspect of my reaction to the paintings at the Whitney, was a heightened awareness of the density of the paint. In most of the paintings, both in the broader flat areas and in the details like Picasso’s pointillism and patterning, I found that I was personally responding to the physicality of the paint. Whether it is a densely painted section or just an area with the barest wash of color, one has the feeling the paint is applied with an intentionality, including the embracement of the ‘accidents’ of process. My observations are less of an issue biased towards approaches which utilize denser paint than an attempt to describe one the elusive qualities in a painting which can transmit to the viewer the sense of conviction the artist has in the process of creation. It is our ability to recognize and respond these qualities, which can generate within us a sense of empathy with the artist, through the painting.

It is about something more than just finding the painting ‘beautiful’, it may have something to do with our astonishment, our surprise that the painting exists at all, that its maker has managed to emotionally, conceptually and visually touch out to us from another time and place.

It was a good question with a number of currently relevant implications.