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The schmear

It didn’t start with the impres­sion­ists. Paint­ing with expres­sive strokes in which the artist cre­ates the impres­sion of a lot more than what’s directly pre­sented goes back to at least the 16th cen­tury. Velazquez, for exam­ple, did it bril­liantly. It has been one of the core skills of most of the great visual artists, in all cul­tures, since the time that the first cave paint­ings were made. We all rec­og­nize, and admire, the bravura stroke that some­how makes us see what the artist is not really show­ing us.

But the real­ity of those per­fect strokes cre­ates a hor­ri­ble temp­ta­tion for those who can’t reli­ably cre­ate them. I call it “the shmear.” When we don’t know how to paint some­thing right, we smear some paint around and call it a day. While the viewer may be able to tell what this schmear or that schmear is intended to rep­re­sent, it cre­ates no res­o­nance in the eye or the heart. It’s just a messy blob that tells you that the artist wasn’t really try­ing, at least not right there.

You can see it even in good paint­ings some­times. Monet, in my hum­ble opin­ion, relied on the schmear often when he tried to paint peo­ple. I remem­ber sit­ting in a wait­ing room one time, look­ing at a van Gogh repro­duc­tion, think­ing about which parts cre­ated a dead on sense of altered real­ity with­out any need to actu­ally ren­der what that part actu­ally looked like. A few other parts, not so much. They were just schmears, places where Vin­cent had not the skill, the time, or the san­ity to look, see, and do his magic.

I’m not talk­ing about messy pant­ing. There are artists who paint in noth­ing but loose smears that some­how pull together into a whole that just works bril­liantly. I’m tak­ing about the paint­ings, or parts of paint­ings, where the artist, so far as I can tell, got sloppy and just made a vague mess. Some artists, alas, seem to do noth­ing but schmear paint­ing. Some of them get hung on gallery walls and appear to sell for a lot of money. Per­haps it’s my own fail­ure to see the qual­ity of their work, but to me they are doing noth­ing but mess­ing around with paint. There work doesn’t con­vey any­thing. They seem to sell because peo­ple have become used to think­ing of impres­sion­is­tic paint­ing as a good thing, and they can’t really tell the dif­fer­ence. Or they can, but think that oth­ers can see what they can’t. Plenty of ama­teur artists have learned that they can play around with paint all day, mak­ing one awful schmear after another, and some­one will tell them it’s good, or at least OK.

I can’t define the dif­fer­ence between a loose, bravura pas­sage and a schmear. But it usu­ally seems fairly obvi­ous to me. I’m not try­ing to be supe­rior here or claim that I have some kind of extra­or­di­nary per­cep­tion. This is just what I see when I look at paint­ings and try to fig­ure out whether there is a res­o­nance or not.

_Update 22 July 2007:_I don’t want to give the impres­sion that I myself am immune from the schmear effect. I’ve done lots of paint­ings in which I real­ize mid­way through that I didn’t know what I was doing and had resorted to schmear paint­ing. I don’t show those here because they suck. Also, usu­ally I tend toward more detailed ren­der­ing than schmear paint­ing allows. That has its own pit­falls, of course, but in that style of paint­ing it’s harder to cover up when you don’t know what the heck you are doing.

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8 Responses

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  1. Incompetent says

    I don’t entirely agree that a detailed style more eas­ily reveals a lack of knowl­edge; in Velazquez paint­ings you see the head com­posed of well-knit tonal planes with a strong feel­ing for the bone struc­ture. Wouldn’t that sim­pli­fi­ca­tion require just as much knowledge?

    As you men­tioned, you can eas­ily spot igno­rant bravura paint­ings with an excess of brush­strokes or lumpy shapes with no feel­ing for form. Wow! Loose strokes=excitement! But what is that excite­ment saying?

    That being said, I pre­fer a detailed style in my own work as well. It’s telling that Loomis remarked that nearly all mas­ters of a loose style first had to begin with a capac­ity for tightness.

  2. David says


    I guess I’m being dense, but I’m not sure what you mean with the Velazquez exam­ple. Of course sim­pli­fi­ca­tion requires great skill.

    I hadn’t heard that Loomis quote, but it cer­tainly makes sense. I’m still work­ing on that “capac­ity for tight­ness,” myself.

  3. jeff says

    Hey David I know what you mean, I do this myself. I like tak­ing a palette knife and scrap­ing a paint­ing down while its still tacky if it’s not work­ing. Or sand­ing it down until it becomes a ghost of the paint­ing.
    Then I’ll work it up again.

    Bravura paint­ing is the hard­est thing to do, try cop­ing Frans Hals’ The Laugh­ing Cav­a­lier or any of Sargent’s lat­ter works. Now that’s bravura paint­ing. Rubens, Van Dyke, you men­tioned Velazquez are few who are mas­ters at this.

    The schmear thing as you call it here is not the same, is it? A loose and well com­manded stroke is not a schmear to me but a sign of a mas­ter of the brush.

    Being a tight painter only means you have learned to copy well, learn­ing how to make the brush work for you is really hard.

    If you paint still life look at Chardin some of his work is very subtle(the olive jar) in it’s use of brush strokes.

  4. David says


    It’s nice to see you here again.

    What I’m call­ing “the schmear” is a sloppy attempt at bravura paint­ing. It’s when you could have observed care­fully and cre­ated a strong impres­sion of real­ity, but instead just threw some paint on the can­vas in a crude approx­i­ma­tion. In my hum­ble opin­ion, there’s a lot of schmear­ing out there these days, even in galleries.

    Many peo­ple with­out much real under­stand­ing of art often seem to be unable to clearly dif­fer­en­ti­ate between good bravura work and sloppy schmear painting.

  5. jeff says

    This is true. Good bravura paint­ing is all about draw­ing with the brush. I know what you mean about the schmear, as I am guilty of this infrac­tion as well.

  6. David says


    I think most of us are guilty on this count.

  7. cementgirl says

    I’ve just dis­cov­ered Lovis Corinth. What a vir­tu­oso Schmearer! My instruc­tor tells me he is not well known in USA more in Europe.

  8. David says


    Thanks for the ref­er­ence to Lovis Corinth. I hadn’t been aware of him previously.

    I don’t find any schmears in his work. His paint­ings are strong exam­ples of fine bravura work that is exactly the oppo­site of what I’m call­ing a schmear.

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