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.