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Flat space

Some 20th-century real­ists, such as David Hock­ney, tend to paint a blank wall as, well, blank. By that I mean that they mix up some color and paint that wall a flat tone. No tex­ture, no color vari­a­tion, just one plain color. If the blank wall has, say, a cast shadow falling on it, they will paint that, but the shadow will also be just one undif­fer­en­ti­ated color, just like the light por­tion of the wall. Skies, table­tops, streets—even skin tones—tend to get the same treatment.

That doesn’t work for me. First of all, it’s not “real­is­tic,” in that human vision (at least as I expe­ri­ence it as a human with func­tion­ing vision) never has areas of flat color. If I look at a plain wall, it has con­stant vari­a­tions in hue, chroma, and value. I just don’t see any flat color there.

That doesn’t mean the artist can’t paint it flat if that’s the way it looks to him or her, or if that evokes a cer­tain feel­ing the artist wants to ref­er­ence. But the big prob­lem with flat­ness is that it dis­tances me emo­tion­ally from the paint­ing. Flat color pushes me away. It says, “there isn’t any­thing to see here—this space inten­tion­ally left blank.” A flat area of color empha­sizes the real­ity that the paint­ing itself is flat. The paint­ing becomes less real­ist and more abstract, in a way that I find unap­peal­ing. Flat paint­ings are more “mod­ern” (in the sense of being more 20th cen­tury), but that’s not a sell­ing point as far as I am con­cerned. I like sim­plic­ity in paint­ings, but not that kind of simplicity.

By con­trast, tex­ture pulls me into the paint­ing. It can be used to cre­ate a sense of mys­tery, as in the sub­tle darks of a Rem­brandt paint­ing. It com­mu­ni­cates more about the visual real­ity that the painter is attempt­ing to lure me into observing. It gives me a rea­son to spend more time look­ing, and from the stand­point of a painter, that is never a bad thing.

As a result, I spend lots of time with the “blank” parts of my paint­ings. I typ­i­cally use mul­ti­ple lay­ers and think about how much tex­ture and color vari­a­tion to apply. Some blank areas get more atten­tion than detail areas. That doesn’t show so much in a pho­to­graph of the painting—but that’s just one more rea­son why the orig­i­nal is bet­ter than any repro­duc­tion. And that, from the stand­point of a painter, is an excel­lent thing.

Posted in art technique, artists, painting.

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2 Responses

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  1. titan says

    David Hock­ney is one of the worst famous artists ever, i can‘t believe how bad that guy is, and his book on the “secrets” of the old mas­ters is even worse than his art.

    I want some­one to truly end up paint­ing like veer­mer using a cam­era obscura, or at least come with a wor­thy exam­ple of its use before even men­tions some­one used it.

    Another thing, paint­ing is NOT flat at all.

    • David says


      I’m not a big fan of Hock­ney, either. His book prob­a­bly con­tains a few grains of truth, but so what? It takes a great mas­ter to make a great paint­ing, regard­less of whether time-saving tools such as a Durer grid were used or every­thing was done by eye. A hack using such tools will still make junk.

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