I thought it would be intriguing to ask painters this simple yet complex question. This query comes with no ground rules—it’s up to each individual artist to find their own approach and direction.
This project will be an ongoing exploration … let’s see where it takes us.
What is Painting?
Featuring Anne Harris
Here’s what painting is to me:
First, paint. It’s as close to the body as an art supply gets. Except for our bones, we’re mostly wet mass—from dense meat, to fats, oils, jellies, thickening fluids and skin. Paint is all of this. The fact that pigment is suspended in viscous stuff really matters. Paint physically sits like films of milk, honey, frosting, cement and body fluids. Think of all the things you’ve ever smeared. That’s paint.
Painting is action. It’s squishable, pliable, elastic. We layer it, conceal with it, wipe it away, scrape it away, sand it away, put more down and push it around, pour it, feather it, dab it, stroke it. It connects us to the first marks made by humans, the first smears, the first pictures, the first magic—that dirt on a surface can become anything.
Painting is, all at once, pre-history, history, tradition and right now. Painting came before the wheel, writing and money. It’s at the beginning of picturing and imagining, of creation and communication.
Painting is perceptual, both in viewing and making. It involves sight, touch, smell, movement, memory, emotion and interpretation. Certain paintings function like lenses. We look through them and see the world differently.
Painting is paradox. We believe it to be what it physically isn’t, and yet what it is, is right there, unhidden. Paint sits on a surface, but our minds float through it into light, air, space and matter. We look both at and into painting. Painting is fact and fiction. Painting is metaphor.
A painting has presence. It physically exists, unique, like we are. You have to stand in front of it to completely understand it. It has feeling and a gaze; it can mesmerize or dismiss us. It holds time—fast to slow. Slow is spectacular.
Painting is relative. Everything is formed by everything else.
And painting is light: energy generated by colors, side by side, vibrating in discord and harmony, transforming each other. All are embedded in the substance of paint. Actual light passes through and bounces off layers of transparent, translucent and opaque paint. The result: unnamable shimmering color, bottomless darks and inexplicable luminosity. This light can be anywhere from dim to blinding, but without it, a painting is a dead image.
Here, to me, is what painting isn’t:
Just another way to make an image
Just another way to illustrate an idea
A skill demo
A fashion statement
Just another wall decoration
Something you should see under fluorescent light
Something you can understand solely through a jpeg
Anne Harris, Untitled (Figuring Ground), Mixed media (mainly oil and acrylic) on paper, Studio installation, west wall, individual pieces are 30″ x 22″, 2014
Anne Harris is a painter who also teaches and curates. She’s Chair of the Exhibition Committee at the Riverside Arts Center, and currently teaches MFA and BFA students in the Painting and Drawing Department at SAIC. Her work has been exhibited at museums such as The National Portrait Gallery at The Smithsonian Institute and The Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art. Awards received include Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships. She lives in Riverside, IL, just outside Chicago.
The What Is Painting? Project – More Featured Artists