Paintings Activate Our Senses

by | Jul 1, 2011 | Blog | 7 comments

Over dinner last night with my friend Destiny Allison, I was describing my litmus test for paintings that I liked by using the word “lick-able”. She laughed about it, and agreed that the tactile quality or sensuousness of the painted surface is an important factor for her too. After dinner while viewing a nearby gallery’s exhibition, I found that I would first go very close to each painting, practically sticking my nose in them, to see what the surface was like. I noticed that many of the paintings had a thin layer of paint – not as interesting as a glaze or a wash – just a simple plain layer that had no seductive quality to it. A glaze would be a thin layer that glows with the extra medium in it, and a wash would sink into the surface creating an interesting stain. No, these artists were obviously oblivious to surface quality, and used the paint sparingly, almost as if they were afraid of using too much paint. Or maybe afraid of the paint itself. In other words, I didn’t feel like licking, touching or otherwise longingly gazing over the surface. I also noticed that it didn’t matter whether the paintings were abstract or realistic, and unless first entranced by the surface, I never stuck around long enough to notice the subject matter. When a painter has the intent to create a seductive surface that supports the image or subject matter of the piece, the painting, in my opinion, moves into a higher realm by engaging more sensory experiences. And when the painter has a surface consciousness while painting, it adds this dimension naturally. This surface quality I am writing about is not to be confused with texture. Texture can add a tactile quality and make the surface more interesting (sometimes) but that’s not what I’m talking about here. Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings have a wonderful lickable quality while the paint is, in general, fairly smoothly applied. If you look closely at her work (in person, of course) you can see her brush strokes moving in various playful directions holding a variety of paint qualities. Yum!!! I would gladly bet that Georgia herself actually thought of licking the surface with her brush while painting. I mean, come on, we can enjoy the simple surface qualities of photographs and prints, but a real live painting in person when painted with the intent to create a seductive surface will get me every time!

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  1. lad

    Surface finish – texture, reflectance and the presence of real pigment is, to my mind, all that paint has left over the onslaught of digital creation and reproduction.

    I used to add "scale" to that list, but now there's giant inkjet machines that can paint mural canvases and the sides of a building. some even spray genuine oil paint primaries onto large canvases, to be refined with small brushes for that "hand-painted look!"

    After working for decades as a digital graphic artist and illustrator, it seems digital is expedient for literal, illustrative and clever ideas. But the sole purpose, and pleasure, of using paint is in the process, and its "real" material results. If a painter doesn't appreciate and exploit these qualities, they might as well just design on a computer and giclee the results on a canvas instead.

  2. Shane Robinson

    I just LOVE this idea and description.

    I keep coming back to this post and I've linked to it many many times on different art, photography sites and on Facebook when I've commented on other artists' work as being "lickable."

  3. Nancy Reyner

    You are missing the point if you think I meant that the quantity of paint has anything to do with the quality. Its the intention to create a sensuousness to the surface, which can be obtained with thin washes (using a scant amount of paint) as well as thicker amounts to create texture.

  4. Sarina

    Maybe they couldn't afford it. You should be more open to all artwork.

  5. Karen Martin Sampson

    I know exactly what you mean. I often have talked with my students about paying attention to the "application of the paint to the surface" and attempted to describe what I meant. You have put it perfectly into words!

  6. Amy Tuso

    This is a great descriptive explanation of tactile quality or sensuousness when incorporated in the creative process of painting or sculpture. I encourage actual "touching" of my paintings while closing ones eyes and letting the tactile feeling move up and along the fingertips or gradually once the senses have fully encaged, the palm of the hand. I'm not just speaking of built up texture, which I do use often, but I'm talking about the thicker brush strokes that are apparent when viewing in person and unfortunately difficult to capture in photographs for my website.

    Thanks for sharing Nancy.
    Amy Tuso

  7. Destiny Allison

    I love the way you describe this. In sculpture. the surface is all about texture (smooth or otherwise) and it has been so exciting to discover the depth of surface in painting. Touchability has long been important to me but in metal, its less about the surface than the form. In painting, the surface is the invitation to depth. For me, clarity of surface is the quality that makes me want to "lick it." Like in a still body of water, the surface either reveals what is below or the surface is muddy and I can't see beyond it. It shuts me out.


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Professional fine artist Nancy Reyner’s blog about art, painting and creativity. Her career spans over 30 years. She lives in Santa Fe in the US. Subscribe below for free tips on art and painting.

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