Sunday, 2 November 2008

Artwork Mondays: the aura of oil

The aura of painting exists in the mind of the viewer, and in some cases the mind of the illustrator when seeing their own work reproduced. The idea of paintings having an aura or presence is something that has fascinated me since university, as discussed last week. Some excellent comments were made by artists Sean Craven and Chris Zenga, check it out.

Okay so from my non-scientific anecdotal samplings and personal experiences (oh the sins against science I commit! I will say ten ATP-->ADP reactions in penance), I doubt the existence of original paintings having a quasi-mystical aura or emitting a presence to the viewer. You can read a bit more about this "aura of authenticity" from an art historical perspective
here, and from the side of new age-laced artsy language here (10th paragraph), and here. It's head-shakingly amazing how fear for loss of the aura is dovetailed with a fear of technology.

Is there anything special or unique then, about an original painting that does not lie entirely within the biases of the viewer? In case of oil paintings, I say yes. And looking at last week's comments, Chris Zenga guessed the point of this week's Artwork Monday while thinking about a D.N.A Candle Vanitas painting I gave to him and his wife for their marriage (at right, original post here).

I love oil painting. I enjoy the scent of the oil, and the buttery consistency flowing
together under a horizontally-held fan brush. And most of all, I love the depth glazing can bring about in the final work.

Oil painting differs from other types of painting in many ways. Oils do not evaporate as they dry like watercolour or acrylic painting; instead they absorb oxygen from the air. This is called a siccative quality. The way I think about this, is like the oxygen molecules are pineapple chunks being added to Jell-o in a confined bowl. Adding more will increase the density and stop the Jell-o from jiggling. I don't know that this is a chemically-apt description, so please feel free to tell me there's not room for Jell-o in the comments if I am mangling the science of siccatives.

For this reason, it's important that oil paintings are painted in thin layers with an increasing amount of oil in successive layers. It allows the oxygen to permeate evenly over the course of six months to a year after painting, and helps prevent cracking. The rule is referred to as "fat over lean".

So oil paintings, particularly by Renaissance and Baroque masters, contained many thin, mostly transparent layers of paint, each tinted with a little pigment. And herein lies the aura of a painting viewed live versus online.

When light hits all these layers of oil, it permeates each oily membrane and begins to reflect back out. But some photons will bounce back into the oil layers off of the pigments, and back to the lower layers before pinging back out of the painting, and onward to the viewers eyes. This optical effect literally creates a glow. It's also the reason for the incredibly deep blacks often found in the backgrounds of portraits.

So the illusion of depth in an oil painting can be profoundly eye-catching, and similar to looking at objects in water, the oil-glazes draw our eyes and captivate our pattern-seeking centers, making the paint feel alive. No unscientific aura necessary, just wonderful chemistry interacting on our biology.

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4 comments:

chris zenga said...

Chemistry is dandy!

Glendon Mellow said...

Yes sir!

hyfen said...

I recall you mentioning some modern paintings that broke this rule when you were talking about this at the PZ dinner last Saturday. What was the story again?

Glendon Mellow said...

Hi Hyfen,

I think at the PZ dinner I was mentioning general problems with modern painting and people ignoring the chemistry involved in a stable paint film; Jackson Pollock may have been one I was talking about.

In his case, from what I understand, he used house paint and acrylic together, which don't adhere well to one another. Also the thick globs that formed would have tried funny. I've heard it said that chunks of his paintings fall off fairly often.

Not too many people pay attention to fat-over-lean anymore. Hmm. I'll try to find some modern examples.

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