Understanding the historical practices of painting is significant for communication studies because in nearly all cultures these practices embody the origins and establishment of subsequent genres of picture-making.
Humans have made paintings for at least 30,000 years using three material components: pigment suspended in a medium; a surface to which the paint is applied; and tools like brushes, sticks, fingers, and hands by which the paint is transferred to the ground. In prehistoric times, paintings were applied to readymade grounds of rock surfaces. In other cases paintings have been made on grounds laid on a support, like canvas on a stretcher. Grounds can be rough or smooth, resistant or absorbent, a choice that goes hand in hand with the type of tool, usually a brush, used to apply the relative transparency, opacity, and viscosity of the paint. Brushes can be small or large, fine or coarse, features that allow for the manipulation of techniques and visual symbolic codes for the wider purpose of projecting meaning.
The autographic or hand-held painting processes that create unique artifacts are always made against a broader intentional field of cultural expectations. The operation of background pressures explains why paintings vary from culture to culture, from one historical period to the next within the same tradition, and between two artists working in the same cultural context. The background circumstances influence both the materials for executing paintings and the way line, tone, color, texture, rhythm, form, space, scale, and figurative references formally structure compositions for communicating perceptual, expressive, and conceptual meanings. These variables determine style in painting.
Style allows someone both to make paintings that have meaning, and to distinguish, say, a Chinese watercolor from an Egyptian mural, a baroque from a Renaissance painting, a Matisse from a Picasso. Styles used to represent and conserve shared, symbolic understandings of the world have dominated non-European, ancient, and older European practices of painting. By contrast, paintings done in Europe since the late eighteenth century have aimed to critique dominant cultural expectations, a corollary of which has been the proliferation of styles that emphasize self-expression, a practice not found in other cultural contexts.
Painting styles vary on a spectrum from the pictographic to the highly realistic, the abstract to the figurative. Pictographic methods are arranged parallel to the picture plane rather than modeled in receding space, as in western painting aimed at evoking the real world on a flat surface, a function that picture frames reinforce. The practice of twentieth-century painting moved away from creating such a window on the world in favor of emphasizing the inherent flatness of the picture plane, which had the effect of creating the twofold, potential space associated with psychoanalytic approaches to painting.
When paintings perform a ritual function, style changes only if the underlying beliefs wane, or if a representational innovation brings further prestige and purpose to the way paintings serve their prescribed role. Such an innovation happened when a new preaching style influenced late fourteenth and early fifteenth-century Italian artists to move away from the schematic Byzantine style toward the invention of naturalism, in which the artist paints not only what happens in the sacred story but how this happens in a moment of time from an eyewitness point of view that the congregation shares. Foreshortening is the representational master key for unlocking this innovation, as it eliminates inconsistencies in the projection of the visual field, a corollary of which is the way halos evolved from flat, gold circles into thin, linear ellipses. Paintings can be made by the process of accretion associated with the accumulated revisions made in oil paintings, in which new applications of opaque or transparent paint obfuscate or modify previous layers, or by the alternative process of omission, in which brush strokes follow the mark-making tradition of calligraphy common to China and Japan. Both accretion and omission require a sophisticated knowledge of the medium.
An example of how a painting style develops in response to technological innovation can be found in the way the production of tube paints facilitated mobility when the Impressionists recorded everyday life. The Impressionists’ coarse, grainy visual codes and improvised cropping techniques are also indebted to the invention of photography.
To understand the symbolic content of paintings requires knowledge of their context. An example would be the symbols used in Aboriginal Australian tribal art that do not resemble the phenomenal reality of the things they represent. In order to read such text-analog paintings the visual code, like the alphabet and its many combinations, has to be learned. Paintings in the western tradition that approximate more to phenomenal reality can also carry indirect, text-analog meanings. An example is a painting by Dürer that shows a man holding a large sword in one hand and a book in the other. To understand that this is a representation of St. Paul would require familiarity with his comment about scripture being like a two-edged sword, which became Paul’s attributes. Wittgenstein (1953) describes the ability to see one thing as something else as “aspect seeing,” which he distinguished from the ordinary “seeing” of phenomenal reality.
Other examples of aspect seeing are the way visual elements are used to create synesthetic metaphors of value on the basis of equivalences across sensory modes. The preference of neo-classical artists for composing paintings with “honest,” clear outlines is an example of a style being given the sensory equivalence of integrity. This judgment about the symbolic potency of visual expression emerged as a reaction to the previous, “corrupt” rococo painterly style. Understanding the potency of expression of visual codes in painting requires such web-like registers from which conscious and unconscious comparisons are made.
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- Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations (eds. G. E. M. Anscombe & R. Rhees, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe). Oxford: Blackwell.
- Woolheim, R. (1987). Painting as an art. London: Thames and Hudson.