Review of recent exhibition of some nature painting with Eilean Eland’s sculpture with some thoughts on the differences between paintings and ‘pictures’.
Having just taken down my exhibition with ceramicist Eilean Eland at RHS Rosemoor, I fell to reflecting on its success (or lack of it) and the responses of some sturdy folk who visited having braved the often pretty awful weather, and have once again come to the conclusion that most people look at pictures, not at paintings. Let me explain, and I’m not speaking here of watercolours, they are a quite different kettle of fish!
In galleries, paintings are usually scanned cursorily, and not examined or studied. But let’s distinguish between pictures and paintings: a picture is always a picture, but often not a painting. In other words, the ‘artist’ is primarily concerned with a pictorial effect: something perhaps intended to please the casual eye, or maybe summon up a memory or some other pleasant feeling.
‘Real’ painters may be concerned with this too but something much deeper is going on. Those who enjoy real painting (verb) and real paintings (noun) will peer deeply into its heart to see the construction, the harmonies, the composition and the sheer physicality of the actual paint itself (the texture and ‘brushwork’. Herein, I submit, lies real joy and satisfaction.
I stood beside people and showed them the way the work was created: some see it immediately, some get it, many do not or they are simply not interested. Their interest starts and ends with pictures – the superficial surface effect – there is nothing wrong with this even though I regret it, if only because it means my paintings do not sell very well!
You might be drawn to a picture by its superficial character, a bit like one might find a pop song catchy at first even if it soon becomes irritating. An awful lot of pictures are like that: you stop seeing them – they become wallpaper. That won’t happen with a real painting because its depths are infinite and each viewer brings to it their own unique perspective.
In the arts, let’s briefly compare painting, which has prehistoric origins, with more modern media. To read a book requires investment of time, as does listening to a piece of music, so why is a painting just glanced at? It always strikes me as odd because a painting, unlike the other two examples, is independent of time – you can stand mesmerised by it for ages, no pressure. So why is it that most visitors look at a painting for about 5 seconds? One study showed that in major galleries, viewers glance at a painting for less than two seconds, read wall text for 10 seconds, glance back at the painting to verify something, then move on to the next.
I’ll leave you with a couple of examples from paintings at Rosemoor to show the detail and texture which cursory viewing misses and leave you decide your own response. Thanks so much for reading this.
Detail of ‘Daffodils in a blue glass’, Oil on cardboard 76 x 53.5cm
Detail of ‘Barn in a landscape with dancing figures’, Oil on board 35.5 x 49.5 cm