The painted word

Drawing from a Uniqlo ad, in progress.

There’s a very old, very bad joke that was still circulating when I was in art school.

“What is a sculpture?”

“It’s the thing you bump into when you’re backing up to look at a painting”

This is a shitty point of view and a shitty idea to spread to young, aspiring artists. I believe it with my whole heart.

In my own recent art practice, I’ve started to fold “real” painting back into my work on top of digital painting. I often like to paint something on my iPad, print it onto canvas, and then paint on top of the painting. The paintings on top began as texture or abstract geometry, but more and more figurative things (birds, eggs) have been finding their way in.

I have found that painting on the iPad has restored my skills with real paint. And also that pixels and paint really aren’t all that different. Paint is just slow pixels.

There is a historical, cultural, and financial value system which prefers real paint over pixels. There is truth in this. It’s hard to sell a JPG file (NFTs are bullshit). But philosophically, I reject the thought that there is a meaningful difference between the two media.

This is because all paintings exist only in your mind. All paintings are a kind of virtual reality.

I’m using “painting” here to mean, of course, digital painting in a tool like Procreate and more traditional oil or acrylic painting. I also include drawing, illustration, and even collage into this definition. Let’s agree that all image making, which isn’t photography, is painting. From my perspective it doesn’t really matter if a painting is figurative, that is a painting of something, or if it’s abstract, a painting of itself, or somewhere in between. A painting is read like a book.

The shapes, squiggles, marks, patterns, and colors you find in a painting are like words on a page. They may trick your brain into thinking you see a person or a landscape or a bowl of fruit but they also make you feel something. This is true whether you’re looking at a painting in person, looking at a printed photograph of a painting in an art history book, a digital photo of a painting, or an image created entirely digitally.

This is why I will always bump into a sculpture as a back up to look at a painting - the magic of painting is that the viewer completes the work in much the same way a reader completes a novel. The painting only exists in the mind of the viewer. It takes two to tango.

I love that magical brain-tingly feeling of losing myself in a painting as my eyes cede control to my mind and a world seems to open up between myself and the surface. And this is why I paint.

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