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Oil Painting, Mark-making…Problems with the “Masters” Part I

This all started in January of 2008, when Anna and I went to see the Edward Hopper show at the National Gallery of Art in DC. Anna and I were both Hopper fans, so we were happy to have made the show before it closed. Then something unsettling happened…

Walking through the exhibit–piece after piece–showed an artist struggling with the medium (oil paint)…and mostly not coming out the winner.  I actually started to feel a bit sorry for old Ed, like I caught him with his Art Pants down. In terms of his paint application (or, mark-making) the work “amateurish” kept surfacing in my head. I’m sure my face was a strange thing to behold, because I was shocked.

To keep from Poisoning the Well, I kept my mouth shut and said nothing to Anna. (BTW, on top of zillions of reproductions, she and I have both seen a good number of Hoppers “live”.) When I told her my take on the show, she said that she’d been thinking the same thing. We went back to the beginning and looked at everything again. Same thing.

Now, there are no two ways about it: Hopper knew how to compose stunning images that, on their own merits (of light, color, and mood) are aesthetically pleasing and historically significant. But his mark-making was simply Godawful. I’d always found his figures to be weak points in any paintings that incorporated them, but up close, that same uncomfortably-integrated aspect intruded upon so much beyond that.

Needless to say, there were some strong passages. But more often than not, he just seemed to find himself needing to cover an area while he happened to be holding a brush loaded with oil paint.

Edward Hopper: Stiff oil paint mark-making, "A woman in the Sun"

Edward Hopper: Stiff oil paint mark-making, " A woman in the Sun"

Now I have a whole bunch of questions: Is it because he was a graphic artist for so (or–too) long? Is it because his paintings are actually better viewed as reduced-scale reproductions? Why are his watercolors generally more fluid and immensely more tuned-in to the medium–when watercolor is a harder medium to employ and “let go” with?

(Incidentally, Hopper’s etchings exhibit what I call “Diebenkorn-y Drawing Funk”–a sort of stiffness-of-draftsmanship that becomes a stylistic/translational success in spite of itself.) Example:

Richard_Diebenkorn_etching_Landscape_low_View

Example: Richard Diebenkorn Drawing Funk in his Landscape Etching

 

How is it that Hopper shows a clear understanding of “marks and gesture adding up to form” with a pointy medium (etching)…

 

Hopper_Etching_Man_and_Park_bench

Hopper_Etching_Man_and_Park_bench.jpg

…yet it doesn’t translate into his oil painting brushwork? It’s like he had an impenetrable wall between media.

I don’t know, but it was the start of my noticing all kinds of Dicey Oil Painting Marks Made by Masters in subsequent museum visits. More on this later, in Part II…

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2 responses

  1. DQ

    Nick,
    I couldn’t agree more, and honestly am thankful someone finally said it out loud! I find this to be the case often, and sometimes find the reverse to be equally shocking. For example…not generally a fan of A. Wyeth, but seriously great mark making, particularly in the wash drawings.

    April 6, 2011 at 4:06 pm

  2. Lisa Nagel-Gibbs

    Hi Nick. My sister Emily sent me here. I think I would argue peer pressure as an explanation. Makes it hard to do what you feel best doing, especially if it flies in the face of convention.
    Thanks for the blog.

    October 16, 2011 at 4:04 pm

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