In chemistry, elements are called simple substances of which mixed substances consist. The term chemical element should help to explain the wide range of properties and reactions of substances scientifically. Chemical elements refer to primary substances that are neither composed from other substances nor resulted from these, but constitute the components that make up mixed substances.
The term chemical element led me to question whether there could be such a thing as a painter-ly element (or basic element) in painting?
If you look at a painting as a composition of mixed substances and their reactions to each other, then the question arises as to what the basic components of painting might be. I distinguish eight elements of painting: color, surface, movement, time, space, light, matter and finally the painter (cause, medium, subject). Here, space and light are elements of the environment in which a painting is created; color, surface, motion, time, matter and the painter are both elements of an environment, as well as a painting. This creates two categories into which the eight elements of the painting can be subdivided:
1. Elements of the environment: light and space
2. Elements of a painting and the environment: color, surface, movement, time, matter and painter
Light and the space
Light is the visible part of the electromagnetic radiation. As an element of the environment, the light directly affects both the surface and the dye. The color impression of light emanating from a self-luminous light source is its color. If color of light hits the surface of the painting support or the dye, there will be an additive mixing of colors in the eye and brain of the observer. If the color impressions of light are added to maximum brightness, it creates the sensation of white color, and if the brightness is reduced to zero, the resulting color sensation is black. For without light, there would be no painting. If necessary, you can turn off the light, as for example Cy Twombly occasionally did while painting. Contrary to light the situation with the space is not as simple. (It is possible to control light. It can be turned on and off, however I can not turn off the space. The space always exists.) For painting space is only relevant insofar as it acts as an element of the environment, or as a container for the painting. Space influences the size of the painting medium and determines the distance between the painter and the painting.
(img. 1) Paul Cézanne, Les joueurs de cartes (The Card Players), 1892-95, oil on canvas, 60 x 73 cm, Courtauld Institute of Art, London
The use of color in painting has two origins: color space and colorant.
Color space is defined as the application of a color model: it can be realized by a coloring method. Normally such a color space model consists of three or more primary or basic colors, whose mixtures create different shades of color within this color space. Such color spaces provide a clear handling of the shades or tones, in which a color system takes control of the variety of the spectrum. However, the color systems only describe the theoretical principles of color mixing and never the technical implementation of the colored base material. If a painter uses a color system that is based on the mixing of primary colors, the matter of the color is produced by the method, which is determined only by the painter’s choice. In this case, the appearance of a color on the surface is independent of its base fabric, (img. 1).
Colorant or dye means a material which has the properties to tint other materials. The qualities of colorants are dependent on the binding with respect to the respective medium. The ways of binding the colorant are co-determined by the materials. In contrast to color space the dye or colorant maintains the basic material on the painted surface independently from its appearance. The properties of a colorant determine its hue. In this procedure, the matter and material determine the character of the hue. Both the properties of hue, as saturation and brightness, are limited in their development which also applies to the shade itself, (img. 2).
Surface in painting is defined as a painting support. Two main properties of the surface are significant for the attachment of colors: the size and shape of the surface and the quality of the surface.
The measure of the size and shape is the format of a surface. The area of a surface is determined by one or more edges. If the area comprises of more than one edge, it follows that the area has one or more corners. The measurement of a surface, its edges and its corners are the original constants of painting. The regularity of these constants influences the size and shape of the tool used for applying paint as well as the speed with which the paint is applied.
In contrast, the characteristics of the tool and the color through matter are informed and shaped by the quality of the surface. The materiality of the surface shows itself either in its original qualities or in a coating which has its own qualities and transforms the initial element of the surface.
(img. 3) Photo: Veronika Wenger
Movement and time
To apply the color on the surface, the painter changes his position in time. The result is movement. While painting, two different movements can be distinguished: the movement of the the painter in space and the movement on the surface. An example of a painting of two movements would be the surface of a puddle in spring with pollen fallen on it: the pollen moves on the water surface (img. 3).
(img. 4) Caspar David Friedrich: Winterlandschaft mit Kirche, 1811
It is not possible to exclude one of the two types of movement while painting, but one can focus on one of the them. While Caspar David Friedrich emphasizes the movement on the surface in his works (img. 4), Jackson Pollock preferred in his drip paintings the movement in space (img. 5).
(img. 5) Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950
Through movement in the act of painting, time is set. It is not only interesting to see how much time a painter needs for his work, but also how many different time zones arose by attaching colors on a surface. With time zones, I mean the parts of a painting, on which the painter has worked for different time intervals at different times. When looking at the Rembrandt The Risen Christ (img. 6), one realizes that the painter tried to apply the paint in the dark areas very thin and at once, but in the light areas he used impasto and put several layers one onto of the other. Such a synthesis of various time zones in an area creates contrasts that create visual tension.
(img. 6) Rembrandt, Harmensz van Rijn, 1606-1669. ‘Der auferstandene Christus’, 1661. Oel auf Leinwand (oval), 78,5 x 63 cm. Inv.Nr. 6471 Muenchen, Alte Pinakothek.
Matter is a term for the substance that all things are made of, regardless of their appearance. One has to distinguish between the matter of a painting (meaning the matter of the surface and matter of the surrounding) and the matter of the dye and the tool with which it is applied to the surface. The matter of the surrounding can be attached unaltered to the surface of the painting medium, like Andrei Rublev did in his Trinity (img. 7) using beatgold, egg tempera and lacquer.
(img. 7) Trinity, Andrei Rublev
Through the procedure of the painter, Rublev’s painting refers to the environment, but such a reference can also be avoided. The matter of the dye and the matter of the surface may form the matter of the painting via the painter’s access with his tool. When looking at the Composition C (No.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue, from 1935 by Piet Mondrian at the Tate Modern (img. 8), I realized that the primed canvas, the oil paint and the brushmarks were hardly recognizable. The surface of the painting has its own, or appears as its own matter.
(img. 8) Composition C (no.III), with Red, Yellow and Blue, 1935 by Piet Mondrian
While painting the painter makes decisions regarding the handling and treatment of color, surface and movement, time, space, light and matter. The painting always refers to the painter and the communicated meaning.
Munich, October 2015
Thanks for help realizing this text to Prof. Bernhard Lypp, Stefan Schessl, Audrey Shimomura and Veronika Wenger