Paintings as an extension of drawing
Drawing, as Matisse remarked, is simply painting with limited means. My paintings — including watercolours and other works on paper — are always an extension of my drawing. The term “drawing” is much more interesting than “painting”. The former, in English, also means to pull out: the image is pulled out of the surface. That’s how I think about the practice of image-making: images are pulled out of surfaces. At the same time, an imaginary or illusory space is pushed in to the surface. This process begins as soon as you make a single mark, with the mark in the foreground, floating in a kind of void. So no matter how two dimensional you try to be, your image is always already three dimensional, a projection.
Making paintings is a game
You can play other games: try to make your painting a single colour, for example. But that only reinforces the relationship between the work and its environment: the work itself is a figure against the ground of the wall. Naturally, your process of perception is never an innocent one; you always come to the scene or the image that you’re perceiving with prior conceptual baggage that influences the ways in which you understand what you’re looking at. The process is a circular one, from percept to concept, and back again. (I’ve detailed how I try to take this process into account in developing my work in this paper, delivered at a symposium at the China Academy of Art in December, 2018.)
So we’re always playing with projections in visual art. That’s okay. The visual world itself is a projection too, inverted on our retinas. Now we can begin.
Paintings online versus viewing in person
Paintings are physical objects; the properties, both optical and spatial, of paint itself are an important aspect of your experience when looking at them. Even art professionals are sometimes prone to forgetting that, wonderful as modern screens are, they can’t replace direct viewing of the work itself. An obvious difference is scale: reproductions are generally not only a different size, but many times smaller than the original work. The work is made, consciously or otherwise, to have a certain relationship to your size and position in space when you see it. Another obvious difference is the variation in hue, lightness or saturation between the original and the reproduction.
However, to my mind the most overlooked difference is the physical nature of the paint itself. An area of colour on a painting is not equivalent to the corresponding area of colour in a reproduction, even if the colour is accurate (meaning that more or less the same wavelengths of light reach your eye). There are certain qualities you can’t reproduce — at best, they can only be represented, or hinted at. Paintings have surfaces that you can see are matt or glossy to varying degrees; you will also notice if you look carefully that the paint also has differing degrees of three dimensionality (whether it is thin here, or thick impasto there, for example). And of course, you’ll see that the paint has varying degrees of transparency, often in layers. All of these factors interact with your perception in complex ways: you can have a transparent layer (or glaze) of colour over a thick impasto, and the difference between an area with the same colour is immediately apparent when you see the painting directly. These qualities at best are hinted at in reproduction.
All of this is to say: if the painting is any good, it is worth seeing in person. If we are to take the philosopher Arthur Danto’s definition of art as embodied meaning (and I do, for one) then these perceptible differences make a subtle but important difference to the meaning of a work. That is, since the meaning of a work is in one way or another embodied in the perceived object, then differences in the perception change the meaning, if only subtly. Reproductions don’t merely do the original work a disservice, though they do that as well. Reproductions subtly (but in my view importantly) change the meanings of paintings.
I’m very consciously writing this in the context of a web page consisting of reproductions of my paintings. I have been at pains to try to make these images of my paintings as faithful as possible to the original. But the original work is always different, and I hope, better.