What Painting Is: How to Think about Oil Painting, Using the Language of Alchemy

What Painting Is: How to Think about Oil Painting, Using the Language of Alchemy

What Painting Is: How to Think about Oil Painting, Using the Language of Alchemy

What Painting Is: How to Think about Oil Painting, Using the Language of Alchemy

Synopsis

Written from the perspective of a painter-turned-art historian, "What Painting Is" communicates the experience of painting beyond the traditional vocabulary of art history. 25 photos, 15 in color.

Excerpt

Water and stones. Those are the unpromising ingredients of two very different endeavors. the first is painting, because artists' pigments are made from fluids (these days, usually petroleum prod-ucts and plant oils) mixed together with powdered stones to give color. All oil paints, watercolors, gouaches, and acrylics are made that way, and so are more solid concoctions including pastels, ink blocks, crayons, and charcoal. They differ only in the proportions of water and stone-or to put it more accurately, medium and pigment. To make oil paint, for example, it is only necessary to buy powdered rock and mix it with a medium, say linseed oil, so that it can be spread with a brush. Very little more is involved in any pigment, and the same observations apply to other visual arts. Ceramics begins with the careful mixing of tap water and clay, and the wet clay slip is itself a dense mixture of stone and water. Watery mud is the medium of ceramists, just as oily mud is the medium of painters. Mural paint-ing uses water and stone, and tempera uses egg and stone. Even a medium like bronze casting relies on the capacity of “stone”-that is, the mixture of tin, lead, copper, zinc, and other metals-to become a river of bright orange fluid.

So painting and other visual arts are one example of negotiations between water and stone, and the other is alchemy. in alchemy, the Stone (with a capital S) is the ultimate goal, and one of the purposes of alchemy is to turn something as liquid as water into a substance as firm and unmeltable as stone. As in painting, the means are liquid and

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