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Artforms - Painting

Art Forms

  1. Painting

Painting is one of the classical genres of visual arts together with architecture, and sculpture and, as as Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574, now universally considered the father of Art History and the first art historian) already in the XVI century wrote in his artists´biographies “Le vite”, they are the progenie of drawing.

The produce of paintings, as well as of graphic and drawings, is bidimensional while architecture and sculptures outcomes are three-dimensional. A painter is a person who perform paintings and, opposite to drawing, the artist achieves this result by applying wet paint to a surface with the use of brushes, palette knives or other tools. Printing, although uses as well wet paint, is not counted among painting techniques. The surfaces can be multiples, such as canvases, panels, walls (in this case the technique is generally that of “fresco”) but also glass, books, clay, ceramic ( e.g. the painted vases from Griece), and many more.

The oldest paintings are famously the cave paintings reproducing animals from the Ice Age and Upper Paleolithic. Together with some reliefs and sculptures, they are the first forms of artistic expression made by humanity from 35,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Cave paintings have been discovered mainly in Spain and France, the most famous are the Lascaux ones in southern France and they were discovered in the 1940s. These animal representations are among the oldest painted motifs created by humankind.

Such depictions have also been found in Africa, Australia and Asia, while in the Middle East there is a strong presence of early paintings from the Neolithic period together with painted pottery.

Intensity, colour and rhythm are the characteristic elements of paintings. Contemporary art differentiate itself from the use of non-traditional basic elements: these includes techniques that are not covered by the traditional basic elements, such as collages or use of unusual materials like sand, straw or wood to add textures.

Shades, contrasts and different colour intensity can produce symbolic differentiation. Although the perception of colours and their hues is subjective, it is associated culturally with different psychological effects. Let´s consider the colour black, for example: while in western countries it is usually associated with grieving and, therefore, sadness, in eastern countries the perception is different, as white is instead the colour of mourning. Colour theories have been written throughout the centuries, one example among other, by Wassily Kandinsky.

We can describe rhythm as a pause within a sequence and, in art, describes the distribution of shapes, colours and shades on the surface.


1.1 Antiquity

The earliest form of painting is mural painting, its use was common from 10,000BC onwards, but very little of it survived the course of time. Fragments are the only remains of such practice. Later examples come from the Assyrians, then from ancient Egypt (from 3,000BC, mostly known from the wall paintings discovered in burial sites) and the tradition of wall painting in Greece goes back at least to the Minoan and Mycenaean Age (from 2,000BC), with the amazing fresco decoration of sites like Knossos, Tiryns and Mycenae.

Painting in ancient Greece was common and highly acclaimed, according to Pliny and Pausania, and panel painting was a very common form, although very few examples arrived to our days.

After the decline of the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures, frescos returned to splendor only in the VIII century BC. Luckily for us, Roman surviving examples of paintings are much more numerous. Splendidly preserved by the catastrophic eruption of the year 79 AD, the wall paintings from Pompei and Herculaneum are the main source nowadays, together with the later wall paintings found in the early christian catacombs or the gorgeous ones found in Nero´s Domus Aurea.


1.2 Middle Ages

Examples of paintings from this period are panel paintings, frescos on churches´walls and miniature painting in books. All these products are associated with churches and the world surrounding them, although more secular expressions such as portraiture, genre painting, landscapes and still life came to light in the late Middle Ages.


1.3 Renaissance

Paintings became its central place among the arts during the Renaissance, with the improvements provided by oil painting, the use of perspective, the reappropriation of antique motifs like allegorical themes and the focus on individual characters through the growing anatomical studies.

The Flanders and its artists introduced the first independent portraits in history and the first self-portrait from an artist: although the first artist´s self-portrait is usually considered the one by the German Albrecht Dürer in 1493, both achievements should be attributed to Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), as it is now believed that the Man with a red turban from 1433 is a self-portrait, and he can definitely be seen in the mirror painted in the famous Arnolfini Painting. From the Flemish artists these themes would spread throughout the whole Europe and become a cornerstone in painting´s history.


In the Renaissance Italy has a central place, particularly in the cities of Florence, Rome, Venice and Milan. The art produced in this period by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564), Raffaello Sanzio (1483-1520) and Tiziano Vecellio (1488/1490-1576) shook the artists of the time and marks with their use of perspective, colours, forms and novelty a peak that influenced arts in Europe to this day.


1.4 Modern Times

Until 1850s paintings were mostly created in ateliers, until the French Impressionists painters introduced open air painting. Not only that, the Impressionists also mark a transition in art history, as they start detaching themselves from a strict reproduction of reality and turned to painting in pure forms and colours. Manet (1832-1883), Monet (1840-1926), Renoir (1841-1919), Cezanne (1839-1906), Van Gogh (1853-1890), Gauguin (1848-1903) and Munch (1863-1944) can be described, to a certain extent, as pioneers of modernism.

Important currents of modernism in the first part of the XX century are Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, and the Russian avant-garde. Each country had its own national artistic form: Expressionism in Germany, Vorticism in England, Constructivism in Russia and Futurism in Italy. And we can´t forget the advance of abstract painting, which also takes form in different artistic styles.

Matisse (1869-1954), Mondrian (1872-1944), Malevich (1879-1935), Schiele (1890-1918), Picasso (1881-1973), Dalí (1904-1989), Kandinsky (1866-1944), Kahlo (1907-1954) had an important artistic influence on the painting in the first half of the XX century.


1.5 Post war and Contemporary art

The 50s were dominated by abstract tendencies and constructive expressions, which can be grouped under the artistic styles of Informel, Tachism, Abstract expressionism and Concrete Art. With the progressive rise of the Western countries and the artistic focus moved in the United States, the art world found itself split into Minimal and Conceptual Art on one side, and Pop Art on the other. Images from mass culture and the use of mechanical means of reproduction, with the use of bright and vibrant colours characterize this art movement. Pollock (1912-1956), Warhol (1928-1987), Lichtenstein (1923-1997), Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Hockney (b. 1937), Richter (b. 1932), Polke (1941-2010) are among its famous exponents.


During the Cold War on the other hand, in the Soviet countries painting was obliged to reproduce state propaganda, like with the Socialist Realism.

We also could see a constant expansion of the art concept and the classical categories of art, like painting, sculpture and graphic art, lost their predominance and grip.

With the advent of photography at the end of the XIX century, painting was challenged in its status. in the 1970s the boundary between painting and photography, which until then were still mostly strictly defined, was originally broken by Pierre Cordier (b. 1933)  and afterwards by Neumann´s (b. 1953) chemograms: a photographic image is processed onto photographic paper and afterwards selectively painted over in full light with chemicals used in photographic processing.

The fast paced changing of artistic styles that characterized this decades, came to a halt in the 1980s with the birth of Postmodernism.

The exploration of new digital media took part in the 1990s. The beginning of the 21st century was centered with the reappraisal of the past century and the painted image became one among many art forms used by artists to share a content.

Francis Bacon (1909-1992), Jean Michel Basquiat (1960-1988),  Lucian Freud (1922-2011) are just some of the most important painters that characterized the second part of the XX c

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