The Artwork of

William Lathrop
A Conceptual Framework for Modern Painting

I was painting a landscape not far from my home this last fall, plein air. A passerby stopped to see my progress. I was having a good day, so thankfully my work was pretty faithful to the subject. The passerby remarked apologetically, "Now that is the type of art I like."

I am a representational painter, a so-called realist. My art is based on what I see, rather than some form of mental construction (or some accident of process). I found my passerby's apologetic tone ironic. My observer felt bad for liking my work. This is not unusual, I am frequently confronted by the impression that art must be difficult to understand to be good.

Throughout the 20th century, really starting with Neo-Impressionism, conceptual art gradually replaced representational art as the dominant mode of expression in painting. All of the movements, the various "isms" of modern art; produced interesting, thought provoking and sometimes-beautiful painting. Ultimately however, painting became an act of creating something that hadn't been done before, and in this respect became self-conscious. By 1970, it appeared as if everything that could be done with pigment on a two-dimensional surface had been done. Because of this, the intelligentsia of art declared painting dead.

No more than music and literature are dead, for surely those mediums have explored the alternatives pretty thoroughly as well: painting is not dead. Rather, we live in a time when no style of painting dominates - all are academically valid. It is a matter for the artist, and the viewer, to choose to live with their preference. So then, how does one know if a particular body of work is worthy of admiration?

In the literature of representational painting, there are five generally accepted characteristics - their use or misuse distinguishes the dilettante from the professional. These qualities are design, drawing, value, color, and edge. A brief definition of each follows.

Design, also known as composition, is the general arrangement of shapes on the picture plane. Good design guides the eye through the work whereas poor design creates confusion and fatigue. Drawing relates to the rendering of forms - perspective, proportion and scale are aspects of drawing. Many consider drawing the most fundamental component of painting. Value is the light and dark of painting. The eye can distinguish in life a much broader range of values than can be recorded; the artist must make choices and compress what is seen to what can be captured. Color is the most sensuous component - the flavor of seeing. For the realist, the goal is to be faithful to the colors of the subject. Other genre may use color to achieve a different goal. Edges are the magical touch in painting. The judicious use of both soft and sharp edges creates life, atmosphere and helps define the center of interest.

In fact, regardless of style, this small set of well defined, technical characteristics encompass all painting. I believe they are equally legitimate for other genre - including abstraction. Design, drawing, value, color and edge can be used to evaluate the technical merit of an abstract work, or any other style. However, these characteristics may have different weight - or be used for different ends - in different styles of painting. If they can be used for different purposes, how then, does one understand that a particular property is being manipulated with intention or accident?

I believe good painting is an intersection between technical skill and artistic purpose. With the given technical components of painting, the artist is free to employ them to a particular end: whether abstraction or symbolism or recreating the act of seeing. While each of the five components of painting can be manipulated at will, it is the artist's philosophy that explains why the technical aspects are used the way they are.

Some genre are difficult to appreciate without a thorough understanding of the underlying philosophy. This was my experience with Abstract Expressionism as practiced by Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning, Arshille Gorky and Hans Hoffman. I have come to really like the work of these artists but it took a semester in college to get there. Other genre may be easier to approach, but still require a philosophy with depth to hold the work together and confirm the results are not accidental.

In looking at the literature of painting, it is informative to observe that the writing on representational painting is primarily concerned with its technical dimensions, whereas that of conceptual painting almost ignores the technical in favor of the philosophical. I believe this is due to the different ways artists approach these fundamentally different styles: the representational painter begins with an end in mind, and uses his or her skill to create that vision; whereas the conceptual painter often begins with a process and the result is -more or less - left to chance (though the results may be good ones).

Again, seeing good painting as this intersection between the technical and the philosophical, I believe the artist and the viewer can gain much from delving more deeply into both aspects of the equation. For conceptual work, this means gaining an understanding of how the work was achieved. For representational work, the burden lies more in understanding the philosophy that brought the artist to a particular subject.

Regardless of style, painting is a sensuous exploration of the world. We live in a time and culture where there is no dominant style of painting - it is acceptable to like whatever one likes. The artist, collector or viewer should ultimately choose something they love. An understanding of what makes the work worthy of admiration, that intersection of artistic purpose and technical merit, can provide confidence in the choice.

All Materials Copyright © William Lathrop, 2007
Last Modified on April 22, 2007