Our visual powers

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Parmigianino, The Madonna with the Long Neck. Circa 1535. Oil on panel, 85 × 52 inches. Uffizi, Florence.

Humanistic values dominate the painting, with recognizably distinct faces, young people substituting for angels, and physical distortions designed to unsettle a conservative audience. This style of oil painting, with unresolved figures and unanswered questions, is called Mannerism—painting with an attitude.

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John Marin, Blue Mountain on the Circle Drive Near Taos. 1929. Watercolor, crayon, and graphite on paper, 21¾ × 30¼ inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection.

Although a mixed-media composition, Blue Mountain on the Circle Drive Near Taos is dominated by watercolor. An apparently unfinished quality imparts a sense of energy, spontaneity, and intensity typical of Marin’s work.


The pigments of watercolor are bound in a water-soluble adhesive, such as gum-arabic, a gummy plant substance. Usually, watercolor is slightly translucent so that the whiteness of the paper shows through. Unlike artists working with tempera or oil painting, watercolorists work quickly, often with broad strokes and in broad washes. The color resources of the medium are limited in range, but often striking in effect. Unlike tempera, watercolor usually does not lend itself to precise detail. In his Blue Mountain on the Circle Drive Near Taos (Figure 4-5), John Marin delights in the unfinished quality of the watercolor and uses its energy to communicate his affection for this view.


A modern synthetic medium, acrylic is fundamentally a form of plastic resin that dries very quickly and is flexible for the artist to apply and use. One advantage of acrylic paints is that they do not fade, darken, or yellow as they age. They can support luminous colors and look sometimes very close to oil paints in their final effect. Many modern painters use this medium. Helen Frankenthaler’s The Bay (Figure 4-6) is a large abstract painting whose colors are somewhat flat, but suggest a range of intensities similar to what we see in watercolor details.

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