SEVEN TYPES OF BEAUTY IN PAINTING I LOVE MOST
(by Shafik Al-Hamdani )
Since the early 1990s, when I first started painting, I was not only enjoying the paintings I found “beautiful,” but also having a good time analyzing them and writing critiques on what makes them so attractive. I was eager to answer the general question: “What constitutes ‘Beauty’ in art?”
Twenty-five years, or so, later, my persistent curiosity began to pay off. The mystery started to clear, gradually, before my understanding. I started to identify, name, and isolate certain painterly effects that appeared to me, without doubt, to lie behind those paintings’ aesthetic appeal. These effects are many, and they vary in the degree they strike the artistic sensibility of the viewer. So to simplify and keep the list memorable, here are the seven most important, in my view.
” Light is the largest gem in the crown of beauty ” (Schopenhauer)
The illusion of luminosity is probably the most desirable effect a painting can have, but, for most artists, it is also the most difficult to achieve. It is when the canvas appears as if glowing from within, emitting light of its own ( not merely reflecting the light illuminating it. )
When competently done, luminosity is the result of a collaboration of at least four types of contrast, each at a certain level or degree. So for a color patch to appear luminous, it must be painted slightly lighter in value than its background, slightly warmer in hue, significantly more intense in chroma, and, fourthly, clearer/advancing in
Examples from modern painting are hard to find, but they abound in the work of the great colorists like Titian & Turner. See Titian’s “Portrait of Pietro Aretino” (the Florence version); Turner’s. “The Slave Ship”, and “The Fighting Temeraire”; and Velasquez’s “Portrait of Innocent X”.
“The unlike is joined together, and from differences, (
This is the beauty of different hues interacting on the canvas’ surface with living tensions. Chromatic tensions neither too weak as to give rise to monotony (a cardinal sin of art), nor too strong as to be discordant. The painted surface appears animated with energy and vibration everywhere.
The great merit of van Gogh’s whole oeuvre, in my view, is one of harmony. “Harmony whose interconnections involve Truth”, without any “dislocation of falsehood.” Look, e.g., at his “Wheat Field with Cypresses”; note how gently the warm, yellowish, clouds mingle with the cool blues and bluish-greens of the sky, down to the bluish-grey of the distant hills: no one color takes more than its rightful share in the final appearance. Colour Harmony par Excellence!
Graceful Aging (Patina)
“Colour cannot at once be good and gay. All good color is in some degree pensive, the loveliest is melancholy.” (Ruskin)
“…rich, not gaudy:…). (Shakespeare)
This quality is what separates the color of fine art from that of signs and posters. Raw “tube” coloring is the trademark of beginners.
This richness gives color it’s characteristically deep, “pensive”, sometimes even “melancholy” appearance (in Ruskin’s apt vocabulary). Two good examples of such deeply touching colors are the yellow in “Deep within the Ravine”, and the red in “Profound Longing”, both are late Hans Hofmann works.
“…light colors are always next to dark ones of different genera. This combining of colors will enhance the attractiveness of the painting by its variety and its beauty by its comparisons.” (Alberti)
This is the beauty of seeing many colors together on the same canvas. When done effectively, a multi-hued painting can evoke a sense of unimaginable joy, exuberance, and bliss. But the risk, when not done well, is falling into confusion, cacophony, and discord.
The Fauve painters (Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, …) wallowed in the ravishing beauty of
“… the really greatest thoughts of the greatest men have always … been reached in dead
“The craft of stone-mason is probably the
This is the beauty of color seen in its mass-tone, in full plaster-like opacity, without any embellishment from cheap glazing, scumbling, translucency, … etc. The painted surface appears extremely dense, hard, and substantial. It seems to have a very strong existential presence.
To me, “Opacity” is becoming a synonym of “Truth” in painting, and “Full opacity” the “Whole Truth”. My love of van Gogh’s work is mainly because it is uniformly SOLID (impasto) throughout the canvas, and not only in select spots, here and there, as done by most artists before him.
A few examples of Solidity are Nicolas de Stael’s “Fugue,” and his “L’Orchestre,” along with Rita Letendre’s “
“Nay! the rudeness of the work increases its grandeur, as it excludes the idea of art and contrivance.” (Edmund Burk)
“Such harmonious madness / From my lips would flow”(Shelley)
There is seductive beauty in impetuous execution; when the artist forgets for a while all about skill, rules, timidity, care, ego, and self-awareness and plunges into completely unfettered action. The result is a work that looks artless, effortless, accidental, childlike, unpolished, and yet full of energy and animation.
One shouldn’t, however, make spontaneity of handling the “content” of the work. Rather, only as a beautiful garb to dress a worthier artistic effect like harmony or luminosity.
See the stunning beauty, the “harmonious madness”, of Joan Mitchell’s brushwork in her masterpiece “Sunflowers” 1990/1991.
“Paint laid on with quite an outrageous prodigality cannot only be seductive but most subtly and mysteriously alive.” (David Sylvester)
“Colour and texture in painting are ends in themselves.” (Malevich)
Paint has a powerful physical presence. It invites, even begs, touching. A painting must express the qualities of its medium (paint) in all its beauty and succulence, and not solely be concerned with the subject depicted.
Unfortunately, and without noticing it, the moment we start painting we also start “murdering” this precious quality of “fresh paint”.
The solution? Apply the paint swiftly and leave it alone. Don’t make revisits. Do the least amount of handling necessary to achieve beauty and nothing more. And certainly don’t polish; it’s the death knell of freshness.
As somebody said: “Don’t torture a painting that has already confessed.” (I admit all this is easier said than done; after all, who amongst us painters can resist the joy of “improvising?”)
Examples: Monet’s “The Church in Varengeville – morning”, and “The Belle-ile Rocks”
Of course, there are other types of beauty in painting worth adding to the list above,
Now until next time, it is time for me to sign off.