Painterliness is a translation of the German term malerisch, a word popularized by Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945) in order to help focus, enrich and standardize the terms being used by art historians of his time to characterize works of art. It is the opposite of linear, plastic or formal linear design.
An oil painting is painterly when there are visible brushstrokes, the result of applying paint in a less than completely controlled manner, generally without closely following carefully drawn lines. Works characterized as either painterly or linear can be produced with any painting media, oils, acrylics, watercolors, gouache, etc. Some artists whose work could be characterized as painterly are Pierre Bonnard, Francis Bacon, Vincent van Gogh, Rembrandt, Renoir, and John Singer Sargent. In watercolor it might be represented by the early watercolors of Andrew Wyeth.
In contrast, linear could describe the painting of artists such as Botticelli, Michelangelo, and Ingres, whose works depend on creating the illusion of a degree of three-dimensionality by means of "modeling the form" through skillful drawing, shading, and an academic rather than impulsive use of color. Contour and pattern are more in the province of the linear artists, while dynamism is the most common trait of painterly works.
The Impressionists and the Abstract Expressionists tended strongly to be painterly movements. Both Pop Art and photo-realism, due to their dependence on photographic imagery, were characterized by an absence of apparent brushstrokes. The Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein made a painting which commented on Abstract Expressionist painterliness when he utilized images of brush strokes, rendered in a style reminiscent of a comic book, complete with Benday dots, in other words, a flat-looking painting spoofing the three-dimensionality of Abstract Expressionism.
What Rembrandt is to light, Delacroix is to color. Colorists in rendering form, shadow, light and surface depend far more on subtle color relationships than do the artists who are less concerned with the subtleties of color and are more dependent on correct drawing and the accurate observation of both form and illumination. In neither case does it mean that the artists are slaves to accuracy. Painterly art often makes use of the many visual effects produced by paint on canvas such as chromatic progression, warm and cool tones, complementary and contrasting colors, broken tones, broad brushstrokes, sketchiness, and impasto.
Although painterly generally refers to a certain use of paint in art, it happens that some forms of sculpture make use of apparently random surface effects which, if not exactly resembling brushstrokes, contain the traits of painterliness (see Wood as a medium). The application of the term painterly outside of painting may help the viewer or listener experience more deeply the significance of Auguste Rodin's surfaces or Richard Strauss's flow of chromatic harmonies.
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