THE SUPPORT AS AESTHETIC CHOICE
“The pictorial adventure starts with the choice of the support,” states Isabelle Bonzom. “The matter, the tonality of the background, its texture, even its resistance are key to the final result,” she explains.
As a painter, Isabelle Bonzom attaches great importance to the relationship between the paint and its support. Wood, canvas and wall are her preferred supports. In this article published by the Blog d'Elisa in March 2011, she shared her thoughts on the matter, literally.
Painting starts with the support.
The pictorial adventure starts with the choice of the support, which is not necessarily canvas. Wood, stone, walls, slate, copper and glass have been used in the past and are still in use today. However, canvas stretched on a frame has been the favorite support since the 17th century for reasons of convenience and has become a convention.
Some artists do not concern themselves with the support on which they paint while others weave a dialogue with that surface.
Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto, for example, painted on grosgrain canvas. Even if technical factors related to the high humidity levels in their region brought the Venetians to work on that type of canvas, the rough and visible nature of the bare thread contributed to the finish on their paintings. Their works appear sturdier and more corporeal than the Florentines’. In the same period, the Florentines were painting on fine canvas and emphasizing drawing and clarity for a smooth, rather ethereal finish.
Chardin, another painter of the flesh and incarnation, played with the canvas, often covering it only lightly with transparent juices used as backgrounds. Superimposed layers of paint then cover the canvas where it presents tiny projections, namely reliefs which catch light. Sometimes, Chardin merely brushes against the canvas, allowing its color and texture to show and signify the fur of a hare. Thus, the support is like a skin.
Later, Modern painters such as Lautrec or Vuillard used paper and cardboard, not only for economic reasons but also for ideological ones. The absorption coefficient of paper and cardboard, their colors and textures lent a rough and matte aspect to their paintings which signaled a break with the refined look of academic works. Indeed, pompier painters of the same period were covering the entire canvas, saturating it with so much paint that the presence and role of the support were sedated. By contrast, the modern artist often left the canvas bare. Between 1900 and 1920, the primer, a white or grey base coat applied on the canvas, became visible in several areas of the painting, conveying a sense of a piece unfinished. That was the modern artists’ answer to the preoccupation with perfection of the academists who, according to the moderns, were killing painting with excessive polish.
The idea is to let the support breathe. Painting with oil, Cézanne reserves the white background of the canvas as he does with the paper when painting with watercolor. Matisse applies paint liberally and then he scrapes it to reveal the preparatory white. Light comes from the background and travels across layers of paint. Picasso, by conversing with the support, takes us behind the scenes. He reverses the ratio of power: he draws on the paint, and the canvas that he lays bare comes to the foreground. By doing so, he stresses that the piece is the painting itself, not an illusion of reality.
Besides, the canvas is fabric before being an image. Seurat and Mondrian allude to this when they create a new thread, the former by juxtaposing points, and the latter by crisscrossing lines. That interpretative framework combines with that of the support, reminding us of its existence, while not imitating it. Klee is also interested in the weave, a space with no hierarchy or depth effect. As for Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Rothko, Klein and Bacon, they soak the fibers in a colored dye, plunging the viewer into pure color.
The matter, the tonality of the background, its texture, even its resistance are key to creating the final result. Therefore, the support is a major factor in the aesthetic of a painting.
Isabelle Bonzom, March 2011
© Isabelle Bonzom - 2021