In 1839 upon seeing the first successful photographic process of daguerreotype Paul Delaroche is said to have declared that painting was dead. Of course this wasn’t the case. Photography did not kill painting; in fact photography is now a very important part of many painters’ processes. Painting did hit an outer limit however, but it didn’t happen until about 50 years later when the first monochrome paintings were exhibited.
There are only so many ways of making a painting. I’ve made the following diagram to show just how limited the range actually is. No matter how avant-garde, novel, or revolutionary a painting might seem, it fits into this range of possibilities.
It is important to note that except at the extreme ends of the scale there are no hard lines in the scales, only gradations. You may paint something anywhere between ultra-realistic through to vaguely representational on towards minimal and non-representational, all the way to the epitome of minimal painting, the blank canvas. You can of course also have part of painting be representational, and another part abstract. As for subject matter there are only five options or combinations of these to choose from, three for representational work and two for abstract work.
In an attempt to escape from these constraints artists have cut voids in canvases, created odd-shaped surfaces, 3-d canvases, used collage etc. However, this never changed what painting is, their work just simply became painted sculptures. From a purist perspective however, where painting is the putting down of pigment in a vehicle on a flat surface, you are a slave to the boundaries.
So if there is no new territory left to explore is there a point in painting anymore? I believe that there is. I believe that the limitations of possibility in painting do not preclude artists from making meaningful work. This is mostly because I don’t believe that novelty is the most important part of a painting. Despite the seeming limitations there are still an unlimited number of permutations in which work can be created. This is much the same with music. With only 12 notes you’d think musicians would run out of songs quickly, but it is how you arrange these notes in all their variations that gives each new work its own unique composition.
Art is not a race to get to some endpoint. Art does not answer questions or solve problems. In fact it should do the opposite; it should ask questions and expose problems. If you read American art critics regularly you might be excused from thinking otherwise. The American consumer economy is driven by the next big thing, advancing technology, ever smaller devices, bigger profits. This spills over into the art world where you will hear all the clichés about “expanding,” “pushing,” “increasing,” etc. It would be absurd to believe that somehow paintings done today are “better” or somehow more advanced than those done thousands of years ago. They might be different, but they are certainly not necessarily better or worse.
After visiting a site containing ancient ice-age cave paintings Pablo Picasso is said to have remarked that “we have learned nothing.” The attribution of this quote is debated, but never-the-less it rings true. The paintings done 30,000 years ago were not done by the artistically naive. They are beautiful, purposeful works that exhibit the hallmarks of persistent practice. They were not stunted by a lack of knowledge about post-modernism, cubism or any other art movement. They were able to create works which can still speak to us thousands of years after they were created.
If I am correct and the boundaries are clearly set for painting, then what is a painter to do? Is it still possible to create a painting that is “original?” Well, that all depends on how you define originality. Regardless of your definition however, I personally believe that the idea of originality, (although it is frequently used as an effective marketing tool) is really beside the point. What is much more important is to make paintings that are honest and authentic. Trying to make a painting a certain way just to say, “Hey, no one has done this before!” is the artistic equivalent of geneticists creating hybrid glow-in-the-dark animals. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should and it doesn’t mean it is of value.
Honest paintings are the ones that will stand the test of time. These are paintings people can connect with from their heart, from places beyond the rational, conscious mind. With the perspective of a thousand years it doesn’t matter who did something first, only who took the idea and made something of worth.
What’s the bottom line? Unless you were the first person to draw on a cave wall tens of thousands of years ago (and you’re not) your painting is going to be derivative. That’s okay, everyone’s paintings are, now get on with it and make some more paintings!