I learned a new word yesterday that has some relevance in my limited little world. Wish I had known it a couple of weeks ago during an exchange with Joyce Washor regarding the brush strokes on oil paintings.
I cannot look at an oil painting without paying a lot of attention to the way the artist has laid down the paint. I am inclined to photograph my own paintings up close so that the brush strokes become the image rather than the painting. That is probably more because I am not much of a painter, or much good at laying down the paint, but even then the brush strokes are more interesting than the painting, which is why I only do a painting every fifteen years (the length of time required for me to forget exactly how bad at it I really am.) When Janet was photographing paintings I would have given anything thing if she would just have turned me loose with a macro lens, but she wouldn’t.
I had inquired of Joyce whether painters, real painters, are as fascinated with the brush strokes as I am and was pleased to learn that she also has a fascination with the way the paint lays on the surface of the canvas. I told her that is where I find the artist in a painting—in the brush strokes. I have often related it to my fascination with randomness but in a really good painting it really isn’t randomness, it just appears that way. I like to see the paint appear causal, almost off handed, but so ever perfectly placed. I have always wondered how that was done. Is it instinct, phenomenal skill, luck—no it’s not happenstance if it happens more than once on a canvas, and in a good painting, it does.
Yesterday, it came to my attention that during the Renaissance, the painter Baldassare Castiglione coined a word that names what I am seeing in the brush strokes that I greatly admire, “Sprezzatura.” That was Castiglione’s word to describe the need in art to make whatever is done to appear effortless or the opposite of affectazione—affectation.
In his The Book of the Courtier (1528), Castiglione wrote, “To avoid affectation in every way possible… and to practice in all things a certain Sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”
I had never thought of the brush strokes that way before. I had referred to them as deliberate, skilled, magic touch—I had applied a lot of descriptive words to the brush strokes that really have force but I had never consciously considered what I was finding so beautiful about the laying down of the paint until I was reading about Castigione. I realized that it was this uncontrived manner in which the paint is applied to the canvas that I have always found to be so beautiful in brush strokes applied by a skilled painter such as Joyce.
Dorothy Hood, another painter that I greatly admire, did not use brush strokes as much as she used unconventional applicators and then used the application of the paint to guide the application of the additional layers. There is a great amount of planned randomness in Dorothy's paintings. Rothko used subtle, very subtle variations in tone. All so casual--so correct. I have considerable admiration for such ability to move the viewer with such casual force.
I will probably find limited use for the word Sprezzatura, but I can assure you when I see it in the future I will recognize it.