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Left: Rubens Flap by Jenny Saville. Right: Watercolour rendition of Rubens Flap by Cain S. Pinto.

Medium-relativity of the Temporal Dimension in Visual Art

Music, film, and literature are straightforwardly temporal arts; they can only be enjoyably consumed diachronically, moment by moment, in sequence. As aesthetic objects they are necessarily apprehended in a series of sounds, scenes, and passages which cannot be compressed into a single moment. By contrast, visual arts are conventionally classified as spatial arts; they can be apprehended in a single moment. Yet, arguably, they also codify a temporal dimension which is elided by the spatial vs. temporal art dichotomy.

The specific medium used to compose a piece of visual art uniquely imposes constraints, and confers affordances, on the artist; influencing both the nature of what aesthetic choices can be legibly represented and what aesthetic qualities a finished work can be construed to be representing.  Of course, anything can be represented in any medium but some media are better suited than others for specific aesthetic purposes. Watercolours allow a level of control, manoeuvrability, and gestural freedom not available to artists working with acrylic paint, for instance. Acrylic paints can, however, be painted over to correct mistakes with impunity, be used in an impasto style with thick daubs bringing attention to the volume and directionality of individual brush strokes, and be applied onto all manner of surfaces in addition to paper. By contrast, watercolours fail the artist in all those ways. Brushstroke directionality and paint volume differences are seldom noticeable, mistakes can rarely—if at all—be corrected satisfactorily, and not only is the medium only applicable on paper additionally it can only allow the full use of its potential on reasonably high quality paper—typically upwards of 100GSM and going up to 600GSM in weight. So much for the inherent differential endowments of constraints and affordances baked into watercolours and acrylic paints.

Temporality of Creation

The differences which are of interest here are those which influence the notion of temporality involved in the production and spectation of a piece composed using a given artistic medium. Acrylic paints dry very rapidly, dry to a darker shade, and create layers of application that have a uniform level of saturation throughout a brushstroke. These facts about the medium compel the acrylic artist to constantly mix colours for each part of a painting, mix colours a smidgen lighter than they intend it to appear in the final work, and achieve any gradations in colour intensity implied by the lights and shadows on the subject using as many tints and shades of the local colour as may be required to achieve smooth transitions. In the simplest monochromatic case of a white vase illumined by a light source on the left, as the painter moves from paining the left side to right he’ll have to use white, pale grey, and then successively darker shades of grey with the rightmost side calling for black. Consider this polychromatic still life demonstration by Debojyoti Boruah to see how these considerations play out in practice.

By contrast watercolours dry relatively slowly, dry to a lighter tint, and create applications that have a gradated saturation going from high to low from the centre of a brushstroke to its peripheries [modulo the wetness of the paper]. Accordingly, the watercolour artist is compelled to mix only as much of each local colour as is required for a given region, mix colours a smidgen darker than they intend them to appear in the finished work, and achieve colour gradations by reducing the dilution of the pigment with water as they move from painting the darkest to the lightest regions. In the simplest monochromatic case of a white vase illumined by a light source on the right, the watercolour artist would begin from the left with thick black paint of a creamy consistency and then keep diluting the paint to the consistency of milk, milky tea, and, ultimately, plain tea as they moved from the darkest to the lightest region on the left. The rightmost side would be nearly pure pigment while the leftmost side would be nearly all water sans pigment.

The interesting thing about watercolour as a medium, of course, is that the number of dilutions required to go from high to low colour saturation would not be nearly as high as the number of colour mixes required by the acrylic artist to achieve the same effect. A pre-wet sheet of paper would force the pigment to spread, and transition evenly far beyond each brushstroke, with the saturation of the pigment going from high to low as one moved away from the region covered by a brushstroke. So, in a few deft strokes the watercolour artist would successfully imply the darkest black with the water doing quite a bit of the work of creating gradations from shade to tint and picking up the slack for the artist. See master watercolourist Michael Solovyev  manipulate water into doing quite a bit more of the painting work than would be expected if achieving each step of the gradation from  dark to light required the artist to separately mix appropriate shades and tints.

Temporality of Spectation

As we’ve seen, achieving the same visual effect in watercolours vis-à-vis acrylic paints calls for different levels of effort and time commitment on part of the artist. This disparity of imposed temporality at the site of creation between the media implies like representations embody unlike artistic choices. A depiction of the very same subject in the respective media involves different degrees of effort and finesse. The temporality involved in the execution of any given subject visually is, thus, medium-relative. Arguably, this also necessitates a medium-relative approach to visual art appreciation.

 Let’s return to the monochromatic left-lit vase. The acrylic rendition calls for a greater number of colour mixings vis-à-vis the watercolour rendition. But from the point of view of the audience, the paintings look identical [notwithstanding the unique transparency and matte texture of watercolours compared with the opacity and glossy texture of acrylic paints]. Auditing the monochromatic vase painting in watercolour needs no more time than it does the rendition of the same painting in acrylic. Awareness of the medium-specific constraints of watercolour and acrylic allow a viewer to deduce, however, that the acrylic rendition required more steps, more effort, and a greater time commitment, by the artist. By contrast, the execution of the watercolour rendition required fewer steps, less effort, and a smaller time commitment at the site of execution. This doesn’t mean however that the watercolour work is a low time commitment, low effort, and so easier take on the subject simpliciter when compared to its acrylic counterpart. In fact, the opposite is true. For one, the reduced number of required steps in watercolour is offset by the relatively greater significance of each brushstroke. As mistakes are rarely correctable, each stroke needs to be flawless or as close to that ideal as possible. The judgement and know-how required to pull off the watercolour work without mistakes, of course, is a hard won achievement involving many hours spent creating works that cannot be considered fit for public display. The acrylic painter’s brush strokes can afford blundering detours; each layer of paint is opaque and obviates the previous one. Accordingly the acrylic painter can keep perfecting a piece indefinitely till it performs an alchemical Cinderella-metamorphosis, allowing it to go from being an abortive chromatic blob to an exhibition worthy piece.

This disparity in medium-specific temporality is also evinced in the aesthetic qualities prized in watercolours versus acrylic. Whereas the best acrylic works are thought to be sporting thick paint which completely hides the tooth of the canvas or paper, watercolours are considered competent when they’re largely transparent—with opaque applications of thick painting playing only a subsidiary, ornamental, role [See Jean Haines (2015) World of Watercolour, and the works of Viktoria Prischedko to gauge the importance of transparency to the aesthetic ideal native to watercolour works].

The prizing of thick over thin paint use in acrylics, and vice versa in watercolours, is to my mind the defining aspect of the temporal dimensionality built into evaluations of works according to their medium. People tend to expect watercolour works to be translucent, full of soft transitions, and loose in their treatment of figurative subjects. By contrast audiences expect acrylic works to be opaque, full of transitions that evince gradated use of shades and tints, and relatively tight in their treatment of figurative as well as non-figurative subjects. This phenomenon of audience reaction, however, leaves open the question of why watercolour is the preferred medium for figurative work and acrylics for non-figurative work [we acknowledge, of course, and ignore the existence of exceptions that prove the rule]. It appears that visual artists tend to favour watercolours for figurative work and acrylics for non-figurative work.

Relatedly, the average audience reception of acrylic art evinces greater acceptance of non-figurative abstraction reducible to elements of composition like uneven light-to-dark transitions, hard edges for form definition, and inaccurate colour schemes. By contrast audience reception of watercolour works evinces relative dispreference for the same traits, and a markedly pronounced appreciation for their contraries. Of course, this might be explained by the commerce of the art world, where non-figurative work performs best because it is susceptible to myriad interpretations; unlike figurative work where you expect to get what you see and what you see is what you get. The relatively low cost of acrylics paints compared with oil paints, which are fetishized in the art market despite their being better in no appreciable way when used competently, can also explain why it tends to function as the poor man’s oil paint. New artists looking to grow a beard in the art market might find it more reasonable to create a steady supply of acrylic works, which are economical to produce, and friendly for experimentation in mixed media work, and can command reasonably close to what oil paintings from emerging artists can.  

Some Conclusions for the spectator

When looking at a piece of watercolour art consider if: the figurative/non-figurative representation of the subject is accurate/pleasing in terms of anatomy, proportions, and colour scheme; the work features smooth transitions from light to dark regions; the pigment is predominantly translucent/transparent across most of the work. When looking at a piece of acrylic art additionally consider if: the pigment is predominantly opaque across most of the work. Both media have their own unique set of demands and pay-offs for the artist. For the most part, audiences cannot and need not be concerned with the effort artists put into the creation of their work because the use value of art consists primarily in the response it is capable of generating in an open-minded audience somewhat aware of the major historical traditions. In general anything that means everything probably means nothing; aesthetic significance is a more or less exclusive affair. A work of art can mean a great deal to many people but it must not mean everything to everybody if it is to mean at least something to most. Go by your instincts: does it look good, make you feel good looking at it as compared with looking at something else, feel like a thing you’d like to look at at leisure? If your good faith response is yes, then the work is good by your lights and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. As to the merits of one watercolour or acrylic work over another, it is easier than ever to develop a feel for the traits of the best work produced by masters of each medium using websites like YouTube, and Instagram.

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