Line & Colour

The classical point of view, still based on visual aspects, ethics and iconography, hardly plays a role in the discussion of ‘what is art’. For some Modern Western Art did become a branch of philosophy, practiced with objects and materials [1], and there are strong disagreements as to what art should be [2]. (See also: Art Talk, Reflections on Changing Ideas on this site)

However, the question 'what is Art' is of all times. Already in the 16th century in Italy one discussed the subject of invenzione, disegno and colore [3].
The behavior’s share plays a role. Someone with a literary point of view will especially see whether the story is represented convincingly, while a painter first looks at the composition and later studies the narrative.

In the 16th century the painters of the Tuscan school (Michelangelo) were confronted with the painters of the Venetian school (Titian) in a discours about line and colour.

In the 17th century it was all about the Poussinistes (line) and the Rubénistes (colour). In this discussion the line rather refers to design and harmony than to modeling and expressiveness of drawing. When outdoor landscape painting became a favourite topic in the 19th century the art of Poussin was very popular. One admired his harmonious landscapes in combination with the classical tradition of the old masters.

The statement of Cézanne ‘…to re-do Poussin after nature…’ has more to do with a shared aesthetic conception of a tradition of order and discipline than with a realistic representation of the classical narratives.

Early 20th century the discussion was about the work of Cézanne. The literary tradition, as the main subject for paintings, was not interesting any more and many painters begin to experiment. In half a century a rich and comprehensive form/color vocabulary has been developed.
Cubism let go of the subject, the subject is divided into fragments and the fragments create their own art. Art becomes abstract but remains rooted in the pictorial tradition. The possibilities of abstract art are explored. While analysing the visual aspects of colour fields, lines and rhythms; the ancient discourse about color and line is relevant again.


The pure abstractions of Mondrian and Malevich are still rooted in the tradition of painting. By reducing a representation to line and form, the visual aspects/laws of harmony are made visible. Malevich develops an extensive teaching program.

The later abstraction of the second half of the 20th century has quite a different starting point. This has to do with a shift from questions about visual aspects towards finding answers to the question ‘what is Art’. On theoretical grounds abstract art had to avoid any kind of representation or naturalism, it had to be completely non-figurative [5].

American painters followed the Art developments in Europe [6]. Their aim was to find a specific American Art and a modern abstraction, free from figuration and tradition, could be the beginning of it.

Kenneth Clark made a study of the history of ‘The Nude’ [7] through the ages. He wonders why certain poses come back over and over again and whether that is a question of form and style.
Already in the 5th century B.C. Greek sculptors were facing the problem of how to depict the human body and emotion without loosing the geometrical clearness of individual form. They searched for the expressiveness of the pose itself.

Clark mentions Titian who made a series of declining nudes. One would expect that the ‘painter of sensuality’ would be able to render many different poses, but the variety of poses in which he achieves that perfect unity is limited. This is probably due to the fact that geometric clearness and balanced proportions restrict the possibilities for variation.

Rubens, who studied Titian’s work and vocabulary intensively, often starts from similar poses but with his sense for colour and rhythm, he has a different approach.
He had a theoretical sketchbook, which shows how he modeled his art after the works of the antique and modern masters of Italy.

The work of the great masters has been an example for many painters. They have studied or copied the work of their favorite predecessors and often took it as a basis for their own work.

"Drawing and color are not distinct from one another; gradually as one paints, one draws. The more harmonious the colors are, the more precise the drawing will be. Form is at its fullest when color is at its richest. The secret of drawing and modeling lies in the contrasts and affinities of colors."

Gonny Faase, Gouda, May 15, 2015



From: Michael Doran: Conversations with Cëzanne: Emile Bernard: Paul Cézanne (L’Occident, 1904)


[1] From: Eric Fernie, Art history and its methods, a critical anthology. Phaidon Press, 1995. part III: The concept ART.

... In the third, comprehensive sense, the visual arts can be described as those made objects, which are presumed to have a visual content or to which we react aesthetically. ... This very broad definition is advisable for the art historian because what we call art today is not or was not necessarily considered in the same way in other cultures and at other times. In fact one can go further and say that what is called art in the late twentieth century (which might be characterised as a branch of philosophy practised with materials and objects) represents a minority view among human cultures. Thus while a fifteenth-century altarpiece, for example, may in part have been valued for the similar reasons as it would be if displayed in a gallery today, it was also in large a practical object performing a social function. ...


[2] From: Eric Fernie, Art history and its methods, a critical anthology. Introduction: The late twentieth century. Phaidon Press, 1995.

... The subject may now appear to present a rather fractured image: aesthetes and iconographers on the one hand tending the shrines of genius and antiquity, and revolutionaries on the other, bent on overturning the temples of art, mammon and patriarchy, all set against a backdrop of exhaustion suggested by titles raising the possibility of the end of art history or the end of art theory. ...

What this image ignores, however, is the potential of a subject which has as its first defining asset the expertise of the eye (which, although never innocent and always requiring interpretation, can illuminate aspects of cultures across linguistic and social barriers), and as its second the concrete character of its subject matter (which, in common with the material studied in related disciplines such as 'anthropology, 'archaeology and ‘geography, prevent it ever becoming wholly in thrall to philosophy). ....


[3] … For the mid-sixteenth-century Florentine painter, the invenzione of a work … involved realizing the potential of the given … subject: its interpretation, the choice of episodes and characters, the emotional tenor of the figures, and their development. ... Vasari emphasized, almost to the exclusion of all else, qualities related to narrative incident and to the disposition of figures …
[From: Bronzino's Chapel of Eleonora in the Palazzo Vecchio.
By Janet Cox-Rearick].

Disegno is often defined as being the design, mostly a black-white drawing. This design was then transferred on canvas or (wet) plaster after which colore was applied.


[4] Inventing Leonardo. Chapter 7: Leonardo the Harbinger of Modernity. A. Richard Turner. University of California Press. 1994.
This chapter explains how writers through the centuries attached different (and often contradictory) meanings to the work of Leonardo.

… A splendid new book about Leonardo. … Mr. Turner has done a lucid job of showing how Leonardo's reputation—and by implication, that of other artists—has been subjected to the vicissitudes of cultural politics and evolving social and aesthetic ideals. He has given us a riveting portrait of an artist and a fascinating blueprint of the machinery of fame. …
[Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times]


[5] Greenberg in: Avant-garde and Kitsch, 1939

. … Content is to be resolved so completely into form that works of art and literature cannot be reduced in whole or in part to anything not itself. …


[6] Painting America. The Rise of American Artists. Paris 1867 – New York 1948.
Annie Cohen-Solal.
Mark Rothko. Towards the light in the Chapel.
Annie Cohen-Solal.


[7] The Nude. Kenneth Clark. Pelican books. Reprint 1964.