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  • John Reid

The Nature of Surface

The inspiration for this blog is from an extract from the movie AT ETERNITY’S GATE by Julian Schnabel.

Of course, this is a movie and as such is an interpretation by the director Julian Schnabel. The dialogue is not verbatim but serves to highlight my thoughts on the nature of the painting surface.


The particular scene I am referring to is a dialogue, set in The Yellow House, between Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh.


Gauguin. You have to plan your paintings slowly.

What’s the rush?

Work calmly… slowly.

You’re indoors.

You’re not outdoors in the wind and noise.


Van Gogh. Paintings have to be done in one clear gesture.


Gauguin. Think about the surface you are painting on and how the paint will sit on it.

You’re changing things so fast you can’t even see what you have done.


Van Gogh. Paintings have to be painted fast.



In the movie Van Gogh goes on to tell Gauguin that all the paintings he looks at, quoting the works of Frans Hals, Goya, Velasquez, Veronese and Delacroix, are all painted fast … in one clear gesture.

Gauguin replies that Vincent doesn’t even paint that way, that he paints fast but he overpaints. He comments that the surface of Vincent’s paintings look like “it’s made out of clay, more like sculpture than painting”.


The painters that Van Gogh highlights as inspiration all do paint with a gestural swift mark but they all paint onto a prepared ground, generally in the form of an underpainting. Even if you look at works by Turner for example, his later gestural colour field works are laid down on such a solid foundation of paint. There is such a gravity to this which is in direct comparison to his watercolours and the voice of the work changes accordingly.


It is obvious that Van Gogh’s delivery is one of pure response to the subject matter almost as if a form of abstraction. It would appear a matter of urgency to capture the feeling and not to labor over it.

Gauguin’s approach is also in response to the subject matter but there is a huge emphasis on structure and the assembly of the painting. It’s a construction not merely an emotional response. The mind and thought are clearly involved. Here is an arena of ideas.


Van Gogh hits the raw surface with an immediate sense of a completed work and then an urgency of time takes hold. It’s almost as if the painting is finished before it’s started. It’s this immediacy and urgency that is what we respond to in his work. One is arrested by them, almost stunned. There isn’t the nuance of structure and planning one sees in Gauguin’s work.


The point being that painting is a language and for a painting to work that language must have a coherency and it must open a dialogue within the viewer, either with themselves or with the painting. The voice or life of the painted mark is crucial to a successful painting and highly dependent on the nature of the surface it is placed on or the nature of the surface that is created.


This is not to say there is a right way to make marks or a right way to build or prepare surface but there needs to be a chemistry between the two for an artist’s voice to leave this surface and be heard. Its not about paint sticking and being held by a surface, rather the surface needs to infuse the painted mark with an energy, a sense of importance, like a springboard.

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