Degree Name

Doctor of Creative Arts


Faculty of Creative Arts


This thesis looks at the changes in attitude towards the oil painting surface during the course of Modernism. The analysis focuses on the brushstroke, surface and the incorporation of materials into traditional oil painting techniques which culminated in the use of natural materials (pollen, beeswax) simply presented seemingly without artifice. Developments related to the use of materials brought about fundamental changes to the practice and perception of painting. Materials and their use have been used as a signifier for various perceived deficiencies of contemporary society, and particularly the surface, is seen as a signifier of nature. The motif of the natural recurs as a theme of opposition to culture and is articulated by those artists most concerned with an emphasis on materiality and surface.

Surface materiality not only changes the way a painter works but also has a profound influence on the reception of the work. The nature of the surface elicits a reciprocal relation between painter and viewer. Certain characteristics of materiality expose meanings beyond that of visuality. Surface merges seeing and touching and hence encourages a more intuitive interpretation. In this thesis, the different ways a surface can be worked are examined in relation to meaning, reception and creative process. Broad categories of the surface involve transparent, expressive, constructed, material and unworked. All these categories engender different methods of working and provoke different meanings or readings.

Painting involves marking the surface in some way and for many painters the change from inert material to something of cultural value m a y be seen as a mystical or alchemical transformation. The relationship painters have with materials and their meanings seen to be inherent in their use will be analysed, both from the viewpoint of painters and critics.

If the viewer's attention is shifted from the representational illusion to sensual object then attention is also shifted to the physical process the painter undertakes in the construction process. A n emphasis on process often goes hand in hand with an enhanced value placed upon the materials and the maker's subjective experience in working with them.

In mid Nineteenth century France, painters like Delacroix challenged the hierarchical cultural values expressed in painting together with the notion of a painting being a window on an ideal world. Later, at the beginning of the C20th the papier collé of Braque and Picasso raised the importance of the constructed surface.

Within Modernism the notion of the expressive in painting is closely linked to ideas of the primitive, colour and an idiosyncratic method of paint application. The experience of working directly from nature, African and other tribal art, further encouraged the expressive tendency. The viewer's Modernist experience inclines towards being characterised by a tangible, multifaceted immediacy at the expense of a concern for the illusionistic image.

The flourish of interest in materiality after World War II led to the use of non traditional art materials which, together with accidental marks like graffiti, reflected a rejection of European fine art painting tradition. There was a sense of starting again, symbolically using everyday building materials and non cultural methods. In America, artists such as Pollock, began to use commercial paints and were concerned with an exploration of the self.

Finally raw materials are now used without significant alteration by the painter. Materials presented as close to their natural state as possible, and in a popular sense, allowed to speak for themselves. Materials used in this way suggest in turn, an illusion of a total absence of artifice and process has all but disappeared.