In a light-filled studio at Olana, the stately Persian inspired mansion of Frederic Church, there is a display of the artist’s brushes in a room that includes his collection of exotica from his travels. Church is probably the best known of the 19th century American artists who helped create the Hudson River School, the country’s first internationally recognized art movement. Church and his compatriots sullied forth across the continent—from the polar north to South America—in a time when travel was often measured in months, to bring back images of a wilderness that hadn’t been seen by many city dwelling Easterners. Church especially loved travel, roaming extensively through Europe and the Middle East. So by dint of this, Church’s brushes had been farther than most Americans of the time. Now, they had ended their careers as exhibits—like the other collected artifacts—an artist’s ephemera neatly laid on the shelf. And, yes, these pieces of wood and animal hair are merely tools by which Church’s brain and hand were able to convey the power of a multi-hued and seemingly exploding sunrise over the Catskill Mountains or the pristine and quiet whiteness of an iceberg, but at the point at which they touched paint on canvas they became, briefly, an extension of the artist.
In a grander, and by the same token creepier, gesture the final studio of the towering 20th century figurative artist Francis Bacon was reconstructed in an Irish art gallery, a mausoleum of artists tools. Among the thousands of items transferred were various pieces of clothing, including old wool socks, that the artist used to apply paint to his canvases. Bacon spent his entire career experimenting with various tools in his work. Looking closely at his paintings you can see the vastly different effects he was able to achieve through his use of unusual application methods.
While Church was refining with his tools in pursuit of a believable object infused with the spiritual, Bacon was both harking back to an earlier time before the invention of the modern brush and pushing the envelope in regard to tool use as a way of applying pigment onto canvas for its abstract effects within the framework of a recognizable subject matter.
As a painter I’ve explored both traditional means of applying paint and less usual forms—in graduate school I eventually forewent paintbrushes all together, favoring applying oils straight from the tube or with my fingers—but have of late gone back to the brush and continue to refine my knowledge of each of their strengths and weaknesses. The dizzying array of brush types with names such as filbert, bright, flat, round, angle and mop, more descriptive than sexy, not to mention the different hairs or fibers, from sable to synthetic, were daunting to figure out. I earned my undergraduate degree at a time when theory trumped practice, so it was up to me to navigate the labyrinth of artistic technology. I learned by trial and error, exploring brush shape more than material, since it often came down to what I could afford. Sable was out of reach for a long time, so I made do with synthetic and less expensive animal hair brushes for so long that when I finally could afford the top of the line, I found it to be too soft and supple for my needs.
I’ve come across this conundrum before. Once while bartending a holiday party with an open bar a wizened and bent old man came up and ordered a well brand of scotch. I pointed out that we had a nice variety of single malts and since it was free he might like one of those. “Son, when you’ve been drinking cheap scotch as long as I have, the good stuff just doesn’t taste right,” he told me with a crooked smile.
Through it all I’ve come to recognize that the act of applying paint onto a surface, through whatever means, is more important than the method of delivering pigment, whether a handcrafted sable-hair brush used by Church, Bacon’s old wool sock or a stick used by an Australian Aborigine a thousand years ago. The artist’s choice of a tool is merely a part of the creative process, the same as choosing a paint color or what the image on the canvas will be. But even so, walking into a space where a great artist worked or being surrounded by the tools he or she used is, in a high school fan club way, still an exciting venture.