Technology and the Arts: Examine the role of color in the paintings of the late

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Technology and the Arts: Examine the role of color in the paintings of the late nineteenth century. How did the invention of synthetic paint affect art? Would you say that technology had a major impact on pictorial style? Why or why not?

Sep 27th, 2015

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In addition to their radical technique, bright colours of Impressionist canvases were shocking for eyes accustomed to the more sober colours of Academic painting. Many independent artists chose not to apply thick golden varnish which painters customarily used to tone down their works. The paints themselves were more vivid as well. The nineteenth century saw the development of synthetic pigments for artists' paints, providing vibrant shades of blue, green, and yellow that painters had never used before. Edouard Manet’s (1874 Boating), for example, features an expanse of the new Cerulean blue and synthetic ultramarine.

Claude Monet's Impression, Sunrise (Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris) exhibited in 1874, gave the Impressionist movement its name when the critic Louis Leroy accused it of being a sketch or "impression," not a finished painting. It demonstrates the techniques many of the independent artists adopted: short, broken brushstrokes that barely convey forms, pure unblended colours, and an emphasis on the effects of light. Rather than neutral white, grays, and blacks, Impressionists often rendered shadows and highlights in colour. The artists' loose brushwork gives an effect of spontaneity and effortlessness that masks their often carefully constructed compositions, such as in Alfred Sisley's 1878 Allée of Chestnut Trees. This seemingly casual style became widely accepted, even in the official Salon, as the new language with which to depict modern life.
The last of the independent exhibitions in 1886 also saw the beginning of a new phase in avant-garde painting. By this time, few of the participants were working in a recognizably Impressionist manner. Most of the core members were developing new, individual styles that caused ruptures in the group's tenuous unity. Pissarro promoted the participation of Georges Seurat and Paul Signac, in addition to adopting their new technique based on points of pure colour, known as Neo-Impressionism. The young Gauguin was making forays into Primitivism. The nascent Symbolist Odilon Redon also contributed, though his style was unlike that of any other participant. Because of the group's stylistic and philosophical fragmentation, and because of the need for assured income, some of the core members such as Monet and Renoir exhibited in venues where their works were more likely to sell.
Pictorialism is the name given to an international style and aesthetic movement that dominated photography during the later 19th and early 20th centuries. There is no standard definition of the term, but in general it refers to a style in which the photographer has somehow manipulated what would otherwise be a straightforward photograph as a means of "creating" an image rather than simply recording it. Typically, a pictorial photograph appears to lack a sharp focus (some more so than others), is printed in one or more colours other than black-and-white (ranging from warm brown to deep blue) and may have visible brush strokes or other manipulation of the surface. For the pictorialist, a photograph, like a painting, drawing or engraving, was a way of projecting an emotional intent into the viewer's realm of imagination.

Pictorialism as a movement thrived from about 1885 to 1915, although it was still being promoted by some as late as the 1940s. It began in response to claims that a photograph was nothing more than a simple record of reality, and transformed into an international movement to advance the status of all photography as a true art form. For more than three decades painters, photographers and art critics debated opposing artistic philosophies, ultimately culminating in the acquisition of photographs by several major art museums.

Pictorialism gradually declined in popularity after 1920, although it did not fade out of popularity until the end of World War II. During this period the new style of photographic Modernism came into vogue, and the public's interest shifted to more sharply focused images. Several important 20th-century photographers began their careers in a pictorialist style but transitioned into sharply focused photography by the 1930s.

Pictorial photographers began by taking an ordinary glass-plate or film negative. Some adjusted the focus of the scene or used a special lens to produce a softer image, but for the most part the printing process controlled the final appearance of the photograph. Pictorialists used a variety of papers and chemical processes to produce particular effects, and some then manipulated the tones and surface of prints with brushes, ink or pigments. The following is a list of the most commonly used pictorial processes.

  • Bromoil: This is a variant on the oil print process that allows a print to be enlarged. In this process a regular silver gelatine print is made, then bleached in a solution of potassium bichromate. This hardens the surface of the print and allows ink to stick to it. Both the lighter and darker areas of a bromoil print may be manipulated, providing a broader tonal range than an oil print.
  • Carbon print: This is an extremely delicate print made by coating tissue paper with potassium bichromate, carbon black or another pigment and gelatine. Carbon prints can provide extraordinary detail and are among the most permanent of all photographic prints. Due to the stability of the paper both before and after processing, carbon printing tissue was one of the earliest commercially made photographic products.
  • Cyanotype: One of the earliest photographic processes, cyanotypes experienced a brief renewal when pictorialists experimented with their deep blue colour tones. The colour came from coating paper with light-sensitive iron salts.
  • Gum bichromate: One of the pictorialists' favourites, these prints were made by applying gum Arabic, potassium bichromate and one or more artist's coloured pigments to paper. This sensitized solution slowly hardens where light strikes it, and these areas remain pliable for several hours. The photographer had a great deal of control by varying the mixture of the solution, allowing a shorter or longer exposure and by brushing or rubbing the pigmented areas after exposure.
  • Oil print: Made by applying greasy inks to paper coated with a solution of gum dichromate and gelatine. When exposed though a negative, the gum-gelatine hardens where light strikes it while unexposed areas remain soft. Artist's inks are then applied by brush, and the inks adhere only to the hardened areas. Through this process a photographer can manipulate the lighter areas of a gum print while the darker areas remain stable. An oil print cannot be enlarged since it has to be in direct contact with the negative.
  • Platinum print: Platinum prints require a two-steps process. First, paper is sensitized with iron salts and exposed in contact with a negative until a faint image is formed. Then the paper is chemically developed in a process that replaces the iron salts with platinum. This produces an image with a very wide range of tones, each intensely realized.


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