Thursday, September 30

Painterly - What Does It Mean?

I Would Describe My Small Acrylic
As Painterly

Painterly is not a word you probably use very often, if ever. I certainly never used it until I started painting again. It’s a word that usually only artists, and more specifically painters, use.

But what does it mean?

I read the word in articles in artist’s magazines and online more than I actually hear anyone, except artists or painters, use it. From the context in which it’s often used, the word seems to be about the appearance or the style of the artist or painting, for example,“the petals on the flower look painterly.”

Without getting off on parts of speech and such, in the English language the –ly suffix on the end of a word usually means it’s an adverb that modifies the verb, as in “he sketched the still life quickly,” where the adverb quickly modifies the past-tense verb sketched.

The word painterly is somewhat of an anomaly to this. Paint (to paint) is a verb. The word painter, however, is a noun, so adding the –ly suffix to a noun is usually not done and is, grammatically speaking, usually incorrect.

You wouldn’t say a swimmer’s style is swimmerly, a doctor’s diagnosis is doctorly, or that a computer programmer’s code is programmerly. Would you?

But for some reason, a painter’s or painting's style is described as painterly.

The online defines painterly as: of, relating to, or typical of a painter (a noun); also suggestive or characteristic of a painting. It goes on to say: marked by an openness of form, which is not linear and in which sharp outlines are lacking. They give two examples, “he has a painterly eye,” and “a painterly picture of the sea.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. First, painterly is being used as an adjective to modify a noun (painterly picture) rather than an adverb to modify a verb, so it does not follow the typical use of the –ly suffix. That explains that anomaly.

Secondly, and probably more to the point, it says painterly refers to openness of form and not linearity or straight lines. I also take this to mean a more loose, open style rather than a tight, very precise rendering. I would suggest you could call most of the Impressionist’s work painterly.

Wikipedia also has a lot more on this than I care to mention. If you want to know more, it talks about painterliness—now there’s a mouthful—and about visible brushstrokes being less than controlled, etc. etc.

However, this is probably already more than you wanted to read or think about the word painterly, but since it’s one of those words peculiar to art, I thought you might be interested.

Until next blog…

1 comment:

  1. Word play and exploration...always fun. You've just introduced me to a word I have never imagined, much less heard.

    My wife is an artist. I should send her this link.