Paint and Mystery
by Gregg Kreutz
Paintings become more interesting to viewers when they suggest something mysterious or unknown about
the subject. New York City artist Gregg Kreutz describes ways of achieving that quality in oil paintings
LATE ONE winter afternoon, when I was first studying painting at the Art Students League, I remember needing something from my locker in one of the big classroom studios on the fourth floor. I figured I wouldn't be in danger of interrupting anything because I was sure that by that time the skylighted studios would be too dark to paint in. I was wrong—the room was as black as ink and as I was feeling my way through the easels and stools, I bumped into a human shape. "Excuse me," I said, and then bumped into another, and then a few more. The classroom was full of students, all painting busily away—in the dark. Painting what? I thought. As my eyes adjusted, I could distinguish a mod-el across the room, but the figure was nothing more than a vague, mysterious shape. That vagueness seemed to be what was keeping these students painting. They were painting the mystery!
At first glance, mystery doesn't seem to be something that painters would be very concerned with. Anatomical discrepancies, perspectival problems, and other technical matters are areas of more apparent struggle. Many artists feel that if those issues can be gotten under control, the picture will be successful. But sometimes you get all those is-sues in order and the picture still doesn't work. It has no "pull," no evocative quality. I believe that the element most often missing at those times is mystery. It seems a little odd to think of mystery as a commodity, an ingredient you add to your recipe, but it's helpful to me to make mystery as tangible as possible if I am to overcome literalism in my work.
The problem of literalism comes up in painting more than in other areas of art. Other art forms are more inherently abstract. When you're listening to music, you're not thinking, "That violinist is pulling horsehair over elongated cat-gut." You're just listening to the music. You're unconsciously turning the pro-cess into the product—the harmonious arrangement of notes. Likewise, when reading literature, you don't say to your-self, "The author has assembled squiggly shapes (letters) into groups (words), and these groups are assembled into ideas." You're just reading the text, translating the mechanics of writing directly into thought.
By its very nature, however, painting has a harder time achieving a kind of flu-id translation from its physicality to its mystery, its meaning. There's some-thing earthbound about painting. Some-times, when you're in certain moods, pictures look like exactly what they are—like pieces of linen pulled over stretchers and covered with colored oil. At those times, even works by acclaimed masters look material. I've walked through room after room in wonderful museums and been relatively unmoved by all the brilliance; the processes looked too evident. I couldn't get past the craftsmanship with which the paintings were made to the thing the craftsmanship was supposed to convey. It's happened, though, that when I've been in this sort of ungenerous, unreceptive mood, I've rounded a corner and come upon a picture that stopped me in my tracks: a shadowy Rembrandt self-portrait, for instance, or a picture by George Inness of a misty dawn. Those sorts of paintings affect me, I think, because their subject matter is just as much about what's unseen as what's seen. The paintings are about that world floating between light and dark, form and air, canvas and idea, and that sort of subject matter pulls even the reluctant viewer into the picture's world.
Mystery, in other words, is a quality that, if handled well, pushes the picture past the literal. When you think of the great masters of the past—Velazquez, Turner, or Corot—you think of a mysterious world. The fact that these giants of art history explored that world so well shouldn't discourage us from also painting about the mysterious world. Mystery is a quality we're all familiar with, and I think it's a worthy subject for any-one.
It isn't, however, easily denned or depicted. It's not, for example, just the pictorial element that isn't defined or depicted. The painter can't hope that things he's been inattentive to will serve as the mysterious part of the picture. Mystery needs to be actively painted in the same way that an apple is actively painted. It needs a beginning, an ending, and a general treatment that relates to the look of the whole picture. In the picture West Virginia Sunset, for example, I used alternating hard and soft edges to mark the boundaries between the mysterious and the literal places. The land area is a vague wash of burnt sienna and the sky area is a thicker application of yellow, orange, and white. What anchors the picture and makes it look real is the edge where the two areas meet. By having that edge soft in some places and hard in others, I was trying to create the illusion of substance interacting with light and air.
Putting things into shadow is a good way to create the illusion of mystery, and I find I'm always sneaking shadows into a picture when it looks too literal. In Dark Studio, all the areas not directly lit by the skylight are in a deep, brownish shadow. There was a lot of clutter I could have included—behind the model, for instance, there was a big radiator, a bookshelf, and a pile of tools—but I felt the picture would look more vivid and more mysterious if I made all that material disappear into the gloom.
Close values are another good way to get a mysterious effect. The higher the value contrast, the more vivid the look. If you keep your value contrast low, the objects being depicted will look more obscure. In Still Life With Oranges, I used close values to unite the rug, the brass pot, and the shadowy side of the ceramic pot into one dark, tonal unit. Pulling all that together made the focal elements (the light side of the ceramic pot and the oranges) seem especially vivid.
Pictures of daylight scenes also need a mysterious element if they are to rise above the look of a snapshot. The city scene Under the Manhattan Bridge ( a detail appears on the cover) initially gave me trouble because instead of evoking the look of gritty, waterfront Brooklyn, it looked like an architectural study; it was only a rendering of buildings and a bridge, rather than the feeling of them. I worked with this problem until I discovered that by intensifying the steam and smoke, I could bury a lot of the intricate, cross-beam pattern of the bridge and also provide a solid, less cluttered background for the figures.
Atmospheric perspective can serve this same sort of function. In the painting Across the Ohio, the distant hills are painted with a slightly darker value of the color used in the distant sky. As the land and sky move away from the view-er, the two look more and more alike. Such vagueness about what's tangible and what isn't, what's matter and what's air, gives a picture its evocative quality, its mystery. •