The nature of painting is that paint is applied in LAYERS. This layering is at the heart of the art – layering in opaqueness and transparency. It is felt immediately in cave art, and is exploited, anew , over and over subsequently – so that through technical sophistication, especially in rendering deep space, and the development of oil paint which took longer to dry and encouraged working wet-in-wet, it’s original vitality was lost.
In early painting, this layering of the physical matter of paint was also a layering of imagery and method. That is to say, with each layer of paint, usually of a single colour, a formal element of an image, such as line, or a mass of colour denoting the mass of, say, a horse, is applied and has a discrete vitality. Sometimes whole images are overlaid in exactly the same way.
This is part of what Robert Elkins calls, ‘What Painting Is’, but it has been lost sight of. In the realm of pure abstraction it loses all force. I would say that the last time this vitality of layering can be seen, the separation of elements into layers that also correspond to forces or ‘bodies’, is in the work of Roger Hilton, centering on the year 1960. Here is the tremendously energised work of an artist who was abstract and conceptual in his pre-conceiving of the elements of a painting, but profoundly informed and feeling about the affinities of his forms; sensual and improvisatory in the application of the paint. Each element in his best paintings is a vital addition or subtraction, and there is no such thing as ‘mistakes’, as they become incorporated as part of the layered events that make up the whole.
It can be seen and felt in my own work, in a painting like,‘ Be Begone’ (in the ‘Protagonists’ painting gallery of this website), which has five or six distinct and separable strata, where layers of ‘imagery’ or affinities of colour and line correspond directly to layers of paint. Some are sublimated, almost entirely overlapped. But the whole gains an energy from this layering that is rare now, as it requires an entirely different way of working to the developed history of the build-up of paint.