Art Term Tuesday: Texture

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Education

At face value, texture is one of the easier visual elements to define: it’s the way a work of art feels to the touch. Of course, nothing in art is quite that simple, as artworks that are physically completely smooth can also have texture; we call this implied or visual texture. For practical purposes, all texture in the art museum is implied; we can’t touch it physically, but must imagine how it would feel based on our prior experiences with various materials. Art is, of course, primarily visual but through the use of texture, whether actual or implied, artists also activate our sense of touch.

Actual or real texture can take on myriad forms. Think raised or incised marks on a sculpture; thick, impasto paint; or soft quilts with ridges and furrows formed by stitching. In all of these cases, the tactile qualities of the finished work reveal something about the artist’s process. Head of Theodore Thieme, for instance, bears the marks of its maker, as we can imagine Forest Stark’s thumbs pushing and smooshing the clay of the original sculpture before casting it in bronze. Here, texture allows us a window into the artist’s studio. 

Forrest Stark, American, 1903-1977. Head of Theodore Thieme. Bronze and green patina. Gift of the Artist, 1936.01. Photo courtesy of FMWoA.

Manipulating texture can surprise viewers and upend our expectations. When you think of glass you probably think smooth and shiny, but Martin Blank’s Repose in Amber is mostly made from glass that is rough and frosted. Some areas retain their glossy appearance, but the carved and sandblasted surfaces emulate other natural materials like stone while harnessing the glow-y translucency of glass. One section further activates our sense of touch, mimicking the surface of a bronze sculpture after decades of hands have worn it away. FWMoA’s largest indoor sculpture, what if Blank had left the entire surface shiny? It might have been overwhelming, and we’d miss out on the sense of discovery as we happen upon the variety of textures. 

Martin Blank, American, b. 1962. Repose in Amber. Hot sculpted glass and steel, 2004. Gift of Joel and Nancy Barnett, 2019.198.1-46. Photo courtesy of FMWoA.
Martin Blank, American, b. 1962. Repose in Amber. Hot sculpted glass and steel, 2004. Gift of Joel and Nancy Barnett, 2019.198.1-46. Photo courtesy of FMWoA.

Other artists choose to emphasize the inherent textures of their materials rather than altering them. Although at times braiding or knotting, the hallmark of Claire Zeisler’s fiber sculpture is long, free-flowing strands of twine or rope. In Stela I, cascading lengths of hemp are left their natural hue and cut to various lengths, highlighting the characteristic roughness of the material. Similarly, many abstract paintings abandon attempts at realism in favor of asserting their identity as just paintings, emphasizing the qualities of the paint itself through thick, impasto textures.

Claire Zeisler, American, 1903-1991. Stela 1. Hemp and red wool fiber, 2010. Gift of the Lincoln Financial Group, 2010.04. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

On the other hand, artists looking to achieve a high degree of realism in their work must be adept at portraying textures. If we were to touch Julius Adam’s Cat with Kittens, it would just feel like fairly smooth, dried paint. Through implied texture, however, we can imagine the soft fur, rough basket, and lush leaves. Adam’s ability to render textures no doubt abetted his reputation as an animalier; would his paintings give viewers the warm fuzzies if his cats’ fur didn’t have the feeling to match?

Julius Adam, German, 1852-1913. Cat with Kittens. Oil on canvas, c. late 19th century. Gift of Theodore F. Thieme, 1948.06. Image courtesy of FMWoA.

On view now, Dazzle, Pattern, Color, Bling: The Alluring Patterns of Liz Quisgard is all about texture, and not just in the fuzzy, fiber works! The pointillist dots that populate Quisgard’s canvases lend a shimmering, tactile quality even though the paintings are mostly flat. Implied texture doesn’t have to mimic something found in real life, but can instead be created through repeated patterns and marks.

Liz Whitney Quisgard, American, b. 1929. Imaginary Column #10, Imaginary Column #2. Acrylic on canvas. Loan of the Artist. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.
Liz Whitney Quisgard, American, b. 1929. Imaginary Column #10, Imaginary Column #2. Acrylic on canvas. Loan of the Artist. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Natalie Christensen’s architectural photographs are nearly abstract, but the rough texture of stucco reveals her subjects as buildings. In A Good Day, the stony side of the building, exaggerated by bright sunlight, contrasts with the single fluffy cloud. Is this actual or implied texture? In photography, the distinction becomes a little blurry because, as a photograph, the work is smooth, but it captures actual objects with physical texture. 

Natalie Christensen, American, b. 1966. A Good Day. Archival pigment print on hot press Italian rag paper, 2017. Gift of the Artist, 2018.187.2. Image courtesy of FMWoA.

Within the broad categories of actual and implied there are myriad different textures. How many different words can you list to describe the way different objects feel? What textures can you feel from where you sit? How would these, when added to an artwork, impact your reaction? Textures are yet another detail that adds more interest to a work; they can make the objects in an artwork more “real,” involving the viewer by adding a tangible quality even if the artwork leans abstract. The next time you visit FWMoA, please don’t touch the artwork, but pay close attention to the textures and what they reveal about the work.

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