That 'modern' look to a painting

Something I've been thinking about lately, what makes a painting look modern? And by modern I mean painted after 1940's or so, at least that is my own artificial cut-off.

Now let me state right away, there's nothing wrong with modern looking paintings and nothing wrong with wanting to imitate the old masters either. But I'm interested in this question because I noticed that I, and think most other painters, can tell if something was painted recently or not. Why?

I've read many guesses.. one points to the pigments currently available. They are much more powerful and very finely and uniformly milled that you end up with a different look to a painting. It's a convincing answer, except that when a painter limits themselves to only historical pigments you can still tell the painting is modern.

Another theory is that, at least in portraiture, the hair, makeup and clothing will tip you off almost subconsciously. Or even that older style of clothing lends itself to a more refined look. However, there is plenty of modern paintings that prove that that's not necessarily true either.

Another guess is the skill and quality of art education today... I'm not going to get into that, haha. I am of opinion that current ateliers are pretty good but feel free to disagree. Yet another guess is that modern day painting favors a direct workflow, alla prima etc, so you do not see the same paint application.

The last theory that I've read yesterday, which I thought was quiet interesting, is that the 'camera aesthetic' is bleeding into everything. Even when a painter does not use photography they tend to subconsciously compose and see like a camera and when your brain is judging a 'successful image' it tends to favor imagery similar to what you see every day.

What do you think, what sounds the most plausible to you? Do you have a theory of your own?


  • CBGCBG -
    edited July 13
    I think maybe it’s a subconscious association with marketability to the masses which art critics have successfully implanted into creatives and those masses themselves, in order to gatekeep the industry and the idea of taste… and in particular fashionable “modernity”.

    In the end it’s what they say it is because they say it, and somehow because of the “who” which is what they are, a pattern comes through. They themselves have no inkling of why they “feel” or why they make the pronouncements they make and they have no standards of judgement, other than pure subjectivity.  But the self selection process of weeding out which occurs means the same type of people and up being the gatekeepers… those who relish being a gatekeeper … a tastemaker, eager to supervise the ignorant masses and the misguided creatives.

    You are seeing and noticing, in the form of paint on canvas, what kinds of people the art critics who sell “modernity”, are.  These are their souls on display.


  • edited July 13
    Great topic for discussion, @NotACat

    I think the points you made are all valid. Materials, technology, fashions, tastes... they all change over time. They always have. But it seems to happen faster these days. But what is truly good seems to stand the test of time and survive the depredations of the critics who can only make subjective judgements like the rest of us.

    I agree with what @CBG said. A lot of what passes for criticism in the art world these days is really about the critics and not about the art.  I like it when the critics, those gatekeepers and would-be arbiters-of-taste, turn out to be wrong. Which has often happened. Look what they said about the impressionists who today are universally admired. But it takes time. However, I think that what is truly good has, and always will, stand the test of time despite the highfalutin critics who pour out of liberal arts faculties and, a good number of whom (to paraphrase Peter Medawar) have been educated well beyond their capacity to undertake rational thought. 
  • Technically the Modern Art period was around 1860-1970 (some say 1880-1960) but Van Gogh and Manet are considered Modern Art. The art done now is maybe Contemporary? or Post Modern? I'm not sure actually.

    Seems to me that classical used more transparent layers and more muted and earth colors which would invite light into the surface. Modern Art used more opaque layers and vibrant colors which reflect ed light off the surface. Is today's art maybe a mixture?

    I think those painting recently are more likely to paint for its own sake than to make a living or career. To "paint on the side" of a regular career even if they  display and sell some of their work. Classical artists, from what I read, painted mostly on commission and a lot of the commissions were from religious groups or wealthy politicians... both of which tended to be more formal.

    I think that during the classical period especially, there were as you said no cameras, and painting was the only way to preserve slices of life. It's   hard  to imagine now when we have not only cameras but computers and TVs and all the other tech. Seems that would make a big difference in how we perceive and do a lot of things.

    Since the camera, folks don't need to be concerned with showing things as they truly looked and so play with the chroma and hues, and reality in general.  I think the impressionists in the Modern Era went to the extreme of that, but perhaps some of it is still present. 

    Just my thoughts.
  • Probably a little bit of everything... the surface and treatment thereof, subject matter choice, and as you said the style of people or objects dating themselves to a certain time period.  

    @Kaustav intends his work to look as that of old masters, and in my opinion if Kaustav's landscapes were beside the other great landscape artists of old, no one would tell a difference in the year they were painted.  So there is a method there to painting like the old masters (that I do not have the secret too, haha) as well as the compositional choices.
  • I imagine the same question came up when Caravaggio was painting back in 1600.  And maybe again when tubed paint made plein air painting more accessible.
    I took a painting class with a teacher that used a black mirror to check her values when painting outdoors.  I could tell her work because of that.  And it had a 1950’s-ish feel to it.   I look at realism from the 60’s and ‘70’s and can date it spot on.  Styles and subjects change and add to placing a work by date. What is most amazing is when a painting that is a hundred years old continues to wow you.  That’s standing the test of time.
  • edited August 23
    To me the subject itself and style of representation both make all the difference. I use my technique (borrowed and developed) in everything. But if I paint a modern subject matter then obviously it wouldn't look like an old painting.
    But our time also has a new technique that I think is heavily influenced by the circle of Richard Schmidt and it looks modern no matter what the subject is. 
    Digital cameras esp phone cameras have also influenced our sense of visual reality. It has the tendency to make the farthest very small and closest very wide and overall makes things appear flat. Also the perspective distortion looks ok to us. If these are consciously incorporated ina painting then I'm sure the subject matter will look modern. 

  • Thank you for your thoughts everyone. I agree it's a bit of this and that, and of course the tools used at the time, have to add that to the list.
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