What is texture?
Texture is defined as the tactile quality of the surface of an object–how it feels if touched. But it is so much more than that.
You wake up in the morning, toss back the crisp cotton sheets. Your bare feet move across the polished wood floor. You get into the shower and feel the warm water spalsh against your skin, the soap slide over your arms. You wrap yourself in a soft terry towel. Your clothes provide you with a whole array of textures: silky, starched, velvety, coarse, elastic. Breakfast provides even more: fluffy scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, melted butter dripping off crunchy toast.
You look out the window, and even though you can’t touch it, you can see the layers of texture in the leaves of the old oak tree and its gnarly bark, the multi-coloured aging brick on the building across the street, the gleaming polished surface of a car.
Imagine the world without texture.
Touch is one of our senses. Our hands and skin are equipped with sensitive nerves that distinguish texture. In addition to giving us information about the world around us, our sense of touch gives us pleasure. We find sensual joy in the tactile experience of different surfaces. It is an essential aspect of visual art for the same reason.
Visual art can inspire, provoke, make us think, make us laugh, make us cry, make us see things in ways we never would have. Visual art also gives us pleasure. That is part of what makes texture so important in visual art.
Texture, like any of the elements of art, can also enhance and support the artist’s concept behind the work. Some artists use texture as a major influence on our response to the work. In any work of art, however, texture can draw us in so we spend more time with the work.
Take a texture walk.
Go for a walk and see how many different textures you can find. Take visual notes (quick sketches) of what you see. This can help you to not only notice textures but give you ideas for textures that you can incorporate into your own work.
Another good exercise is to think of as many different words as you can to describe the textures you find around you: coarse, slimy, bristly, smooth, furry, matted, twisted, scratchy, wrinkled, soft, rough, for example. How would you draw those textures, or portray them visually?
Actual texture refers to the tactile qualities of the physical surface of the object. In other words, how does the surface of the work feel when you touch it?
Texture in three-dimensional art
Texture is one of the most fundamental elements of three dimensional art. It is an element that needs to be carefully considered by sculptors. Texture is related to the material used–marble, wood, clay, bronze, brass, iron. steel, or plaster, for example– as well as the process: casting, carving, construction, or welding. In addition to the material and the process, the final surface treatment offers even more textural possibilities. These include patination (chemically altering the surface of metal), painting, staining, bleaching, varnishing, polishing, waxing, sanding, buffing, scorching, tapping the surface with various tools to add texture, and using a grinder to smooth out rough textures and welding seams, among other things.
Portrait heads of Benin royalty
Head of an Oba, 16th century (ca. 1550)
Nigeria; Edo peoples, court of Benin
Brass H. 9 1/4 in. (23.5 cm)
Metropolitan Museum of Art The Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, Bequest of Nelson A. Rockefeller, 1979 (1979.206.86)
Source: Head of an Oba [Nigeria; Edo peoples, court of Benin] (1979.206.86) | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
This sculpture is an example of metal-casting. A mould is created and molten metal is poured into it, and allowed to cool before removing it. Most of the textural elements must be fashioned in the mould before pouring the metal. Compare the decorative textural elements of this portrait head with the smooth surface of the subject’s skin.
These portrait heads represent the long line of a ruling dynasty in 14th century Benin, in present day Nigeria. Each head commemorates a different oba, or king. Though the heads are meant to honour individual leaders, they are highly stylized, that is, they emphasize the regalia that symbolizes kingship rather than distinctive features.
Power Figure (Nkisi Nkondi) Kongo (Solongo or Woyo subgroup) late 19th-early 20th century
Wood, iron, glass, fiber, pigment, bone 24 x 6 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. (61.5 x 17.0 x 21.5 cm)
Possible places made: Kongo Central Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cabinda Province, Angola, Zaire Province, Angola
Brooklyn Museum Arts of Africa Gift of Arturo and Paul Peralta-Ramos
These figures were created by the people of the Kingdom of Kongo, which spanned the years from approximately 1400 until 1914. The Kongo kingdom was located in west central Africa in the area which now includes northern Angola, Cabinda, the Republic of the Congo, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Congo-Kinshasa).
A nkisi nkondi, or power figure was carved out of wood. It contained a cavity for holding items used in magic and medicine. After it was created and filled with supernatural ingredients, it was breathed upon to animate it and then sealed with a mirror. Nails and blades were added to destroy evil. The use of texture here goes beyond aesthetics. The textural elements of the nkisi nkondi contain power and are used to protect others. The texture is meant to be forbidding and to evoke fear.
Deborah Butterfield: portraits of horses
Deborah Butterfield Woodrow 1988
bronze 99 x 105 x 74 in.
Minneapolis Sculpture Garden Gift of Harriet and Edson W. Spencer, 1988
Deborah Butterfield Aluminium Horse #5 1982
Steel and fused aluminium
San Diego Museum of Art Museum purchase 1990:7 © San Diego Museum of Art
Deborah Butterfield knows horses. She raises them, on a ranch. She is also a sculptor. These sculptures of horses are life-size, and are made of different materials. In these two examples, one is made out of aluminium, and the other of bronze casts of branches and pieces of wood. Each sculpture represents and is a portrait of an individual horse, one that she has raised.
Jackie Winsor: industrial elements
Jacki Winsor Paul Walter’s Piece, 1975
copper, creosoted wood overall 24 x 32 x 32 in
Minneapolis Sculpture garden Gift of Paul F. Walter, 2000
Jackie Winsor is known for using industrial materials to make fine art sculptures. Often there is a process that takes place during its creation that becomes evident in the finished piece. Some contemporary sculptors have chosen to move beyond traditional materials such as bronze, marble, and wood in their work , to using ordinary building or industrial materials to create their work. How does the choice of non-traditional materials influence the viewer’s response and affect the meaning of the work? Compare the textures in this sculpture with the following highly polished bronze sculpture.
Henry Moore: abstracted figures with a fluid surface
Henry Moore Reclining Mother and Child, 1960-1961
bronze 90 x 35 1/2 x 52 in.
Minneapolis Sculpture garden Gift of the T. B. Walker Foundation, 1963
Henry Moore is known for his large, abstract figurative work. This sculpture represents a mother and child. How do the curves of the form, its fluid lines, and the smooth polished finish mirror the curves, lines, skin, and muscles of the human body? Notice how the “child” is cradled by the “mother”. Also notice areas of high sheen on various parts of the sculpture. These are areas where people have touched and rubbed the sculpture. The oils in human skin interact with bronze.
Magdalena Abakanowicz: highly textured abstracted figures
Magdalena Abakanowicz Sagacious Head 6 and Sagacious Head 7, 1989-1990
bronze No. 6: 98 1/2 x 187 x 108 1/4 in. No. 7: 101 x 202 3/4 x 100 1/2 in.
Minneapolis Sculpture Garden Purchased with funds provided by the Frederick R. Weisman Collection of Art, 1992
Magdalena Abakanowicz’ sculptural work often consists of groups of abstract figurative forms that resemble each other and sometimes are exactly alike. This pair of sculptures are enormous and suggestive of giant mammoth-like creatures. The “skin” is roughly textured, and reminiscent of elephants’ skin.
Haim Steinbach: assemblage of industrial fixtures
Haim Steinbach Beep, honk, toot, #2
Chrome laminated wood shelf with chrome tea kettles and chrome trash cans, 1989
Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego Museum purchase, International and Contemporary Collectors Fund
© Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego
In this work, instead of constructing, casting, or carving a sculpture, Steinbach has simply collected and arranged items on a shelf. This type of work calls attention to relationships between objects and the contextual elements of where they are placed. This work also uses repetition, or multiples of specific objects, which adds another layer of meaning. Notice the bright sheen of the texture of the chrome.
Meret Oppenheim: visual pun
From the gallery label text for the Museum of Modern Art exhibition The Erotic Object: Surrealist Sculpture from the Collection (June 24, 2009–January 4, 2010): “This Surrealist object was inspired by a conversation between Oppenheim and artists Pablo Picasso and Dora Maar at a Paris cafe. Admiring Oppenheim’s fur-covered bracelet, Picasso remarked that one could cover anything with fur, to which she replied, “Even this cup and saucer.” Soon after, when asked by André Breton, Surrealism’s leader, to participate in the first Surrealist exhibition dedicated to objects, Oppenheim bought a teacup, saucer, and spoon at a department store and covered them with the fur of a Chinese gazelle. In so doing, she transformed genteel items traditionally associated with feminine decorum into sensuous, sexually punning tableware”. source http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=80997
The Surrealist movement included sculpture as well as painting. The term Surrealism is a shortened version of super realism. Surrealists offer viewers the unexpected. By creating objects and images that represent what appears to be real but never could be, they call our attention to how we view the reality we find ourselves in.
Texture in two-dimensional art
Both two and three-dimensional art can have actual texture.
Vincent Van Gogh, texture as expression
Vincent Van Gogh Olive Trees 1889
Oil on canvas 29 x 36 1/2 in. (73.66 x 92.71 cm) (canvas)
Minneapolis Institute of Arts The William Hood Dunwoody Fund
Vincent van Gogh used very thick and expressive brushstrokes which create a flowing textured pattern in his paintings. Imagine this painting without texture. The brushstrokes add interest to the painting, but they also add energy. It is as if they give us a glimpse into the artist’s mind and the rapid movement of his thoughts and feelings.
Robert Rauschenberg: Combines
Robert Rauschenberg Bed 1955
Oil and pencil on pillow, quilt, and sheet on wood supports, 6′ 3 1/4″ x 31 1/2″ x 8″ (191.1 x 80 x 20.3 cm).
Museum of Modern Art Gift of Leo Castelli in honor of Alfred H. Barr, Jr. © 2011 Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg Canyon, 1959
Combine painting: oil, pencil, paper, fabric, metal, cardboard box, printed paper, printed reproductions, photograph, wood, paint tube, and mirror on canvas, with oil on bald eagle, string and pillow; 86 3/4 x 70 x 24 in.
Sonnabend Collection, New York Art © /Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
Robert Rauschenberg began as an Abstract Expressionist, a movement which emphasized formal elements rather than subject matter, evidence of the artist’s movement (expression) in this style, and experimentation with the qualities of paint. Rauschenberg became interested in moving beyond the textural qualities of paint itself and incorporating three-dimensional objects with their own texture. It was also a combination of two-dimensional and three dimensional art within the same work. He called these works “combines”.
Combines bridged the gap between abstract expressionism’s view of the artist as an isolated visionary and the real, banal world. Rauschenberg said about his work: “Painting relates to both art and life…. (I try to act in that gap between the two.)” as quoted in the gallery label text accompanying Rauschenberg’s Bed at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Source: http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=78712
Anselm Kiefer The Names 1983
Oil, shellac, emulsion and fibre on canvas
support: 4205 x 2805 x 60 mm
From the exhibition Anselm Kiefer at Baltic October 8, 2010-January 16, 2011
Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead Quays, Gateshead, United Kingdom
Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008.Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art Gateshead Quays
Anselm Kiefer, Zim Zum, 1990
acrylic, emulsion, crayon, shellac, ashes and canvas on lead,
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.
source: Art Tattler International: A Visual Arts Survey Initiative, Editor and Publisher, Mike Miller Consulting Editor, Peregrine Honig, Consulting Editor, David Ford Artists: Words & Work http://arttattler.com/archivekiefer.html
Art that is meant to be touched
Certain artworks were made to be touched. Some artists purposefully make their art touchable so that the viewer can experience it more fully. This includes some three-dimensional work, and artists’ books. Artists who allow their work to be touched understand that their work will be affected by human touch, through oils in the skin, but they acccept it so that they can provide a fuller experience.
There is also concern that people with visual impairments are limited or unable to experience visual art. Some artists create art that is meant to be touched rather than seen.There are organizations that work to provide opportunities for visually impaired people to enjoy visual art, through works that can be touched and through adaptive aids for works that cannot be touched, to provide a sense of the form of the art. One such organization is Blindart. They describe themselves on their website as ” a charitable organisation based in UK whose aim is to encourage participation and interaction of the visually impaired in the sighted domain of the visual arts.BlindArt promotes artists; both sighted and visually impaired, to showcase their work through competitions, exhibitions, fairs, shows and private commissions”. Link to their website: http://www.blindart.net/home
Public memorials are frequently touched, and that touch is an important part of the experience of visiting them. It is as if by touching the memorial we can somehow touch those who have gone.
The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial: a healing journey
A visitor touching a name on The Wall at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial.
The Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial in Washington D.C. was designed by Maya Lin to be an emotional, cathartic experience that would allow for healing to take place. She purposefully made the memorial a reachable wall of names of the departed. It is designed as a journey that the visitor moves through rather than a grand monument that can only be experienced at a distance. It is a deeply moving and profound experience for both those who have lost a loved one in the war and those who have not, because the nature of the design acts as a memorial for everyone who has ever lost someone. People make rubbings of their loved one’s name to take home with them. They also leave objects at the site, so much so that a museum has been created to house the many items left at the Wall.
Texture in functional art
Texture in functional art
Functional art (also known as craft and applied arts) is meant to be touched and handled. The appreciation of the object goes beyond its visual properties and includes its tactile qualities. Within functional art there is a tension between aesthetic (how it looks) and utility (how it works). The best functional art is aesthetically pleasing (including how it feels to the touch) and functionally sound.
For artists who create functional art, or craft, the materials they work with are as important as aesthetics and function. They understand the materials they work with intimately and intuitively. These materials include wood, clay, fibre- glass, metal, paper, stone, precious jewels, and lacquer.
The following objects are all from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. They represent art that serves a functional purpose, in a variety of materials, and historical and cultural contexts.
18th century China: carved wood
Moon Gate China Artist Unknown 1728
Carved Wood 108 x 103 3/4 x 2 3/4in. (274.3 x 263.5 x 7cm)
Minneapolis Institute of Arts Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton
This is an example of masterful wood carving that includes intertwining layers. Typically they were used inside houses as a screen to separate and define spaces within the house.
10th-14th century Korea: porcelain stoneware
Double Gourd-shaped Ewer Artist Unknown Korea, Koryo dynasty (918-1392)
Glazed porcelaneous stoneware
11 3/4 x 7 1/8 x 7 1/2 in. (29.85 x 18.1 x 19.05 cm)
Minneapolis Institute of Arts The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund and the Ellen and Fred Wells Fund
Korean potters during the Koryo dynasty were inspired by and used organic forms in their work, often in the form of fruits or vegetables. The form is flowing and graceful.
Ch’ing Dynasty China: Jade
Plate Artist Unknown China, Ch’ing dynasty (1644–1911)
Jadeite 7/8 x 12 1/4 x 12 1/4 in. (2.22 x 31.12 x 31.12 cm)
Chrysanthemums historically have had a symbolic and spiritual significance in China. The extremely fine and detailed carving reveals exquisite craftmanship.
Early 20th century England: silver and glass
Kate Harris Candle lamp England 1900
silver, glass 15 x 4 1/2 in. (38.1 x 11.43 cm)
William Hutton & Sons, Ltd. (silver); James Powell and Sons (glass); Goldsmiths & Silversmiths Co.
Minneapolis Institute of Arts The Modernism Collection, gift of Norwest Bank Minnesota
This is a beautiful example of silver. The form is graceful and flowing, and almost appears to be liquid, reflecting the nature of the metal in its molten state.
Early 20th century northwest coast Native American (Nuu-chah-nulth): basketry
Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) Basket early 20th century
Plant fiber 1 5/8 x 2 5/8 x 2 in. (4.13 x 6.67 x 5.08 cm)
United States, Northwest Coast region
Minneapolis Institute of Arts :Gift of Mrs. C. C. Bovey
These baskets were an important aspect of everyday life, being used for a number of purposes. Notice in this example the complexity of the weaving and the incorporation of imagery.
12th-15th century Peru (Chimu): gold
Ear Spool, Chimu Peru, Andean region 1150-1450
Gold :5 3/8 x 5 in. (13.65 x 12.7 cm)
Minneapolis Institute of Arts The William Hood Dunwoody Fund
Gold in ancient Peru symbolized the sun. Only the elite and high ranking members of the society were able to wear gold. This detailed pair of ear spools is filled with symbolic images.
12th century China: lacquer on wood
Almsbowl Artist Unknown China c. 1100
Lacquer on wood core H.4 x Dia.8-3/16 in.
Minneapolis Institute of Arts Gift of Ruth and Bruce Dayton
One of the few possessions of a Buddhist monk was an almsbowl. Although the bowls were simple in design and reflected the monks’ vow of poverty, they possess an elegant quality. The bowls were perfectly rounded.
18th century Italy: pietre dure inlay
Giovanni Battista Foggini Jewelry box Grand Ducal Workshops Florence and Empoli, Italy c. 1730
Oak,ebony, slate inlaid with pietre dure (lapis lazuli, agate, and marble) and gilded bronze mounts with semiprecious stones
13 3/4 x 20 3/4 x 17 in. (34.93 x 52.71 x 43.18 cm)
Minneapolis Institute of Arts Gift of Bruce B. Dayton
Cotton 22 x 20 1/2 in. (55.88 x 52.07 cm) 55 in. (139.7 cm)
Minneapolis Institute of Arts Gift of Richard L. Simmons in memory of Roberta Grodberg Simmons
Implied texture in artwork contains the illusion of actual textures. Like other implied formal elements it represents a material or object in the physical world. Implied texture is used to allow the viewer to enter into the scenario that the artist has created. It can also be used to give the viewer information about the object that is represented.
Implied texture in three-dimensional art
Raffaelo Monti Veiled Lady c. 1860
Marble 21 1/2 in. (54.61 cm)
Representational, realistic three-dimensional art requires the illusion of varying textures. The tradition of marble carving often incorporates detailed and believable illusions of textures such as human skin and drapery.
Implied texture in two-dimensional art
Texture as scientific information: botanic illustration
Ferdinand Bauer Banksia coccinea 1813 from Illustrationes Florae Novae Hollandiae
Botanic illustration must incorporate the illusion of the texture of plants in order to provide acurate information about them.
Texture in portraiture: information about people
Jan van Eyck The Arnolfini Portrait 1434
Oil on panel 82 × 59.5 cm (32.3 × 23.4 in)
National Gallery, London Signed; Dated and inscribed Acquisition credit Bought, 1842
Source/Photographer Web site of National Gallery, London
This is a portrait of a married couple in 15th century Holland, and includes many references to their social status and propriety within Dutch society at the time. There is a wealth of textures in this painting; notice the number and variety of them.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres Portrait of the Baronness James de Rothschild 1848
141.9 × 101 cm (55.9 × 39.8 in) Private collection
Signed and dated (J. Ingres Pinxit 1848′ (center left).
Source/Photographer Art Renewal Centre Museum, image 9431.
The textures in this flattering portrait tell you that this is a woman of social status, distinction and taste who enjoys lavish luxury. The exquisite textural detail and accuracy within the painting–satin, lace, velvet, jewels, and flawless skin–emphasize these aspects of the subject.
Christopher James Self Portrait with Horn No. 4 1976
Gelatin silver print, hand dyed and enameled
5 x 7 1/4 in. (12.7 x 18.42 cm) (image)
Minneapolis Imnstitute of Arts National Endowment for the Arts Purchase Grant
Image Copyright:©Christopher James
The shiny smooth surface of the horn is the focus of attention in this self-portrait–so much so that it is difficult to distinguish the subject. This reveals aspects of the subject’s personality and significance of music in his life.
Illusion of texture to represent the real. Some artists’ work includes texture so defined and detailed that it appears to be real. This can be used for different reasons, but no matter what the purpose, it calls attention to the nature and meaning of representation in art.
Johann Heinrich Füssli Trompe-l’oeil 1750
Oil on canvas 49 × 36,5 cm
Hermitage St. Petersburg, Russia
Source/Photographer The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.
This type of painting is known as trompe l’oeil “to fool the eye”. it is often used as a decorative element in architecture–interior and exterior–that plays with our perception of the space. It is also used in painting. Trompe-l’oeil seems to be like a whimsical practical joke that the artist plays on the viewer; it also reveals the technical competency of the artist.
Audrey Flack Parrots live forever 1978
oil and synthetic polymer paint on canvas 211.2 x 211.2 cm
National Gallery of Victoria. Purchased through The Art Foundation of Victoria with the assistance of ESSO Australia Ltd, Fellow, 1978 © Courtesy of the artistAudrey Flack’s work falls within photorealism: a movement born in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The movement began as a reaction to abstract expressionism and minimalism. An important aspect of photorealism is its relationship to photography. The artist paints from a photograph, frames the image in the same manner as a photograph, and includes a level of detail so accurate that the painting can be mistaken for a photograph. The invention of the camera and the development of photography has, since its beginnings, had a profound effect on the tradition of painting and the nature of representation, including questions of what is real and what is fabricated.
Vija Celmins Ocean Surface 1983
Drypoint on paper 186 x 239 mm
National Galleries of Scotland ARTIST ROOMS
Acquired jointly with the National Galleries of Scotland through The d’Offay Donation with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund 2008
Anthony d’Offay wrote about Vija Celmins’s work in an article from the website of the National Galleries of Scotland and Tate, in the section about ARTIST ROOMS in the gallery: “American artist Vija Celmins makes paintings, drawings and prints. Using charcoal, graphite and erasers she produces delicate monochromatic images based on photographs of the sea, deserts, the night sky and other natural phenomena. Through her slow rigorous approach, the meticulous precision of her technique, and serial exploration of her subjects, Celmins seems to question the nature of representation…intense monochromatic images, based on photographs, focus on small and individual marks in the context of vastness. The images sem fragile because they record a specific human glimpse through a camera which is ephemeral and frozen in time. Celmins’s serial exploration of her subjects, including ocean surfaces, allows the artist to continually exploit the distinct characteristics of the variety of media she uses.” (From the online caption April 2009)