Concealment: The Hidden Image

I have recently been drawing grids in pencil, which are then lightly erased.  The lines are fragile and delicate – parts have disappeared and remain only in ghost-like form.  They are drawn on semi-transparent Ingres paper with lines imprinted within it.  The drawing is polished with tissue, leaving a soft surface sheen.  They are hidden images; a secret language imprinted into the paper surface.

In the British Museum there are some wonderful examples of Chinese Porcelain from the time period around AD 1403- 1424.  The bowls have intricate designs; sometimes flowers, and often dragons with wispy clouds.  The bowls are white or yellow; the image pressed into the porcelain beneath a clear glaze in what is called the Anhua technique (meaning hidden image or secret language).  The designs can only be seen when the bowls are held up to the light. In the display cases the images are visible in parts where the light reflects on them.

The hidden image occurs often in painting.  Sometimes as Pentimenti – literally meaning that the painter has ‘repented’ and painted over an original image.  These can be revealed by scientific means in the case of old masters.  Or the hidden image can be deliberate.  It may form an underpainting or drawing which provides structure for a subsequent painting or it may be integral, revealing itself in parts through the upper glazes of paint.  Transparency and layering are useful methods that the painter can employ, adding depth to the surface.

Agnes Martin has drawn grids beneath layers of gesso or acrylic paint.  Callum Innes has marked out vertical lines beneath a painting with a transparent orange glaze, on which constellations of loosely placed dots float.  I have seen an image of one such painting – it holds incredible beauty.  Richard Tuttle, an artist who was close to Agnes Martin, has described her use of colour as ‘tender’.  I think this can also be applied to the application of paint and the drawn line in the work of both Agnes Martin and Callum Innes.

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