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Painting has been practised since prehistoric times, in particular on rock walls, such as in the caves at Lascaux (Dordogne), which date from the end of the Upper Paleolithic, and the recently discovered Chauvet Cave (1994, Ardèche). The paintings in Chauvet Cave have dramatically altered our understanding of cave art: not only are they much older than those at Lascaux, dating from the start of the Upper Paleolithic, but they also demonstrate the use of a previously unsuspected variety of techniques: for example, scraping to prepare the rock face, engraving, finger-drawing with charcoal, blurring by crushing and mixing colours to give different tones, the use of outlines, and employing perspective to give the impression of volume and movement.
Some of these techniques and their amalgamation have parallels with contemporary art, whether figurative, abstract or a combination of the two, in which they are used with complete freedom and inventiveness. In this, the traditional techniques of oil- or water-based painting (watercolours, ink wash, gouaches with gum arabic as a binder, etc.), which were still used by the Impressionists, have been joined by the use of acrylics (synthetic resin pigments) and spray paint, either with or without a stencil (used in particular in Street Art on a new support, city walls), while canvas, wood, paper, card and plywood, among others, continue to be used.
Contemporary painting has no boundaries and is breaking down the traditional barrier between painting and sculpture.
Sculpture that reveals three-dimensional forms by removing the surrounding material (the direct method) has existed since prehistoric times. Divided in two broad categories, in-the-round (statuary) and relief carving (low relief, high relief, taille d’épargne and intaglio), sculpture employs a range of materials whose list never ceases to grow and whose nature often determines the technique to be used.
Following the conception phase on a level support (which contemporary sculptors may well omit), the sculpture is created either by carving (in stone, wood, bone, ice), modelling by hand (clay, sand, wax), moulding (plaster, cement), casting (bronze) or by creating an assemblage of different fabricated or found elements (wood, glass, cloth, sheet metal, etc.). Since the early 20th century, three-dimensional art has included readymades, manufactured objects repurposed to be works of conceptual art.
With the development of new technologies, contemporary sculpture – whether abstract or figurative – has also embraced the use of materials made from plastic or synthetic resin, such as Plexiglas and polyurethane foam, electric lighting (neon tubes, etc.) and all kinds of materials. It continues to take new forms, such as installations, and is also blurring the boundary that separates it from painting (for instance, in collages).
Various techniques are used to create works on paper: for paintings, the most common are gouaches, watercolours and washes; for drawings the technique is defined by the tool or material used – graphite, charcoal, sanguine, sepia, ink, pen, pastels and wax.
In the 20th century, new materials like acrylic paints and sand were taken up, while different techniques were introduced, such as collage and decoupage. Far from being ignored by contemporary artists, today works on paper are a choice means of expression among both figurative and abstract artists.
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