In 1788, composers were weaving complex, polyphonic melodies on the instrument called the harpsichord. There was a very limited dynamic range of the harpsichord- twangy high notes, amber deep notes- and yet the peaks and valleys were not so high nor deep. To my ear, Mozart’s brilliant compositions on the harpsichord always sound somewhat stunted by an instrument that couldn’t keep up with his brilliance. And so, by 1788, it seems like the harpsichord was a rag that had been wrung to the last drop, and could do nothing more.
It’s 1800- enter the piano. Fat, dramatic chords, in all of their deep, resonant might; scintillating high notes, sparkling with clarity; soft, whispering middle tones melting into eachother. Beethoven was ecstatic in the full register of this new, astounding range. Rachmaninov would eventually have temper tantrums on it. The piano arrived, and society never looked back.
So it is with painting. If we painters are emulating light, with all of its brilliant highlights, and all of its mysterious dark shadows, then we can’t be doing so on a harpsichord. Pull out your piano- let whispers of thin, turpentine washes lay beside fat, brilliant, crisp, shining, extroverted impastoes; let dark, oily shadows mingle with quiet, lean mid tones. Grab your palette knife, and trowel on lead white paint, and allow the climax of light to be raised in beads off the canvas. Grab a brush with a single hair, and place the tiniest bead of lead white in the upper corner of the eye, and impart a soul into your sitter.
Leave the boring, glass like finish of canvas to French Academy harpsichordists. The Spanish baroque, in all of it’s glorious globs of gunky impastoes, in all of its whispering washes, is the piano.
– technical note: Music historians- I know this harpsichord to piano historical evolution is overly simplistic, and that I left out the clavicord, the desirable timbre of the harpsichord, and a billion other things. It is so, for narrative purposes.