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The Sound of a Paintbrush

Ewan Wallace

To cite this contribution:

Wallace, Ewan. ‘The Sound of a Paintbrush.’ In response to Naomi Vogt, ‘Seeing First and Then Still: Art Historians and Objects,’ OAR Issue 0 (2016). OAR: The Oxford Artistic and Practice Based Research Platform Issue 0 (2017),

I want to write about the sound of a paintbrush.

More precisely, I want to write about my ability to write about the sound of a paintbrush.

In fact, ability is the wrong word. Compulsion might fit better. Ability implies a capacity owned or possessed. We have all described sounds before, the vocabulary is already there. The transposition of abstract sound into written language is undoubtedly a little strange, but then no less strange than the written transposition of pictures. Compulsion is more appropriate. It implies a certain motivating force, less ‘I can’ than ‘I feel like I should.’ Better then, is: I want to write about why it is compelling to write about the sound of a paintbrush.

Michael Baxandall first suggested it. In his essay, ‘The Language of Art History’ he referenced a passage by the eighteenth century Chinese art critic, Shen Tsung-hsien. ‘He could,’ Baxandall claimed, ‘even characterise a brush stroke by the noise the stroke would have made, as a “sousing” noise.’1 A sousing noise. Sousing. Sou-sing. I cannot help but wonder where the emphasis falls. Whether this is the brush as it travels evenly across the grain of the paper, sousing with a steady metered sibilance. Or rather, whether there is a flick or flourish – a grace note as the brush lifts from the page, the second syllable lifting from the first.

Sousing. I am rolling the word around in my mouth, testing its shape.

Perhaps the biggest issue in writing about the sound of a paintbrush is that it has no corresponding visual reference point. The sound a brushstroke makes is not inscribed on a canvas with the brushstroke itself. While much has been made of the indexicality of a painted gesture, the sound of a brushstroke is a waste-product. If you have ever painted there is reasonable chance you can imagine it: dredge it from your memory and pin or project it onto the canvas. For Baxandall, Shen Tsung-hsien’s comments would have resonated with a reading public familiar with calligraphy. Sousing was legible through a recourse to collective memory, the experience of a brush sousing – whether a measured drag or luxurious flick – would bring about the sensuous recollection of the act of painting guaranteed by a shared (classed) competence. Perhaps sousing, then, is also inseparable from the feel of the paintbrush in the hand, from that strange stratum of tactile memory, which holds the weight and resistance of things. I can believe this. Looking at a painting such as From Line by Lee Ufan, I can feel the increasing drag of the paintbrush against the canvas as the lubricating blue paint is depleted. The noise changes, too. The bristles begin to scrape against the weave of the canvas as the greasy squelch of paint eventually gives way to the low hush of two dry surfaces in contact.

Yet by this logic, why is it useful, let alone necessary, to describe the sound of a paintbrush? If aural description simply relates to a capacity or experience already possessed by the reader, then it offers us almost no information about an image itself. At worst, it is solipsistic, reaffirming the impassable bridge between the experience of making art, and the experience of looking at it. The sound of a paintbrush exists first and foremost an imaginative recollection of what we see: it is a fiction, an imposition.

In fact, ekphrasis as a whole has long been earmarked as poor evidentiary procedure. As Jaś Elsner has noted, ekphrastic writing ‘constitutes a movement from art to text, from visual to verbal, that is inevitably a betrayal.’2 Although ekphrastic description is the foundation upon which almost all forms of art historical argument are made, it is, at root, constructed through a highly subjective series of erasures and displacements. Language is added to images, not extracted from them. Within this framework, the textual licence represented by description of sound is strikingly self-evident. And yet, it is precisely and paradoxically this fact that may provide the key to its value. In other words, as an act of description, sousing is so overextended, so dislocated from its duty to verifiably relate a visual fact, that it can be taken to represent a rare instance of ekphrastic self-awareness: a shift in focus from description as ‘record’ to description reconciled to affect. By taking on the fictional modality of the sound of a paintbrush, writers bring the contingencies of descriptive artistic writing to the surface. Sousing allows us to express the inexpressibility of expressing pictures.

Therefore, writing about the sound of a paintbrush forces us to address why and how we ‘do description’ at all in the visual arts. Sousing foregrounds its own fallibility, its own incapacity to re-relate ‘empirical visual facts.’ As such, it serves as a metonym for the limitations of ekphrastic writing at large. And while useful as an exercise in performative self-criticism, writing about the sound of paintbrush not only serves as a gesture of negation. Rather it may also indicate alternative strategic orientations for descriptive writing within the art historical text. The sound of a paintbrush points to places where ekphrasis can be employed experimentally. As a parallel visual imaginary, a potential mirror or ghost of the image, affective description might be able to press against visual material in provocative ways: forming new conjunctions and unseating received interpretations. It may also, more simply, bring pictures out into the world: relaying them through commonly understood conventions, as in the specific case of sousing. If it cannot be accurate or positivistic, visual description must negotiate a new place for itself at the juncture of text and image. At very least, the ‘sound of a paintbrush’ might survive as fruitful provocation. In art-historical writing, this is perhaps what Baxandall referred to as our ‘good natural vulgar streak’, the thing that keeps us pointing at objects that everyone can already see.3

Lee Ufan’s Dialogue: a quiet peeling sound as grey viscous paint puckers itself against the surface of the wall. The brushstroke drags, sousing, the hiss of brush fibres, static.

1. The translation here is made in an onomatopoeic sense, rather than indicating the verb ‘to souse.’ Michael Baxandall, ‘The Language of Art History,’ New Literary History 10:3 (1979): 462.
2. Jaś Elsner, ‘Art History as Ekphrasis,’ Art History 33 (2010): 12.
3. Michael Baxandall, ‘The Language of Art History,’ 454.

About the author:

Ewan Wallace is a Masters candidate in Art History at the Clark Art Institute. He completed his undergraduate studies at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge. He is based in Williamstown, Massachusetts.