What is “Perceptual Painting?”

by mitchellgallery

I am often confronted with the question “What is perceptual painting?” or “What is a perceptual painter?”

For me to simply answer “Perceptual painting was an early 20th century art movement” would be to give a shallow glimpse into what these painters have attempted to paint, to see. Clearly, it was more than a mere time period that brought together these artists and inspired them to become “perceptual painters.” Yet what was this inspiration?

I found the following critique “Certain Densities, Uncertain Visions: Two Asides Representing Perceptual Painting” written by Matthew Ballou quite thought-provoking.


“A perceptual approach to painting is not synonymous with rote observation. Perception is a harrowing experience, fraught with lightning-strike insight and rabbit-hole tunnel vision. Perceptualists recognize that their sight is subjective, the result of influence and pressure, and extremely sensitive to suggestion and conceit. They know that building a picture from their own shifting apprehension of the environment around them is not a linear matter. The most banal thing may become charged with transcendence through a concerted effort of contemplation. Likewise, the most sacred object may be reduced to the realm of prosaic commonality via determined focus on other concerns. In each instance a keen awareness of sight may be obtained without limiting the painting to an exercise that terminates in simply achieving an image. Perception is more than the act of seeing, just as listening is more than the act of hearing. Perceptual painters are aiming to experience more – and present more in their work – than seeing and translating sight, no matter how honorable an end that may be…

Achieving a distinctively felt sense of the seen in a work may actually involve the most rigorous abstraction, the most intense formal play. Indeed, it requires artists to go far beyond just transferring identifiable things (objects, landscapes, people) from the three-dimensional realm into the two-dimensional realm…

Perceptual painting rests on a constructed visual logic that has little to do with direct visual facts. It incorporates tangential awareness into the acts of apprehension, asking much of both the artist and the viewer. When you look at the paintings, see beyond appearances into the subjective realms these artists have created. In paying attention to what others have contemplated, we participate in something far deeper and more intimately human than mere imitation could ever provide.”


Holly Huey – St. John’s College student