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Painting or Sculpture? A guest blog from Jackie Garner

This is one of Jackie's regular blog series - sometimes practical help and advice for artists or guidance for those just starting to paint and sometimes more exploratory of ideas - as in this case.



At what point does a textured painting become a sculpture?

"I’m currently fired up with excitement about depth, pattern and texture in my art. The piece above incorporates various themes – mystery, logography, erosion, other-worldliness. It combines painting with modelling.


I’m contemplating making a multi-layered version. Other pieces I’m working on combine shallow wood carving with paint. All are designed to be hung on a wall.

Are they paintings or sculptures?


For the art history lovers amongst you, this is an example of a paragone, or it would be if we were living in 16th-century Italy. It’s the term for a discussion about art theory, in particular the relative merits of painting vs sculpture. Paragone means “comparison”.

So here’s my question for you:

What is the difference between painting and sculpture?

At first it seems an easy question. After all, a paintings is 2-D and a sculpture is 3-D, surely? There are plenty of works to support that statement: traditional art across the centuries vs sculptures by Michelangelo, Rodin, Hepworth, and Moore. It’s hard to confuse the two disciplines.

Yet if we cast our net wider, the question becomes far less straightforward.

  • Jasper Johns’ art has combined plaster reliefs with painting

  • Picasso’s mixed media work has elements that project from the picture surface.

  • Robert Rauschenberg combines three-dimensional objects with paintings

Are they paintings or sculptures?

They’re not flat, so they’re sculptures, yet they are painted art that hangs on a wall like paintings. The definitions become blurred.

Contemporary artists are blurring the lines still further.

(Copyright prevents me from showing the images, but do check out the work through the links below.)

There are many other contemporary artists that are creating exciting work in that grey area between painting and sculpture.


If we look at other characteristics of paintings and sculptures, does that help us?

  • Paintings hang on a wall. But so do some sculptures

  • Painting is about colour, shapes and tone. But sculptures may be colourful, they are certainly about shape, and the way light plays over different planes and textures creates tone.

  • Painting creates an illusion of making something flat look 3-D. Sculptures create illusion also, of one material suggesting another e.g. flesh or fabric carved from marble.

  • Paintings often arise from drawing. Most of the sculptors that I know are very good at drawing, and make preliminary sketches of their work too.

  • Sculpture is primarily about structure. Yet a painter creating the illusion of 3-D must also understand and convey structure.

  • Sculptures are viewed from different angles. Yet low-relief sculptures are only viewed from the front, the same as paintings.

  • Sculpture is an subtractive process, whereas painting is an additive process. That’s true for carved sculptures, but some sculptures (e.g. scrap sculptures) are additive.

  • Sculpture invites touch. But so does a heavily textured painting.


This is one of my sculptures from many years ago. Designed to hang on a wall and be viewed from the front. Had it been painted, would it be a painting or a sculpture?

Even Lenonardo da Vinci struggled with the definitions:

“Painting is concerned with all the 10 attributes of sight; which are: Darkness, Light, Solidity and Colour, Form and Position, Distance and Propinquity, Motion and Rest.”

Yet most, if not all, of those, relate to sculpture too.

His other theory, that sculpture related more to physical effort whereas painting required more intellectual effort, will surely be refuted by sculptors the world over.

I know that creating something that works from all directions is certainly more mentally challenging than a painting for me. And painting on a huge scale definitely requires physical effort. Sorry, Leonardo, I disagree.


I contend that the similarities between paintings and sculptures are far greater than they might first appear. A great painting will inspire, inform and challenge the viewer, as will a great sculpture. It’s all art.


So I suggest that we should embrace a new term, that includes both disciplines if the work requires it. Rauschenberg called his work Combines; Shaka uses the term 3-D paintings. Others have used the term Assemblage to cover work that incorporates painting, sculpture and performance or installation.

Given the current trend for portmanteau words, how about Paintures or Sculptings? Somehow I don’t think those will catch on!

Personally, I think for now I’ll just take each of my pieces on it’s own merits, and deem it painting or sculpture, whichever seems more appropriate.

After all, I have to specify one or the other on an exhibition entry form.

I hope you’ve enjoyed pondering this question. Do let me know your thoughts on the subject in the comments.

UPDATE: I’ve just enquired about entering a heavily textured, irregularly-shaped piece of mixed media work in an international painting competition. Would it count as painting (eligible) or sculpture (non-eligible)? This is the organisers’ reply:

“Providing the work is able to be photographed and intended to be viewed 2 dimensionally, hung on a wall, they should be eligible to enter into the competition.”

So that clears that up… on this occasion."



Thank you very much, Jackie, for letting me share such an interesting and thought-provoking blog. I am also most grateful for all the generous support to the Living from Art network over the years. Sign up to her blog and check out more of her work at www.jackiegarner.co.uk


This blog is a particularly relevant read for our next meeting on 17 March when Peter Garrard, artist, ceramicist and teacher will be sharing his artist's journey as well as talking about balancing all his different income streams. Details and tickets www.livingfromart.co.uk/events-training








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