Today’s Art Lesson: Theorem Painting

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Theorem Painting is not, as you might think, rendering one’s favorite equations to canvas. Rather, it is a style of painting using stencils (called “theorems”) that may have developed abroad, possibly in England, but was certainly around in the US in the early 1800s. In 1830, Matthew D. Finn published the book Theoremetical System of Painting, in which he explains:

Now, of all the methods ever introduced in the art of painting by water colours, that of the theoremetical takes the lead; more particularly in flower painting, in which the beautiful tints, lights and shades, which can be so easily accomplished, even by a child, remain unrivalled; whilst the mystery of the performance lies hidden from the nicest critic. (quoted here)

The mystery of the performance being that a separate stencil is created for each overlapping shape in the painting, so you don’t have to be especially artistic to create the final picture. According to Jean Hansen, the stencils are “cut in such a manner that no two areas immediately next to each other can be placed on the same stencil. Thus, any theorem will require the sequence of two or more stencils or overlays.” It may be that this following of rules (stencils) is why the word Theorem is used — that’s what various art sites hint at — but in truth I can’t find any sure reason for the connection. The 1971 Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary only gives the mathematical sense of the word; the 1987 Supplement adds the artistic definition, but only defines it as a stencil or design executed by means of a stencil and mentioned that it is also known as Formula Painting.

One final note: The Supplement also quotes the Federal Gazette from April 1, 1834, which refers to “Theorem painting on velvet….” To my mind, this suggests that Theorem Painting is a precursor to that famed artistic piece, the Velvet Elvis.

The book cover is of The Art of Theorem Painting by Linda Carter Lefko and Barbara Knickerbocker (Crafter’s Corner, Inc., 2002), which gives a history of Theorem Painting and also a collection of patterns.

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