Painting a Diptych

Virgin of Humility (left) and Saint Jerome Translating the Gospel of John (right), c.1400-1405, Attributed to Benedetto di Bindo, 11.88 in x16.63 in. Google Art Project/Wikimedia Commons

​What is a Diptych?

A diptych is a two-part painting format that has been used since ancient times and is uniquely suited to exploring relationships and dualities.In the Ancient world a diptych (coming from the Greek words di for "two", and ptyche for "fold") was an object comprised of two flat plates attached together with a hinge.

More contemporary usage defines a diptych as any two similarly-sized flat objects (painting or photographs) created to be hung next to one another in close proximity (with or without a hinge) and related to each other or meant to complement one another in some way such that together they create a unified composition.

Paintings may abut one another or be placed closed together so that there is an implied connection between them. 

Read: What is a Diptych? 

Why Paint a Diptych?

To explore and express duality and paradox. Diptychs are an excellent format for expressing something about the dualities of life such as light/dark, young/old, near/far, home/away, life/death and others.

Some of the earliest diptychs we know expressed this duality. Eric Dean Wilson writes in his informative article, Regarding Diptychs, that early Christian diptychs developed into a narrative form that reflected the paradoxes revealed in the narratives of the New Testament:

"The narratives of the New Testament are filled with paradox—Christ is both fully human and fully divine, both dead and alive—and the diptych offered reconciliation. Two stories, set parallel and given equal weight, merge into one, and the hinge offers a moment to chart similarities and differences. The iconic diptychs also became holy objects themselves, capable of healing and calming the mind. A meditation on the two panels could bring one closer to God.

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To explore different aspects of a certain theme or subject matter within a unified composition. A diptych, triptych, quadtych, or polyptych ( a 2, 3, 4 or more paneled piece) can all be used to portray different elements of a theme, perhaps showing progression, such as growth or decay, perhaps a narrative.

 

To break a larger composition into smaller, more portable components. The diptych may be chosen in response to limited space. Breaking up a larger canvas into two smaller ones can be a way to create a large painting without encumbering yourself with a larger canvas. Two smaller pieces  makes moving the painting much easier. 

To suggest, imply, and/or explore relationships and connections between elements, both physical and psychological. The relationship between the two parts of a diptych is dynamic, with the viewer's eyes constantly moving back and forth between them, looking for connections and relationships.  As Wilson explains in his article, Regarding Diptychs, there is a tension between the two sides of a diptych as they are in constant communication and relationship with one another,  and the viewer becomes the third point in the triad, bringing meaning to the experience, and "becoming the maker."(2)

Painting a diptych will encourage you to think in new ways. The diptych promotes a questioning mind. Otherwise, why would you have two panels? How are the two panels similar? How are they different? How are they connected? What is their relationship? What ties them together? Do they mean something together that is different than their meaning individually?

Painting a diptych will challenge you compositionally. How do you balance the two halves of the composition while expressing a duality without creating something symmetrical? It is an invigorating challenge. You think, "If I make a mark here on this side, what will I need to do on the other side to respond to that mark?"

Contemporary Diptychs by Kay WalkingStick

Kay WalkingStick (b. 1935) is an American landscape painter and Native American, citizen of the Cherokee Nation, who has painted many diptychs throughout her highly successful career. On her website she writes:

"My paintings take a broad view of what constitutes Native American Art. My wish has been to express our Native and non-native shared identity. We humans of all races are more alike than different, and it is this shared heritage, as well as my personal heritage I wish to express. I want all people to hold onto their cultures - they are precious - but I also want to encourage a mutual recognition of shared being."

About painting diptychs she says:

"The idea of two parts working together in a dialogue has always remained interesting to me. I have often puzzled over the reason for my continued fascination. Primarily, the diptych is an especially powerful metaphor to express the beauty and power of uniting the disparate and this makes it particularly attractive to those of us who are biracial. But it is also a useful construct to express the conflicts and bivalence of everyone's life." 

Look at her diptychs and cover up each half. Notice the differences and relationships between the halves. For example, the rocks on the left side in the painting Aquidneck Cliffs (2015) are horizontal while the rocks on the right are nearly vertical. Each half has a distinctly different feel, yet the two halves work together compositionally to create a cohesive whole. 

Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist Now on Exhibit

The first major retrospective exhibit of Kay WalkingStick's work, Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist featuring over 65 paintings, drawings, small sculptures, notebooks, and the diptychs for which she is best known, is now on display at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC through September 18, 2016. 

After Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist closes at the NMAI, it will travel to the Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona (October 13, 2016–January 8, 2017); the Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio (February 9–May 7, 2017); the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Kalamazoo, Michigan (June 17–September 10, 2017); the Gilcrease Art Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma (October 5, 2017–January 7, 2018); and the Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, New Jersey (February 3–June 17, 2018).

It is a show you will want to mark in your calendar and be sure to see! 

If you can't get to the show, or want to own a collection of images of her work, with accompanying explanations, you can also purchase the beautiful book of her retrospective, Kay WalkingStick: An American Artist (Buy from Amazon.com).

Further Reading

Regarding Diptychs, By Eric Dean Wilson, in The American Reader

Kay WalkingStick, Painting Her Heritage , The Washington Post 

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REFERENCES

1. Regarding Diptychs,  Eric Dean Wilson, The American Reader, http://theamericanreader.com/regarding-diptychs/

2. Ibid.