If you've just stumbled onto this blog, please forgive the appearance; it's still under construction. If I've used one of your photos (found on Google) in a lecture and you don't approve, please write a comment and I'll remove it.

The purpose of this blog is to explain the basics of art and culture to English language learners in secondary school in Slovakia. This is not for profit. If you look to your right, you'll see a long list of topics that I plan to cover. This is a large project that will most likely take years to complete, covering some topics I know little about (like dance), so I will be borrowing heavily from other experts, with their permission, giving credit wherever possible. Please be patient, and, of course, all advice is greatly appreciated.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Kitsch, Camp, & Cliché

The last lesson spoke about Bad taste. bad taste was defined as anything:

1. Of poor quality, and/or cheap materials. Imagine using plastic forks and knives at your wedding reception.

2. Stupid, or silly ideas - poorly thought out nonsense.

I was once asked to draw character concept designs for a film in which a young penguin and his animal friends were able to stop the Chinese army from invading America. The idea was brought to people at Disney, who of course, rejected it.

3. Anything extreme.
4. Anything vulgar or obscene - toilet humour, sexual jokes, etc.
5. Anything that is insensitive or offensive - racist jokes are in extremely bad taste.

The following joke is in bad taste, even though it makes a valid point:

It's in bad taste because it turns a photo of human suffering into the punchline of a joke. Whether it's justified is up to you.

6. Showing off. The following video is a good example of this. This girl is very talented, but seems more interested in showing off her talent than in playing a good, meaningful song. She could also wear some longer shorts:
Kitsch (or schlock, fluff, adj. tacky) is another form of bad taste. It includes many of the qualities listed above, but what really defines Kitsch is the quality of being overly sentimental - cutesy, cheesy, corny, like kittens in a basket, flowers in a basket, kittens and flowers in a basket, etc.

A Bold Bluff, by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, an example of kitsch

Pink flamingo lawn ornaments are kitsch

Think of kitsch as "heightened cheese content", like a tortilla chip. Imagine some office where businessmen are discussing making more money on their chips.
     "What if we add even more cheese? We can advertise it!"
Repeat this over time, and the cheese flavour becomes so strong it hurts your tongue. Meanwhile, it's not even real cheese - it's some orange powder that looks toxic and stains your fingers.

The original Doritos tortilla chip

Doritos now. Notice how the color of the chip has changed - it's supersaturated with spicy cheese flavour.
Does it really taste better? No.
Does it earn more money? Probably.
The same idea can be applied to other things, including art. Illustrator Norman Rockwell once said:
"If a picture wasn't going very well I'd put a puppy dog in it, always a mongrel, you know, never one of the full bred puppies. And then I'd put a bandage on its foot... I liked it when I did it, but now I'm sick of it."
Sick as a Dog, by Norman Rockwell
What things are Kitsch?

Kitsch mostly refers to decoration - furniture, souvenirs - things that are cheap, mass produced, and made to sell. Kitsch looks tackiest (worst) when many cheap things are placed together, with no thought for color, style, or taste:

Amy Sedaris, posing for House & Garden Magazine

Kitcsh is a form of Cliché - words and phrases often repeated in films, for example:

"All in a day's work."
"You ain't seen nothin' yet."
"It's my way or the highway."

Kitsch is a cliché in the form of an object - a repeated icon, sold and resold. Kitsch reduces religion to a gift shop:

Kitsch is the business approach to aesthetics. It makes no distinction between Mary, the mother of God, and Mickey Mouse.

"Whatever sells, baby!"

Kitsch is often a form of lying - it's an obvious fake. It's a historical, wooden, African mask that isn't really wooden, historical, nor made in Africa. It's a cheap ceramic knick-knack that's been painted up to look like porcelain, or a cheap plastic souvenir, made to seem ceramic. It's a tin candlestick, gilded to look like gold, a plaster copy of David meant to look like marble, but with skewed proportions, and none of the handmade feel of the original.

Kitsch is rarely handmade. It's produced in a factory - meant for mass production and consumption.

Despite all its faults, kitsch can be appealing for its charm:

"Charm is the one quality that will redeem a painting bearing any other fault." - Stapleton Kearns

Many people enjoy kitsch. It's the Mona Lisa made out of legos.

It's Big Bird made out of breakfast cereal.

Big Bird, by Jason Mecier (do-it-yourself kitsch)

It replaces beauty with a juvenile sense of humour. 90% of pop music uses this same idea, mixing comedy with melody. Love it or hate it, it's a large part of today's post-modern world.

CAMP (also called cult classics)

Normally, when you hear the word camp, you think of tents, scouts and camping:

This is a camp.
But, camp can be used as an adjective for films and TV shows that are, well, kitsch. Most camp TV took place in the 50's and 60's - shows like:
The Munsters
 The Adams Family
Batman and Robin
Wonder Woman
and The Brady Bunch.
Many old horror films are also considered campy, like Nightmare on Elm St., Friday the 13th, Halloween, and The Blob:
Camp has often been used to describe exxagerated acting, that is overly theatrical, and effeminate (girlish). The stories to these films and shows are one dimensional - they show a version of reality that's naive, superficial, black and white.
Some people still enjoy watching these shows. The idea is they're so bad, they're good. Camp TV and film is like popcorn, or gummy bears. They taste good, but they're not good for you. When these stories are remade into new films, a lot of the humour comes from how times have changed.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Taste & Style

What is Taste?

"Taste is a love of beauty." – Ralph Waldo Emerson
"All of life is a dispute over taste and tasting." – Nietzsche

Taste is someone's personal preference in food, fashion, music, beauty, art, and literature. Your taste determines what brings you pleasure, and what doesn't - what you like and don't like.

Your taste can change as you grow. A young child might not like bitter things like beer or tomatoes, but learn to like them as he grows up. Similarly, your taste in music and literature will change as you learn and understand more.

Your taste also depends on your identity. There are two questions a person must answer when deciding if he likes something:

1. What is there to like about this thing? What's good about it?
2. What will people think of me, if they know I like or dislike this? How am I expected to react?

So, a teenager might like heavy metal as a way of expressing rebellion, anger, and dissatisfaction with life. He wears black clothes and wears his hair long, to look like a rock star. He wants to show his family, friends, and teachers, that he's not afraid to look different (although teens often flock in groups that dress identically) or frightening. In college, he might feel self-conscious, being the only one who dresses in that manner - it probably looks dated by now. So, he changes his style, his hair, his way of speaking, and starts listening to classical music to show his peers that he's sophisticated. Sometimes people get tired of the way they look, or they feel older and ready to change. Sometimes people like something because it makes them feel rich, like sports cars and caviar.

"Know why certain foods, such as truffles (hľuzovky), are expensive? It's not because they taste best."Marilyn vos Savant

People cultivate their taste as a way to describe themselves, even as a way of advertising - a kind of self-promotion. That's also why, according to Thorstein Veblen, people copy each other's taste. If your best friend likes Nirvana, then you'll give Nirvana a try. If your colleagues at work all have similar haircuts and sports cars, then you'll feel expected to have the same haircut and sports car. Everyone wants to fit in, and we use taste to do it.

What is Good Taste? Is there a standard definition?

Good question. It's debatable. The most famous quote regarding taste comes from ancient Latin,

"de gustibus non est disputandum,"

meaning it's impossible to argue over taste. It's true about food. One person might love pickles, while another hates them. Do pickles taste good? Who is right? There's no answer, because your opinion is based on your taste buds (chuťové poháriky) rather than any higher logic.

But, with other things, like music, beauty, and art, there are arguments for a standard of good taste, based on aesthetics - qualities that appeal to an intelligent, emotional person. Not everyone agrees. For instance, George Orwell said:

"In reality there is no kind of evidence or argument by which one can show that Shakespeare, or any other writer, is "good". Nor is there any way of definitely proving that––for instance––Warwick Beeping is "bad". Ultimately there is no test of literary merit except survival, which is itself an index to majority opinion."

But some people feel there are standards or qualities of good taste. The best explanation I've found was by the painter Stapleton Kearns (I'm paraphrasing here):

"Taste is a quality that an artwork may possess. Taste is now terribly underestimated (podceňovaný), but it was thought, until our grandfathers time, to be essential and a characteristic of the finest art that set it above the merely pretty or mundane (svetský, pozemský). It was one of the things that separated the fine arts from the baser (nižšej) products of the ordinary world of commerce and illustration.

Taste is the integrity of aesthetics, the highest form of artistic ethics, the high road. Taste is cool, measured, quiet, dignified (dôstojný), and refined (rafinovaný). It doesn’t shock or scream at you. Taste lives in the color, the proportions, the design, and every aspect of a painting. It is often a restraint (zdržanlivosť) of color and design, and a moderation of subject matter away from the extreme, the cloying (presítený), and the vulgar. It is neither cute nor morbid (morbídny). It is never obscene, or just the newest incarnation of a tired idea we have all seen before. It is neither retreaded (protektorovaný) nor spiky (špicatý). It is never sentimental, sensational, or cloyingly sweet.

Taste treats the viewer with the greatest possible respect. Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill spoke with taste. [George Bush didn't] Taste places quality above commerciality. It's opposite to what I call “heightened cheese content”. It doesn’t make the most sellable art, but there are always clients who want it. Taste values workmanship, but neither flaunts (nechvalí) it nor imagines technique the purpose of art, but merely (len) its means. I often see well made art that fails because it lacks taste.

Tasteful art is powerful, not flashy. It is seldom the brightest thing in a show or gallery, but it is often the thing that speaks to you every time you see it, rather than expending its force like a firecracker, the first instant it is seen. It makes art that can be enjoyed for a lifetime, that will always appeal to the viewer, even as their knowledge and discernment increase. It strives for the eternal and eschews (vyhýba sa) the suddenly fashionable. Taste is what often separates the good from the great. The best artists almost always have it."

What is Bad/Poor Taste?

"It is impossible to have bad taste, but many people have none at all."Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

"Bad taste creates many more millionaires than good taste." - Charles Bukowski

Bad taste is most often something silly, lacking in quality or logic - often called tasteless. Making a mosaic portrait of Michael Jackson out of prescription pills is an example of bad taste:

by Jason Mecier

The jokes at and are tasteless - they're really funny, but they're tasteless.

Something done "in poor taste" often means that it's insensitive and offensive. Some art and music is meant to revolt (vzbudzovať odpor) and upset (rozrušiť) the audience.

Anarchy in the UK, by the Sex Pistols
(Note: The Sex Pistols were one of the first punk bands, protesting against the conservative, corporate establishment. The video above has been blocked by record companies on copyright grounds, a perfect example of the failure of punk rock - at least as a social movement.)

The artists or muscians enjoy upsetting people. Whether it's justified (oprávnený) is up to you, and it depends on the situation.

"If you're offended (ak si urazený), then you deserve to be (zaslúžiš si)." - George Carlin

Is Taste important? Does it matter?

"Sometimes it's more important to be human, than to have good taste." - Bertolt Brecht

It depends. If you want to be happy, or at least comfortable, you need the freedom to enjoy your own tastes. Imagine a world where everyone has to eat spinach and cauliflower at every meal, or where you can't listen to rock n' roll, or where library books are burned in piles.

On the other hand, many writers, artists, and especially comedians see it as a limit on your creativity.

"There is a fine line between censorship and good taste and moral responsibility." - Stephen Spielberg

Here’s an example. It’s normally in bad taste to make jokes about war and dying. But, wars are often unjust, and humour is a powerful method of making arguments. So, how does a master comedian do it? Here’s George Carlin again:

“During one of those patriotic orgies of self-congratulation that followed the first Gulf War, as General Schwarzkopf was bragging about dropping fire on women and babies, a protester interrupted his speech. The man who had killed a few hundred thousand civilians continued to speak. The protester was charged with disturbing the peace (bol obvinený z výtržníctva).”

George made a joke, but it’s not the kind where you laugh. It’s a kind that makes you think, that confronts the audience. He’s asking people if we should really accept these kinds of speeches in our society. After the 1st Gulf War, Schwarzkopf got paid about $20,000 per speech to talk about the war, showing videos of “smart bombs”. George Carlin’s joke is not polite nor tasteful, but it is human, and in this situation, that’s more important.

What are some other kinds of taste?

Impeccable Taste - When someone's taste is so great that no one can criticize it. It usually refers to someone's fashion sense.

Varied Taste - When someone likes a variety of styles, usually musical.

Acquired Taste - when something is too strange, exotic, bitter, or complex to be liked at first. But with time and exposure, you learn to like it. "Reality is an acquired taste." - Robert Fritz

Eclectic Taste - strange taste, when someone likes a variety of things that don't normally go together. Like when a pregnant woman gets a craving for pickles and icecream. It's also used for fashion - mixing styles, both old and new in strange new ways.

Lavish Taste - When someone likes rich, expensive things. This is used to describe people with expensive houses, cars, and clothes.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Art Materials & Tools


A drawing is a picture made by hand, with mark making. Drawing is one of the most important arts because

1. It's intimate and personal. Everyone draws differently.
2. It's also crucial (veľmi dôležitý) in design, because it's cheap, fast, and you can draw anywhere. You don't need a studio. Everything you buy, everything you wear, every film you see, they all start out as drawings.

Drawing is hard. One problem is how to hold the pencil. Stan Prokopenko explains how, in this funny video:

Traditionally, drawings are done on paper. Media include:

graphite (pencil drawing) (grafit)
graphite is shiny and silvery:

Portrait, by Lucas Graciano

charcoal (uhlie)
Charcoal is darker and softer:

Jean-Marie, by Nathan Fowkes

conté crayon (rudka)
Conté crayon is like charcoal - it is charcoal, really, only compressed and mixed with wax (vosk) or clay (hlina). This makes it stronger and harder, so it's easier to draw thin, fine details.

Portrait of a Girl, by Emily Gordon

Stan Prokopenko uses Conté Crayon pencils in his drawings and tutorials:

For Stan's fine-art, gallery drawings:

markers (fixy)

Markers are typically for children, but expensive, artist's brands such as Copic and Prismacolor have become popular, especially in comics.

Iron Man Pre-Convention Commission by Jeff "Chamba" Cruz

Adam Hughes makes some of the best comic covers in the industry.
(I think he designed the figurines that stand on his table)

ink (tuš/atrament)

Kurama Sanctuary, by Rémi Maynègre

When you draw with ink, you can use a pen, brush (štetec), or both together.

If you want to paint over an ink drawing, make sure it's oil based ink! Otherwise, it'll ruin the lines as they bleed and mix with the wash.

Ink is one of the few wet media that's still considered drawing, even when you use a brush. This is mostly because pen and ink are traditionally black and white. But, drawing doesn't have to be black and white. There are many colours of ink.

colored pencils (farbičky)

Illuminate, by Zeldis, Maria

and pastel

The Haymaker (detail), by Sir George Clausen

Pastels blur the line between drawing and painting. It's a dry medium, and you draw with pastels like with a pencil, but the product looks like a painting. So, what do you call it? A pastel. Also note, pastels are the most toxic medium in art. They're pure pigment, meaning chemicals like cadmium, cobalt, chromium, and lead (olovo), and they create dust which you can breathe in.


Paints are what you put on a palette (paleta). Your painting usually sits on an easel (stojan). You paint with brushes (štetce) and palette knives (špachtle). You clean your brushes with soap, solvents (rozpúšťadlo), and rags (handry).

Egg Tempera

Some of the earliest paintings that still exist are frescoes and egg tempera. Egg tempera is described in this video, it's egg yolk (vaječný žĺtok), water, pigment, and a bit of vinegar (ocot). Tempera is water-based and opaque (nepriesvitný). It was mostly painted on wooden boards. Student quality tempera, like they sell in TESCO isn't really tempera. It's a cheap imitation - real egg tempera spoils quickly, so you have to make it fresh.

(Why do they call it BBC Worldwide, when they refuse to show their videos worldwide?)

Roman Mummy Portrait, artist unknown
Fayum, Egypt, 24 AD

The painting above is one of the earliest examples of egg tempera painting. Romans would hire an artist to paint the portrait of important people who died, before burial. The portrait was placed in the tomb (hrobka) with the corpse (mŕtvola). The proportions are off (look how long her nose is), but otherwise, the skill in this one is remarkable - it makes me wonder if it's a fake. If you click on it, you'll see how egg tempera lends itself to cross-hatching (šrafovanie šikmé).


Frescos are paintings on walls, usually inside a building. The idea was to draw a sketch on the wall, and then mix pigment with wet plaster (sadra), quickly painting the picture in sections, before the plaster dried. Frescoes decorated homes in ancient times. Though most ancient painting is long gone, we do have some examples from Egyptian tombs (painted fresco a secco, meaning they painted over dry plaster), and from Pompeii, where a volcanic eruption buried and preserved some Roman frescoes for over a thousand years.

Reading of Bridal Rituals, artist unknown
Villa of Mysteries, Pompeii 60 BC

Oil Paint

If you watched that video on egg tempera above, you'll see that artists like Da Vinci experimented with oil based paints. Oil became popular for several reasons.

1. they take a long time to dry, from days to weeks, depending on the colour. So they're very easy to blend, rework, and correct.

2. Because some of the colours are translucent (priesvitný), meaning see-through, you can create an excellent sense of depth, glazing (glazúra) the painting with thin layers of translucent color. You have to see it in person to appreciate it.

Cherries, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
rocks oil paints, 1873

3. They don't simply dry like Tempera. They cure (tvrdnúť). This means if you spill liquid on a dry painting, it won't ruin the colours. They won't reactivate, so you can wipe it off, as good as new. After a Tempera painting dries, it's very delicate (krehký), and you have to be careful not to scratch it.

Oil paintings were originally done on wooden panels, following the same methods as egg tempera, but as the renaissance progressed, artists began painting on canvas (plátno). Traditional oil paintings are covered in a layer of varnish (náter), so that they still look wet, even after they're dry.

A word of warning. Traditional Varnish turns yellow over time, changing the colours. You can find new kinds of varnish that don't yellow.

You can remove the varnish, and put on a new layer of fresh varnish. Art restorers typically do this to an oil painting every 100-200 years or so.


Watercolour gets its name from being water-based. It's usually done on thick, watercolour paper. All watercolour paints are translucent. Traditional watercolour doesn't have white paint. Like drawing, the white of the paper is the white. Watercolour gained acceptance as a high art in the renaissance, around the same time as oil paint.

Hare, by Albrect Dürer, 1502

One of the greatest watercolourists was the American painter Winslow Homer.

Under the Falls, by Winslow Homer, 1895

Acrylic Paint

Oil is the standard medium for professional, fine-art painting. But, acrylic paint, a 20th century invention, is becoming popular. Acrylic is a kind of liquid plastic that also cures. Once acrylic dries completely, you can't wet it again. The main difference from oil is

1. Acrylic is water-based, making it popular in schools, because it's safer. There are no toxic fumes (výpary) to breathe in.

2. They also dry much faster. This makes it easier for sketching outdoors, and carrying your work with you - you don't want to drop a wet oil painting while you carry it back to the car, and the smell of it can make you sick on a long drive.

Despite those differences, companies like Golden Acrylics try to make their paints act in much the same way as oil paint. The colors have the same names, and opaque/translucent characteristics. Acrylic can look a lot like oil when it's finished:

Hawaii House, by Nathan Fowkes

But if you see it in person, you can usually see it's acrylic, because acrylic paint looks a bit like rubber when it's dry.

If you mix acrylic with lots of water (hard to do, as the water makes acrylic want to clump into little bits) you can make acrlyic seem like a water colour. The advantage is, you can paint in layers, and you don't have to worry about reactivating the dry layers - they won't mix together and muddy your painting.

Goddess, acrylic, by Bill Presing, artist at Pixar


Brushes are categorized by shape, size, and by the kind of hair - soft or stiff. Stiff hog hair is great for thick oil paint, and softer sable or nylon is great for watercolour. You don't need to know all the different shapes of brushes. Just this:

1. Flat brushes are all you need for oil and acrylic.
2. A big round sable brush is all you really need for watercolour sketching.
3. Start with a big brush, then use smaller brushes at the end.
4. Clean them! Don't let the paint dry on a brush, or it's trash.

Digital Painting

Many illustrators now paint digitally, using Photoshop and other software, because it's fast, it's easy to change and correct mistakes, and it's easy to print in the advertising, publishing, and comics industries. The best digital painters try to replicate the textures and effects of traditional painting. You might think it's an oil painting or watercolour, but it's really digital.
Portrait Sketch by Daniel Clarke

They do this by making custom brushes:

custom brushes used by Scott Fischer

Sculpture (sochárstvo)

Sculpture is three dimensional art. It can by any size, style, or material. Sculpture tools include a hammer (kladivo), chisel (dláto), rasp (rašpľa), and file (pilník).

A statue is a sculpture that looks like a person:

Diana of Gabies, Roman, 14-37 AD

If a statue is small, or miniature, it's called a figurine:

Farmer and daughter, artist unknown
ivory (slonovina), Japanese, 19th C.

A relief is a cross between sculpture and drawing. It's two-and-a-half dimensions - a carving on the side of a wall. You use the light of the sun to create lines of shadows, to "draw". There is high relief:

Preparation for an Animal Sacrifice, artist uknown,
Roman 100-125 AD

And, there is low, or bas-relief (it's thinner):

Every coin is an example of bas-relief.

Common sculpture materials include:


Orka mother and pup, by Steve Blanchard and Co.

marble (mramor)

Amore and Psyche, by Antonio Canova, Neoclassical

granite (žula)

If you want your art to last forever, use granite:

Pharoah Menkaura & Queen, artist uknown,
Egyptian, 2,490-2,472 BC - looks like it was made yesterday


Bronze is another great material for long lasting art, if you don't mind it turning black. There's just one problem - Bronze is a precious metal. Someone might want to melt your art to make their own. It's happened to many great masterpieces, especially to art by the ancient Greeks.

Discobulus, by Myron
Roman copy of a Greek statue that was melted down

steel (oceľ- a 20th century material [stainless steel won't rust (hrdzavieť)]

Imperial Water Dragon, by Kevin Stone,
Metalanimation Studio Inc.

silver (hey, if you can afford it, why not?)

King Henry IV of France, as a boy, by François Joseph Bosio
cast in silver by Charles-Nicolas Odiot


Terracotta Warriors, Qin Shi Huang's Tomb, 210 BC

plaster cast (sadrová forma)

Plaster looks like marble, but it's not. It's a powder, made of lime (vápno) or gypsum (gyps) that mixes with water to make a thick, creamy liquid, which heats up and hardens into a solid. The process takes about twenty minutes.

Charles Reed Bishop, by Allen Hutchinson
a sculpture of someone's head and shoulders is called a bust.

Plaster is softer than stone, and scratches easily. But, it's great for making molds. You can make a mold of anything with plaster, and it copies every detail:

Fern Green Tower by Dale Chihuly, 1999


Ice sculptures don't last so long, but they look really nice!

artist unknown