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.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Goals of Composition

Composition is one of the hardest subjects to teach and explain. Most people do a poor job of it. Typically, your teacher will give you a nice little list of terms - ideas fundamental to planning composition.

Making the list is simple. It usually looks like this:

line, shape, form, space (positive & negative), size, mass, colour, value (odtien), contrast, rhythm, repetition, balance, emphasis, economy, movement, and unity.

Every teacher makes their own list, and they sometimes change the words around. You get to see an example or two for each item, and they hope you get the idea. And you do, kind of...

But, not so many teachers will tell you how to use these fundamental tools effectively in your art, and even worse, many students get the wrong impression that every artwork should use these tools the same way - that the ultimate goal of all artwork is balance and harmony.

I remember when illustrator Donato Giancola showcased this illustration, on

Archer of the Rose, by Donato Giancola

Between the well-deserved praise, one student asked, and I'm paraphrasing here, "I don't get it. Everyone's complimenting the composition, but I don't see a good composition. There's no order or harmony, all I see is chaos."

It was a great question, and people were quick to inform him -

Not all art has the same goals.
An artist painting a battle does not have the same concerns as someone painting a flower pot, or a sunset, or waves crashing on the beach.
How you plan a composition depends on what you're making.
So, What Are the Goals of Composition?

Good question! There's no simple answer. Every artwork has its own goals, and you have to think about it. But, depending on the subject - landscape, still life, portrait, etc. - there is usually some basic goal that's expected:
In Landscape - Beauty

The goal is to paint a place that's attractive enough,

The Heart of the Andes, by Frederic Church

or dramatic enough,

study, by Bruno Gentile

that people would want to go there. Some artists look for beauty in less than ideal places,

abeel st, by Staats Fasoldt

prince st




under Brooklyn bridge

and some artists care more about romanticizing nature - creating a mood.

Haunted, by Jama Jurabaev
     But, usually, they use composition to:
                                               - create the illusion of depth
                                               - create a sense of atmosphere
                                               - create attractive, elegant shapes
                                               - choose a focal point (or several focal points)
                                               - focus on the play of light and shadow
                                               - focus on weather effects, like rain, mist, fog, snow, reflections, etc.
In Still Life - Interest
The challenge of still life is how to make an ordinary object into something exciting. After all, it's just stuff. Artists have taken a variety of approaches:

- Paint so realistically that the viewer feels one can reach in and take something out.

Breakfast Table with Blackberry Pie, by Willem Claeszoon Heda

- Use the same principles borrowed from landscape painting to make the work as beautiful as possible. Focus on the colours, the play of light, the arrangement of elegant shapes, etc.

Still Life with Apples & Oranges, by Paul Cezanne

Still Life with Brass & Glass, by William Merritt Chase

- Fill the painting with meaning through symbols. With hidden meaning, the still life becomes more like a puzzle to solve.

Allegory, by Antonio de Pereda

- Use abstraction to warp and distort what you see. Give enough clues so the viewer can decipher it. It's another form of puzzle making.

Still Life with Chair Caning, by Pablo Picasso
In Portraiture - Honesty
Beauty and interest matter in portraiture, obviously. But the most important aspect to portraiture has to be honesty. When you paint a portrait, you're producing a record of who that person really was. It will last for ages, and people will expect and want an honest representation, especially of important historical figures. We want to know what the real Caesar looked like, the real Queen Elizabeth and King Henry VIII, the real Alexander the Great.
In portraiture, honesty is more than just capturing a likeness (looking like the person). The facial expression is key. It should indicate the sitter's temperament, mood, intellect, etc. The background should emphasize the sitter's world, where they live, how they live.

Mrs. Zimmerman, by Rose Frantzen
There are other goals in portraiture. Some artists care more about flattery - making the sitter look as good as possible:

Caroline, by John Michael Carter

Others use portraiture as a way to mock:

Jack Nicholson, by Patri Balanovsky

The Ugly Duchess, by Quentin Matsys
(Never anger an artist)

And then, some artists use a face as a reference point to focus more on mood or expression, which is great. It's less of a portrait than a vision:

Isabella and the Pot of Basil, by John White Alexander

Spanish Dancer at the Moulin Rouge, by Giovanni Boldini

Pot Pourri, by Herbert Draper

Falling Leaves, by Ivan Goryushkin-Sorokopudov

Heather, by Adrian Gottlieb

Miss Helen Sowerby, by James Guthrie

Fiery Light, by Ignat Ignatov

illustration by Michael Johnson

Baby, by Gustav Klimt

Sketch, by Luke Kopycinski

I would say this kind of work has less to do with portraiture, and more to do with illustrating a feeling.
In Figurative Illustration - The Story
Beauty, interest, and honesty all matter. But, when you add several people into a painting who are all acting out a story, a new challenge emerges - readability. The viewer wants to know what is going on, so the artist has to make it clear, while still worrying about beauty, realism, and the mood of the story and setting, etc. It's a challenge, similar to planning a scene in a film, which is why most films start as storyboard drawings:

storyboard for Forest Gump, by Chris Bonura

In illustration, artists worry about:
                                          - the poses, how figures are standing, their body language.
                                          - expressing movement and action
                                          - facial expressions
                                          - camera angle. Where is the viewer in this scene? How can the viewers be
                                            made to feel like they're in the scene?
                                          - colour and emotion, do the colours fit the scene?
                                          - the bigger picture. What's happening in this scene, and what's going to

It's a juggling act, and I think it's worth exploring what happens when a work fails. The best example I can think of comes from Marvel Comics artist, Rob Liefeld.

Liefeld is a self-taught artist who caught the attention of Marvel editors at a young age, while attending a comics convention in California. Although they were not artists themselves, they were impressed with his original characters and extreme drawing style, so they hired him, at age 19.

Liefeld distorts reality, exaggerating sizes and proportions
Rob developed his style by tracing and copying comics throughout his childhood. He soon learned the basics of musculature, and how to make his characters shine with glossy, metallic costumes. Unfortunately, he never learned light and shadow - just look at the work above. Where is the light source?

Now, take another look:

Here's another example, a room full of shiny superheroes:

Impressive? Well, let's ask some questions. How many people are there? Is it easy to tell? Or, do the shiny clothes create a kind of glare that disorients you? Plus, there are three different frames in this layout, and the outlines of these frames are too thin, so they meld together - especially since the colours are the same.

And, what are these people doing? The standing figures are all posing like models. It's a bit like a family photo op, but with some members caught unprepared. The ones in the background are drawn with almost as much detail as the ones in front, and have the same, even lighting. So, who's most important? I suppose they all are.

And, where are these people? They're sitting in some kind of space ship or moon base, but a lot of the environment is covered by text bubbles, that could've been placed on the floor. Yes, it's part of a comic book, so readers would know, but isn't the job of an artist to show people, instead of relying on text?

Here's another example of poor planning:

These superheroes are fighting in mid-air. The hero has the villain by the leg. So, why does he look like he's sitting down in an invisible chair? And how can the villain's wing be behind the hero's head? Isn't he above the hero? Wouldn't he have to be? This is an example where, visually, it makes no sense, and will bother any viewer who stops to think about it.
Liefeld also suffers from weak knowledge of anatomy (famous for hiding feet) leading to several embarrassing artworks (arguably all of them, but it's a question of taste). It makes me feel he really traced the wrong artists as a child. Here's Spiderman fighting his nemesis, the Juggernaut:

Notice anything funny about Spiderman?
Liefeld drew Spiderman without any thumbs. His hands are on
backwards,  and notice the strange little ghost of a finger poking out on the left.

That's the kind of mistake that happens when you don't use a model as reference. Instead, Rob continued copying poses from other comics artists, plagiarizing them in his own comics.

This combination of success at a young age with poor artistic skills led to a huge backlash, making him one of the most controversial people in comics. The biggest tragedy is his refusal over time to learn from his mistakes and improve.

I tell this to stress two points. First, art is hard, and failure is normal. Even the best artists fail on a regular basis. It's part of the process. Second, beware the praise of non-artists. It's easy to impress them, so don't let it go to your head!
In Abstract Art - All of the Above
First of all, there are levels of abstraction. All art is abstract to a degree, simplifying nature, no matter how detailed or accurate the work. When artwork skips reality all together, we call it non-representational.

Red & Orange, by Mark Rothko

When working non-representationally, you have all the same concerns as before - beauty, balance, harmony, mood, honesty, readability. But, in a way, you and your audience are working blind, with nothing recognizable to hold on to and make sense of things. So, abstract art always presents a bit of mystery and puzzlement. The challenge is in forming enough of a picture to excite the viewer, so that they want to think about it.

Combat - Light & Shade, by August Herbin
Aria de Bach, by Georges Braque
Tree of Life, by Gustav Klimt

Monday, September 15, 2014

What is Art? 3 - Historical Background

Historical Perspectives of Art
1. Who said, "Art is skill"?

self-portrait, Da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) believed that art was a science, a set of skills to be learned and taught like a science.
Larry Shiner argued the opposite in his book, The Invention of Art: A Cultural History (2003). He said, up until 18th century, art equaled skill. But afterwards, the definition changed, so we shouldn't think of anything made before 1700 as Art with a capital A. He's not criticising older artworks, but he wants us to remember the context in which they were made.
2. Who said, "Art is Mimesis"?

Plato (428-347 BC) believed that art is the process of copying nature, and the result will never be as real or true as real life, whether it's a painting, sculpture, or theatrical play. Basically, even the best art is a lie.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) argued, that, while art isn't real, it can be a great way to teach the audience, because stories and plays are more emotional, and moving than a history textbook. As Picasso said thousands of years later, "Art is a lie that tells the truth."

John Ruskin, by John Everett Millais

John Ruskin (1819-1900), artist and critic, felt that the artist's job was to mirror nature. He told artists to "go to Nature in all singleness of heart... rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing." Unlike Plato and Aristotle, he felt a realistic picture did tell the truth, even if it's not real.
Clement Greenberg (1909-1994), critic, made the opposite argument to defend abstraction, saying that realist pictures make you forget that it's just a painting, whereas abstract paintings emphasize it - the flat surface, the shape of the canvas, and the marks of colour.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), said, "Art is not merely an imitation of the reality of nature, but in truth a metaphysical supplement to the reality of nature, placed alongside thereof for its conquest." So, art, no matter what style, is a strategy some people use to try to conquer reality, to remake the world into something more satisfying.

3. Who said, "Art is Beauty"?

Marc Chagall, by Yuri Pen

Marc Chagall (1887-1985), a modernist painter, said, "Art is the unceasing effort to compete with the beauty of flowers––and never succeeding."

Roger Scruton (1944-the Present) is a philosopher who says art should be about beauty, that beauty is noble, and that life is meaningless without it. He says beauty is caring about things other than yourself, like the joy of holding a baby, when you put all your attention to contemplating the baby, and none on yourself. He considers modern art ugly, creating a "spiritual desert".

Nietzsche agreed, stating, "The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude."

Marcel Duchamp, by Kay Bell Reynal

Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was the most famous Dadaist artist. He disliked the idea of beautiful art, which he called "retinal art". He wanted art to engage the mind, and not just be eye candy. His works were called anti-art. They were a form of social and political protest.
4. Who said, "Art is Expression"?

"Art is the physical result of your soul battling with your intellect to the death... with a sharp pencil." - Ilaekae

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said that art could be defined as being separate from science. Science was the collection and study of knowledge, while art was about free expression.

Leo Tolstoy, by Ilya Repin
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) said that art is the transference of emotion from artist to audience. In this definition, the response of the audience is critical. If they don't feel the same emotion as the artist/writer, then the work is a failure.

Edgar Degas, by Giovanni Boldini
Edgar Degas agreed, saying, "Art is not what you see, but what you make others see."

And, Jeremy Blomley also agreed, saying, "Art is like throwing a small pebble into a placid ocean, and somewhere across the sea you hope it creates a large wave. I sit and wait for it to come back to me.”
Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) & RG Collingwood (1889-1943), two philosophers, argued that because art conveys emotion to the viewer, art exists not in the object, but in the mind of the beholder. It's like the question, if a tree falls in the woods and nobody can hear it, does it make a sound?
William Wimsatt (1941-Present) & Monroe Beardsley (1915-1985) disagreed. These philosophers co-authored an essay The Intentional Fallacy, stating a story must stand alone, without any description of the writer's intentions. Neither his intentions, nor the reader's emotional response matter in the success of a story. They were talking about literature, but it could be applied to art.
5. Who said, "Art is Original"?

John F. Carlson (1875-1947) was a Swedish-American painter who said, "Convention is craft. Invention is art. In art, knowledge assists invention."

Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), a French filmmaker said, "An original artist is unable to copy. So, he has only to copy to be original."

6. Who said, "Everything is Art"?
Marcel Duchamp once said that everything is art, but that society only classifies certain things as art. So, from a social perspective, art is relative, but everything has the potential to be called art.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984), a philosopher, said, “What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects and not to individuals, or to life. That art is something which is specialized or which is done by experts who are artists. But couldn't everyone's life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object, but not our life?”
7. Who said, "Art is Useless"?

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) said, "The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless." This is actually a compliment. Art must be great if people treasure it, even though it serves no practical purpose. Another way to think of it is, “Art is the most elegant way of getting from point A to point B.” It's not the most practical, but the most pleasing. Roger Scruton agrees.
8. Who said, "Art is Relative"?
Richard Wollheim (1923-2003) a philosopher, argued that the culture we live in, and the particulars of our psychology influence how we look at art.
George Dickie (1926-Present) - claimed that art is defined by institutions, such as museums, galleries, and magazines, that choose whether something deserves the status. This is called the Institutional Theory of Art.
David Novitz, another philosopher says controversies surrounding post modern, conceptual art have more to do with the quality of the work than art theory. If people like something, it's art. If they don't, then it's not, and people rarely explain why with any logic.
9. Who said, "Art is a Visual Metaphor"?
Kev Ferrara & Chris Bennett - two practicing artists and illustrators use this definition to unify all picture making and sculpting that's done by hand, leaving the mark and the thought process of the artist. What makes it art isn't so much what you draw or paint, but the process.
"The primary metaphor in painting is between the surface and its physical paint marks and how they become apples on plates, windows, or people nailed to crosses. It’s not what it is a picture of, but how it is a picture of. That’s why two people can paint the same apple and one version is full of life and poetry while the other is just a listless indication of an apple." - Chris Bennett
"[a painter] working from life, often without realizing it, will be creating metaphoric effects for volume, presence, heat, air, humidity, sounds, smells, skin radiance, subtle movement, breath, changing light over time, the model's thoughts in her eyes, a change in mood, a momentary breeze, a blush, a leg that's falling asleep, gravity, one's own intensity under time pressure, mutual acknowledgment between artist and sitter, hair standing on end because of a brief chill, etc. All of which are almost never talked about because they are nearly impossible to quantify and teach. Human sensitivity is what is beyond the basics found in books. All a camera notices is a split instant of light and makes no emotional distinctions between the light from a face and the light from a vase." - Kev Ferrara
Billy Childish & Charles Thomson - are two British artists who founded an art movement called Stuckism, to promote figurative painting which they call "anti-anti-art", and harshly criticizing conceptual art. In their manifesto, they say, "Artists who don't paint aren't artists."
10. Who said, "Art is a Human Response to an Inhuman World"?
As much as I'd like to take credit for saying this, Aristotle said much the same thing, that it's human nature to create order and harmony from chaos. It's a basic human need.