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.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Choosing Canvas Shapes 2 - The Golden Ratio

Now that you know the basics, here's another question. Which rectangles look best? Is it a matter of opinion or fact? Well... Some people claim that the best rectangle is the Golden Rectangle, which is made from a square:

The ratio of a Golden Rectangle's sides is φ (phi = 1.6180339887...), an irrational number, similar to π (pi = 3.14159...). φ  is often called the Golden Mean or Golden Ratio. By repeating this process, you can create a lovely spiral:

The golden ratio has been used to create ideal canvas proportions, and to choose where to place elements in a composition. For this lesson, our concern is canvas shape. Some artists and historians claim that this "divine proportion" has been used by the greatest artists in history, from ancient Egypt and Greece to Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Turner, and Manet.

Note, the bottom line doesn't touch the ground or the top of the platform,
so the rectangle doesn't really fit.

They say you can also find examples in nature, especially seashells.

Note, the black line doesn't really follow the line of the shell. It's a different proportion.

On the internet, you can find many examples of this spiral superimposed on artworks, often in complicated, confusing ways.

It's described as a secret to making great art, like a magic bullet, that all the masters knew and used––something to excite beginning artists.
Here's the problem––it's debatable, and many professional artists, for example James Gurney, call it a myth. It's easy to superimpose these diagrams in any picture, but it doesn't prove the artists/architects actually used them in their planning, nor does it prove that it makes the art better.

Putting these spirals over artwork is easy, partly because of pareidolia - a psychological phenomenon where people perceive things that aren't really there. No, not like schizophrenia––this isn't about hearing voices. This is more like seeing shapes in clouds, or playing a song backwards, and hearing words. Our brain wants to understand what it sees, so it will sometimes see a pattern that isn't there, or was unintentional.
The golden ratio is only part of the debate in the importance of geometry in canvas shape, because supporters say there is more than one divine proportion. Artist and teacher Myron Barnstone describes a series of "root" rectangles, which are all related to a square, even though none represents the golden ratio:

With so many choices, it's easy to find a rectangle and a diagram that will fit any artwork, even if that artist never thought of it. So, how many artists have actually used any of this? And, how important is it? Is it necessary? Is it useful? Good questions. First, let's see what James Gurney has to say:

"If the golden rectangle (1.618:1) really was the ideal shape, why didn't it appear everywhere in our carefully designed environment? Why don't we find it in the proportions of movie screens (1.37:1, 1.85:1, 2.35:1), photographs (1.50:1) television monitors, (1.33:1, 1.78:1) computer screens (1.33:1, 1.60:1, 1.78:1), credit cards (1.5858:1), not to mention iPhones, tablets, and office paper? Those rectangles, each so commonplace in our daily lives, vary greatly, and none of them quite matches the supposed ideal.
Perhaps there's a deeper aesthetic truth to be gleaned from all of this. A masterpiece, it turns out, does not issue from fixed mathematical rules. It comes from a happy mixture of all the elements of composition cohering with messy particularity. For one painting, a 3x4 rectangle might be the ideal choice; for another, a square might yield divine results. The picture's central idea must drive the decision. Just as there is no optimum running length for a film, no optimum key for a symphony, and no optimum structure for a poem, there's no optimum shape for a painting."

Now, let's bring the question to Stapleton Kearns, a practicing fine artist:

"I suggest that you paint only about six different sizes and stick to stock sizes when you paint. The advantage of stock or common sizes is that you don't necessarily have to have all of your frames custom made, but can instead buy them off the rack. Here are some of the most common stock sizes for frames.

Here are the smaller sizes;      The most common middle sizes are;     The larger sizes are;
5 x 7                                            16 x 20                                                     24 x 30
8 x 10                                          18 x 24                                                     24 x 36
9 x 12                                          20 x 24                                                     30 x 40
11 x 14 
12 x 16

     If you choose two sizes from each of these categories, one elongated and one more square, you will have six sizes. You should be able to find premade frames for those sizes from almost any supplier. If you want to have custom frames made, by which I mean closed corner 22k. gold frames, you will be happy to be able to put the picture into a ready made frame. That's a good thing for when you send it to a show or gallery where you know your paintings will be stacked by tongue swallowing interns . . . You will save a lot of headaches by limiting yourself to six sizes. Having interchangeable framing is real handy . . . I make between 40 and 70 paintings a year, I throw about a third as many more away unfinished because they have some sort of an irredeemable flaw. So, if I paint too many sizes, it really gets complicated and expensive having many dedicated frames that only fit one painting."

Notice, that Mr. Kearns didn't mention the golden ratio once. All his advice is practical and economical, and none of the standard sizes above represents the golden ratio, although a 5" x 7" canvas is a root 2 rectangle. None of the others is root anything. So, there's the difference between the theory of an art school and the reality of a working, professional artist.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Elements of Composition

So, here is your artist's toolbox. It has everything you need to make great works of art, whether it be painting, sculpture, animation or any other art form. I'll try to make this short:

Lines are used to make shapes and divide space. There are many kinds of lines, and some are invisible, yet still important.

shapes and forms are pictorial figures made from lines. Shape and form are synonymous. They're basically just blobs. They may represent real things, or they may be abstract. There are some textbooks and teachers who will argue that shapes are two dimensional (2D) while forms are 3D. I think it's fair to agree they have these associations - sculptors use the word 'form' when casting plaster molds of their work. But you can use the words interchangeably and people will understand you.

Volume, on the other hand, suggests a 3D form - the idea of being able to reach in and grab a solid object. Volume also suggests weight, because solid forms are heavy. A volume isn't a shape. When we talk about a "volume of water" it could have any shape, but the main thing is it's 3D. If a shape or form in a painting "has volume" it appears 3D. If a sculpture has lots of volume, it is 3D - you might think that's obvious, but some sculptures are very thin.

Mass is similar to volume. When people talk about the volume of a shape, they're probably talking more about how it looks. When people talk about the mass of a shape, they're talking more about its weight. It's like two sides of the same coin. The word 'massive' means huge.

Size is a powerful tool in your art box, the key options being large and small. It's important to remember that...

...size is relative.

The shapes in your work don't have to be extremely different sizes. People will see them in relation to each other. So, a little circle is huge compared to the dot next to it.

Proportion is what controls your shapes. It determines how tall, short, thin, or fat they are. Proportion is extremely important in realism. When drawing realistically you don't have to copy every detail you see - you're not a meat camera. But you do need to accurately see and copy the proportions, using your eye as a ruler and protractor, to measure lengths and angles.

Space is the area around your shapes. Positive space is made up of objects, and negative space is the empty area behind your objects.

Colour is pretty,

Boulders Near Bear Cliff, by Charles Courtney Curran
except sometimes when it's ugly:

village church, by Chaim Soutine
(would you like some mustard with your painting today?)
In America, we spell it "color". The three elements of colour are:
                            hue - a colour's position on a colour wheel
                            chroma - it's intensity or saturation
                            value/tone (odtien) - it's range from light to dark. Value is also present when colour isn't.

Colours can be flashy and help make artworks more memorable, because they tap into our emotions and memories.

Texture is the look and feel of a material. It can be rough or smooth, sharp or soft, flat or glossy, etc.

Contrast just means difference. People naturally see differences.  If you open Photoshop or similar computer programs, you may think contrast is just about light and dark, but it's not. To quote illustrator Tristan Elwell:

"There are many different kinds of contrast, not just contrast of value. There's also contrast of hue, chroma, size, direction, texture, detail, etc. You use as many of these as possible (depending on your medium) to make the viewer look where you want them to. You can also use some to balance or compensate for others."

Molly Bang explains in her book, The Principles of Composition, that contrast is what enables us to see. Without contrast, everything would be an even fog of grey.

Perspective is a trick of design to create the illusion of 3D space on a 2D surface, based on a horizon line and vanishing points. There are different kinds of perspective, varying in complexity. To draw realistically you must learn to see and draw in perspective.

symmetry & balance
Symmetry is the division of space into smaller identical spaces and shapes. There are different kinds of symmetry. Most often, it functions like a mirror. There is also radial symmetry. Balance also divides pictorial space, but the resulting shapes are not identical. Balance suggests symmetry without being exact. It's more relaxed.

repetition & rhythm
Repetition is when you repeat the same or similar line or shape several times in an artwork. Rhythm has to do more with where you put these repeated shapes and what line or shape is made when you look at them all together.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Choosing Canvas Shapes 1

One important aspect of art making is how artists choose the size and shape of their work. In 2D art, there are three basic options:

·        a portrait format rectangle (vertical)
·        a landscape format rectangle (horizontal)
·        a square
So, how does an artist choose? It's not so simple as saying all portraits have to be portrait format. There are exceptions:

Breakfast in Bed, by Mary Cassatt

Nor must all landscapes be horizontal:

Sketch on the Huntington River, Vermont, by Sanford Gifford

The main question for an artist isn't what the subject is, but whether you want the viewer to look up-and-down, or side-to-side. That's what rectangles do. They help suggest how viewers should move their eyes.

What about squares? What do they do? Well, they're a bit more claustrophobic. :)
With nowhere to turn, you tend to look more at the center:

Daedalus Sorrow, by Pedro Inacio

And squares work really well with circular compositions, where your eye travels in a circle:

The Music Lesson, by William Merritt Chase

Those are the basics, but they're not your only options. Artists have used alternatives for centuries, primarily the tondo - a circular or oval shaped canvas.

The Alba Madonna, by Raffaello Sanzio
20th century artists have developed "shaped canvases", where the shape and design of the canvas is the main creative focus - blurring the line between painting and sculpture:

by Charles Hinman

by Frank Stella

by Frank Stella