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Eden Celeste

Growing as an Artist (Part III: Learning to See, Making It Work)

posted by marrael 2011-11-11 08:02:18

Tim Gunn (most often seen on Project Runway) has more or less immortalised the words "Make it work" in his voice, and I've often been amused how the designers who hear it will step back, see their creations anew, and yes, try their hardest to make them work. It seems like such an inexact science though; fashion (and art) have always suffered from a wishy-washy reputation--how, it's only for the people who live in their heads, look at things a lot, once in a while go aha!, snap their fingers, fiddle about, then it all suddenly Looks Good, and Art Is Accomplished. I've often run into people who seem to have this idea of art and design, and some of them were (this is what surprised me) artists.

Much as I love the words "make it work", I feel they are too vague to be useful, and they are time-wasters. Art isn't magical, isn't wishy-washy, and doesn't need to be vague. Even the Greeks found it possible to establish the Golden Ratio, the loveliest proportion (you may disagree) of length to breadth of any rectangular shape; the Greeks basically settled on some mathematical principles on how one proportion generally looks nicer than others. And loads of people since the Greeks have found ways to describe and quantify aspects of art and paintings. Observe: contrast, composition, flow, colour choice, colour intensity, key (low or high), drama, dynamism, tension, pattern, movement, texture, energy, proportion, scale, mood, interest, articulation, line, detail, complexity... the list goes on, and not all those words mean the same things, though some seem similar. 

A painting is always more than what it shows literally. It is always more than the sum of its parts. There are, truly, ways to "make it work". That's where seeing comes in--breaking a piece down into as many different ways as possible, so that it works in as many aspects as the artist wants, to create a whole that works for what the artist wants. 

An artist or an art buyer who can only see art for the literal subjects depicted isn't seeing half of what there is to see in it. They may feel parts of a picture subconsciously, like its colours and effect on his/her mood, its energy, or strength of composition. If something is "off", they may not be able to spot or articulate what it is. Conversely I feel that many paintings look good and become popular not just because of subjective taste, but also because that piece got a lot of aspects or elements in it quantifiable-y right, or stayed close to principles that are historically and culturally (even biologically) established as beautiful. Wonderfully, art and style is still diverse because humans are diverse. But do works of art that work (by common consensus) usually have some things in common? I think so.

I was challenged in this lesson not too long ago when a fellow artist showed me two of his pieces of the same subject. They were portraits of a woman holding some flowers, and they were "the same picture": same pose, same composition, same woman... except one of the portraits was in colour, and the other was in graphite pencil. "Why," the artist asked in mild frustration, "does one look better than the other? Why do I like the black and white one more?" (When he had spent more time on the colour?) I wasn't the only artist present, but I was the only one who could articulate that the graphite portrait had better contrast and hence more interest, and a stronger composition (because of the contrast and center of interest) and slightly more texture and variation in tone than the colour portrait, which was all a bit washed out. I got stared at in amazement for making it all sound so "scientific". (And not once did I need to venture into talking about style or subjective taste. I had only pointed out why the black-and-white "worked better".) 

Aha. So, I hadn't gone to art school (as you now know from the previous post), but I did have something to show for the years and years of drawing on my own, getting criticism when I could, reading TONS of art books, books on aesthetics, books on seeing, and books about how different artists approached their work. I HAD BIG, SCIENTIFIC WORDS!

Well, that was a bit of a joke. I didn't have just those. But I did have the vocabulary that came with understanding more concepts and ways of looking at art, more ways of describing it, and more ways of solving problems in problematic pictures. (And, it's still a lifelong, ongoing learning process.) More important than what materials or software to use, the biggest, most important additions to an artist's toolbox may be new eyes. Or, to be more precise, new ways of seeing. They help an artist's drawing-from-life skills, picture-planning skills, and do make problem-solving more of a science than a woo-woo mystery. They give an artist added consciousness of the choices they make in art-making that add to their strengths, instead of, well, creating duds occasionally/often/too often, and not knowing how to fix them. (E.g. Do you draw human eyes like the CBS symbol because you're aiming for a childlike style, or because you don't know how to draw eyes any other way? More questions like this are asked of oneself as an artist progresses.)

Anyway, there you have Part III of this topic, and it's the last installment! Growing as an artist is a big deal to me, and probably unsurprising as a topic on Fantastic Portfolios because this site was set up to help artists get better with help from other artists! Individual "seeing" exercises or posts on ways of seeing may come up in future. In the meantime, why not flex your art muscles with a Sketch Fest? Draw something new you've never drawn before, or experiment with a new art-ing method. But above all, have fun and...

Make it work!

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