Tag Archives: emotion

The truth about artwork

“Can’t you just paint my entire family perched on a rock off the top of your head? I’ll give you some photos to use.”

As an artist, I dread those questions because I know it will take a small disseration to explain why most artists can not just paint anything they want out of their imagination and make it come to life.

I discovered that most people truly belive that the great painters of old just painted their masterpieces off the top of their head and/or that reference materials is “cheating.” They do not understand that even the Great Masters had models and painted on locations outside.

Of course, the more an artist paints a subject, the more they can paint from memory. But usually a portrait painter can not paint a landscape without either being there or having good reference material. There are exceptions to every rule, of course. There are very creative , talented people that have no training or drawing skills, but create beautiful and emotional paintings. On the flip side, there are skilled technical painters who can paint in Photorealism.

I believe that most art should be in between somewhere. Every professional artist should be skilled in drawing, composition, value, color, and design. but also they need to put a part of themselves into the painting and create something with emotion.

What does that mean for commissioned art? Well I can paint a picture off a photograph and my paintings will look like that photograph. But we all know that photographs do not capture the likeness of a person – they are cold and distant and only show resemblances. Not to mention, there are other short comings with photo references such as distortion and loss of color.

Of course I can paint something that I do not know intimately by using a photo, but the viewer will be able to tell. Artists need to connect to what they are painting. For a portrait artist, this means that they need to spend time with the subject and paint them in their studio or have several photos to use with the right lighting and poses with tons of expressions to choose from.

For a landscape artist, this means going to the location and either painting en plein aire (outside) or taking the right photo references and making sketches or notes of colors and composition.

All we artists ask is that people understand that just because we can paint a nice picture of one thing, it does not mean that we have the ability to paint whatever we want with the same success. We do not have a magic talent, we just have developed skills in seeing things and expressing them on canvas or paper after years of practice.

So, just because somebody is “an artist,” it doesn’t mean they have this unique gift that allows them to create anything they want. And be gentle the next time you find out that an artist used a projector to blow up a photo reference. Honestly…they are not cheating.

The sentimental debate

Just to clarify, by sentimental debate I am not referring to a sensitive way of arguing the pros and cons concerning art, or any topic. I am talking about the question of what does it mean to have a piece of art be overly sentimental, and why is that a bad thing, if it is really a bad thing.

I do not know if this issue is the most controversial topic in the art world, but it sure has impacted me. To explain what I’m talking about, I will take you on a little journey (yes again) back to when I first heard that word pertaining to artwork. I was presenting my art to galleries in the Grand Rapids area, and meeting with the owners. I kept hearing that word being used to describe some of my art and I received several warnings not to cross the line any further.

At first I did not know exactly what they meant and I faked understanding out of embarassment. After a while I pieced it together though. What the various gallery owners were referring to was what I later came to call “being cheesy.” Let’s say you have a painting of a field near a barn. That does not necessarily sound “cheesy.” Now let’s add a little swing, a farm cat asleep on the porch, the farmer milking the cow, and maybe a bright green tractor. Then to make it more clear, just think of any stereotypes about a happy farm house and throw them in the picture as well. Oh I know…how about a little girl swinging on a tire swing (which by the way was the subject of a picture that I had showed to a gallery once).

Now you have what I was told is an overly sentimental painting.

I remember one gallery owner showed me the Art Business News that I was also subscribed to and pointed out all my favorite pictures of women laying leisurely on  beds and mothers with their daughters strolling on the beach in sun dresses. I thought he was going to talk about how interesting the brush strokes appeared in the photos of those oil paintings, but then he said something like, “See what I mean? It makes me want to throw up. All the art in this magazine is crap.”

Wow, I thought those pictures were amazing because of the technique used by the artist and the wonderful feeling they gave me about how beautiful life can be. Well what is a good painting then? I became completely confused and what I thought I knew I realized I did not know at all. Then he finally added that a painting does not necessarily have to be about garbage in the streets or death, but that it has to be about real life.

Ok, now I at least understood his point. I suppose I do not know any extraordinarily beautiful women just lying around draped in pink sheets on their bed, perfectly posed.

Well now that I understood how to avoid painting something that was overly sentimental, I began to purge those ideas from my artwork. Then just when I thought I had figured out the art world, I was blind-sided again. At first it was just little commments from friends and family about how they loved those “cheesy” paintings and how they make them feel good.  Then I noticed yet another retail store open for Thomas Kinkade (that very same gallery owner I talked to used Kinkade’s artwork as an example of extreme over-sentimentality). If he is not a good painter, why does he have dozens of retail stores? People seem to love his paintings and he apparently must be quite wealthy by now, which one could argue is a measure of success.

Soon I noticed “cheesy” paintings all over the place. They were at art shows, in people’s living rooms, and offices all over the area from my dentist’s office to government buildings.  If that type of artwork has no value, why are people buying it? Does not the fact that people value that art enough to pay for it mean that it has value? Who is right then – the gallery owner or the mass of people buying all that “cheesy” artwork?

I guess for artists it must be about who they are painting for. Are they painting for the millions of us who like a nice picture to match the colors in our living room, or are they painting to create a piece of art that holds merit to art collectors and gallery owners?

For me, I found a balance. I strive to push myself further with my artwork to create art that means something and has interest on several levels. But every now and then I will paint something that I believe somebody might buy someday because it has nice colors and water in it (people love the calming effect of water in a picture). I suppose I will let others decide if my art has value, “cheesy” or not.

What goes into a painting

Have you ever wondered what all actually goes into making a painting what it is?

There are plenty of terms to describe various art principles. Most of us have learned at least a little in school about composition, horizon line, value, hue, perspective; and some of us even learned about balance, proprtions, center of interest, and color harmony.

But there is even more, such as the concept of the path of the viewer’s eye, message, brush strokes, emotional impact, the Golden Mean, and secondary points of interest.

You can easily find hundreds of books and articles written about each of those topics separately, but how much of that actually goes into each painting? Some artists are unaware that they are practicing some of the principles and paint how they feel. Other artists have been known to spend hours preparing for just one single brush stroke. I’ve never done that, but I have been known to spend up to twenty minutes to  mix just one color on my palette.

Local Grand Rapids artist, Jim Connelly, once passed on to me that creating a picture is as much about art as it is about science.  It made me think about how there are many artists out there who are very creative, but lack the technical skills. On the flip side, there are artists who have developed tremendous skills, but their paintings lack the life needed to create an emotional impact. It is strange to realize how such a detailed painting seems to need something that beckons you to come back for more once the novelty of it all passes.

So when you are looking at a painting, how do you know if the artist is both creative and skilled?

The creative part is easy. When you look at the picture, do you find it interesting? Do you find yourself thinking about it after you walk away, or returning to it many times to find new and exciting things you never noticed before? Does it make you feel different, change your mood, make you think, or remind you of something nostalgic? Those types of emotional connectinos come from the heart of the artist, but what about the technical skills?

My wife puts it best when she looks at one of my paintings and says that she is not sure why,but it “just does not look right.” Well to get it to look right I have to go back to the basics. The big ones are value, proportion, and composition. If you saw in black and white, you would be seeing the value of each color (dark versus light). The values create dimension, making objects come to life. Similar values create patterns that move your eye around the painting and are so important that an artist can completely play around with colors as long as the values are correct. 

This leads us to composition. A composition has to not only lead the viewer’s eye into a painting, but has to move the viewer around the painting and find places of rest without letting the eye wonder off the sides. I sometimes spend hours trying to determine what a person would see first, then second, then third while looking at my painting. I have to make sure they find the center of interest, but are able to leave it and discover other gems, while still being able to find their way back to that center of interest.

Proportion deals with the relative size of things. You know, “is that vase way too big for that table?” Nothing ruins a contemporary realistic painting like the edge of a building being crooked or a person’s arm too long and bent in the wrong spot. 

To be honest with you, these are only some of the principles most artists think of while doing each painting. Most of these a viewer will never know about because I believe a good artist can mkae the painting look easy. But that is the beauty of a good picture. There can be so much  more than just the fact there is a flower pot on the table that is pretty, or that there are red and blue buildings that remind you of your hometown.

So the next time you find yourself looking at a painting you enjoy, try to look harder. Get up close and look at the brush strokes, or pick out the larger shapes by squinting your eyes. Try to figure out what you first see when you look at the picture, and then what you find yourself looking at next. The reward will be yours, because you will see what the artist sees.

And trust me…that is a wonderful way to look at the world around you.