Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Principle #1 – IDEA

For the longest time I had 6 principles of art worked out. I believe these are the fundamentals of how to make a painting. But the more I taught workshops & classes, and discussed these principles with artist friends, I realized I was missing an important principle. Probably the most important one. It is the why we are painting what we paint. It's the idea behind it all.

This idea can be anything, but you must have it to paint. It can be based on color, on light, or on value. It can be a story to tell, a political or religious ideal, or a social commentary. Whatever it is, this idea dictates how the other 6 principles are applied. Below are two examples.

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid, c.1658-1661

Much of Vermeer's work is about dignifying the common, everyday life. "The Milkmaid" is no different. And while it seems to have many other possible themes, the how of it seems to be about color, with its dominance of Ultramarine Blue, Yellow and White/Grey in the piece.

Alberto Pasini "Circassian Calvary Awaiting their Commanding Officer at the Door of a Byszantine Monument: Memory of the Orient", 1880.

While the title of Alberto Pasini's piece tells you what is happening, I'm uncertain if that is what the piece is truly about. I think it's about pattern. Not an abstract underlying pattern (though it has that), but about ornamentation and pattern, which is incredibly rendered throughout the building and stones of the plaza. The beauty of Pasini's work, beyond his draftsmanship, is his portrayal of a complete scene. That the buildings and background are given as much weight as his people, if not more. The people become part of the landscape itself.

Vermeer image courtesy ofwww.essentialvermeer.com.
Pasini image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/111736

7 Principles of Art

Throughout my years of painting and study I have come to the belief there are 7 fundamental principles of representational art. They are:

1. Idea – the concept behind the painting
2. Composition – the arrangement of elements within a space
3. Drawing – the accurate representation of form, proportions and perspective
4. Value – the relative degree of light or dark
5. Color
the relative degree of hue, temperature and saturation; color theory and usage
6. Edges – where two forms or brushstrokes meet, cross or overlay

7. Paint Manipulation - how the paint is applied to a surface

Within each of these principles there are sub-principles. These are called properties or elements. For instance, the elements of Composition include Abstract Pattern, Focal Area, Balance, Unity, and Leading Lines. The Properties of Color include: Hue, Temperature, Intensity/Saturation and Value. And even within these elements or properties I can sometimes subdivide it further.

Over the course of this blog I hope to discuss these principles with others, to gather their insights and to share my own, so we can all learn more about how and why we work and grow as artists. I am certain these will not be the only ideas discussed, but I intend to come back to them now and again, as I believe these are the fundamentals of what we do.

Note: Abstract/Expressionist art has only 6 principles. Drawing is of little to no concern for them, but the other principles still apply.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Starting Small

Some of the work I am most proud of are only 6" x 8" in size.

Around 1998 or 1999, I decided to get back into painting after nearly a decade of being away from it. This transition wasn't easy. Just stepping into the bedroom I called a studio and looking at the easel was fearful. In a book by Barbara Sher she suggested that the brain was only bringing up the fear as a survival response. The only way to get past the instinct was to trick the brain into believing that you are safe doing whatever it is you fear. In my case — making art. Her advice was to take small steps. Do one thing until you felt uncomfortable, then stop and walk away. Do not push yourself beyond the point of immediate distress or more damage will be done than good. Continue doing just enough until you start to feel uncomfortable and then leave it alone.

Even though I had been drawing for as long as I can remember — and even though I graduated from a quality academic art school — the decade away from art put the fear in me.
The ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts) would rush in, even if I was only thinking of making art.

So I took her advice. Small steps. The first day, I clipped charcoal paper on a drawing board and set it on my easel. That was it. The ANTs came rushing in. The next time, I picked up a piece of charcoal and made just one random stroke on the paper. Again, the ANTs came rushing in. But I had made one stroke, so certainly I could make another. The time after that I went in to make one more stroke and ended up making five before the ANTs came. But it had worked, I had tricked the brain. Later that day, I found a photo, went back to the paper and began drawing a portrait. I haven't looked back since. though the fear sometimes still arises.

The lesson I learned from that book I still use. When a subject matter seems too complex, or a large painting seems too daunting, or I am unsure of what I want to paint that day, I start small. I pick up a 6" x 8" canvas, put it on my easel and paint. Some of these are done en plein air, some are done in my studio. They are honest (sometimes brutally so), they are my thoughts & feelings, my color experiments and my compositional wonders and blunders. I sometimes think they are more truly me than the larger plein air or studio pieces I create. Therefore they are often harder to let go of. I use them as studies and references for other works, so prefer to hold onto them for that, as well.

But all in all, I do realize that they are just another form of tricking the brain, feeling safe and taking the small steps necessary for me to make art.