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Thoughts from the Studio: Basic Components of Art

Last month’s "Thoughts from the Studio" topic of self-critique started by stating “Every artist needs to learn to do a self -critique – to look at his or her painting and be able to see what the painting may need to improve or finish it.” This is obviously a deep topic of interest among our members, sparking discussion at last month’s member-led workshop. Inquiries into the critique process, criteria and styles, along with the vocabulary of visual art were some of the topics gleaned from the conversations. After the workshop, Jill asked me to share some terms to be offered as new or review for our members expanding visual art vocabulary. We have all heard the old adage, “that knowledge is power,” so having a solid working knowledge of visual art vocabulary can be seen as giving artists power, translated as tools for use in artistic practice as well as the self-critiquing process. One of the first things we often hear in a critique setting is does it work? What does that mean? Fundamentally, it means does the painting/artwork achieve organic unity? Let’s begin with the basics components toward organic unity: The Basic Components of Visual Art Artwork can be broken down into three basic components: Subject – Form – Content. Subject - is the identifiable object(s) of the artwork. (the what) Form - is the visual organization of the artwork,.(the how) Content - is the impact or the meaning of the artwork. (the why) How these three work interdependently to create organic unity should be first considered when approaching critique. Organic Unity is a condition in which the basic components are so vital to each other that they can be likened to a living organism. All parts of the work are mutually interactive and interrelated, balanced, without any distracting or unnecessary parts that interrupt the relationship of “wholeness.” Let’s apply this knowledge to actual paintings for discussion of the basic components toward organic unity:

Both of these paintings have achieved or created organic unity, in that we cannot see anything that is distracting or could be removed without upsetting the balance of the work. They both appear to embody an interrelated wholeness about them. It is important to note, that just because paintings achieve organic unity does not guarantee them to become famous or award winning in popularity. The subject is the same for both paintings – a landscape of night stars. However, the form and content as it relates to the subject is very different. Remember, the form of each oil painting lies – in the how the artists painted their subjects toward conveying a very different meaning or content. The why they chose such form varies the impact the subject has upon their viewers to convey different meanings. In the Red Shoes painting, the naturalistic rendering of low-key values and realistic proportions create a harmonious and peaceful impact. While in the Van Gogh painting the high-key color, level of gestural lines and exaggerated proportions create an emotional content and expressive impact. Both settings have a subject matter that viewers can relate to but with very different lasting impressions. While most of us look at a night sky and see the specks of light we know as stars, in the natural depiction of the landscape, the stars are seen from afar. But, what if the artist wants to put the emphasis on the feeling of looking up at the twinkling of the stars and the energy of the night against the stillness and silence of the town, as it lies sleeping? The emphasis shifts from the creation of a literal depiction to an emotional expression. It’s not that one is better than the other. It is a depiction of the same subject, varying the form for the creation of different reading of the landscape. When we first approach a work, our first question might be: What does the artists want us to look at and why? How did he/she use form to answer those questions and thereby create the desired results. Does the work achieve organic unity? If it does – how does it? If it doesn’t – it is usually obvious; but where the problems exist are not. What is creating that disruption, distracting from the balance? As artist, we should start by asking ourselves the same questions and then answer objectionably. Although, answering such questions often require a deeper consideration of the components bringing in the analysis of essential elements and principles of organization – but that’s another story for another day.. art-speak for another time.

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