By Reema Bansal
Consider life. Any and every sphere of life has great detail. And also, with little involvement, any of these areas could easily be made interesting. Same goes for ‘Art’. Thanks to the great artists and thinkers, the realm has been developed to great heights. I take the liberty of delving into ‘Art Appreciation’ — An art of looking and analyzing artworks. This article is based on Mary Acton’s book ‘Learning to Look at Paintings’.
No two people look at life in the same way. Similarly, when two people stand in a gallery and discuss a painting, there is bound to be subjectivity in that endeavour. No two people can look at a painting in the same way. Their remote pasts, recent pasts, present experiences, and expected futures affect their perceptions.
Visual art appreciation deals with lending objectivity to the experience of watching art.
Let us look at the elements that make up a piece of art — Composition, Space, Form, Tone, and Colour.
Apart from these basic five elements, there are other considerations like — Subject Matter; Technique; Who the work is done for; Purpose/message; Period to which it belongs.
It’s worth noting that the secondary elements are more individualistic in nature than the basic elements, which are more generic. So, picking up each basic element one by one, I have interspersed with an example or two, of my artwork. Here it’s essential for me to mention, that while painting, an artist might be, or, might not be, aware of the way these elements are getting integrated. It could be in a flurry of emotions and by intuition that the work is completed, or, the artist could be deliberately managing it. It is more for the spectator to analyze the painting later.
Secondly, a painting maybe so well put together that it does not seem possible to take it apart in any analytical way. Some people might argue that you should not attempt such an analysis at all, because in the process you will destroy your feeling for the whole. But another view is that you can enhance your appreciation of a work of art by analyzing it methodically. By making a voyage of discovery like this we can bring paintings alive for ourselves and make the process of learning about art more inspirational and illuminating.
Thirdly, art appreciation is meant not only for paintings, it could be undertaken for photographs, sculptures or any other visual art. However, my work is purely in the realm of oil painting. So, I have built the article on the same.
Understanding the Basic Elements
It is the artist’s method of deciding what to put in and what to leave out in order to make an effective picture. It is the method of organizing the subject. The question here is: How to relate different parts of the composition together, so that it forms a coherent whole? It can be done both by either measurement, or fine judgement with the eye to get the picture to ‘look right’.
A traditional way of doing this is to make a detailed drawing, which is then covered with a grid of squares so that while doing the final painting exact position of each part of the composition can be worked out.
A freer style is to make a pencil/charcoal drawing on the canvas directly, which can then be covered as it is painted. I usually adopt this method as I am not even technically trained in art. I wouldn’t know how to do the grid method. Most of my work is sentimental and moves around my thinking and world-view. For instance, in my painting — The Bliss — I have intended to show a person who is independent and has a soul that is free. So, the red figure had to occupy the centre. The first thing I did was to draw this figure directly on the canvas. As a person afflicted with a physical challenge, self-sufficiency and independence have always been dreams close to my heart. The flower symbolizes that self-sufficiency. For me, being self-sufficient would always equal being beautiful. Since the flower’s story revolves around this red person, it was drawn slightly to one side. Shades in the background came in last – to make the canvas appealing to the eye.
To understand the idea of the composition of a large painting, you will need to stand back and allow your eyes to range over it in a broad and sweeping way. But, if it is small, you need to look into it more carefully.
Whatever shape it takes, composition is one of the most powerful means the artist has of communicating with the spectator. It is the skeleton or backbone of the picture. The other elements then add to the total expression of the original idea and creation of layers of meaning. To work really well, each part must interact with the other parts to create the emotional impact of the picture.
The effect of space in a painting is primarily the creation of the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface. It is concerned with the width, depth, interval, and distance surrounding solid objects rather than their own volume. Space is closely related with both realism and illusionism.
Leonardo Da Vinci developed the technique ‘Aerial Perspective’. In this, cool recessive colours like blues, greys and greens, are used in the backgrounds of paintings to increase the effect of distance. It was also discovered that a feeling of space can be enhanced if the larger objects in the foreground are painted in greater detail and the smaller ones in the background are made more blurred.
For instance, in my painting below — Miles To Go — blue was anyway compulsory for water and sky; but, the staircase is also painted in blue (a recessive colour) and not so finely detailed as the dolphin. This has created an effect of space between the dolphin and stairs.
In ‘Twosome’, since the two glasses are painted with greater detail, they appear to be closer to the eye.
This gives an illusion of depth to the painting, with the central subject given prominence through detailing whereas minimalism is maintained in the background elements.
Also, combining the use of light and dark is implemented to convey the three-dimensional space in the painting.
Artists use this term to describe the feeling of volume in a painting. It is illusory in the sense that the artist is trying to convey a sense of solidarity on a flat surface. For instance, in ‘The Flight’, looking at the pigeons, we can actually sense the three-dimensional feel of the pigeons. They seem to have a weighty physicality. In painting, the relationship between form and space is very close, because each one enhances the other.
It is also recognized that making sculptures can help artists to develop a greater understanding of form. In a monochromatic painting, the darkest tones describe the furthest background, the medium tones the middle ground and the lightest the foreground. This concept can be used to lend form to a single object.
It is the use of contrast between light and dark in a painting. In Italian, this is termed as ‘Chiaroscuro’. In the painting, ‘The Prelude 2’ (pic below), certain areas are lit up starkly and the rest cast into varying degrees of shades, in order to make it dramatic. It seems that any moment the wind will start blowing fast.
The pink shade in the background, instead of staying back, comes towards us, and seems to move on its own. The spectator is almost forced to concentrate on the relationship between the sky, the pink shade, and the peacock. That is how tone can be used to create drama and movement in a painting.
It is that area of a painting, where exact definition is difficult. Much of the language used is imprecise and hence, confusing. However there are some basic facts which can be understood well.
– Sir Isaac Newton proved in his book ‘Opticks’ (1704) that there are seven prismatic colours which are the constituents of white light and can be revealed through the prism or in a rainbow. Red, yellow and blue are the primaries. Green, orange, indigo and violet are the complementaries.
– All colours contrast with one another, but the strongest contrasts are seen between the primaries and complementaries. Here, it would be timely that I talk about the concept of after-image where each colour is influenced by its complementary. When you look at red, a primary colour, for instance, and stare at it for some time and then look away, the colour you see next will be influenced by green, the complementary of that red.
– Let us try looking at a red square for a little while and then shifting gaze to a plain white. If you wait for a few seconds you should then see a square of green colour come up on the whole background.
Do you see a square of green colour? This is an after-image. This small observation proves that very generic things contribute immensely towards very specific areas of study.
– This principle has been used in the painting ‘Rhythm’. Look at the colours used for the dresses of the dancing couple. The couple holds our attention for longer duration than the umbrella or sofa – intensity of colours is stronger here as the primary colour red is put next to its complementary colour green.
– When we talk about contrast in colours we do not mean the same thing as the contrast between light and dark in relation to tones. With colour, it is the degree of brightness that is important.
– Colour can also be translucent, so that you can see through it, as in blue smoke. Or it can be solid and opaque as in red brick.
The English artist William Hogarth described a painting as a puzzle which needs to be pursued and solved. But, there are no right/wrong answers here, because the experience of looking at pictures changes and develops over time. Pictures provide layers of meaning so they can continue to be exciting even when they are familiar. This article is not intended as a package of instructions but rather as a series of suggestions which the readers can explore in any way they choose.
Reema Bansal is an Indian painter. Apart from that, she also works as a practicing psychologist and a school counsellor. She took up painting at the age of three when she was encouraged by her family and enthused by her teachers. She has many awards and certificates to her credit obtained from various drawing and painting competitions.