What’s the Deal With Evaluating Art? (Part two)

So last week I explained the alphabet of art. This week, it’s grammar.Now, before I head in too deep, I want to point out that there have been posts in the “Picture This” series by Thelma that have looked at the topic of composition from a photography angle (this one in particular comes to mind). There really aren’t any rules for photography composition that aren’t largely true for two-dimensional mediums as a whole. So I recomend checking them out.

Now, like I said, last week was design elements. This week: Design Principals. These are basically a sort of checklist that helps you figure out if the artist really knew their game. These are the things that good art has. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, but a talented artist is usually breaking rules knowing what they are and why they are breaking them. It’s a little like if a writer chooses to ignore grammatical rules for style and effect verses if a person legitimately doesn’t know how to write. You can usually spot the difference.

White on White - Kazimir Malevich
Can’t get much more unified than White on White by Kazimir Malevich

Unity

This is the big one. Basically, your work needs to feel like a cohesive piece. Everything needs to tie together with everything else and look like it all works together as a single work of art. It’s not that you can’t have contrast, but even with your contrast the work still needs to feel like it is a single artwork, not two unrelated artworks smushed together. Another function is that no one piece is considered more important than the design as a whole. Again, this doesn’t mean that you cannot have a hierarchy of elements in your artwork (on the contrary, you probably should), but rather that nothing in the design should overpower the other elements to the point of seeming like one design element was the intention and everything else was an afterthought,

Hermes With Infant Dionysus by Praxiteles
Original image from the Wikimedia Commons

Balance

I touched on this a little last week, but you don’t want to have one part of your work seem unnecessarily weighted, or to hold all of the visual interest.  There are a couple of ways to do this. The first and most obvious is a symmetrical composition. Symmetry tends to be pleasing to the eye, but it is also visually somewhat bland. It’s nice, it’s stable, but it’s also a little dull. You see it a lot in older Christian artwork where that concrete sense of balance was highly desired. Jesus in the middle and wings of his friends (people who commissioned the artwork) on either side. Everything matches up. Life is good. Everything is beautiful. Then, there are asymmetrical compositions, which are a little trickier to balance, but which are more dynamic. Perhaps the best sample from early Western art is the contrapposto pose from classic Greek sculpture. The human figure is sculpted with the torso twisted  slightly and the shoulders tipped at an opposite angle from the hips with the weight mostly on one foot. This creates a more natural stance that is more visually interesting than a person standing with the weight evenly distributed on both feet.

Hierarchy

Basically, the important parts of your work should stand out from the less important parts (without breaking the unity of the piece, no one said this was easy). And viewers attention should be drawn through the piece starting at most important part and then down through the rest of the work. Dominance for the main subject can be created a few ways. Scale is probably the most straightforward. Make the most important part the biggest. Position, color, style, and shape are all other ways you can emphasize your main point. From there, you need to use your design elements to ensure that the viewer doesn’t remain only focused on that main part, but that their eye moves around the artwork.

Similarity and Contrast:

You need both of these in good art really. What? Yes, I know. Here’s how it shakes down; you need enough similarity throughout your work to maintain unity, but there also needs to be enough contrast to develop visual interest. So this feeds back into the balance part of the equation as well.

The Fall of Babylon - Jean Duvet
Fear of the void at work here. Note how there is effectively no negative space.

Economy:

No, I don’t mean that your art has to be competitive in the art market here (though that is a bonus). Basically, this boils down to not putting in anything that shouldn’t be there. Say everything you want to without adding anything superfluous to the message. Exactly as much as you need and nothing more. There is a sort of opposite stylistic element to counter this in horror vacui or fear of the void, where every inch of a surface must be covered, but there has been a fair push to move away from that in recent times. Typically horror vacui comes of as claustrophobic or cluttered to more modern sensibilities.

Now, like I said, you can weasel out of any of these if you know what you are doing. Jackson Pollock’s artwork has no definite hierarchy, for instance. They also aren’t a magic formula that guarantees good art. Technically perfect, but soulless is a valid complaint for art that doesn’t have something meaningful to say. Still, bad art grammar is a fair indicator of bad art.

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Opifex

Opifex is a former art student, unrepentant nerd, and occasional annoying liker of things before they were cool. She keeps two sets of polyhedral dice in her purse, in case the first set stops being lucky. That's kind of how she rolls.

6 thoughts on “What’s the Deal With Evaluating Art? (Part two)”

    1. A lot of this seems super simple and intuitive when you first learn it, but I think you start getting a better feel for how important it all is after it kicks around in the back of your brain for a while and you start needing to apply it to your own work and start screwing them up.

  1. Great post, really informative.

    That said, have you ever read Chip Kidd’s The Cheese Monkeys? It talks about a lot of these issues (the story’s about a young man in the 1950s who’s studying art in college), and it’s a really funny, thought-provoking read as well. It has some good points about art theory and criticism — and it reads like a cool indie movie at the same time.

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