What’s the Deal with Evaluating Art? (Part three, the practicum)

We’ve looked at the academic end of design principals, but how do they play out in real art? This week, let’s apply what we’ve learned.

For my first example, I’ve picked some artwork everyone is probably familiar with.

Van Gogh, Starry Night
Vincent Van Gogh’s iconic Starry Night

The first concern is always unity. Van Gogh managed this in a couple of ways. Firstly, he developed a very distinct style that is used consistently throughout the work. Everything is done with short, distinct brushstrokes. There are no areas of large flat colors. Everything is made up of a bunch of lines that our brain mashes together into shapes. Secondly, there is the color scheme. Van Gogh uses a fairly limited palate here. Starry night has two main colors: blue-violet and yellow-orange, and there is a little bit of green and a few touches or red. Now if we remember the color wheel, those colors are opposite from each other. That’s what the art folks call complementary colors, and it’s one of the classic “good” color schemes. And if you are wondering, the “brown” bush is really yellow-orange, just a very dark shade of it.

Starry Night composition: animated gif outlining areas of positive and negative space, high contrast, and low contrast
A breakdown of some of the composition elements

Starry Night has a deliciously dynamic composition. First off, there is more negative space (background) than positive (subject matter). This gives the composition a very open, spacious feel. It gives a proper sense of being outdoors. Secondly, as the sky is the main focus, we have the area’s of highest contrast there. The yellow-orange pops up off of the blue-violet. To help contain and ground the whole thing, we have the low contrast ground at the bottom. Still, it has a few little pops of yellow here and there to keep it from being totally dull.

Starry Night Hierarchy: animated gif demonstrating how the eye moves around the painting
The hierarchy in Starry Night

The hierarchy of elements in Starry Night is also really well done. Most viewer start at either the moon or the tree, but from there the line-work of the painting draws the eye around the whole composition in a clockwise spiral. It keeps looping around, so your eye keeps scanning the whole painting.

Let’s look at another example. El Greco’s Christ Carrying the Cross. I picked this one because I am forever fascinated that El Greco is a painter from the 16th century and not, say, the 1930s, and because there are some interesting things going on with the composition of this one.

El Greco, Christ Carrying the Cross
I swear his paintings look like less weird early Picassos.

Now you’ll notice, this one has pretty much the same unifying elements as the Van Gogh if we strip them down to their core. There is distinctive and consistent brushwork, and the color palate has been limited to a few select colors that complement each other (although they aren’t strictly complimentary colors in the color theory sense this time). He also uses the same trick of putting a high contrast to the central element of the image. Jesus’s face is quite pale compared to his dark surroundings. The compositional technique is rather different, and this is where it get’s interesting.

El Greco Composition: animated gif explaining the composition of the work
A bit of playing with fire is going on here.

Now the first thing about this composition that I notice is that El Greco has done something I would never do. He’s stuck a great big line down his painting and the bulk of his focus is on one side and there is very little else on the other. But it works. There are two rather dynamic elements on the far side of the line that keep this painting from feeling unbalanced. The first is the cross beam of the cross. It’s foreshortened and appears to be coming out at the viewer, which gives it more interest. The other is the red sleeve of Jesus’s robe, which is one of the brightest colors present. Also, rather than using the cyclical pattern of movement in the painting that Van Gogh used, El Greco balances a number of elements that draw the eye up with a set of elements that draw the eye down. The up and down elements all sort of negate each other, leaving a padding of negative space to keep the eye from floating off the image. The flow of the image keeps the eye scanning rather than stoping on one point.

For the sake of balance, let’s look at a three dimensional work. I give you, Bernini’s David, the most interesting and hottest of all the Italian David sculptures.

Bernini - David
Look at that smolder

Now, I think you all have the unity song and dance down by now, so let’s talk composition here. Color isn’t an issue, ’cause he didn’t use it, so that makes things a little easier. Where this sculpture excels is in lines and movement. Now, in a non minimalist sculpture, most of the lines are implied. In this case, the limbs and perceived pulling and stretching of the figure’s muscles will create them. Remember when I mentioned contrapposto last week? Well, this guy is contrapposto on steroids. Gone is the passively, naturally standing. That was so Renaissance. This is Baroque art and it’s a little more confrontational. Bernini uses the same theory of balancing parts of the body off each other, he just takes it way farther. He pushes it to the point where the figure seems just a little off balance and that give the illusion of springing into motion. It’s a little tricky to tell from this angle, but he’s loading the sling with a stone so there is a fair amount of tension in the hands.

David Composition: animated gif showing major lines and explaining that the strut is probably not there by choice
Break it down now

This composition also has an element that I think sort of works against the statue as a whole from a purely design standpoint. Just behind David’s right leg there is a suit of armor. That make sense from an illustrative standpoint, as David took off a suit of armor just before he fought Goliath. However, it’s this big lumpy solid lump in an otherwise very fluid, light artwork. It breaks with unity. Sadly taking it out probably wasn’t an option. It’s an element you find in a lot of marble statues called a strut and it’s there for structural support. As far a strut’s go, it isn’t terrible. More often than not they take the form of ugly tree stumps or columns draped with fabric for no reason, so it could be worse.

Next week, we return to your regularly scheduled programing of talk about recent-ish art.

By 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.

5 replies on “What’s the Deal with Evaluating Art? (Part three, the practicum)”

One of the best tips I ever got for checking if your contrast is working is to stand back from your artwork and squint at it. This will make it harder to see the details and force you to look at the macro shapes and values in your artwork. It also makes color less distinct. If your painting isn’t working on that level, then it probably isn’t working with the details added in.

I’m always amazed that people can make art history boring. Art is about what people find interesting. Art history is the study of things people thought were interesting enough to make pictures or statues of through time. If you find a way to make that boring, shame on you.

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