In the twentieth century many new art movements arose which changed the visual arts in very dramatic ways. At a certain point it seemed art alone was not enough anymore. There always needed to be some new radical change. Artists also constantly needed to come up with new -isms: abstract expressionism, constructivism, cubism.., etcetera. We sort of lost our appreciation for art itself. It was and still is, all about the name and stature of the artist. Can we learn to simply enjoy art again?
My name is Christiaan. I am a Dutch oil painter and in this short article I’d like to introduce to you a way of thinking about painting that is fresh and new, as well as very old. Also it gives me the opportunity to show something of my own work. You can find my art in the online gallery: poeticoilpainting.com.
About a week ago a Dutch museum bought for 2,5 milion euro a very dark and not so great Van Gogh painting. For the same amount of money, they might have filled a whole section with spectacular works of lesser known masters from the nineteenth century. Or they might have spent a certain part of it to help struggling contemporary artists. About a year ago this same thing happened with another Dutch museum buying a not so spectacular Monet, for an indeed spectacular amount of money. This illustrates the problem we are dealing with today:
It’s all about big names, not so much about the artworks itself.
So we need to learn to reappreciate quality in art. We’ve got to learn to look with our own eyes again. I love Van Gogh, but he was a very experimental painter and had a lot of personal troubles in his lifetime. Not all of his works are of stellar quality. In the end even the great master painters were human after all. They made some lesser works as well. And it might very well be that a not so well known master made several fantastic pieces. We’ve got to learn to look at the work itself. Judge it for it’s quality on it’s own. Not because it is made by an famous artist, or just because it belongs to some kind of avant garde movement.
While studying painting, at a certain point I discovered that there is such a thing as a ‘good painting’. There are certain common elements to paintings that have quality. For an artist it is very easy to distinguish between a good painting and a painting that is not great. There seem to be certain guidelines to it. As an artist you might (loosely) follow these. To get a somewhat higher chance of ending up with a masterpiece, or at least a work that many people will find gorgious. On the other hand, a really good painting also has a certain poetic quality. This is a bit like the x-factor of a masterpiece. Very hard to explain what it is, but to almost all great artworks, there is undeniably a mysterious beauty present. A weaker work of art might be made according to the guidelines I will explain in a moment. But it might still lack poetry, refinement, delicacy and does not trigger real awe in people. That’s why masterpieces are rare. But there is still a very big difference from an ugly, amateurish kind of painting, to a work that is good and nice to look at.
By the way, to throw a little bomb out there: most paintings that are commonly judged as ‘masterpieces’ are just paintings that are good and nice to look at.
So what are these basic guidelines? I’d say in the vast majority of real masterpieces and the generally good paintings, the artist thought deeply about five things: 1) a balance of tonal values, 2) a composition of the piece that is interesting and original, 3) a way of applying the paint that is congruent with the subject 4) the way light moves in the piece, and 5) achieving a certain level of refinement in the drawing and painting proces itself. There are many other aspects to painting that are important as well, but these things I think are most crucial to a work that has quality.
I will know discuss these five points in my own work.
The thing amateur painters are most concerned with is colour. Their paintings often end up being very flashy and unbalanced. Most of them will never discover the reasons why they end up with a piece like that. I don’t play around with colour like that. I do use colour, but it is not that important to me. Please notice it is not in my list of five important aspects. What is much more crucial to me is balancing my tonal values. The right colours will come eventually. I start every painting with a drawing of the subject. When that is done I will find the lightest lights, the darkest dark and every shade that is between. This type of under-painting or ‘grisaille’ I will make before I do anything at all with colour. You can see it here, where I made a painting of my city Haarlem:
There is very little colour to the work. I use just brown and white (with a little yellow ochre in it) for the underpainting. Not black and white because this makes the work very cold. This gives me already 90% of the colour I need. I added a bit of red here and there, some more yellow ochre and that’s everything I needed for this piece. Because I am so concerned about tonal values, that is light and dark, the piece gives a strong impression of balance. It is not flashy at all, it is very comfortable to look at. To achieve the darkest darks, I add a bit of ultramarine (blue) to the burnt umber. Black is not in my palette.
The second aspect which is important to achieve a work of quality, is the composition of the piece. This means how the subject is positioned relatively to the edges. You can do a whole lot of interesting things here as an artist. Sadly, mostly what I see in works of others is the same boring compositions, especially in still lifes. Most often the subject is in the middle and we see the entire scene from the front. Very, very rarely do painters use a bit of an angle, or in general a composition that is uncommon and interesting. It would do so much for art if artists began thinking about these things. Here you can see one of my small works where I came up with a slightly different kind of composition. Because of way the cloth covers the canvas and the positioning of the apple, the work is so much more interesting to look at.
The third aspect is that the way you apply the paint should best be in congruence with the subject. If you paint a very tender subject like the apple above, then it probably wouldn’t be right to use very thick paint in an agressive manner. On the other hand, you could also be painting a cornfield under a temperamental sky. Then you might consider applying the paint in the way Van Gogh did: with bold, long strokes. This is a very rough guideline, and as an artist you shouldn’t always follow this to the letter. But there should be some kind of reason behind the way you apply the paint. It’s not just because you are an impressionist painter that you always make short brushstrokes. This is a way of limiting yourself, and art should be a very free kind of endevour. Here you can see an example of one of my works, where the style of application of paint matches the subject:
This angel is painted quite roughly. There is wind and all kinds of things going on, he watches the world below and in a few moments he might shoot an arrow or fly away. The way the paint is applied enhances the mood of the painting.
The fourth aspect is very well known, but nevertheless very important and also difficult to achieve. The artist should be aware of the way light moves in the painting. This ultimately boils down to the first aspect of tonal values. If your values are out of balance, you can never achieve good lighting in your painting. But you can have balanced values and still have uninteresting lighting. Yet sometimes nature comes to the rescue, and provides it all…
The fifth and last aspect I’d like to discuss is to achieve a certain level of refinement in the drawing an painting process. A lot of the paintings I made, I actually made twice and in some cases even three times. Drawing can be very difficult, especially when you try to draw people. Sometimes you can only draw someone, or something really well after you have done it a couple of times. As an artist you have to be able to recognize that a painting you just made is just ugly. It happens to the best. And then do it all over again. That is often when you achieve not just something good, but something great.