The other day I found this book on my bookshelf:
It was only published in 2016, so I can't have had it that long. YET! I had no memory of buying it, or of the sticky notes it was riddled with. This lapse in memory is one of the many indignities of aging that I've decided to look on the bright side about: it's like finding a new book! Yipeee!
Anyhoo. In no particular order, here are some of the illustrations that I tagged, and what I was drawn to. Keep in mind, this is just one woman's opinion:
I like how kind of idiosyncratic this one is... some parts look drippy, some look drier, the tiger on the shirt and again on the woman's forehead look like a block print. Then there's some fairly faint colour, and a red line that seems to follow the woman on the right's arm (as her body appears to be in profile). There is a distinct mood, and these disparate elements work together to achieve it. It looks loose, but it's actually pretty masterful.
This one has that balance between controlled and not-controlled that I seem to enjoy, though the whole effect is a little too dry and considered for my taste. I like the blobby shadow on the left side of his face—it isn't really in keeping with the way the rest of the face is rendered, but it works and you don't notice it at first because it makes sense within the painting.
I love how rich the black is in these faces. It's oil and acrylic on paper, but it makes me think of charcoal drawings. I hated using charcoal in art school because I couldn't stand the dry dust it produced, but there is no richer or more beautiful black.
I don't know—maybe I just like Michael Cera! And this intense watercolour painting seems to capture him very well. It stands alone, with nothing going on in the background—but this seems fitting and to my eye makes the portrait feel iconic.
I imagine I put a sticky note on this one for its bold graphic impact, and the contrast between the soft rendering of the face and the hair and background. The hair is just this vast, pink shape; and the pose, the tilt of the head, and the shape of the hair call to mind the turn of the 19th century. The diamond shapes in the background almost look as though they were crudely cut out with scissors. Some interesting juxtapositions I'd say.
I like this one for the interesting angle—it brings to mind a polaroid taken by someone slightly from below. It looks like a moment of joyous pontification.
Possibly my favourite of the bunch—deep, rich, and intense. Interestingly, the only one made digitally! There's something about the darkness descending over his head that lends meaning and gravity to the portrait.
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I looked through these portraits I'd chosen and started thinking about what makes a piece of art "good"—what makes one piece better than another? How does one know? I'm still really learning how to look at art myself, plus I'm deep into my own long, twilight struggle concerning my own portraits and whether or not they are satisfying my soul at this point. But more on that later.
First is the thorny issue that this book I rediscovered is not a book of "fine art", so to speak... it's illustration. I read somewhere that illustration is the depiction of an idea, while art is an idea brought to life—art for art's sake. It brings to mind the hilarious scene in the movie Ghostworld where the art teacher doesn't think much of Enid's portrait of Don Knotts, but applauds another student's "found art" tampon-in-a-teacup because it's an example of more serious artwork that deals with real issues. Enid's painting of Don Knotts is her art, though... she's not illustrating anything. But is it good art?
Some would say there is no good or bad when it comes to art, but I'm not buying that. Self-expression is obviously extremely important and in a perfect world, everyone would be practicing it in some way—but that doesn't mean that everything produced has the same level of artistic merit. If that were true, it wouldn't matter what we did, and there'd be no point trying to get any better at it because that would have no meaning. There are certain criteria by which we measure these things... naturally. Of course, there is a spectrum, a lot of it is arguable, and personal preference comes into play.
I'm no expert. To my mind a certain amount of mastery over one's medium is usually required, and being unique in concept and execution certainly doesn't hurt. To be reallygreat the artwork has to move you on a visceral level—beyond the area of the brain that can use language to describe what's happening. Technique is important, but ultimately it's the transcendent quality of a piece of art that makes it good, or even great. But there are no hard & fast rules.
Art theorist Hugh Moss says, "The best art is that which affects you as an individual. First it must catch your attention, then draw you in, then move you in some way—whether it makes you think or changes the way you think or, like great music, just makes you feel so much better for having become involved". And of course the same piece of art isn't going to do that for everyone. More seasoned viewers are going to react differently to a piece than someone who hasn't looked at or thought about art much. And your child's artwork might move you more than any Rembrandt ever could.
It gets complicated. WHAT IS GOOD ART?
I think I'm writing about this because I'm grappling at the moment with how to push my painting "to the next level", and with what that next level is for me. Are portraits akin to illustration, or does it all come down to what you put into them, and what comes out? As I'm writing it's becoming clear to me that "the next level"—for me at least—doesn't have to do with technique or popularity or sell-ability (though I wouldn't turn my nose up at any of those). When I was in art school, there was a day when I was alone painting and suddenly had a revelation about what I was feeling and experiencing: "Oh—this is what religion is all about. This is religion. My religion." Those were in fact the words I used, though strictly speaking "religion" isn't what I meant. You could say that I realized painting was a spiritual experience, or that I was tapping into a primeval part of my brain—take your pick, it doesn't matter. The point for me right now is that I'm being reminded of what "being in the zone" means for me, and that I mustn't lose sight of that, whether painting a portrait or anything else. That that, for me, is what good art is all about.
What do YOU think makes a work of art GOOD?
(I really would like to know).
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This month's winner of a free giclée print from balampman.com is Ellen Box, owner of Bonspiel Creations! Ellen designs some mighty fine leather goods here in Victoria, BC. Check out her products here. If you'd like to be entered in a monthly draw for a free giclée print, subscribe to Feed the Monster!
Thanks for reading—
- Art class scene in Ghostworld, here.
- Interview with art theorist Hugh Moss, here.
- Interesting article about "bad art" (the kind you might find in a thrift store), here.