And so, this book. I am taking you to the museum with me. We are going to learn the vocabulary of visual art. We are going to look at a selection of works of art, many of which may already be familiar to you. But we are going to look at them with the eyes of an artist.
This is a book about art appreciation, and that is our goal, appreciation. You may enjoy what you do not understand, but my theory is that your enjoyment will be greatly improved and deepened with understanding.
We will talk about taste and style, and why these are so personal and so variable. Fashions come and go, and this is very much applicable to art. There are reasons who certain works are popular and why they have survived generations. We’ll be examining this.
I’ll be giving you an art vocabulary that will help you to understand and to discuss visual art. I’ll also give you the tools to decode what you see and make sense of it.
We’ll be looking at examples of Western art throughout history. There have been many thousands of artists who lived and made their contribution to art, but in this book we’ll be choosing a sample, perhaps a little more than a hundred, to focus on. I’ve selected them for various reasons, not necessarily because they are the best or the most famous, but because they illustrate a concept that will help you to comprehend the overall scope and sweep of our subject.
They may be highlighted for their versatility, or the fact that they were forerunners of a new direction in art-making. Perhaps they were masters of a certain facet of art or exemplars of a technique, or created a work that became iconic. They are important for one reason or another, and I will point out what that reason it.
Some of the greats in the world of art are mentioned and even discussed, but images of their work do not appear in the book. I have been limited to photographs that are in the public domain, and the works of these greats, practicing in recent times, remain under copyright. I thank some of the artist foundations who have given me the right to use works under fair use, as this book has an educational purpose.
My hope is that this very broad overview will encourage you to delve further into subjects or artists that are of particular interest to you. I strongly suggest that you look up the artists under copyright and study their works. I also hope you will seek out other points of view, as mine is only one, and this is a big subject,
Thought the masterworks of art have been much discussed and applauded, there are many unsung artists who are also wonderful and their works worthy of praise. A few of these are included here. My hope is that you will use the understanding you gain from this book to discover some of these lesser-known lights and even to collect some of their works.
Appreciation of art is quite subjective and opinions diverge. You may disagree with my assessments, and this is fine. If I’ve done my job, though you may not share my preferences, you will have learned more about yours. I won’t tell you what to like, but I’ll help you understand why you like it. You’ll learn about art, and you will also learn about yourself. It will be fun, I promise.
So let’s go. Come along with me as we look at art. There won’t be any crowds. No one will be snapping photos with their smartphones. No one will be standing in front of you. It will be just us, and the joy of art.
We like different things because we are different. We have different experiences, come from different cultures, have different environments, live in different times.
Just as our taste in food differs, so toes our taste generally. Can we infer that because many people like pizza and french fried potatoes and whipped cream that there is something to a popular or universal taste?
We do know that people in Russia like borscht, a cold pink soup, that is distasteful to people in the United States, that people in Japan like raw fish, which many people do not like, very few people like anchovies, and so on. But again, we don’t know why, except that these foods are familiar and native to these communities and people may have “developed” a taste for them.
Taste can be developed….
How do artists choose the medium they prefer?
It is interesting to consider why artists choose the materials they do, why one visual artist decides to be a painter and another a sculptor. Each medium possesses its own set of expressive possibilities, and makes a match with the interests, talents, and abilities of the artists that use them.
Painters create illusions, images, and there is little or no construction involved in their process. Making sculpture involves an engineering problem– the piece has a distribution of weight and issues of gravity, volume, structure etc. come into play in their creation.
Painting and sculpture are sequential processes. In painting, there is a methodology known as al primo or alla prima where the painting is completed while the paint is still wet. This type of work might be completed in a single session, or several; what is salient is that the process is continuous, without preparatory steps. This approach is more difficult to achieve in sculpture, which traditionally requires more planning and preparation.
So it is likely that a spontaneous type might choose the art of painting, and someone more able to think procedurally might prefer sculpture. As to the specific choice of medium, this is partly due to availability, accessibility, and exposure to a given material. Artists often try several media and find that one or more are more suitable to their touch or approach, or to the thematic material or subject matter they choose.
I knew a glass artist who was a former baker and found the process of creating glass molds to be similar to that of her former baking and icing activities. A ceramic artist who like to play in the mud as a child. A wax encaustic worker who found the texture of this medium ideal for her earthy abstractions. A graphic artist who drew the complexities of trees and found no better medium than pencil and charcoal. And so on.
Artists also inherently have a certain preference in terms of scale and proportion. Look at Christo, who needs an entire landscape to create. Or many other environmental artists who think of the earth as their canvas. Every artist has a particularly sized world he or she can manage. It can be tiny for a jewelry artist, or grandiose for an environmental sculptor. The medium not only determines the message; it is the message.