Critiquing Art: Look for What is Alive

Art Tutorials
Critiquing Art: Look for What is Alive

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Courbet, The Painter’s Studio, 1855, oil on canvas, 12 x 20 feet

Representational art students are taught to be critical. During critiques, the stress is on the work’s problems. It is not uncommon to see students turning red with embarrassment or anger. Sometimes one will cry. Aside from a bully or two, most of them will accept the critiques as a necessary evil. “Grow a tough skin” is said to oneself and others. The idea is that in the art world only the tough survive.

Alone and long after college artists agonize over their work, aggressively tearing down their work, holding on to an idea of perfection. But is this the way to go? No. This activity serves little purpose other than to crush their spirit. The process doesn’t answer one key question: what makes an artwork alive? Telling us what is wrong is not a substitute for what is vibrant and living.

I think artists might better forgo negative critiques and focus on such things as successful color harmonies, beautiful forms, depth, and light. The harder critique of the two, is analyzing those special elements, and figuring out how they are created.

Focusing on what is alive will vitalize the critique process, open doors for great discoveries, and fortify artists creativity.

Michael Newberry
Santa Monica, January ’12

Transparency – A Key to Spatial Depth in Painting Part 2, Color

Transparency – A Key to Spatial Depth in Painting
Part 2, Color

This online tutorial is a transcription from a 2002 lecture I gave at the Courage of Your Perceptions Conference (Satellite to the EC’s Vision Scientists’ Conference) in Glasgow, Scotland.Given a two-dimensional surface, transparency and contrast are a means to place identities/forms through spatial depth.

In Part 1 I discussed how this theory works with gray tonal scales and in paintings with limited color range.  Let’s see what happens when we introduce intense colors.

 

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It’s important to note that contrast in color is not so much about light and dark but, rather, it is about color opposites. For example here is a classic color wheel in which opposite colors, also known as complimentary colors, are juxtaposed. Three major contrasts are:
Red vs. Green
Blue vs. Orange
Yellow vs. Violet

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In this diagram, blue-violet is the background color and the discs that come the  closest to it in color recede, while the yellow one, its opposite, pops forward.

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Van Gogh, Cafe Terrace on the Place du Forum, September 1888
Oil on canvas, 81 x 65.5 cm
Rijksmuseum Kroller-Mueller, Otterlo

This Van Gogh painting has an intense blue background and the orange-yellow café comes forward. Notice the buildings beyond the café are variations on darks and blues. The window straight up above the café  is literally transparent but if you look closely you will see the blue sky winking throughout sections of the buildings, giving them a transparent quality as well.

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Shifting to the opposite extreme from blue we go to a scarlet background. The light turquoise disc comes forward.

In art school I was  taught that cool colors go back and warm colors come forward, this diagram contradicts that idea.

 

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Van Gogh,Olive Trees with Yellow Sky and Sun, 1889
Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 1/2 in. (73.7 x 92.7 cm)
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts

 

Intense yellow-orange sky and ground. The green silvery leaves of the olive trees come forward to us. The ground recedes towards the sky as it gets intensely orange.

 

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I think you are getting the idea of the diagrams. You can take any color as a background, mix in a few closely matching colors and then smack in an opposite color; it will pop forward.

 

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Newberry, Pastels, 1991, oil on wood, 11 x 14 inches.

 

This still life has a red background. Notice the wood base underneath the pastel boxes at the upper right side of the canvas–it is intensely colored with oranges which help it recede from us towards the red floor. Also notice the box of red, orange, and magenta pastels and how it is visually underneath the “blue” box with its “cool” colors popping forward.

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Van Gogh, Irises, 1890
Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 29 in. (92 x 73.5 cm)
Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh, Amsterdam

 

Three things here to notice:

1) The intense blue irises that overhang in front of the jar.

2) The color of the irises that drop behind the jar have more yellow mixed in with the blue. This is a less intense blue of the forward flowers which helps increase the distance between them.

3) The central highlight on the vase is transparent, almost the same color as the background. This helps increase the distance between it and the intense blue flowers in front.

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Newberry, Icarus Landing, 2000, acrylic on linen, 55 x 36 inches

There is a combination of both the high contrast of light and dark, and the color contrast between the orange and the blue. Notice the spatial distance between his left foot and the right. The left foot has a lot of blue mixed in with it to help it recede. Like in the example of the irises of Van Gogh. Notice also the contrast of light and dark of the tip of his head at his hairline and compare that to the less intense contrast of the lights and darks of his shoulders.

 

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Monet

Look at the arch of the blue sky and how it recedes towards a pale magenta at the horizon. Notice how the water mirrors the sky in this same manner.

On the left see the intense orange of the trees and notice how they are closer to us than the trees on the right. And look how the trees further away from us have a much more pale magenta mixed in with them.

Another thing is the high contrast of color of the orange reflections of the trees and the blue sky on the water, shooting the water underneath our feet.

Given a two-dimensional surface, transparency and contrast are a means to place identities/forms through spatial depth.

I hope you enjoyed  my idea on how artists have used transparency and contrast to create spatial depth on a two-dimensional surface.

Michael Newberry
New York, July 31st, 2006

Transparency – A Key to Spatial Depth in Painting Part 1, Black/White

Art Tutorial
Transparency – A Key to Spatial Depth in Painting
Part 1, Black/White

This online tutorial is a transcription from a 2002 lecture I gave at the Courage of Your Perceptions Conference (Satellite to the EC’s Vision Scientists’ Conference) in Glasgow, Scotland.

We have examples of artworks from 30,000 years ago to the present in which artists have worked with spatial depth in their drawings and paintings. I have been fascinated by this phenomenon and, for years, I have asked myself how did these artists achieve these startling effects. The result of my query is the formulation of the concept that:
Given a two-dimensional surface, transparency and contrast are the means to place forms in spatial depth.

Transparency will place the forms in depth away from us, and contrast will raise them towards us.

Great artists are doing other spatial things as well: lighting, modeling form, and perspective drawing. But for this talk, I will focus on this transparency issue.
The first figure shows a gradation of light to dark stripes on a white background. The stripes ascend like steps towards us as they get darker. The darkest “pops” out in contrast to the white background. Conversely, the lightest of the stripes recedes into the distance of the white surface.

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 Similarly, the discs “move” through space because of their relative lightness or darkness to the background and each other. The big black disc jumps forward.

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Notice what happens when the large disc changes to light gray, it recedes significantly beyond the small black one.

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Chauvet Cave, 30,000 B.C.
Horses’ Heads from the Chauvet Cave dated 30,000 years ago. Notice the gray scale of the receding heads and the black modeling of the head closest to us. Also, notice how the light gray of the surface also comes through the receding heads literally making them transparent.

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Monet, The Thames at Westminster, 1871
Oil on canvas, 47 x 72.5 cm (18 1/2 x 28 1/2″)
National Gallery, London

This Monet is an excellent example of this idea. We first see the blackness of the pylons, and the other objects dance back into space by the degree of how transparent they become, how close to the gray of the background they match.

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When the background changes to black, the principle of transparency still holds true. The closer to a black tone the background becomes the discs further recede; the white pops forward.

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Here we have two white discs, a large and a small one; now we have an example of perspective; the bigger one comes a bit more forward than the small one.

 

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Rembrandt, Hendrickje Bathing in a River, 1654
Oil on panel, 61.8 x 47 cm
National Gallery, London
Due to the extreme lightness of her body, she comes forward off the background off the dark background. Notice the transparency of her left shoulder; it sends her left arm back away from her chest. Rembrandt is working with a gray/brown/black scale, not with a full range of color. He sets objects back by making them merge to this dark tone. Compare the brilliant lightness of her shift to the middle tone glow of the material behind her on the bank. Her lightness is popping her forward.

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Here we have a gray background, the discs that come forward have become either more white or black respectively.


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Michelangelo, Christ on the Cross

In Michelangelo’s Christ the closest part of his body to us is his right knee, then it would be his right big toe, and then his left chest. These areas have the greatest contrast between light and dark. Compare the high contrast of tone of his right foot to the more muted left foot behind. Or compare the transparent area of his left knee to the intense light and dark of his right knee. Also, notice that his arms share a depth of space and have an equal range of tonal value that is less high in contrast as his forward knee. Also, notice how delicately transparent the background figures are.

I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of Transparency – A Key to Spatial Depth in Painting. Part 2 will cover how this theory works with color.
Michael Newberry
New York, May 2006