Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What to Look for in Art

During the 2009 summer, I worked with a colleague at Belmont Charter School in Philadelphia.  We taught a class of 6 year olds how to understand art.

During the first class, I gave each child an apple.  I asked them to hold it and to smell it and tell me what they discovered.  I asked them to take a bite of it, and tell me how it tasted.  They had no trouble doing this.  Finally, I told them they could eat it.

Then I showed them this picture:

Bauman, Fruit, Oil on canvas, 1995, Private Collection
When I asked them to tell me what they saw in the lower center, they all shouted, “An apple.”

“An apple?” I questioned.  “Touch it,” I instructed.  “Smell it.”  Would you want to take a bite out it?”  I asked.  They shook their heads, laughing, “No.”

So what is it? I asked again.  I got 16 blank stares.  “Come on, we talked about this,” I told them.  “You touched it and smelled it.  What is it?”

Finally, one of them raised his hand eagerly: “it’s a picture of an apple,” he proudly said.


“What is a picture?” I asked.

A long silence.  “Watch me touch this picture and turn it around so you can see the back,” I said.

“It’s flat,” one replied.

“It’s colors on something flat,” another said.

Step 1 completed.

While this may seem silly, it is anything but.

Until you understand that a picture is not the same as the subject of the picture, you will not see the art in the painting you are exploring.  You will be seduced into describing what is not there: the subject. 

Think about this.  Think about every lecture you have heard or every description of a painting you have read.  Most of the discussion centers on its subject.  Recently, I went on a guided tour at the Clark Collection in Williamstown, MA.  The guide stopped at a portrait, and the first question she asked the group was “do you like this man?”  “What man?” I wanted to reply.  “I don’t see a man.  I see colors on a flat surface that remind me of a man.”  I walked away instead, because the guide and the group would have thought my statement strange.

I wanted to focus on the picture and understand it.  The guide wanted to focus on its subject.

A scholar and writer about art told this tale about his work with professional curators at a prestigious and well-known museum.  He took this group into one of the galleries of the museum, placed them in front of a painting, and asked them to describe the picture before them without looking at its label or consulting any reference material.  “They were dumbstruck,” he said.  “They did not possess a method to uncover anything in the picture unless they could research what other experts said about it.”

You will soon be equipped to do what he asked in front of any picture in the world.

Let’s return to Sitting Pretty, the painting I asked you to examine in the last blog.

                                                     Bauman, Sitting Pretty, oil, 2005, Private Collection

If you study the picture and do not obsess over its subject, all you need to say is "the subject was a woman sitting."  You do not see a tree, an apple, or a man.  Notice the use of the tense: was.  Past tense.  The subject was; the picture is.

Here is the list I would make in answer to the questions I asked you:  the color is vivid, bright, and applied in strips and geometric shapes.  The large central color unit that says “woman” fills the entire picture space, expressing a quality of bigness.  In fact, many of you might have started there, but you may have said, “that is one big woman.”  No, it is no longer a big woman.  It is now a large shape of fractured, vivid, patterned color.  Do you see the difference?  You are describing color on a flat surface, not a person.

The light floods the canvas, organized into distinct areas: start at the right side of the canvas and look upwards from the cloth the figure’s left leg rests on, to the left arm, and the diamond of light in the upper right corner.  Notice how the other lights to the left of the canvas, the figure’s right leg, right arm, face, and chest, and the odd shaped vertical band at the upper left are slightly darker than the units on the right.

Did you see this?

Now look at the patterns sparkling on the skirt, the geometric patterns in the flesh, the cloth areas, and the background.  Do any of them repeat? 

Did you define the space?  It is not very deep, is it?  The central color unit, pushed forward by the background, makes it look big and looming, as does the cut off head and feet. While space recedes under that left leg on the right side, and through the small triangle made by the left arm leaning on the knee of that leg, it does not recede very far.

What does all this mean?

It means that we are describing a picture.  The picture had as its subject a woman sitting.  The picture transformed that subject into something color can say.  For example:  a large central unit of fractured, geometric, vivid, bright color shapes and patterned light is placed within a bold, dynamic series of subtle spatial rhythms.

That statement sums up the list of discoveries I recorded.

The next step would be to describe what visual ideas I borrowed from the traditions.   Do you see Matisse’s work in the patterned color shapes?  In the shallow space?  In the bright, bold color?

                                                          Matisse, Yellow Odalisque, 1938, oil, PMA

Do you see Impressionism in the broken color and the flood of light?  How about Vincent van Gogh’s work in the strips of color? 
         Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Camille Roulin,
                                                                                1888-89, oil, PMA

That’s a start.  Did I do something with those ideas they did not do?  If so, what?  That determines whether I am a copycat or an originator.  You decide.

If you did not get as far as the picture idea or the use of the traditions, do not despair.  I described, in brief, the process, not how long it takes to learn how to use it with confidence.

If, at this point, you feel intrigued by what I am showing you, I have succeeded.

In the next post, I will continue this discussion of what to look for in art.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Learning to See

This summer I visited my son’s family every Thursday to help with two new grandchildren, Sophia and Jack, born in February.  My visits allowed my daughter-in-law to go out unfettered by her now four children: Lily, 7; Max, 5; and the twins.

My husband accompanied me, and while he watched the babies and Max, I taught Lily (and sometimes two or three of her friends) to paint.

The girls had no art training, but they all liked to work with their hands to draw, color, and make things.  I tell you this because, as with other children I have taught, my job is not so much to teach them “techniques,” but to teach them to see.

For example: I placed some simple objects before them (some apples, for instance, and a glass), and I asked them to look at them and do a “warm-up” drawing, the way a pitcher warms up before a baseball game, I told them.

Generally, at first, they barely looked at the objects before they went to work, and the resulting drawings were tiny, barely filling their paper. The lines they made hugged the lower edge of the paper and the shapes did not touch each other as though suspended in air.

Then I asked them to watch my finger as I moved it around each object.  I showed them where one object blocked another, and I pointed out the spaces between them.  With a ruler, I showed them the space made at the bottom of the arrangement, how the glass was further back than the apples, for instance.

“Oh,” they said in unison, “I did not see that.”

Their next drawing was larger, the objects now moved front or behind each other, and the spaces between them made patterns.

We see what we look for, and the hand follows the eye.

I do not tell you this story because I want to teach you to draw; I tell you this because it is the basic principle in understanding what art teaches.   Art teaches a new way of seeing.

If we examine an art form, we must experience it visually. 

The things in our world are visible to us because of light.  To see anything, we need light.  Light, absorbed and reflected, produces color.  Everything we see occupies a position in space (above, below, behind).  Everything we see has a boundary, an edge, sometimes defined by one color shape next to another or by a line.  Visual artists must use these elements to make pictures.  They also use an idea their subject inspires (we call this the picture idea) and adapt relevant visual ideas they discover in works of art, current and past (aka the traditions of art).

When we examine a painting, therefore, we need to look for and describe how the artist uses light, color, line, and space. We decide what visual idea sums up the picture’s meaning, and we identify the visual ideas borrowed and transformed that make this work unique—that make it new. Discovering this educates our vision (aka teaches us how to see in a new way).

Stay with me.  This will make sense.

One more tool: we need to describe the visual quality of what we see, its specific visual characteristic.  For example, if I held a rock in one hand and a cotton ball in the other, what qualities define each of them?  Do you agree the rock is hard, solid and, compared to the cotton ball, relatively heavy?  Do you agree that the cotton ball is soft, fuzzy and, compared to the rock, relatively light?  You may use other words to describe the qualities of each, but that is more a matter of language usage than it is disagreement with the basic qualities.  I doubt any of you thought the rock was soft, for instance, or the cotton ball hard.

When we confront a painting, however, we cannot hold anything in our hands.  We have to describe the qualities of the color, light, line, and space by using our eyes. 

Finally, we must recognize and accept that a picture is a two-dimensional representation of something.  It is not the “something.”  A picture re-presents something, gives it to us in a new way, color-made and flat.  The medium of visual art is color, and the color holds the meaning.

In other words, the subject of the picture does not determine the visual meaning expressed via the color. 

As practice, look at the following picture and, before you read any further, make a list of what kind of color, light, line, and space you see. 

Bauman, Sitting Pretty, Oil on cnavas, 2005, Private Collection
Now list the qualities revealed by the orchestration of those means:  for example, is the color bright or dull, vivid or muted? Is the space deep, shallow, or something else? What kind of line do you see?  How does the line affect the color?  For example, does it contain it? Does it establish a pattern?  Is the line thick, thin, broken, or something else?  What does the light do? Where is it? Why? 

Keep looking until you cannot see anything more.

Then read the next post: What to Look for in Art.