What Makes Art?

002Photographic source material for painting “The Unacknowledged

For me a painting begins with a photograph. Or with an idea, before the photograph exists. Or with an idea that springs from the photographic image. But without the photograph, there is no painting. For it’s a deep exploration into the image the camera has caught that tells me what significance might be here.

I may start by arranging some still life material – in the last few years, old, dried roses – to create a composition that both appeals visually and suggests meaning, not knowing what the meaning is until I see the composition. I set up multiple light sources around the arrangement to produce layering of shadows and intensity of color, to say something not only about the roses but also their world. I photograph them and often manipulate the digital image to achieve a desired range of colour and richness.

Or some thought I hadn’t thought before suddenly appears, generated by a conversation or a suggestion or even an assignment. And with it an image appears too, and I must go looking – through my own existing images, or found photos, or the lens of my camera – for the photograph that looks like the thought.

Or the photograph appears first, and with it the thought, and the need to show what that thought looks like.

However it happens., I have an image to work from. Not that the image itself is the painting. Before that happens, I manipulate the image digitally, to achieve a desired range of colour and richness. This is still not the painting. The painting begins when I crop the image, taking out everything possible so what is left seems inevitable.

I then work out the image in an elaborate contour drawing on my painting support, and mix colours in response to the photo. These are applied using an uncertain, oily medium, with a stick that won’t completely let you direct it, and placed with one slightly transparent brushstroke next to or on top of another, until it becomes something that didn’t exist before. It’s always precarious, from beginning to end.

As I work, I aim to develop one area thoroughly before moving to another, so that the viewer might see clear relationships between the areas. The rest of the piece follows. You never know until it’s finished whether it’s all a big mistake or not! And you hope it makes sense.

I’ve heard it said that using a photograph as source material precludes the making of art. But I’ve been around a long time and I’ve also heard that a painting with any subject at all cannot be art. And that painting in any form can’t be art either.

Maybe the making of art has less to do with its source material or its subject or the form it takes than it does the artist’s journey in the making. It has to do with you.

What do you think? How is art defined? Can it be defined at all?

Thanks to Nikki Jacquin, commenting on a previous post, for suggesting the idea of this one.

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10 Responses to What Makes Art?

  1. Jacquie February 11, 2016 at 11:14 am #

    For me

    a painting begins
    with an idea that springs

    a deep exploration
    what significance might
    be
    here

    I may start by arranging

    not knowing what the meaning is
    layering of shadows and intensity of color

    not only about the roses but also their world

    some thought I hadn’t thought before suddenly appears

    I must go looking
    for the photograph that looks like the thought

    and with it the thought, and the need to show what that thought looks like.

    This is still not the painting.

    I then work out the image

    taking out everything possible so

    what is left seems

    inevitable.

    It’s always precarious

    from beginning to end

    The rest of the piece follows

    And you hope it makes sense.

    It has to do with you.

    What do you think?

    • Laureen February 11, 2016 at 2:00 pm #

      I’ve never had a comment in poetry form before! I’m honoured you could find this in my words ^_^

      • Jacquie February 16, 2016 at 11:07 am #

        It was fun and so much easier to use your words than find my own. Thank you for the creative inspiration, Laureen!

        • Laureen February 16, 2016 at 11:09 am #

          My pleasure 🙂

  2. Marlena Wyman February 11, 2016 at 12:50 pm #

    Thanks for providing the background. Fascinating. I think that photographs, especially archival, are so evocative and inspirational. I have also started using oil sticks and love the voluptuous unpredictability of the medium.

    • Laureen February 11, 2016 at 1:57 pm #

      Thanks for finding it interesting! You do such amazing artwork with your archival photos – I can see the evocation you speak of.

  3. Pamela Woodland February 11, 2016 at 1:58 pm #

    Engaging read about your process. Generous, too. Interesting to hear about oil sticks.

    Regarding what is art? I’d like to see that question wiped off the board.

    Or perhaps, on a slightly cheeky note, there are two types of people in this world: those who ask what is art, and those who make it.

    • Laureen February 11, 2016 at 2:02 pm #

      Or those who try to make it!

  4. Nikki Jacquin February 12, 2016 at 2:49 pm #

    You are so inspiring Laureen! How you can take a comment and turn it into something blog worthy. I truly am enjoying peeping into your artists’ heart.

    I agree. If you took the photo or even if you don’t, there is some conversation between the image and the artist that compels the artist to create using the image as a point of inspiration. It still comes down to what the artist sees in the originating muse that matters and how skillfully they are able to translate that via their medium of choice.

    I found it interesting too you said, and I heard it said of Mary Pratt that sometimes the objects call to you but you don’t realize their significance or message until somewhere in the process. I think of Mary Pratt’s painting of a carton of eggs with a few cracked and some whole. There was something beautiful and yet sad about the work. Supposedly after the painting had been created and exhibited, someone pointed out to her the possible parallel between her life and that which was depicted in paint.

    • Laureen February 12, 2016 at 4:23 pm #

      Nikki, I’m so glad you’re here. I love the idea of object as muse.

      And I don’t think it matters the tiniest what the point of inspiration was, photo, incident, colour relationship, glimmer of light. What matters is where the artist takes it.