Art Lessonby Clyde List

Art, like science, is defined as a branch of learning. The main difference between these two kinds of knowledge is that science requires two or more people to agree about what they've seen before an observation can be published. The artist publishes his observations when he alone decides that these observations are correct.

Learning to become an artist is to learn how to value one's own observations of the world, how to make those observations fully and accurately, and how to communicate those observations to others.

Portraits, Landscapes,
and Still Lifes

This essay is limited to three things the graphic artist creates. Portraits, Landscapes, and Still Lifes.

Portrait painting limits the artist's compositional skills. The subject will almost always be placed in the center of the frame with one eye on the central axis of the canvas (recently much has been written about this strange fact). A background is glimpsed at the edges of the painting.

The famous Mona Lisa has an interesting problem in the background. If the famous lady were removed from the picture, how would you connect the two halves of the landscape together and still be in Italy?

Landscape painting also places constraints on the artist's compositional skills. A landscape is usually divided in half: Half sky and half earth. It's two compositions in one. The eyes have to adjust to each half separately.

This 1835 oil painting by J.M.W.Turner demonstrates Turner's ability to erase the distinction between earth and sky.

Still Life paintings are free of the constraints of landscape and portraiture.

Cezanne was devoted to still life painting: His house was cluttered with settings of fruit in every stage of decomposition. I personally have experienced my most electric moments exploring the subtleties of this kind of oil painting. Unfortunately, it is difficult to interest an audience in a plate of fruit.

Choosing a Style

Recently I found this cartoon in my memorabilia. I drew it for a computer newsletter fifteen years ago. I am astonished now to discover the Old Man in the picture to be a portrait of myself! Handwriting analysts say that this phenomenon occurs anytime you pick up a tool to write or draw or paint with. Your handwriting is a collection of strokes that you would use to construct a picture of yourself. The significance of this phenomenon for artists is that it's no use creating a style for yourself. You already have a style, whether you know it or not. It's as much a part of you as your handwriting is. (The joke, incidentally, is that a retired NASA programmer is being disciplined for some "naughty" tips he wrote about in our computer club newsletter.)

Getting down to business.

  • If you want to copy someone, imitate the best. Remember that the "best" doesn't mean the "richest and most successful." Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting and I would definitely consider him among the "best." (On the other hand, Norman Rockwell became very wealthy and I would consider him among the "best" as well.) A visit to the art museum or art library is a good thing to do. Take along your sketch pad and diary, just as if you were on a field trip in the country. If you stand on a street corner with a sketch pad and people stare at you, don't worry. They usually assume you're with the government. (One time I entered a small cafe just to rest my feet and a woman hurried out to ask if I wanted to see the toilets!)

  • And don't pay too much attention to the criticism of friends and family members. America admires inventors, but has been very hard on its artists. Fact is, the more you begin to discover your personal view of the world, the more difficult it is to share. On the plus side, it is this sense of isolation that causes you to want to hone your skills to perfection so that no one can possibly misunderstand the images you put before them. You may even feel like a hermit in the wilderness for awhile, and the wilderness (judging from the Da Vinci landscape above) can be a very lonely place.


    Coming Soon: Cartooning and Animation.