What Makes “Good” Art?

What do you believe art is? What is art’s purpose? In many ways your beliefs will determine whether you think a certain piece of art is good or not. Since artists and experts don’t always completely agree on what good art is, answering these questions may be difficult, and any answer may seem subjective.

FOUR VIEWPOINTS.

1.) If you think that art should be an imitation of reality, then your definition of good art would require realistic light and shadows, accurate perspective, and proper proportions. 

Rosa Bonheur’s Painting – “The Horse Fair” (1852-55).

2.) A more formal interpretation of art would require good art to employ a traditional use of line quality, color, composition, and the other academic elements and principles of art. 

3.) Others might believe that good art must communicate a message. Good art has something to say to an audience and may try to convince or share commentary. Such art is often thought-provoking, having a moral or political theme.

4.) Finally, some people are of the opinion that good art must express the artist’s emotions and evoke an emotional response in the viewer. Creating an emotional connection is a goal.

Most people believe art ought to emphasize one or several of the above ideas. In What Makes Great Art  Andy Pankhurst and Lucinda Hawksley also discuss several other categories of good art ( for instance, art that focuses on beauty, movement, distortion, or symbolism). 

Joaquin Sorolla’s – “Walk On A Beach” (1909).

EXPERT OPINIONS.

Artists and art experts have offered their own individual definitions. One expert explained, “I have trouble describing exactly what good art is, but like pornography, I know it when I see it.” 

According to actor/director Michael Chekhov, great art has “a feeling of Ease, a feeling of Form, a feeling of Beauty, a feeling of the Whole.” (Note the repeated mention of the word “feeling.”) 

On medium.com, the author notes that good art is at least in part determined by “the clarity with which the artwork’s central idea or concept shines through.” 

Don Stone’s Painting – “Midwinter”.

The writer of artgoda.com says “good art has 1.) a strong emotional impact on the viewer, and 2.) leaves a long lasting, unforgettable impression.” Thus, great art evokes strong feelings and is not boring, but memorable. 

The art consultant Alan Bamberger feels “good art is an effective combination of concept, vision, and mastery of medium (the ability to get the point across). Good art is also uncompromisingly honest, unselfconscious, bold, ambitious, enlightening, original, challenging, and a feast for the senses. It doesn’t necessarily have to have all these qualities, but at the very least it has to keep you coming back for more… and never ever bore.” 

Artist Lauren Brevner has said “ I tend to have a visceral reaction to the piece… that’s how I know it’s good… It could be a quickening of my pulse, or butterflies in my stomach,… such a rush of emotion that I can’t help but feel drawn to it.”

For visual art specifically, another expert claims that the best artwork “shows a mastery of drawing, composition, color, and technique,” and that larger works, as opposed to tiny works, naturally have more impact. 

Andrew Wyeth’s Painting – “The Cummer’s Light Wash”.

 COMMON CHARACTERISTICS OF GOOD ART.

There is some general consensus, however, about what matters in creating good art, no matter what the style. Good art tends to have:

1.) Good composition and design.

2.) A feeling of the emotions of the artist (shown perhaps with liveliness, vitality, boldness, fearlessness, verve).

3.) An expression of originality (a new way of seeing or an unusual viewpoint). The artist is able to create an impression or interpretation that is their own. 

4.) Beauty. (The image is pleasing to the eye.)

5.) Unfussy, economical, fresh brushwork (not overworked or overwrought). Every part of the image is essential, necessary.

6.) Clear central idea or concept.

7.) Magic (a memorable, emotional impact).

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Painting – “Lake George” (1922).

FOLLOW GUIDELINES WHILE CHOOSING YOUR OWN STYLE.

Each of us identifies with or gravitates to certain types of art. We have our preferences, no matter what the experts say. Your inclinations will dictate the elements you will strive to include in your own paintings and that you prefer to see in any art you might buy. What are your preferences? Don’t merely follow trends; decide for yourself what you like.

At the same time, your style choices should not ignore the characteristics of good art. “Good” art is, in fact, NOT completely subjective. If you want to create your own “good” art, you cannot just do your own thing with no regard for generally accepted guidelines like those outlined above in the previous section. Aim to incorporate into your painting the important components of good art as you paint, whatever your chosen style. 

In summary, get a good grasp of the basic techniques in your chosen medium, incorporate some of the guidelines for good art into your artwork, then concentrate on making art that expresses your own personality and feelings.

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Realism: Better Than An Exact Copy!

Realistic painting often gets a bad rap nowadays.  The implication seems to be that abstract painting is creative, raw, cool, and trendy; that realistic painting is merely like a copy of a photograph.

Well, realistic painting (the seemingly straightforward representation of objects as they appear in the physical world) can be every bit as CREATIVE as making an abstract image.  Good realistic painting has a great deal in common with abstraction.  Paintings of each type may assume different positions on a continuum from more realistic to more abstract, but both need to use sound structural designs (that is, well-organized images) to be effective.  Good design directs the viewer’s eye through the picture by using shapes, line, color, edges, value, and manipulation of space.  Planning and structuring your painting do not stifle your creativity.

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Artist Georgia O’Keefe commented on the dispute over realism versus abstraction:  “It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract.  Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense.  A hill or a tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree.  It is lines and colors put together so that they say something.”  Even the ideal subject must be shaped and adapted to fit the idea and emotion the artist wants to express. 

Copying an image exactly without determining a focal point or eliminating distracting details does not improve that image.  Painting ought not involve simply copying what you see; slavishly reproducing an image is not the goal.  To create good realistic art, you need to make it PERSONAL.  Your art needs to reveal what you want to say and what the image/scene means to you.  The goal for most realistic painters should be to combine the realistic image with a distinctive INDIVIDUAL PERCEPTION and expression of the subject.  You must select and arrange colors, lines, shapes, and other design elements.  You can create an unusual color scheme; use a dramatic value contrast; emphasize texture, pattern, or line.  As an artist, you transform the subject by filtering it through unconscious thought processes so that it reflects your past experiences and personal beliefs.

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If something intrigues you, it is worthy of your interest and of your audience’s interest.  Explore any subject if you feel you have something to say about it.  You paint best what you know best.  One artist may seem successful at selecting unusual subject matter.  Another artist may be a people person and prefer portraits.  Yet another may enjoy the refreshing feeling of landscapes.

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In the classroom, students often copy the work of other artists.  Copying can be useful for practicing skills and techniques – that is, as a way of learning – but a number of pitfalls to copying can emerge.  It is difficult, for instance, to capture the emotion expressed by the artist who made the original.  You might also simply copy mistakes or poor techniques without being aware of those flaws.  Furthermore, copying prevents you from learning to organize a picture on your own; some people become dependent on copying.  Since the creative experience is missing when you copy, you need to move beyond copying to become a creative artist.

Much better sources for images to paint are your own photographs.  However, you will need to adapt even your own photographs when you use them as source material; remember that even a well-composed photograph needs editing to become an effective, forceful painting.  Also try working from life to design your own picture.  Observe carefully.  Pick and choose, simplify and rearrange until you have transformed a literal image to fit your impression.  Leave out distracting or extraneous details.  Focus on essentials to turn nature into art.  Use your memories to visualize something that isn’t there now, and imagine or invent something if you think it would make a good picture.  In any case, strive to be selective and imaginative rather than literal.

In composing your picture, think about what you want to say.  You might make a list of descriptive words that characterize your subject; include details about its physical appearance and qualities that make it unique or interesting to you.  These could be related to mood or emotion.  Brainstorm as many ideas as possible; then narrow these down to one clear meaning – this is your concept, what you want to say.  Concentrate on this meaning; you can have only ONE focal point.  Start with the real, but enhance it!

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