The subject really doesn’t matter

“Arrangement in Grey and Black” by James McNeill Whistler. The power in this painting comes from the artist’s skilled manipulation of composition and color, not from the subject matter.

     Have you ever looked at an abstract painting and wondered what on earth the artist was up to?  When there is no recognizable subject, many people get uncomfortable looking at just colors, lines and shapes.  However, even with “realistic” painting, very often the most important thing isn’t whether or not it looks like the subject. 

     Although subject matter is important in certain kinds of painting, it is the abstract elements like line, color, and arrangement of shapes (composition) that can make or break a painting.  An artist who understands these abstract elements can make a masterpiece out of any subject; an artist who doesn’t understand form, line, color and composition can take a wonderful subject and make it dull and uninteresting.

      For example, the painting known as “Whistler’s Mother,” which is best known for its subject, gets much of its appeal from its abstract elements.  Whistler took a curtain, a picture on a wall, a lace cap, an old lady’s profile, a chair, a floor, a black dress and a pair of hands at rest, and put them together in such a way that they are enjoyable to look at.  It is worth noting that Whistler himself insisted on recognizing the abstract elements of composition and color; he titled the painting “Arrangement in Gray and Black.” 

     The psychological effects of form, color and arrangement can be easily understood if you can visualize “Whistler’s Mother” painted in bright pinks, blues and yellows, with Renoir’s sparkling brush strokes, rather than Whistler’s muted colors and quiet paint surface. 

     The average person doesn’t have to be aware of the abstract elements of a picture in order to understand it.  “Whistler’s Mother” can be appreciated as an observation of a beautiful old woman. 

     It takes a little more effort to learn to enjoy art that has little or no recognizable subject.  Artists who paint abstract works are saying, in effect, “Why is it necessary to have a subject?  Why not just enjoy forms, colors and arrangements by themselves?”   

     How did painting come to this point?  Let’s look at Picasso; he was a child prodigy.  By his teens he had mastered the conventional techniques of painting and drawing.  He drew and painted so well that his artist father, after seeing one of his child’s paintings, hung up his brushes.  Why did Picasso abandon conventional painting?  He sacrificed a great deal to paint abstractly.  He gave up the interest in the objects that compose a picture; he gave up the fascination and variety of natural textures; he gave up the harmony of light and the satisfaction of building forms out of light and shadow. 

     But he gained the freedom to manipulate the forms in his paintings.  He didn’t have to bother with making things look “real.”  If, for the sake of design or emotion, he wanted to make a head 3/4 the size of the body beneath it and skew the nose to one side, he could do it.  He gained freedom from the limitations of perspective.  In short, he could do anything he wanted to get the effect he desired in his painting. 

     Artists like Picasso are asking us to enjoy pure form, pure color and pure arrangement without being diverted by realistic details.  And painting abstractly DOES require technical knowledge.  Picasso, for example, simplified his work so much that any faulty relationship of composition, form or color would be more glaring than the same sort of error in a Rembrandt or Vermeer.  A second-rate realistic painting can still be an interesting picture — maybe even a good one.  But a second-rate abstract painting is simply no good at all.  In both kinds of painting, every element affects every other element.  Each thing must be properly placed and colored. 

     There’s really no point in saying that realistic painting is better than abstract painting, or vice versa.  A person might prefer one or the other, but there’s no reason both can’t be enjoyed.  It takes time and adjustment to see composition, use of color, and design in abstract painting, but the effort is worth it if it opens up a new field of enjoyment.




Published by on December 2011. Filed under Archives, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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