Art History vs. Art History

The Sea Of Ice oil painting by Caspar David Friedrich
The Sea Of Ice by Caspar David Friedrich

This post was not the one I intended tonight. I was going to talk about principles of design for my Basics series of posts but then this idea struck me and I thought I would see how it fits.

While I have not studied art history as extensively as some, I believe that I have enough of a grasp to venture some ideas not typically taught or acknowledged. Or I could be completely off track or be stating something that is well known.

Art history as a field of research is broken down into periods of style which took its form from A History of Ancient Art by Johann Joachim Winckelmann written in the 18th century. So we learn art history as a set of sections similar to a Dewy Decimal system and have categories like the Renaissance, High renaissance, Mannerism, Baroque, Rococo, etc. I agree that it is an orderly way to split the history of art into manageable, and more importantly, referable chunks. But I believe it has a hidden flaw, or at least an untaught flaw.

The Icebergs oil painting by Frederic Edwin Church
The Icebergs by Frederic Edwin Church

By breaking down the history of art into stylistic periods, we tend to think of those periods as all of the art and art philosophy that was being produced or explored at that time. So, we end up with a view of art history that seems to be comprehensive, but if given visual form looks more like an iceberg with the tip being chosen by whoever is doing the talking.

iceberg of art history
Comparison of art history with an iceberg

Which makes me wonder if artistic taste and the current trends in art would be different if different stylistic periods had been championed?


Works by Johann Joachim Winckelmann

Michelle Mitchell

Moving Toward the Light oil painting by Michelle Mitchell
Moving Toward the Light by Michelle Mitchell

I saw this painting Moving Toward the Light by Michelle Mitchell in the book Classical Painting Atelier by Juliette Aristides, and have fallen in love with it.

The way she made the skin glow and the expression on the man’s face create some sort of hypnotic effect and I can’t turn away.

Michelle painted this while still a student of Atelier Lack, but this is an artwork worthy of a master.

I hate to examine it too closely, afraid that it will loose some of the magic it has for me, but I feel that there is a lesson here that I need to learn.

Someday perhaps I’ll look at it with a critical eye, but not today.

Today I will simply look and enjoy.

Michelle Mitchell

Classical Painting Atelier

Reverse Shadow Beams

Photograph showing reverse shadow beams at sunset.

James Gurney in his book Color and Light talked about rare cases when you would see shadow beams where clouds or contrails would cast shadows down to the ground. He explained that the sky behind the shadow beams had to be hazy and lighter so they would show up. He cautioned against using them too much since they “attract a lot of attention.”

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a painting that used reverse shadow beams.

I wonder what Mr. Gurney would say about them?

James Gurney’s blog.

The Unfinished Accent

In the final years of World War II German Panther and Tiger tanks were the most sophisticated in the world. They were more heavily armored, had larger and more accurate guns, and the engines were stronger and precision built. Overall the Panther and Tiger tanks were more deadly than any other tank at the time including the M4 Sherman tank used by the United States and Allies and the T-34 used by the Soviets. So why did they loose?

They lost because they had better armor, had more accurate guns, and were precision built. They lost because they stepped too close to perfection. They lost because they were more difficult to make, harder to maintain, and less tolerant of any dirt or grime that entered the system.

Why is this important for an artist to know?

In any realist based art instruction the student should be encouraged to be accurate and strive for the capturing of every detail. The student should be encouraged to achieve perfect rendering of any object placed before them. These are the worthy goals of a student, but not an artist.

An artist should be able to accomplish the goal of a student, but an artist’s goal is to move beyond the student and to give the artwork life.

The idea of life is hard to pin down, but a good way to think of it as that space left open in an artwork for the connection with the audience to dwell. Harold Speed in his book The Practice and Science of Drawing described it as dither. He used the analogy of an engine where the parts have been so precisely made that there is no room left for them to move. In a working engine there has to be enough room, or dither, between the parts that they can move freely.

I like to call this the unfinished accent.

In painting, an accent is usually the lightest light or darkest dark. But I like to think of an accent as a small unnoticed thing that if removed wouldn’t ruin an artwork, but will make you feel that something is missing.

For example, in the pictures of Girl with a Red Hat by Vermeer I’ve removed four accents on one of them. Without studying them closely try to pick out the one that feels more complete.

Girl with a red hat by Vermeer
Girl with a red hat by Vermeer

In the top one, I’ve removed four pointille dots that masquerade as highlights but are really accents to lead your eye around the painting.

To get back to the concept of the unfinished accent, look at these two sculptures below.
Which one has more life?
Clay Sculpture by Will St John
Clay Sculpture by Susie Chism

Both were done for the Grand Central Academy Classical Figure Sculpture Competition last year. The first one is by Will St. John and is the winner of the competition, and the second one is by Susie Chism and received second place. In many ways the second one has tighter more precise rendering and handling of the form, and more detail. So why did the first one win?

It won because it allowed room for the viewer to make a connection with it. You can see some marks from the sculptor’s tools on the arms and fingers on the abdomen, and yet it still won.

When something is rendered completely it has told it’s entire story, there is nothing left for anyone else to contribute. It becomes plastic ice cream. Plastic ice cream doesn’t drip. It is always a perfect scoop, never partial or broken. It looks perfectly like ice cream, but no one would be fooled into thinking it has the coolness, taste, or texture of real ice cream.

But there is a danger in the unfinished accent, and a reason why I call it an accent. To borrow Harold Speed’s analogy of the engine again, if there is too much room in an engine, it looses power and may not work, or even becomes dangerous. It needs to remain the unidentifiable thing that adds life to an artwork not become the artwork itself.


The Practice and Science of Drawing by Harold Speed.

Grand Central Academy Blog