In this video in the series you’ll learn about composition, color, emotion, painting techniques, use of lines, and other artistic elements artists used to produce their greatest works of art. This video will help you understand the qualities of great art, especially painting created before the 20th century.
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You’ll find my video notes below!
All beauty is the result of fine proportions. – Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472), architect
Greeks were the first to invent and to use the mathematical proportion, linear perspective and the concept of divine proportion and scale in art and architecture (the Pantheon). Because of a conversion to Christianity, these postulates were abandoned in the Middle Age Europe only to reappear in the Italian Renaissance art several centuries later.
Man is the measure of all things becomes the mantra of the Renaissance artists in the 1400-1500s as they explore the concept of rational thought by creating art that’s three-dimensional, visually balanced, mathematically proportioned and color unified. (The principles of the mathematical perspective were devised by Filippo Brunelleschi).
Composition becomes central to the creation of representational art.
In this diagram you see the fundamental principle of geometric division of space or the divine proportion. A symbol of unity, the circle holds a pentagon inside with the 5-pointed star of Pythagoras drawn inside it. Renaissance artists used this model to place their figures in a visually pleasing composition. (Source: Rhythmic Form in Art by Irma Richter, Dover Publications)
This painting represents the exaltation of rational thought. The artist paints his contemporaries as models to represent ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato and Aristotle standing right in the center of the composition. We see Leonardo as Plato, Bramante as Euclid, Raphael as Apelles and Michelangelo as Heraclitus. Raphael incorporates the architecture of the room by creating a balanced composition that proportionally relates to the interior. The fresco has 5 circles. The height of figures and their placement corresponds to the mathematical divisions seen in the picture.
Poussin (French), “A dance to the music of time” (pentagon composition)
Besides using pentagons, artists create symmetrical and unsymmetrical balance with triangular compositions, the golden section rule, and several other devices.
In this painting while the iconography is standard, the unusual part is its perfect linear perspective. It marks Masaccio as the first Renaissance painter who achieved visual realism of the figures receding in space naturally with correct foreshortening.
In this artwork, the curving S-shape creates an equal movement and balance of shapes on both sides of the painting.
Caravaggio (Italian), “The inspiration of St. Matthew” 1602. This painting features the S-shape design as well.
We can see examples of triangular compositions in religious art where a cross divides the space in half or is placed at a diagonal. In this painting the artist arranges the figures in a way that mimic the shape of the cross. The diagonal of Christ repeats itself in Mary’s shape.
The triangular shape was a popular element to design a composition. It creates balance with a line falling from the apex of the pyramid diving the picture in half.
Lorraine consciously designed his paintings following the rules of thirds or the “golden section,” which is widely used today by photographers and artists alike.
“Landscape with Ascanius Shooting the Stag of Sylvia,” 1682.
The artist also “framed” his landscapes with trees placed on both sides of a painting to create a circular motion, so a viewer never leaves his picture. He was also a master, creating a complete balance between the light and dark masses of trees, buildings, water and sky.
The artist strikes an equal balance of shapes around the middle where we see the joint hands.
Emotion is the strongest reason for artists to create art and for people to look at it to own it. Art is a visual expression of our soul. We respond to a painting or a sculpture instantly using our feelings as opposed to logic, and that’s what makes us human. Meaningful art helps us connect with our inner life. It confirms a record of our emotions dwelling within our memories. Art is not only a cultural and historical object, but also a remedy that speaks universal language. Artists have a vast emotional landscape to reach deep to convey a story in a meaningful way. It’s the feeling that draws us into the picture. Because we all have a unique set of experiences, we respond to the art in different ways. Some paintings leave us untouched, while others haunt us with their beauty, melancholy, joy or fear. Painting is a record of artist’s interior life, and his/her ability to see beauty in both the beautiful and the ugly.
Because feelings can’t be quantified in immediate dollars and cents unlike brand named stuff, many don’t see value in art, think it’s useless, and try to cut funding for school art programs and art organizations. As a consumer driven society we are conditioned to ignore craftsmanship, uniqueness and beauty produced in singular products because a cheaper version of artistic creation is all around us for free on social media, TV, magazines, shop posters, book covers, pillow designs and so on. We see art but we don’t really study it. Only our encounter with the original artwork has that immediate impact, raw emotion that enriches us as human beings.
Caravaggio, Head of Medusa, oil on canvas, 24×22”, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
(In Greek mythology, the terrible Medusa had the power to turn anyone who looked at her into stone: a power she retained after being killed by Perseus.)
Frans Hals, The Jolly Toper, 1628-30, oil on canvas, 32×26”, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
Isaak Levitan, Over the Eternal Peace, 1894, oil on canvas, 150x206cm, the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Ivan Shishkin, Winter, 1890, oil on canvas, 125 x 204 cm, Russian Museum, St. Petersburg
Ivan Shishkin, In the Wild North, 1890, oil on canvas, 161 x 118 cm, Museum of Russian Museum, Kyiv
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893, tempera and casein on cardboard, 36×29” (91x74cm), Oslo, Norway
In this section I’d like to mention the 19th century Romantic Movement. Romanticism grew as a rebellion against the static, cold ideals of the Greco-Roman art, against religion and social order. Romantics were liberals who produced art that excited viewers with emotions, especially the fear and the power of wild, changing Nature as the source of the sublime. Romantics channeled these ideals via painterly movement and color. They wanted to reflect on real life, not some distant ideals. Artists celebrated freedom of creativity that found its support from new patronage of successful entrepreneurs and business class.
Spanish artist Goya (1746-1828), The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, Los Caprichos, 1798, etching and aquatint, 8×6”, the Met, New York.
He creates horror scenes with monsters and owls, depicts his nightmares that’s said to criticize Spanish society as corrupt and demented. The artist was for the French revolution and against the king of Spain, yet was very popular as a court painter to Charles IV. Late Goya shows highly emotional art, already being a thought after portraitist, painting royalty as individuals with psychological insight into their personalities that lacked idealization on purpose.
Goya, The Family of Charles IV, oil on canvas, 9’2”x11’, Prado Museum, Madrid & the Third of May, 1808, oil on canvas, 8’9”x 13’4”, 1814-15. (In this painting the artist shows the execution of Madrid citizens dying for Liberty).
Swiss painter, Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) painted somewhat erotic, moody and supernatural pictures of dramatic Shakespearean scenes and dreams that ignited fear. In his painting the skill of drawing is given away in favor of emotions and imagination. He painted several variations of the painting The Nightmare, oil on canvas, 102x127cm, Detroit institute of arts
Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) The nightmare. 1790-91 version
Another Neo-Baroque French painter, Gericault (1791-1824) explored human extremes and violent action in his art. He painted people in action with the exuberance and energy of Baroque artists.
Mounted Officer of the Imperial Guard, 1812, oil on canvas, 9’7”x6’4”, the Louvre, Paris. He completed this artwork at just 21 years of age.
Other Romantic artists to check out are Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) and J.M.W. Turner.
We can divide representational art into two opposing groups. One is dominated by the composition design (Michelangelo), and the other by the use of color and light. While thoughtful design stands for rational thought in art, beautiful play of light and color evokes strong feelings.
Those of you who have tried oil painting know how hard it is to achieve color unity. It’s not only the skill of color mixing, but also the artistic vision and sensibility to color. In masterpieces we see hues that interact and support each other. The complexity of a color comes with deliberate color mixing, dragging or glazing of the paint, overlaying, and letting one hue dominate and complement the rest. (Ingres, David, Simon Vouet). The tradition of color descends from Titian to Rubens, to Van Gogh and Picasso. Seurat developed his own scientific color system – pointillism that didn’t get traction among artists, however.
The Impressionists redefined the use of color, not painting with black in the shadows. Unlike the majority of artists who worked in the studio, the impressionists painted outdoors, capturing the weather conditions at different times of the day. That’s why you see numerous paintings done of the same subject but in various lighting conditions. We can look at Claude Monet’s waterlilies and Edgar Degas’ dancers to understand how artists were interested in atmospheric and light perception of places and people – the impression, rather than the actual copying of details. The impressionists revolted against the Academism and its annual Salon painting competitions to organize their independent shows that exhibited unconventional, colorful art.
In Russia we see a rise of national landscape painting with artists like Shishkin and Kuindzhi who depicted vast, luscious and vivid landscapes of the countryside. Toulouse-Lautrec, Van Gogh and Gauguin become the post-impressionism artists who focus on the spiritual in painting channeling it through color and symbols.
Use of shapes, lines and negative space
Line is the most vital element in visual art. Contour lines describe form and the initial drawing design. Drawings exist as personal records of artist’s idea and thoughts, having unique handwriting, gesture and energy. Line drawings can be very expressive if an artist varies shape, thickness and completion of the line. Rembrandt’s drawings capture everyday activities in sketchy but confident, almost child-like lines. Drawings of Michelangelo are beautiful studies of models where the lines define the physical anatomy and monumentality of male figures frozen in action. Da Vinci’s drawings perfectly describe the subject with soft, gentle lines reminiscent of the softness we see in his paintings. It’s amazing to see how Ingres describes figures in his hollow drawings of just contour lines with minimal shading. Japanese printmakers, Hiroshige and Hokusai became the two masters of woodblock printing in the country. They exercised great influence onto the Impressionists with their approach to composition design and the simplification of shapes. Hiroshige’s artwork is very linear and creates simplified shapes and patterns with the lines of varied quality.
The leading Art Nouveau designer and painter, Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) used geometric shapes, mosaics, and diagonals to create beautiful lithographs of women as idyllic symbols. Czech artist gave birth to his unique “Style Mucha” with his posters of a famed actress Sarah Bernhardt that made him prominent in French Art Nouveau. His use of definitive, contour line is central to his illustrative style.
Austrian artist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) employs lines, patterns and shapes to create a unique visual experience. His figures are made of patterns with contour and geometric lines defining form.
As spectators we often don’t pay attention to the artistic use of negative space. Negative space is simply the background you see behind an object. It often affects how we perceive what’s in front of us by carefully controlling the tone, color and shapes in the background space. Let’s look at one of the Spanish realist artists – Cotan who uses the negative space to his advantage.
Because the Spanish court and the Catholic church employed foreign painters (Titian) in the 16th century Spain, native artists were not popular among the two major patrons, and therefore they were able to develop their still life painting that was nonexistent before the 1590s. Cotan (1561-1627) becomes a pioneer in still life painting. A deeply religious man, he painstakingly arranged simple objects at a curve, juxtaposing bright objects against the dark tones, where rich background reinforces the realism of foreground shapes.
Similarly Caravaggio used the dark background to bring his subjects forward. He defined and mastered chiaroscuro – the balance of light and dark in his paintings. So much so that when a viewer stands in a dark interior of a church he sees abstracted patterns of light and shade. When the light is turned on, the entire painting changes to a story we see in a design. His mastery of color, negative space and contrast play with our perception of reality. (David and Youth bitten by a lizard).
Texture, paint and brushwork quality
Our eyes travel across canvas to notice the unusual texture and brushwork, or purposefully to see none. Strokes of paint can describe the textures and shapes of fabric, skin and space. They can also generate an emotional response to the subject itself. The artistic ability to do it freely takes years of experimentation and practice, like we see in Sargent’s painting. Sargent’s art has spontaneous brushwork quality that’s actually deliberate and skilled. He was masterful at hitting the right ‘note’ in a single stroke, and when he was not, the artist wiped it off with a rag, and did it again. His paint strokes have relaxed elegance and fluidity.
Traditional methods involve several painting techniques. Here I’d like to mention the glazing techniques used by Ingres and David as well as the impasto method of painting perfected by Rembrandt. Glazing creates depth and sophistication of a color by using thin, transparent layers of paint. The impasto technique creates texture in thick, opaque strokes. These two seemingly opposing methods are often combined together in a single work of art, like we see in the Rembrandt’s paintings that create the glow in his portraits. The Jewish bride.
Jan Van Eyck (Dutch, 1390-1441) was a fundamental figure in northern Europe, the first to perfect the oil painting technique. He had strong interest in optics and light effects to create painstakingly detailed realism. (Ghent Altarpiece, oil on panel, detail). In this kind of art you don’t see any brushwork to convey realism. The artist uses lots of glazes to build up the color.
Impasto (to put in paste, Italian) is applied thickly on a canvas or panel with a brush or a palette knife that raises the paint surface and makes the strokes visible. Impasto creates textures in clothes, jewelry, and skin that looks like a suggestion of the fabric or skin rather than a direct representation of it. The relief-like surface makes the lights pop more to attract our attention to the focal point. Rembrandt, Velazquez, Titian and Goya used this technique.
A lot of artists use a combination of techniques that include glazing, impasto, scumbling and more that produce different effects like you can see here.
Pick an artwork that you really like, and try to explain why you enjoy looking at it in terms of composition, color, and subject. Practice your understanding of paintings, and your art appreciation will grow exponentially! Have fun with it!
I hope you’ve enjoyed watching my video and discovered how story, composition, emotion and texture – all contribute to and influence on our perception of the masterpieces. A great painting offers a lot more more than a good composition, realism, or a vibrant color. A great painting gives you an emotional experience, something poetic and spiritual that transcends time and place, and allows you to understand yourself and the world around you!
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Coming up next: Video #2 Contemporary Painting
In my next video you’ll learn what to look for in contemporary art.
Complete video series:
Video #1 Part 1 – Learn what makes a painting great
Video #1 Part 2 – you are here!
Video #2 Contemporary Art – coming soon!
Video #3 How to take care of your art collection – coming soon!
Video #4 How to frame art
Video # 5 Why you don’t need an interior designer to buy and display art in your home – coming soon!
The Metropolitan Museum of art, http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection
History of Art, 5th edition, H.W. Janson
The gilded age, E. Prelinger
Rhythmic Form in Art by Irma Richter, Dover Publications
Wikipedia & tons of art history classes in college! 🙂
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