The idea of elegance is important to the work of many artists. I like my work to have what I call an “EE” — an Element of Elegance. I consciously look for opportunities for it and try to put it in. Very often it’s simply an exaggeration or an extension of an existing part or parts of a composition. As well as giving a special attractiveness to a work, it’s a useful tool for unification and design control. To see the painting I was working on last night, both before and after the “EE” was figured out, scroll down. It may seem a bit inconsequential to you — in my case it’s a landscape — but you can use the concept to good effect no matter what your style or genre. Here are a few ideas and applications of what I’m talking about:
The vital basis of the “EE” is the curve. Even perfectly straight objects, when subtly curved, take on dynamism and increased interest. With regard to extensions — these can be in the form of broken lines or dots that carry the eyes in the direction you wish them to go. Many artists call this effect “activation” — calculated curves placed appropriately within a composition to help with focus and center-of-interest. Apart from painterly activity, professional tricks include the lengthening of necks, fingers, hair, even the legs of horses. If you’re in the mood, I can pretty well guarantee that if you look at your current work in progress, no matter what the subject matter, you will see places where “EE” can be added.
Abstract work, particularly — and I see most work as essentially abstraction — can profit from this device. It’s not just line. The great partner of line elegance is area gradation. Gradation gives grace and sophistication to otherwise inelegant subjects. Interlocking gradations are particularly appealing and have the effect of raising banal subjects to a higher level. Very often one main gradation, particularly from warm to cool in a large area, can go a long way toward giving elegance to the big picture. Some artists seem to come to these conclusions intuitively, others among us need to figure them out. Even if, on reflection, you feel you need to leave them out, it’s still valuable to know that they are in your pocket. It’s my experience that you generally have to reach in there.
PS: “That which is not slightly distorted lacks sensible appeal; from which it follows that irregularity — that is to say, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment, are a essential part and characteristic of beauty.” (Charles Baudelaire)
Esoterica: Elegance and beauty are close cousins. A useful exercise is to forget the overworked side of the word “Beauty” and dig out what its meaning might be for you. Your idea of beauty may be the most important idea you’ll ever have. Try to make it happen. “Beauty is the love that we devote to an object.” (Paul Serusier)
Looking for elegance opportunities
What is elegance?
Louise A. Frechette, Kennebunkport, Maine, USA
Elegance is grace and beauty and everything we cannot see or understand, or barely, if at all, have the ability to comprehend on any level. Elegance is movement, style, grace, peace and love all wrapped into one. It is an unsung song played in silence as it moves about. I’ve seen grace in everything but mostly in moving water. I am humbly and ever so grateful to have seen such beauty in my lifetime. Thank you kindly for reminding me of its power in my life and in my art.
Elegance in sculpture
As a sculptor, I really enjoy and look forward to your comments. I feel a kinship with your words and work. For the past twenty years or so I’ve been focusing my works about elegant simplicity using the human form in dance as my theme.
Elegance as a natural inclination
Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
I enjoy that you also associate elegance with grace because I too feel they are intertwined. In the eighties when I was open to being fully guided by my painting teachers, I was dabbling in abstraction and I painted a mostly abstract painting with one of them. When it was close to finished he said to a classmate who was admiring it, “elegant.” I was more than flattered by his choice of words. I had never associated myself with elegance. Little did I know that elegance is my natural inclination in visual orchestration. As I have evolved in my abstract work beauty and elegance underscored by grace is what guides my hand and discernment. It is primarily an intuitive process whereby I sense the abandon that grace allows and the transcendence that beauty lifts one, so that awakens my own inner passion to create. Accepting my respect for beauty and elegance has opened up a vast space of possibilities in my work. Surrendering to what is natural to me allows grace to vivify the process and the result. After all beauty/elegance does not exist to be ignored, rather it is a reflection of the soul that invites our participation.
Lyn Cherry, Maryville, TN, USA
Violet Linton, my one and only art teacher, had a favorite saying: “A curved line for beauty, a straight line for duty.” Every time I pick up a brush, that line (and sweet Violet) comes to mind. I’m not always successful in making my paintings beautiful, but I like to use curves.
Room for all
Lori S. Lukasewich
The last published responses to “New York Art Fairs” were some of the best examples of why this whole Painter’s Keys thing is so valuable — Every point of view you can think of and most expressed with such passion, insight and intelligence.
My own commitment to do work that is contemplative does not preclude my understanding of the necessity for the birth of “new” forms of expression. My own creativity does not exist at the expense of another’s. Whether or not I “like” something is no indication at all of its value as art, it just means that I, personally, will not be involving myself with that art. I can’t know if it will have a transformative effect on someone else. There are many works of art that have had great impact on me that I would never consider having in my home. This is what is so great about art. It is huge and, I’ve said it before, there is room for us all.
Seeds of a creative life
Donna Jo Massie
In the 1950s, Alabama was considered a poverty stricken, racially divided, and, generally, unsuitable place to grow up. However, in Birmingham, from Grade 3-5, I went to an Art Room where we had marvelous high tables, a Diego Rivera that hung on the wall, great stools, and lots of art supplies. I still can’t believe our wonderful teacher showed us how to make lino-cuts — but, she did, and we were enthused. The seeds of my creative life were sown there. Children of any age flourish with options. Art should be mandatory at all ages.
Two sides of personality
Odette Nicholson, SK, Canada
Relative to your comments about the Armory Show: “You confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for an artist.” (Anton Chekhov) To me this means that I separate the two sides of my personality. The artist in me makes paintings to delineate ideas encapsulated in a level of attraction and beauty for contemplation. These are my goals and also what I like to witness in other people’s art. The other side of me, the citizen and parent, is concerned with being positive minded as well as active toward solving problems — effecting in some small practical way in my lifetime and for the common good. The Personal is Political. Think Globally, Act Locally, etc.
Tim Hardy, Florey, ACT, Australia
I lead a group of people who gather every Thursday to sketch and paint outdoors. This group emerged 18 months ago from a course some of us had undertaken in watercolor at the “University of the Third Age.” Our group is not part of U3A and we have pretty open membership. We are called the WOT group: Watercolor Outdoors on Thursday. We travel to many sites around the Australian Capital Territory (the populated part is Canberra), and although winter gets pretty cold, we manage to continue through the year.
Learning from your context of interests
Anne Copeland, Lomita, CA, USA
Although I don’t have a degree in art, I do have a degree in a topic that should have been immensely interesting — Archaeology, and I am a person with a burning hunger for knowledge. But I have to say that it was a total struggle to get through school because of the unenthusiastic gray way the subject was taught. Thank heavens we did have field work, for that was where I actually learned things that I remembered, but all of my best learning has been the learning I have gained from my life experiences. And even Archaeology had its politics that you spoke of in the context of art. There are the instructors who hang onto their positions and I believe they don’t want the students to really learn much, for they don’t want to lose their positions of “authority.”
It’s interesting to me that subjects I choked on and fought to get through when I was in college now are so fascinating to me that I cannot read or digest information about them fast enough. Perhaps too it is a matter of having a context to put our knowledge into. When I studied history and geography before, or math, it was just words, and had no apparent important use to me. But since I have developed a variety of interests where history, geography and math play a strong part, I immediately began researching and reading and trying to understand everything I could find. I believe if every student began learning from his/her context of interest, we would have a lot of powerfully educated people in this world.
Unpleasant background interferes
On your illustration of the ideas of EE, you have a very colourful background where you placed the paintings you used for demonstration purposes; it does make it somewhat difficult to concentrate on the painting. No offense intended, you can tell me to mind my business.
(RG note) Thanks for minding my business, and thanks to everyone who pointed this out. My easel builds up with cadmium red particularly because I brush it out there when I scumble. Somehow my brain has been filtering it out lately. Not any more. I’ve just rollered it over — gray — thank you.
June Raabe, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada
Some artists guard their talent and their palettes jealously and are afraid that “sharing” might create competition, that someone might steal their style. The truly great artists know that art is a shared thing, and that sharing the steps in creating it, showing “how it’s done” and why decisions are made to do something in a certain way. It’s a learning experience for those of us still wandering in the forest of no confidence, skill, imagination or courage! Thank you, Robert, for sharing.
(RG note) The challenge is to advise and mentor without weakening or destroying the greatness that people already have in them. Artists intuitively know that this is dangerous territory — in both the giving and receiving. I have a dream that I may be one of the ones to discover some answers to this challenge and be of use to others.
digital painting (Photoshop 7, Wacom tablet)
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