A few years ago, our city fathers decided to use a simplified reproduction of one of my paintings as a decorative banner to hang from high lampposts around the city. Someone thought it might be a good idea to get a newspaper shot of me actually hanging one of the banners. I was supplied with one of those self-operated lifts known as a “giraffe.” I got into the thing, raised myself up and went about putting up a banner. The photographer stood on the ground and shot upward. I could see him zooming in. He didn’t seem satisfied with the shot. Then I was surprised to see him get into another giraffe and raise himself up to my level.
When the picture appeared in the newspaper, it was a close-up of me and my banner. The photographer had forgotten to include the basic idea of the photo — that I was up in the air. He had failed to put the image into context.
For those of us who make art, the same problem lurks for us every day. Here are a few thoughts:
Those mountains are high. Put them at the top.
Those trees are big. Let them bleed out of the picture.
Those foreground pebbles are small. Look down on them.
That vista is vast. Consider a longer, horizontal format.
That girl is tall and elegant. You need her legs.
That model is smug and condescending. Let him look down on you.
This sort of thinking can be used to add sophisticated and truthful touches to your work. Artists need to pause at the beginning and consider the central context that appealed in the first place. It’s surprising how often we are easily hoodwinked by details — or beguiled by our own previously proven capabilities. In doing so, we can miss the big picture. In art, fantasy may be king, but truth also has its place. Unfortunately, if we don’t put things in context, no one will know there was more to it than now meets the eye. By not attending to context, we diminish our potential power.
PS: “When you take somebody’s quote out of context, which happens all the time, nobody’s ever going to go and do the research on their own and figure out that you got it wrong.” (Cultural historian Thomas Frank)
Esoterica: “Context” is defined as “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.” In broader terms “out of context” (sometimes referred to as contextomy) is a logical fallacy in which a passage is removed from its surrounding matter in such a way as to distort its intended meaning. Good examples of taking things out of context are the sentences or partial sentences originally written by scientists that have been selected for other meanings by overly-zealous creationists, and sometimes vice versa. Taking things out of context doesn’t lead to truth in argument or in art.
Context and signs of life
by Mike Barr, Adelaide, South Australia
A lot of art seems to be without context, particularly still life, and it is difficult to enter into them.They can just be pretty, contrived paintings with no particular point apart from highlighting the artist’s drafting and painting skills. Conversely, many paintings are all context with no point behind them. Beachscapes, cityscapes, landscapes, without a sign of humanity, struggle to connect to the viewer. A storm becomes a story when things are battling against it. A beach can be entered into when a solitary walker is added to the scene. Even a few birds in flight in an empty landscape can still give the impression that life is happening. Life-signs make all the difference to a painting but they can easily be forgotten.
There is the other side of the coin, of course, in which many contemporary works have neither context nor point and the stories are all in the stuff that is written about them!
There are 9 comments for Context and signs of life by Mike Barr
Context and commissions
by Jill Wagner, Saline, MI, USA
As usual, Robert, your comments come at a time when they are really valuable to my current art dilemmas. I am in the process of creating landscape paintings for our local land conservancy’s annual fundraiser. I have been assigned a beautiful old farm and there are so many wonderful views to choose from that it has become quite overwhelming. I have to keep reminding myself — it is about the LAND… it is all about the land. I want to show its allure, its importance, its majesty. And to do that, I have to consider its context in the composition, color, and viewpoint. Your words will ring in my head when I start the next one!!
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Signing off reproductions
by Steve Koch, Gresham, OR, USA
A few weeks ago one of my brothers-in-law constituents asked if he could reproduce one of my works for a banner. I said sure, as long as I could see the proof before printing. I did not feel I was out of line. He responded that because of my constraint they could not follow through with the project. I’m just wondering how you would handle this issue.
(RG note) Thanks, Steve. As originator of a work, and having the most to lose, I would not let any printer go ahead without my proofing it first.
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Setting up context in writing
by Norman Case, New York, NY, USA
Absolutely. People don’t know what you fully know and see about a subject, so you must at least hint at the understanding so they can put it together. In writing, setting up context often uses “foreshadowing” where you deliver just enough info so they get an idea what to expect. There’s no point in giving them the whole ball of wax in advance — you need just enough to tease them into interest and arouse their curiosity. I’m sure this is a secret in all art — it certainly is in writing.
A horse in context
by Diane L Hoeptner, Cleveland, OH, USA
I am almost delusional enough to believe that your letter was written just for me. LOL. I fear I may have become what you called “beguiled by (my) own previously proven capabilities”–by including patterns in recent horse paintings. Patterns worked really well with my cat paintings… but cats live inside, so they weren’t much of a stretch… I still like patterns, but today I heeded your words and put this horse “in context.”
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by Marilyn Harding, Poros, Greece
When I was invited to celebrate my friend, artist Pamela Rogers’ birthday, on Poros Island, Greece, I couldn’t think of a better gift than your book — along with a bottle of wine, of course, (from grapes original to Greece for over 2500 years). I love to give your books as I find them information rich, and always appreciate your candor in regard to becoming a better artist as the best marketing advice. I continue to enjoy your letter, even though I am not an artist myself, because I feel your message is all about living authentically — no matter what our work.
(RG note) Thanks, Marilyn. Your friends Pamela Rogers, Pamela Ufer and Dr. Francis Broun have led countless painting trips to Greece since Pamela Rogers moved there 23 years ago. They continue to host alumni groups on cultural trips from North America. You can read about this year’s workshop on Poros, September 26 to October 11, and other workshop opportunities in our much frequented Workshop Calendar.
Your readers surpass you
by Keith Thirgood, Markham, ON, Canada
Your twice-weekly reflections on the trials, tribulations and ecstasies of being an artist are fabulous. Your featured remarks and live comments range from the mundane to the sublime, to the inadvertently humorous. I think some of your readers surpass you, at least in the raw humour quotient. Then there are those who don’t seem to understand what you’re saying. Whatever you say, whether a tip or a philosophical musing, rings clear as a bell to me. Whether I agree with you or not, your handling of the Queen’s English is such that I’m taken along for the ride. Incidentally, last year I advertised my art retreats on your Workshop Calendar and more than half of my enquiries came from your readers.
(RG note) Thanks Keith. Keith is president of the Ontario Plein Air Society (OPAS) He’s offering four upcoming retreats this year with himself, Herbert Pryke, Helen Walter and Don Cavin. One with Phil Chadwick has already taken place. You can check out the one for July 6th to 9th in our Workshop Calendar where you can get the link to all of them.
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Malgosia Chelkowski of Ottawa, ON, Canada, who wrote, “Actually, it happens quite often when you take someone’s quote out of context, you get it right!”
And also Susan Marx of Orange, NJ, USA, who wrote, “The flower is tiny and delicate. Georgia O’Keeffe turns a flower into something monumental and powerful. Sometimes art changes the context.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Thinking in context…