No matter what our style, medium or subject matter, our work takes its cues from nature. Nature determines our accepted norms of beauty and is the basis of our ideas of design. These aesthetic semi-laws find their source in the tiniest forms — animal, vegetable and mineral. Through a universe of shells, flowers, scales, crystals, plumage, limbs, landforms, skies, to the very ends of the heavens, we read and delight in the creative hand of nature. There’s an education on the underside of any salamander.
Science writer Philip Ball has noted, “Artists are starting to use the pattern-forming algorithms like cellular automata to create visual art and music.” Actually, nature’s structures have been actively appropriated since the dawn of human art. Design within design is the nature of nature. This raw material is a gift to creators. Here are a few non-rigid thoughts for those who might be thinking about nature in their art:
Gradations attract, enfold and please.
Curves are more sensual than straights.
The obvious is enchanted by the hidden.
Protrusions are contrasted with indentions.
Patterns fascinate, involve and deceive.
Repetitions are to forms what beats are to music.
Symmetry mirrors and honours the human body.
Whorls and vortexes tempt and seduce.
Colour, pure or muted, is its own magic.
Strong contrasts provide drama and excitement.
Soft edges invite touch and caress.
Disappearing acts create mystery and intrigue.
Camouflage has both honour and mirth.
Bracts and branches are a principle of life.
Articulation rattles the bones.
Spikes and spines provide discomfort and unease.
Radiation echoes a sun god and the hand of man.
Water brings both tranquility and turbulence.
Squares and triangles give strength and stability.
The list goes on. Nature’s designs range from high schlock to understated good taste. They present us with an ever-changing march of variety and magnificence. “Nature,” says biologist Hans Meinhardt, “has been allowed to play.” Artists may take courage from this cue.
Esoterica: Witnessing natural biodiversity and the variety and adaptation of species, one might conclude that we are in a kind of Darwinian experiment where various models and designs are tested. Pure art, stripped of promotional baggage, operates in a similar way. “Appeal” is often the main criterion by which one piece stands out against the next — and determines survival. We are living at a time when design, designer, and the viewer of the design are all being tested. What about the idea of “progress”?
Decoding the content
by Gabriella Morrison, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada
Our response and reaction to situations seen or observed is the result of our perceptual equipment provided to us by our specific biological limits. Technological advancements have enabled us to perceive from the viewpoint of birds, or other animals. Even what is seen by the compound eye of a fly can be shown us through computer generated photographic images. But most of our perceptions of things that cause comfort/discomfort, pleasure/pain, ease/tension etc. are rooted in our biology. Often people are mystified when faced with non-representational art, and sometimes even with representational images which tend to stretch rules determined by common wisdom. It would seem that if people relaxed and responded purely from the parameters of their personhood and experience, they might be able to “get” meaning and content that so flummoxes them. I find that approaching artwork new to me, by calling on my memory, sensory apparatus and emotional vocabulary, is useful in decoding and appreciating content.
Endless possibilities from nature
by Judith DeMaestri, Taylors, SC, USA
This letter rang so true for me at this particular time in my constant struggle for artistic expression. I took a marbleizing and semi-precious stone class last year and learned a great deal about forces of nature that provide us with endless possibilities with art. The Almighty God has given us all we need, since he is the greatest artist of all, and we are made in his image. As far as progress, nature is always renewing, ever-changing, expanding and contracting. At the same time it stays the same in a manner in which man can exist. It is when we go against the laws of nature that we can no longer progress.
The magical sequence
by Kristi Bridgeman, Victoria, BC, Canada
I prefer not to think of it as appropriation of pattern-forming algorithms… and not just because it sounds sneaky, but because we are all simply a part of the bigger pattern. In particular though, we artists have been affected by patterns in nature since day one. Every line we lay to paper and every move we make is part of the magical sequence — and the line goes where it needs to go depending on one’s influences. All over the globe, First Nations people’s work is a perfect example of this… the patterns are particularly strong because they are so very close to nature. At times the placement eludes me… which is when I enlist my intuitive colleagues’ advice.
A playful nature
by B. J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA
Hans Meinhardt’s quote about Nature being able to play is such a wonderful descriptive statement of how, why, when, and where beautiful sights have erupted, evolved, bloomed, and come into being. Having just returned from a trip to Volcano National Park in Hawaii I was amazed watching (from a distance) a continual (for 23 years so far) lava flow into the ocean that is adding acres to this changing island. Seeing how the land has been growing (in charts) and then walking through the rain forest and over old lava fields, seeing ancient petroglyphs, you can relate to nature continually ‘playing’ while producing this magnificence through the centuries. The tropical plants, ferns, trees and flowers are such lush tapestry for us created by a playful nature. We, too, should be playing with abandon when pursuing our art.
Landscape as nude
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA
Years ago I read that the Americans embraced the landscape as its Puritan form of the nude. I think it was Robert Hughes. There must be ten thousand exhibits of landscapes for every exhibit of nude paintings. What a pity. If all those religious types preach that “God created man in his likeness” then what greater beauty could one find than a likeness of God, the nude human. Yet nudity in any form is shunned as dirty or vulgar. We prefer our children to watch motion pictures and video games of people being torn from limb to limb, gored and disemboweled rather than see a nude person. How perverse. It’s a world gone haywire, inmates rule the asylum and the White House, too. Isn’t the first commandment “Thou shall not kill”? I plead the 5th and I’m not a religious person. The power and popularity of The Beatles is that most of their music is about love.
Art and geology
by Anne Copeland, Lomita, CA, USA
Oh, this touched my heart! Nature has long been my inspiration for my art, and yes, I do find art on the underside of one of my outdoor frogs, or in the unusual seed forms I find on my walks. I found these great web sites with articles about connecting art with geology and hope you enjoy them as much as I did: Earth Art 1 – The Big Scale, Earth Art.
“I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny, invisible, loving, human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of pride.” (William James)
Abstract expression of wilderness
by Norman Nelson, Boise, ID, USA
My mentor is an 87 year-old portrait painter while I’m a backpacking fool with art supplies. I’ve been inspired to do high mountain lake landscapes using oil, watercolors and heavy paint texture. These have been very enjoyable, inspired by real places, and I’ve sold them for the last few years. Now I’m shocked and disappointed to find that I’m categorized as one those landscape and duck painters. Representational is getting a bad rap here in Idaho. I’ve taken a more abstract view of things lately and have worked hard to find a more abstract expression of wilderness. I wish my painting knife and pristine subjects were enough, but art forces me to move on. Inside I’m grudgingly taking the steps. Jackson Pollock in the wilderness — we’ll have to see if it goes anywhere because landscape and ducks are not the trend.
by Antoinette Ledzian, Stonington, Connecticut, USA
There has never been a cue from nature as effective, stimulating and loving as that from my beloved parakeet, Celesta. She attracted and entertained everyone with her antics, enfolded our hearts with her trust and pleased the most skeptical bird fan with her amazing vocabulary. Her curves, dots, lines and feathered patterns begged to be studied and incorporated into my work. Her song and chatter astonished all ages. Her telephone conversations could perk up anyone’s day. She not only invited, but allowed touch and caress. Her trust factor was 100% pure. She was indeed, a rare bird. Her passing on Tuesday tore a hole in my heart, but one I know will mend in time with all the inspiration her tiny body and huge personality have embedded in my mind. If only I had a video of the two of us dancing around the room to her favorite song, Only Time by Enya. Only time will heal the pain from this severed bond. No former pet has ever colored my soul nor provided such an outlet for the senses. Celesta now rests outside, in a hand-carved box, under a special memorial tree where cues from nature will be everlasting for all who take the time to listen, feel and act on the moment. Back to my palette of greys and blues, as I can still hear Celesta, as clear as a bell, chirping, “Where’s the pretty baby birdie, ha ha ha ha ha!”
“In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” (Baba Dioum)
Sensuality in the hidden
by Tony Kampwerth, Knoxville, TN, USA
This is one of those letters that I ask myself, “Where does he get that stuff?” One of the thoughts about nature caught my attention. “The obvious is enchanted by the hidden.” There are so many cases where this creates interest — in art, music, drama. Sometimes this is a peek-a-boo situation. One example that comes to mind is the human body — a nude woman exudes a natural beauty while a woman in a bikini is seen as sensual. The difference is two tiny pieces of cloth.
Creative path discovered
by Edward Powell, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
All you have shared today continues to be the basis for most everything that I live for. As a landscape painter outdoors this past June, painting beneath the shade of a summer sycamore, I discovered the most creative path that I have traveled in my many years. Two images of one my new works from the fallen skin of that sycamore (its shed bark) is attached. They are simple illustrations of the truth that your letter illuminates. If we look closely at/to nature, everything is there for us to be a part of. Those two repetitive circular forms are held together by fragrant beeswax and displayed in a glass box. Size is approximately 6″ x 6″ x 10″.
Further to the list
by Dave Kellam Brown, Dallas, TX, USA
Your list is extremely valuable, particularly when juxtaposed with a list such as Richard Schmid’s list of “common mistakes and difficulties” (Alla Prima, p17) and is really useful as a preliminary to meditation while “bluffing” (your previous mail).
My technical training prompts me to look for unifying or simplifying characteristics in your list and comments (the age-old drive for “useful truths”). Not surprisingly, I come up with two, one for expansion, the other for unification:
1) The joy of art and “beauty” is rooted in the recognition of the commonplace in the unique and of the sublime in the commonplace — this expresses the fractal nature of reality.
2) No aspect of art or of a work has impact or meaning on its own. All are relative and need to change some within a piece to create interest. Colors, values, edges, even shapes and emotions are all some aspect of pattern and exception growing out of our personal experiences.
So if we think about these ideas as we prepare to make our art and then don’t think about them as we do it, it’s like opening the door to the “Zone” and then walking through it.
Is non-objective nature?
by Joy Davis, San Diego, CA, USA
I am writing because this particular email hit a note as people ask me what style I paint or what I paint. I have put brush to canvas for 30 years, starting with watercolor pastel garden scenes (which I now find nearly impossible to do but are the favorites of some family members). I am now working with acrylics on large canvases (cannot take fumes from oils). The current one is about 8 ft. x 10 ft. I try to explain that it is “environmental art,” in that painting a thing, or object no longer interests me. What I paint is movement dance strokes, clouds traveling across the sky, or musical rhythms, with textures blending and overlapping into beautiful hues, until something extraordinarily beautiful, but undefinable, finally emerges. It is a process that at times can be very frustrating, as not working from a photo or not painting an object can become illusive and esoteric. Will the piece emerge? Will I find it and know it when it does? If not painting a distinctive object, is that nature?
The universal constant
by Nick Rudnicki
Does our work really take its cues from nature? That would imply some sort of give and take relationship. As if what we were doing was under nature’s supervision, or direction.
That I feel is a little too detached. In fact I feel that the idea of “nature” is kind of baseless itself, but that is another essay unto itself. The way I see it, it is not a matter of nature telling us what looks good, but rather that we inherently know what looks and feels good because we are drawing it from the same place as all those little cells that magically conglomerate together to form a pretty leaf.
I would argue that there is some sort of super-harmony of forms and colours and figures that informs an artist’s aesthetic decisions while at the same time it guides and dictates the natural formations being referred to in this paper/article/email. What I am getting at is the idea that the practice of art is in fact a tapping into that universal constant of “what works,” and sharing it with the world.
And just in case I don’t sound completely flaky just yet, I am going to turn around and see this situation totally differently.
Do we take our cues from nature? Or do we impose our aesthetic model on nature’s endless tapestry of chaos?
I find it interesting that of the boundless things that we could look at — a pile of dirt, a stagnant swamp, a rotting corpse, the emptiness of space – we choose to focus on the “pretty things” — flowers, animals, lightning, etc.
Let’s look at the numbers (most of which are made up because I am not a statistician).
Total volume of nature — lots and lots (approx. 1000 cubic parsecs)
Total volume of pretty things — not so lots (let’s be generous and give it 1 cubic parsec).
That is less than 0.1 percent of nature is pretty! Seems rather incidental to me. If nature itself was truly beautiful I suspect that this number would be a bit higher, and possibly based more soundly in something other than my random assumptions.
Every card playable
by William McAllister, Bristol, UK
I discovered your site some time ago when a friend, and fellow pigment schlepper, informed me that a quote of mine appeared in your files in the section on inspiration. Sure enough, a quote of mine, from an article or speaking engagement, does appear in your site.
I have enjoyed your letters and especially responded to this tie-in between art and card games. I’ve long felt, and expressed when possible, that art — like life — is very like a game of solitaire. If you are winning, as you approach the endgame, every card that you turn is playable. I know that the end of my life will be the most creative phase of my term on this mud ball.
Update on California royalty system
by Patty Milich, Sacramento, CA, USA
As director of the Arts Programs, California Arts Council, I would have to say that I have no idea what percentage of California artists receive resale royalties. If auction houses and galleries pay the royalty directly to the artist, we don’t hear about it. We only hear about and receive the funds for those artists for which the gallery could not find the artist. Over the course of the history of our receiving resale royalty funds, we have distributed the royalties to 82% of the artists for which we were given names. Of the 18% of artists for whom we’re still holding funds, either they are not interested in responding (and I have contacted them several times) or we haven’t been able to find the artists or their heirs.
Plastic chairs installation
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Lyn Cherry of Maryville, TN who wrote, “My one and only art teacher, Violet Linton, had a favorite saying and I have adopted it as my mantra: ‘Straight line for duty, curved line for beauty.’ ”
And also Michael Lewin of London, UK sent this quote, “Looking back over the first 50 years my career, I can find nothing that I have done that is worthwhile. At the age of 73 I have at last arrived at the point where I can perceive the true form and characteristics of birds, animals and plants. Thus my true life as an artist is just beginning.” (Katsushika Hokusai)