Thinking in context

Dear Artist, 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. Best regards, Robert 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  

“Semaphore shade”
acrylic painting
by Mike Barr

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
From: jim van Geet — Jun 06, 2013

Well said.

From: Nan — Jun 07, 2013

On the other hand, A lovely, tempting path into the woods may become less inviting if you see someone else already in there.

From: mike barr — Jun 07, 2013

The path is a sign of life

From: Anonymous — Jun 07, 2013

so true are your words, so many artist get hung up on technique, they paint with their eyes instead of their hearts.

From: Lucy Woods — Jun 07, 2013

Exchanging the general and flat word “story” for your word, “life-signs” inspires and beckons. Thanks for that bit of clarity.

From: Anonymous — Jun 07, 2013

bah…just another dogma…

From: Heather — Jun 07, 2013

Plants are life as well, and rocks, sea and sky are animated by the forces of nature. Having traces of humans or animals in the piece is just one approach. Calling landscape paintings that don’t feature humans or fauna context-less or lacking contact with viewers doesn’t make any sense.

From: Mike Barr — Jun 07, 2013

Turner’s famous storm at sea painting would have been nothing without the indications of a vessel struggling against it. Recently I have seen a number of very good landscape paintings that just needed a few signs of life to complete them – they were sterile without them. Of course, it is only an opinion but one that can be argued when looking at an exhibition of mixed works from a variety of artists. An interesting exercise to partake of at the next exhibition. It makes looking at art interesting.

From: Anonymous — Jun 08, 2013

You’re right, it is only an opinion – your opinion. I disagree with it emphatically. If you want art to be storytelling then do that but my opinion is there is art beyond storytelling and it can be much more profound. I think you profess a limiting point of view.

  Context and commissions by Jill Wagner, Saline, MI, USA  

pastel painting
by Jill Wagner

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!!       There are 3 comments for Context and commissions by Jill Wagner
From: Diane Artz Furlong — Jun 07, 2013

Beautiful pastel painting, Jill. Wonderful depth and use of atmospheric perspective.

From: Michele — Jun 07, 2013

Beautiful work. Land conservation and plein air painters work well hand in hand. PAAWM does this in West Mi too.

From: Jill Stefani Wagner — Jun 07, 2013

Thanks Diane and Michele. It’s a real joy to paint what I love AND have it benefit a cause so close to my heart!

  Signing off reproductions by Steve Koch, Gresham, OR, USA  

“Joy in the midst”
bronze sculpture
by Steve Koch

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.   There is 1 comment for Signing off reproductions by Steve Koch
From: Anonymous — Jun 07, 2013

City folk generally have no clue or respect for artists. Our city posted a call to create a major sculpture to be mounted on a huge new public building. The project is expected to last at least about 10 months. The artist is responsible for all material, artwork, deliveries, construction, road closures, licenses and any hiring of help or vendors. The city would contribute $20,000 for the whole thing. I don’t see how an artist can walk away with a penny in the pocket and any sanity left after such ordeal.

  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  

“Spring cat”
oil painting
by Diane L Hoeptner

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.”         There are 5 comments for A horse in context by Diane L Hoeptner
From: margaret Kevorkian — Jun 06, 2013

Diane, the cat is wonderful, and I would LOVE to see your horse!

From: judy lalingo — Jun 06, 2013

WONDERFUL painting, Diane! I’d love to see the horse, too!

From: rena williams — Jun 07, 2013

But YOUR horse might be inside, or your outside might have patterns… ? Enjoying the cat !

From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Jun 07, 2013

I like this painting…it works on several levels.

From: Anonymous — Jun 07, 2013

great job with the painting, and attitude!

  Living authentically 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  

“Sunset Markham”
original painting
by Keith Thirgood

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. There is 1 comment for Your readers surpass you by Keith Thirgood
From: Phil the Forecaster — Jun 07, 2013

The Prince Edward County Paint Out was great fun. The weather, companionship, painting and cuisine were quite terrific. I would recommend these to anyone. They are an excellent teaching and learning opportunity for all. Along with Keith I thoroughly enjoy these newsletters as well!


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Thinking in context

From: Mike Barr — Jun 03, 2013

No context – no story.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jun 04, 2013
From: Marvin Humphrey — Jun 04, 2013

Correct point-of-view, both attitudinally AND physically, is all-important in both photography and painting.

From: Russ Hogger — Jun 04, 2013

Some of us artists like to deliberately throw things out of context to give what is actual, a bit of a twist. With me it’s usually colour.

From: Nancy Ruth Scoble — Jun 05, 2013

From my point of view, my dog, Henri’ (named after Robert Henri) would chase a tennis ball 24/7. The cats could just about care less.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Jun 05, 2013

Thank you for the interesting letter. I never thought of that when doing my composition in painting. I think of perspective, forms, lines, colors and values. It is indeed a valuable aspect that may improve my work.

From: Rosemary Avery — Jun 05, 2013

Thanks you so much for this information. So much can be lost if the desire for the proper colour or the overall picture. I read and save all your sage advise.

From: Henryk Lott — Jun 05, 2013

As a professional photographer I can’t tell you how important these thoughts are and how often many photographers forget about it. It’s not enough for the photographer to take in the scene and then do a close up. That tells little or nothing. Us ambulance chasers know about this. The idea to always remember is that if you get the burning car in the background, they will print it.

From: Mutsuo Hashimoto — Jun 05, 2013

I take a minute or two at the beginning of every painting to have a period of meditation on the work I’m about to begin. The scene sometimes plays again before my eyes, and I see in my inner mind the values that make it work. Sometimes it means moving in for a closeup, but more often than not it means backing off.

From: Ed Hoiles — Jun 05, 2013

Being quoted out of context and being misquoted are two different things.

From: Dick Schmidt — Jun 05, 2013

No one but another artist could give this advice. (The six examples he mentions in his letter) I commend Robert for these insights. They are useful.

From: Jackie Knott — Jun 06, 2013

Context is fine and necessary … but it will sometimes lie to you. When I was in college art “truth” was the essential thing regardless what the image represented, but rather what it WAS. I have come to understand since then that the truth of an image can be so skewered as to confuse the viewer until the artist has lost any communication. I find that is the case more often with figures and people. One can paint a garden scene or still life and arrange the blossoms and no one cares … it is still a garden or a teapot, whatever, and however you choose to place the elements of your painting is positive to the composition. But an odd shadow, an awkward gesture, or even a feature so individual the viewer questions the validity of the figure … that is a problem of context. Example: I’m painting some Longhorn cattle at the moment. Any cattleman will study the painting and know that is exactly how Longhorns are built, especially bulls: heavy body, scant legs, testosterone laden muscle, and bony hips … but that’s the way they are. I have altered the cattle so they aren’t so disproportionate but it still bothers me. Do I paint context for cattlemen or a pleasing image for the casual viewer?

From: David G Hallowell — Jun 06, 2013

He who always plows a straight furrow is in a rut.

From: Reid Morgan — Jun 06, 2013

In Mycology (the study of mushrooms, etc) “context” is another word for the flesh–“the non-hymenial tissues that composes the mass of a fungal fruiting body.” Okay?

From: Marjorie Ewell — Jun 07, 2013

I have noticed the number of beautiful paintings on the Facebook En Plein Air page that are painted by Chinese artists. Wonderful, soft, landscapes particularly, that are so well done. Atmospheric city scapes, florals and misty rivers – wonderful art. Lots of other artists are included on their offerings but many are Chinese names. How wonderful that China is opening up to the western world and sharing their fine artists.

From: Carolyn Hancock — Jun 07, 2013
From: tatjana — Jun 07, 2013

Art is the most wonderful illusion of all. It’s the last place where I would be looking for the truth.

From: Donna C. Veeder — Jun 08, 2013

Hi, Robert, I went there in 1986 and studied at The Central Institute of Fine Arts in Beijing. We lived in the school. I had signed up for western style figure drawing because I wanted to slow down and really learn about the human figure and I had heard they were the best in the world. That is true! We had given it up here but they had taken it over. However, when I arrived I was told that particular teacher was off on vacation and I could take folk art. I said no, I paid for drawing and I want that. After a round table conference where everyone had the chance to talk, they made up their minds. I did not get what i was told I would get but did get Chinese style painting, one on one with an interpreter, in ink and watercolor. It was a lot of fun and I loved it but have never pursued it after. I was tremendously impressed with their drawing and painting. Amazed, in fact. The museum we visited had some of the largest Chinese style brush painting in it I ever saw! The brushes must have been large as mops. The paintings were mural size. We were told they do them on the floor and use booties and walk across the paper. At the school we would see very small children with their drawings going into school. They were doing Geodesic Domes at age 5 or 6! I could hardly believe it. It was wonderful trip and I came away with a tremendous respect for the artists and the professor/artists. DCVeeder

From: Gene Martin — Jun 10, 2013

The chinese paintings are a true treat. Especially if you enlarge them. You can see the sweat running down the bodies. I will say though the facial structures look a little more western than eastern.

   Featured Workshop: Sharon Rusch Shaver 060713_robert-genn Sharon Rusch Shaver workshops Held in Paris, France   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order.      woa


watercolour painting by Vicky Earle, Vancouver, BC, Canada

  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.”    

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