The Structures of Beauty
As painters we strive for Beauty and to engage an audience however large or small. Yet Beauty changes over time, sometimes rapidly and sometimes slowly. What was considered Beautiful a century ago can now be seen as saccharine and banal. Of course, some standards of beauty are constant. The Baroque paintings of Rembrandt, Hals and Rubens come to mind. So, too, do the works of Degas, Van Gogh and Manet. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn also fit the bill. These are amongst many.
Each grouping of painters mentioned here expressed in radically divergent modes of painting and all met the 'standard' of Beauty.
A good painting can be defined as one that pleases you, that engages you in a dialogue of common spirit. The natural question to ask then is: How do I make a good painting? And what constitutes good painting?
I used the word 'good' rather than 'great' or 'a masterpiece'. 'Good' implies a material competence and mastery which is the realm of craft. Great art defies analysis.
The Nine Elements of Beauty
First, and foremost is Unity. This is the oneness wherein the expressive whole is significantly greater than the sum of its parts. Everything that follows in these nine elements must contribute fully to the Unity of the painting.
I will devote an article to each of these elements.
I withheld Drawing from this list. Drawing, however defined, is implicit to good painting whether it be realist or aniconic (non-pictorial as in color field paintings for example).
Drawing is a massive field of inquiry and for the sake of clarity I will limit myself to what I consider are the two germane approaches of beginning a painting. There is a huge difference between good drawing and good painting albeit good drawing will always be the underpinning of good painting.
Drawing, distilled to its essence, is Shape defined as how wide by how tall (proportion) and what are the angles.
Drawing is generally associated with Outline and Contour. Whereas Painting is associated with mass values and color.
You do not want a painting to read as a drawing, nor would you want a drawing to evolve into a colored-over painting. Yet this is what often happens when we take the illustrative approach to painting.
Pictured here is my copy of Peter Rubens' portrait of his five-year old daughter Clara Serena. I began this painting with a cartoon (a preliminary drawing) which I then rendered with oil paint beginning with an underpainting proceeding to the full palette overpainting.
It is a competent work technically but a failure as art. It lacks the vitality of the original. This is the bane of copying. Yet copying is the most powerful and surest avenue to learning the language and processes of painting. Rubens, the most famous and richest artist of his time, copied Titian well into his fifties.
Beginning a painting with a well-resolved drawing is the common approach to both teaching and learning to paint. The drawing can quickly become a tyrant demanding absolute fidelity as we color-in rather than paint. The oft-result are paintings that lack vitality. That is the illustrative approach.
Of course we must learn how to accurately strike shape and fix proportion, especially within the facial matrix, and those skills are best acquired through drawing, but if you can do strike shape with pencil or charcoal you can also do it with the brush.
I began my copy of Rembrandt Laughing with a very loose sketch using a long-handled 60 cm Escoda bristle brush. The long handled brush will feel awkward at first but the distance it avails from the canvas allows you to better see the shape.
Yes, the initial strike is clumsy and somewhat dismaying but you need to consider that painting is an additive/subtractive process of developing form and gesture. Rather than coloring-in my drawing my approach, like Rembrandt, is painting with a sculptural sensibility.
My experience is that it is much easier to render tighter from a loose beginning but nigh impossible to paint freer and expressive from a tight, illustrative beginning.
My Laughing Rembrandt workshop is a two and half hours download video.
Portrait Painting | John Singer Sargent's Vernon Lee