Interview with Jenny Dolfen
Owl in Mixed Media
News for August
Appreciating Speculative Art Part 1: Types and Toolsby Elizabeth Barrette
Maybe you're an artist, and you want to improve your skills by analyzing what makes a picture work. Maybe you have artist-friends who show you their sketchbooks, and you want to be able to give them useful feedback. Maybe you collect artwork, and you want to be able to answer "Why did you buy THAT?" with more than "I dunno, I just like it." Maybe you simply think art is cool, or you don't know much about it and would like to learn more. This series will help with all of those things, as it presents some basic vocabulary and theory of art. So relax and have fun -- this stuff isn't nearly as difficult as some people make it out to be.
Why is art important? It expresses who we are, what we feel, and what we value. It transmits cultural information; sometimes art is all we have left of an ancient culture. It's also part of what makes us human. Some anthropologists believe that our ancestors truly became what we think of as "humans" about 50,000 years ago ... when the first examples of cave art and other aesthetic creations emerged. Every known human culture, without exception, has some kind of art.
Studying art has many benefits, too. It teaches you to notice and think about different layers of reality. You develop your powers of observation and interpretation, making more subtle distinctions in what you perceive. You can see both the trees and the forest, as it were. Furthermore, you become more aware of tricks that fool the eye and the mind - which can be used positively, as in applying perspective to make more realistic landscapes; or less positively, as in decorating a fast-food restaurant with hot bright colors that encourage customers to bolt their meals and then leave to make room for new customers. When you know how optical illusions and other techniques work, you can choose to enjoy them or ignore them. All of this improves your ability to appreciate art, but also to understand the world around you. Both perception and discernment are useful skills.
Artwork in the broadest sense covers all the decorative things that people make: paintings, sketches, friezes, sculptures, embroidery, quilts, movies, and much more. For simplicity's sake, this series focuses mainly on visual art such as paintings, drawings, and electronic pictures. That said, analyzing art can be great fun. Though not an artist myself, I have lots of artist-friends, and I enjoy looking over their sketchbooks or online archives. The more you learn about art, the more you can enjoy it yourself.
Types of Art
Art comes in all shapes and sizes. Here we're going to take a look at visual art such as drawings and paintings. These break down into categories that describe the style and purpose of the picture.
There is a range of terms to describe imagery from the least to the most natural. Abstract art does not attempt to represent the natural appearance of its subject, but instead plays with color and form in free expression. This can result in anything from random-looking spots of paint in fine art to the elegant geometry of a patchwork quilt. Surreal art uses fantastic and incongruous imagery, often resulting in distorted or dreamlike pictures. Stylized art simplifies subjects or exaggerates parts of them for effect. Cartoon animation often takes this approach; think of Bugs Bunny. Realistic (also called "representational") art looks much like a photograph, representing the subjects and setting in a very true-to-life way. The Renaissance was famous for its many painters who created extremely lifelike pictures.
Pictures can also be classified according to their content and purpose. For example, a sketch is a quick drawing which captures the basic shape and concept of the subject(s), often used for creating more detailed artwork later. The Sketch Fest offers monthly opportunities for this form of art, with prompts provided by an audience and work limited to one hour per piece. Conversely, a narrative is a more elaborate work that suggests or actively tells a story; for instance, racehorses at a finish line, or a cartoon with captions. A landscape mainly features meadow, forest, mountains, or other natural settings. Images of people take various different forms. A portrait is a picture which mainly shows a person, often in considerable detail. A caricature is a particular type of portrait that exaggerates the subject's most distinctive features. While often used for political or other satire, this style also appears frequently in online avatar images and in illustrations on customized nametags. Finally, a montage (also called a "splash") is a composite picture made from many different images put together in a way that makes them seem like a whole; story illustrations, movie posters, and book covers often work like this.
Also worth mentioning is that art can be controversial. Many famous pictures show unclothed or partly clothed human bodies. Some make fun of political, religious, or other important figures. Others show big battle scenes with blood and severed body parts everywhere. That's okay. These things can make some people uncomfortable, though. Know yourself and your tastes; explore the kinds of art that you like. You can skip the rest if you wish. Just don't try to mess with what other people are enjoying -- they have a right to the kind of art they like, just as you do to yours.
When you first look at a picture, you form an initial impression of it. Here are some questions you might ask yourself at that time:
Abstract - A description of art which does not attempt to represent the natural appearance of some subject. It can be anything from random-looking spots of color in fine art to the elegant geometry of a patchwork quilt.
Caricature - A portrait that exaggerates the subject's most distinctive features. While often used for political or other satire, this style also appears frequently in convention badge illustrations and sometimes in pictures of magical characters.
Landscape - A picture that mainly features meadow, forest, mountains, or other natural settings.
Montage (also Splash) - A composite picture made from many different images put together in a way that makes them seem like a whole; story illustrations often work like this.
"The Accord's Twin Swords" by M.C.A. Hogarth combines different scenes to give an impression of the whole novel which inspired it.
Narrative - A description for art which suggests or actively tells a story; for instance, racehorses at a finish line, or a cartoon with captions.
"Were: Discovery" by M.C.A. Hogarth reveals that one of the women is a shapeshifter.
Portrait - A picture which mainly shows a person, often in considerable detail.
Portrait Adoption offers a selection of pictures for sale to people seeking representations of roleplaying or original fiction characters, at prices lower than a custom commission. Browse many different portraits for art viewing practice.
Realistic (also Representational) - A description of art which looks much like a photograph, representing the subjects and setting in a very true-to-life way. The Renaissance was famous for its many painters who created extremely lifelike pictures.
Sketch - A quick drawing which captures the basic shape and concept of the subject(s), often used for creating more detailed artwork later.
View sketches from the Sketch Fest in various stages of completion.
Stylized - A description of art which simplifies subjects or exaggerates parts of them for effect. Cartoon animation often takes this approach; think of Bugs Bunny.
In "Something New Under the Moon" by Suzette Haden Elgin, the flowers and opossum are stylized, with simple shapes and crisp outlines.
Surreal - A description of art which uses fantastic and incongruous imagery, often resulting in distorted or dreamlike pictures.
Tools and Techniques
Artwork is shaped significantly by the methods and materials used to create it. Certain substances can yield very different effects, which is one reason why artists often specialize in a particular format - it lets them do the things they like best. These also lend themselves to different contexts; for example, soft charcoal is good for informal sketches, while oil paint is good for formal portraits.
The material which the artist uses to create the picture, such as watercolor paint, is called the medium (plural "media"). The use of two or more materials in a single picture, such as colored pencil and marker, is called mixed media. Popular media include acrylic paint, charcoal, colored pencil, oil paint, pen and ink, and watercolor paint. Gallery labels often use the format "X on Y," for example, "Oil on Wood," meaning that the picture consists of oil paints spread on a wooden surface. Relatively new on the scene are electronic media (also called "digital"). They cover various types of artwork created with a computer, rather than traditional media such as paint and canvas; Adobe Illustrator, Bryce, Corel Painter, Gimp, InkScape, PhotoShop, and Poser are some popular programs used in creating electronic art. Labels for electronic art often name the program(s) used to create it.
Artistic techniques and effects are diverse. For example, oil paint is famous for its texture - these paintings often feature thick ridges and bumps of dried paint. Both charcoal and ink lend themselves well to chiaroscuro, a balance of light and dark whose shading creates an illusion of depth. Watercolor and brush drawing may use a wash of diluted pigment to create a thin, translucent layer of color. Watercolor is also known for the dramatic difference in its behavior when applied to wet vs. dry paper.
Here are some questions you might ask yourself when analyzing the media and techniques in a picture.
Technique and Style
Chiaroscuro - A technique dating from the Renaissance, involving a balance of light and dark areas in the picture thereby creating a sense of depth; popular in pen and ink, charcoal, and other black-and-white media but also found in color.
Electronic (also Digital) - A description for artwork created with a computer, rather than traditional media such as paint and canvas.
In "Shine On" by Meeks, electronic art mimics the softness of charcoal and the sharpness of ink in a picture that centers around an intense light source.
Medium (plural Media) - The material(s) which the artist uses to create the picture, such as charcoal or oil paint.
Mixed Media - The use of two or more materials in a single picture, such as colored pencil and marker, or ink and watercolor.
"My Goddess Has An Attitude...And So Do I" by M.C.A. Hogarth is color pencil over marker.
Texture - The feel of an object, or the surface quality of artwork; its roughness or smoothness, etc. This can refer to the actual texture of the artwork (oil paintings often feature thick ridges and bumps of dried paint) or to the apparent texture of subjects featured in it (such as fur, ocean waves, or brick walls).
In "The Calm of Winter Dragons" by M.C.A. Hogarth, compare the rough stone with the furry dragons.
Wash - A technique of diluting paint or ink to create a thin, translucent layer; often use in brush drawing and watercolor.
"The Association of Science Fiction & Fantasy Artists." Galleries, portfolios, forums, news - everything you need to know about F&SF art and artists.
Art Cafe Network features many tutorials on different techniques of artwork; learn how artists achieve their effects.
Expedition: Being An Account In Words and Artwork of the 2358 A.D. Voyage to Darwin IV by Wayne D. Barlowe. Workman Publishing Company, 1990. Full-color paintings and black-and-white sketches. This book explores an alien world through the eyes of the mission artist. Told in journal style with pictures and text, the story is compelling. The creatures and landscapes revealed are outstandingly original, and meticulously rendered.
"Eyes on Art: ArtSpeak 101" includes a visual glossary of sample pictures, a text glossary of art words, and instructions for using the site.
Gaia Girls 1: Enter the Earth by Lee Welles, illustrated by Ann Hameister. Daisyworld Press, 2006. Dozens of marvelously detailed pen-and-ink drawings illustrate this young adult novel about a Wizard coming into her power.
The People of Pern with text and introduction by Anne McCaffrey, illustrated by Robin Wood. Full-color. Wood works in pencil, oil paints, and acrylics. This character guide is a splendid collection of portraits.
Watercolor Painting offers tutorials in many watercolor techniques; find out how watercolor paint works.
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