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  • Writer's pictureMichael Skalka

We tame the medium and the medium tames us

Summary: Making art is a two-way proposition. An artist masters the medium of their choice and bends it to their will. However, the medium has its own rules that abide by the physical properties of the material and how the user handles it. It is easy to overlook this dynamic relationship.

Every art teacher encourages students to master drawing. It is the foundation for making works of art. It is important to becoming facile at drawing so that what is being observed can be translated into a two-dimensional surface if painting an image is the intent. But when it comes to instruction about art materials, most art students say that emphasis on this subject was sorely lacking.

The author Philip Ball who wrote the brilliant work Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, made a stunning point about the mechanics of creating works of art. “By not understanding these craft aspects of making art, we run the risk of imagining that art is just about having the idea rather than about actually having to go about creating it.

However, the artist Sol LeWitt did just that. Instead of creating a work of art, he provides instructions on how to make it. This toys with the ideas of the physicality of an artwork verses intellectual constructs that have the potential to become a tangible object if the reader executes the instructions provided by the artist. Intriguing?

That idea would not have worked the same for Rubens in 1614/1616, if instead of painting his iconic “Daniel in the Lions’ Den, he wrote and distributed the words, “Prepare an 88 by 130-inch canvas. Paint bones in the foreground followed by a row of 4 lions. Add 3 lions to the left of the figure of Daniel who should be drawn and painted sitting on a rock with arms upward clasping his hands. Depict Daniel looking up praying. Place a red cloak at his right side. Show an opening in the den with a bit of blue sky.”

Ball’s observation addresses how nearly all art historians treat the topic of the physical act of using art materials if they stray from discussing history and delve into how an artwork was made. It becomes obvious upon reading their arguments that they have never touched a brush nor done anything with paint. The description of the materials and techniques of making art are shallow and tentative. It becomes obvious when a writer is tasked with describing a technical process that they have never experienced themselves. The description takes on a cautious tone. Terms are selected that lack commitment. Processes are dissected but the words are vague and sound like the author knows what it is like to perform something, but only from observation and not actual practice.

For the most part, art historians excel at discussing the motivation and social surrounding that influence an artist to express themselves in a tangible work of art. They are in their comfort zone when talking about history and philosophy. But even a shallow dive into mixing color and manipulating paint to achieve a specific appearance and the whole discussion becomes wobbly.

An interesting example of the impact of the choice of media comes to mind when observing the marks made by artists like Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler and Jackson Pollock. Their treatment and interaction with the materials is integral to the intent of the artists. The characteristics of the materials were capitalized and manipulated to fulfill the will of the artists. Modern art was not “invented” because art materials evolved. Artists bent the materials to do their will. New media provided the means to expand their expression and offer better longevity in many cases. (Acrylic dispersion or solution paints poured on raw canvas are far more stable and long lasting as opposed to pouring diluted oil paint on raw canvas.)

Artists succeed by becoming comfortable with understanding what art materials can and cannot do. In turn, art materials quietly proclaim their scope as well as their limitations. Some artists push the boundaries of the physical properties of art materials to create abstract works of art, while others ride the safe, slow lane and are comfortable with not demanding much from their medium of choice. Somebody still has to paint beautiful landscapes in a classical manner. Nothing is wrong with either approach. Sometimes life on the “bleeding edge” threatens crashing and burning, but worth the risk if the outcome is successful.

I recently was discussing various styles of management with someone. What makes a team successful and what spells disaster? This analogy came to mind. If the “goal” is to get down a long flight of stairs, one can take each step cautiously and carefully and end at the last step unharmed. Another approach can throw caution to the wind and result in stumbling and crashing down a staircase. Ultimately both people get to the bottom of the stairs, but one is unharmed and moves forward and the other is looking for their insurance card and a ride to the emergency department.

Mastering art materials can work in much the same way. Reading, asking questions, obtaining guidance from a mentor, and methodically experimenting with materials with both tame the art material and tame the artist so that they can understand what art materials can do with a level of confidence. Slinging paint with no plan, mixing odd mediums together, finding bad sources of advice and defying physics can end in frustration and a bad outcome.

In conclusion, one of the goals of this website is to provide reasonable and sound advice about art materials. Building a community that shares hard fought knowledge helps everyone to enjoy and master their media. More thoughts and an action plan will be coming soon on how we can achieve these goals.

Meanwhile, spring has arrived, and it is time to get out and exercise those painting skills.

The Syntax of Color

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