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WHY LOOKING AT GOOD ART HELPS US PAINT BETTER

BY PHOEBE PAVEZ

Our ability to paint is through our ability to see, to look closely at the world around us in terms of shapes, angles, colours, contours and so on. When we are able to see how the light catches a leaf or a shadow falls across the ground we are able to give life to these moments through paint. Improving our work occurs, not just through looking closely at the world around us but also through a deep understanding and analysis of great pieces of art such as those done by the great masters, Titian, Turner, Mary Cassatt and more contemporary artists whose works inspire our own. By analysing these paintings we are able to see the tools used by the artist to create powerful pieces. Tools include the formal properties of the painting, the scale, medium, tonal value, composition and subject matter. By studying these elements closely we can incorporate them into our own artwork, in a way which is not necessarily conscious. Analysing paintings adds to our ever increasing bank of artistic skills.

Painting of Christ on the cross

To understand a painting or any other type of artwork, we need to discover as much about the painting as possible. This can be achieved by learning what materials were used, what year it was painted, what the painting meant to the artist, the culture at the time and how the meaning and the reading of it has changed in  the present day. Today there is easy access to this information on the internet as great paintings have already been analysed by experts and are available for anyone to read. Reading another’s analysis can give you a head start in developing creating your own analysis.This information makes it easier to interpret and understand the painting and gives us a richer experience as a viewer and a richer experience as an artist.

Analysis of the Crucifixion by Bob Booth

As we take a closer look at the Crucifixion, artwork by artist Bob Booth, a contemporary artist. The painting itself is 153x110cm, it is part of a triptych, which also includes the Descent from the Cross and the Resurrection. It makes for an impressive view when seen with its partners. These paintings bring new emotion and a new way to view a biblical scene that seems to have become such a norm in Christian tradition and painting. The Crucifixion was painted in oil of which it’s qualities include elasticity allowing for movement on the canvas and a subtle blending of colours. When the qualities of the medium are understood we can begin to deconstruct the way in which it was painted. This can give us important information on how the artist was able to mix or create certain effects on the canvas.

We are able to gather much information about the painting not only through a thorough analysis but also from the artist. The richest source of information about a painting is the artist themselves who can help with our understanding of the painting and why the artist made particular choices.  Many contemporary artists keep blogs about their artwork with information about their inspirations for a particular piece. This can benefit our analysis of a painting and allows for a deeper and more informed perspective of it.

We are lucky when viewing the Crucifixion as the artist Bob Booth gives us a direct insight into the conception process of the painting through a written reflection.

One such influence is a specific Psalm:

“Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round. They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion”. (Psalm 22 verse 12-13).  


The imagery in the Psalm is literally depicted in the painting, we can see the bull and the lion’s head turned to the figure of Christ whose arms are stretched on the cross. The painting therefore complements the psalm by giving it the weight of a brutal and yet beautiful image.


The area of the painting with Christ on the cross has been circledThere are extreme contrasts between the darkness in the bottom right corner and the bright centre. This is some basic information that we can gather about the painting to give us a general impression before we get more specific.
When we look at the composition of the painting we can see the curve of the clouds in the sky are followed by the curve of the bulls back and the darkness at the bottom of the painting curves to give an oval shape that encompases the figure of Christ and the heads of the animals. It brings the viewer into the painting, this is where all the emotion takes place, where the dramatic scene is at its climax. This oval shape holds most of the light in the painting focusing our attention on the distress of the event in front of us.


Arrows point from the top and both sides of the painting towards Christ's bodyThe tail from the lion is like a line directing our sight from the left side of the painting across the back of the lion to the head which leads the eye directly to the figure of Christ. The line following the bull’s spine leads our eye from the top right hand side down to its head which is also pointing at the figure of Christ. The cross itself is an obvious line directing our sight to the the same point. There is such a distinct and direct line to the figure we can not help but be drawn into it. All these lines lead our eyes to focus on the anguish of the scene, we cannot take our eyes off it.  
Although there is no linear perspective in this painting, there is an atmospheric perspective. The background has a distinct haze that give the impression of hills and the thin bright colour sitting on top of the hills indicates where the hills end and the sky begins. The horizon helps us to see this as a real place. The softness of the colour, the haze, gives a sense of sadness, softening the emotions of distress and anguish into a sad hopelessness.


Small detail of the painting showing the sky


The correlation between the animals and the figure of Christ is very physical they may even be  touching him, it’s as if the figure is pulling away from them. These animals are having a negative impact on the figure of Christ.The size of the animals also give us the impression they are not from this world, they are bigger than any bull or lion we would see today, giving them a more symbolic presence in the painting. This all adds to the subject matter, showing Christ’s powerlessness in this moment.The figure is not in the middle of the painting, this allows for the bull to take on more volume its presence imposing on the whole painting leaving the figure of Christ vulnerable.The animals disproportion to the figure of Christ, create a dominating feeling, that Christ is helpless in their menacing presence. They take up the majority of the canvas space, they overpower the figure. The animals are not on solid ground they are existential, yet their form through tone and curve of the brush allows them to become real in this moment, you can feel their heavy bodies weighing down on the event. This painting is about how it would have felt to be crucified rather than a picture of the event. The pain and fear felt by Christ has been felt by others, it is a human pain.

Detail showing Christ's bodyThe darkness of the painting and the failing light in the background add to the paintings sense of sadness and anguish. The dark clouds in the sky and the bright light leading us to a distraught human figure in the centre of the painting. This painting is about pain and suffering, where there is no safety. The quick brush strokes and the lack of detail on Christ’s face gives the sense of movement, adding to his movement of pulling away from the animals, being trapped by being nailed to the cross. The lack of detail makes him more human, we can put ourselves there and imagine his pain. His body itself is undefined, blending into the mess of the brush strokes adding to the undefined messiness of the subject matter. Below him could be people crowding but there is no definite drawing, it all adds to the anguish of the painting. The darkness of the painting recedes into the bottom giving an endlessness to where it may go, perhaps it recedes out of this world. There is fire and smoke surrounding Christ and the animals. The whole scene is in destruction. The world in that moment is falling apart, the painting is a living story.


The colour the artist has used adds to the depth of emotion this piece brings. The colours used in the sky gives us the impression of failing light, the day coming to an end. The effects of the lighting shows with the contrast of light and dark on Christ’s body bringing him into this real place. There are highlights on the animals too, giving us an impression of sunlight breaking through the clouds and shining on them, this emphasises their real presence at the event taking place. The green that surrounds Christ’s torso adds another element to draw our eye to the figure. It hasn’t mattered whether the green is of a field nearby, the artist hasn’t had to define it as it allows the painting to work. It’s the feeling that matters, the artist’s use of colour allows the emotion of the painting to take hold creating perhaps a more real scene then if it was perfectly detailed.


Conclusion

Looking at specific pieces of art that captures our eye in an in depth way has huge advantages to our painting. Really looking at a painting gives us clues into the techniques artists use to create such pieces of work. When you want to create emotion in a painting, finding an artist whose work projects that emotion then analysing how they do it enables us to then use the same skills in our own work. Understanding how the artist has made the perspective work through linear or atmospheric gives us the tools to then create a piece of work where perspective works. Knowing how to see when the painting is going right or wrong is vital to create great pieces of work. The more we look at art and analyse the better we are at seeing when our own work is going right. It’s an exciting process to see your art improve from a source other than painting or specific instruction. There are subconscious lessons we learn, we know we learn them because they help our painting feel right without explanation.