Yours, bewildered of Norfolk…

I’ve had a week of it reader. It started, as it often does these days, with Facebook.

A video popped into life onto my device. On it an increasingly outraged American was denouncing modern art by comparing it to the glories of ‘proper art’, by which he meant Rodin, DaVinci, Velasquez et al.

His nationality, age and gender aren’t relevant as his views are pretty universal: Modern art is ‘the emperor’s new clothes’., ‘it’s a con’ , and when for heavens sake will we all wake up and embrace the past?

I’m not unsympathetic , some contemporary art is the stuff of landfill for me (as regular readers of my blog know). However is it reasonable to be damning of anything non representational or traditional?

In the medieval period, scholars certainly felt that mankind was staggering away from classical enlightenment into some kind of new Age of ignorance.

Good question. It bothered me, and has bothered me for years, so (unusually) having time on my hands, I’ve had a bit of an audit; only for my personal satisfaction, you understand. However if you’re interested, here’s my view.

Before we begin I have to declare an interest. I’m an artist, I’m alive (well passably so), and as far as I’m aware it’s 2017. Making me a ‘modern artist’ by default I suppose, but what’s the alternative?

Traditional art – by which critics of modern art generally mean Western European Easel Painting from Giotto (early renaissance)  to Monet (early Impressionism), encompassed and embraced  a set of increasingly complex and constraining visual ‘rules’. These rules are the ‘processes’ of classical painting, and they are largely preserved in today’s Atelier training.

The broad sweep of them was towards creating increasingly realistic depictions of what the artist had in front of him (it was generally a man of course).  So leaving aside the work of naive painters, applied artists, craftsmen and anybody working in Africa, America, Oceana or Asia, benightedly working between 1270 and 1870 or so, what does that mean to his definition of good art?

The Rules 

The linchpin of ‘good art’it seems to me is this: things should look like what they are, now that’s not to say this can’t be done with imagination, flair and all of that, but recognisable is in.


Meditation by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1885. if it looks like what it is, and it’s beautifully painted, it must be good. Right?

With this in mind, here’s how to do that:

Step 1: First of all you need Form. Painterly Form is an illusion created by value changes on a flat plane. So we need to use values to create an illusion of shapes, a linear circle is a flat disk, a gradated one is a sphere.

painted sphere

Painterly form. Look its not flat, hold on it is…A circle painted to appear spherical.

As an artist, if you want to create an illusion of form, then you’re stuck with value management: it’s the physiology of sight, not my opinion, so live with it.

Step 2: If we want those Forms to look more ‘real’ (and real is a charged word is it not for something illusory?) We must nuance those Forms by making them appear to be more realistically dimensional. We can do this with (1) opacity, with (2) temperature and with (3) edge (range) control. Which brings me neatly into perspective.

brunaille van dyck

Van Dyck,now that’s what I call range management. But it’s still a flat surface, pretending not to be….

Step 3: Atmospheric perspective (the illusion of depth in flat paintings) is created by managing range. Range is the difference between passages of paint, close it down and you loose edges, open it up and you find them.

So by methodically decreasing range as we get towards the ‘back’ of our imaginary  dimensional space we create a illusion of depth, but shouldn’t we be arranging all of these things?

Step 4: Composition is simply the trick of putting the right thing in the right place. Most traditional artists opted not to innovate (they had enough to do with values, opacity, temperature, range management and all that), and use a template, and why not?

Divine proportion is another set of rules, which allows us to get it right. Not for you? Then other systems exist, asymmetric Baroque template anyone?


I love an interesting diagonal eye path, don’t you? A flat bit of canvas pretending to be a stag in Scotland, by Landseer

Landmark or Landfill?

Just so we’re clear to create a truly good and realistic piece of painting – and I’m leaving aside optical sequencing, ground management, rheology and the credit of using various media here – we have to:

(1(Use Value to create an illusion of Form, (2) nuance that with opacity, temperature, and saturation to manage the range and (3) obey the rules of illusory atmospheric perspective, and (4-6, I suppose) we should choose to use  one, two or three point linear perspective.

Gosh. That’s a lot of rules before I get to think for myself.

Now, speaking as a painter who can do this, I have to tell you that it’s pretty restrictive. And if we’re doing it right by using sequencing, couching, colour management , value keys and ranges (chiaruscuro anyone?), then there’s not a lot of creative latitude.

Spend a decade or so learning it, and the process will allow you to turn out respectable paintings every time, but here’s the thing; like any process it creates rather processed products.

You can walk through the rooms of any National Gallery you choose to mention and see exactly what I mean: row after row of paintings by unique individuals who have produced works which are essentially, largely, fundamentally similar.


By the numbers, perfect technical painting. Learn how to replicate this, and you’ll be at the top of your game. Well in a technical sense.

Now try that same exercise at a gallery such as the Tate Modern, you might not like what you see, but heavens, it won’t be homogenous.

Weeping Woman 1937 by Pablo Picasso 1881-1973

A flat painting not wasting time pretending to be real, but focussing on visual communication instead.  Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso. You won’t learn much about technique by copying this, but then that’s the point. We’ve gone beyond the constraints of craft. And I bet most people would know that this is Picasso, but wouldn’t have known the artist of the image above. Original Creative vision or reductive creative homogeneity, you decide what you prefer.

What separates great traditional artists from the ‘also rans’ is either truly breathtaking studio craft, (Ingres, Van Eyck), original vision (El Greco), or both (Turner). It’s the ones who broke the rules that are now the pantheon of great artists, not those who played safely within them.

I don’t see modern art as a break with the past, but a logical refinement of it.

Paris Musee D'Orsay Vincent van Gogh 1889 Self Portrait 2 Close Up

What if feels like to have a chaotic unquiet mind and a moment of crisis. There’s no quietude in Van Gogh or his work.

Emin Unmade Bed

What if feels like to have a chaotic unquiet mind and a moment of crisis. There’s no quietude in Emin’s Unmade Bed. Just as good, for my money as the Van Gogh.

All of the great practitioners from Monet to Doig are standing on the shoulders of giants.  Richer’s works might be contemporary, but Titian would have understood his technique very well

Similarly Rothko is nothing if not, the direct heir to Rembrandt’s innovative use of optical sequencing. To understand late Turner, is to understand Pollock, and so it goes.

No what the problem here I think isn’t a new barbarism amongst artists, but popularist philistinism amongst viewers.

Now before the lynch mob come for me, remember that my central criticism of most contemporary art (see my previous posts),  is that some artists don’t try hard enough to include and engage their general viewers.  Addressing some self proclaimed aesthetic elite isn’t enough; it really won’t do. Artists should reflect on the fact that art is visual communication, not verbal obfuscation, yet the degree to which many try to hide lukewarm ideas and execrable technique belong a veneer of learning is absurd. So absurd in fact you can visit and get started as a contemporary artist; well in words at least.

Satire is just a word for uncomfortable truth, but the joke wears thin when it provides ammunition for those who would damn all contemporary art as pompous, elitist and inexplicable.

Faced with such nonsense, I to become a red faced philistine, ready to dismiss elitist art as nonsense. Nevertheless,we have an obligation to meet artists halfway, if we wish to exert our right to be publicly critical.


Sir Nicholas Serota famously remarked he felt no compulsion to help the common man understand contemporary art, when replying to criticism of his oversight of the Turner Prize. He should have.

Art is supposed to be an alternative, view, it should surprise, it should open our minds, it will by definition be challenging.

But before we pass judgement on any art, let’s consider this; are we praising artistic skill, or creative vision? Is the craft of art itself enough to make a work ‘good’? Is vision without skill valid?

My view? We need both – I want creative visions, executed with technical skill, is it really too much to ask to hope for a middle ground. Is it really Ateliers in the technical corner vs. Art Schools in the conceptual one? I think as art tutors and practitioners we can be better than that, I really do.

Learn the craft of painting, embrace the art of creative self expression, and above all communicate. It’s not a bad rule is it?








2 thoughts on “Yours, bewildered of Norfolk…

  1. Martin, this is very concisely stated and thoroughly thought-provoking. One cavil, but maybe I’m not reading it as you intended, in your penultimate paragraph – why should we make do with a middle ground?

    My personal frustration with Art is that discussions on it are invariably backward-looking to that “golden age”. I wouldn’t immerse myself in pre-1850 literature except to study parts of it. I expect modern authors to have studied and then moved forward. Similarly in oil painting I expect, but am frequently disappointed, by contemporary artists many of whom do not appreciate the advances of their predecessors and are too timid to use the best from that and move on. This is 2017 yet most people who talk to me about art seem to think Monet’s Water Lilies were a high point – a good 100 years on. Almost every edition of the American periodical International Artist makes me groan – so much effort, such little imagination or daring to be different, and having next to nothing new to say.

    Liked by 1 person

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