Sunday, February 5, 2012

Writing About Art

How do you write a good paper about art?

There is no formula for writing a good essay about art. There are no hard and fast rules or guidelines. There’s what works and what doesn’t.

Writing about works of art is an especially difficult task because you must articulate in words an experience that does not involve words at all, visual experience. What complicates things even more is that art objects are thought objects and have many different levels of meaning, very much like works of literature, only without words and text.

Writing about art is itself an art.

The point of writing about works of art is to make them accessible to other people. Part of your task is to explain, but great works of art remain complex and elusive. You can only explain just so much. A work of art that can be completely explained is probably not very interesting or very good. Great works of art will always keep us coming back and will always yield new insights and discoveries. They are always fresh no matter how familiar they become. That’s what makes them great.

Let’s take a deceptively simple and straightforward painting by Jean Baptiste Chardin from 1758, Still Life with Brandied Apricots.

At first glance, it looks unremarkable and ordinary. In fact, this painting is filled with drama

When writing about a painting, it is usually best to start by describing it. As the painter himself works from big to small, so let’s begin with the big parts of the picture and work our way down to the small details.
--The painting is on an oval shaped canvas
--It shows a collection of objects, most having to do with eating and drinking.
--The colors are mostly warm earthy colors with a few points of cool blues to the right.
--A glass jar filled with apricots preserved in brandy topped with a piece of tied off cloth dominates the painting just to the left of center. To the left are wine glasses that have been used. To the right of the jar appear two china cups of hot tea or coffee. The brightest and most prominent of those cups looks like it is hot and steaming with a spoon in it. The coffee is fresh. To the right of those are some tied packages one of them looks like a round cheese box. In the foreground are what looks like pieces of bread or cheese, a lemon, and a knife that looks like it has just been used.

As we describe the painting, we begin to notice certain things. The still life is not just a simple arrangement of objects, but implies the presence of people. It is a small meal, and one that is still taking place. We might even be partaking of the food here. What sort of a meal is it? It’s clearly not a lavish dinner. It looks like a small snack. Where might it be taking place? Not a dining room certainly. Maybe back in the one room where you would find a jar of brandied peaches along with a cheese box, bread, and wrapped packages, the kitchen.
Something else we might begin to notice about it. An oval shape is an unusual shape for a painting, especially for a still life. That shape finds its echoes in the painting, for example in the round cheese box and in the apricot jar itself, especially the tied off cloth over the mouth of the jar. That round mouth of the jar tied off with cloth recalls the stretched canvas on an oval support of the painting itself.
A round shape, including an oval shape, is an unstable shape compared to a square or rectangular shape. It is always in danger of appearing to roll or tip over. The challenge is to make the picture in such a way that it appears stable, but not so stable as to become motionless and dull.

This arrangement of the elements of the painting within the framing edge is called composition. This painting is particularly well composed to stabilize an oval shape without getting dull. The easiest and fastest way to stabilize this kind of shape is with symmetry. A symmetrical composition is the exact same in all parts if divided in half or in radial parts. Symmetrical compositions are perfectly balanced. The perceived weights of all the parts of the picture are evened out.
Usually religious pictures use symmetrical compositions, and other pictures that use symmetry frequently imply some kind or religious or spiritual content.
Is this picture symmetrical? Would both halves be the exact same if you divided it in half?
No, it is not symmetrical. The composition is asymmetrical.
Is it balanced? Yes, it is. There is roughly equal weight between the jar and wine glasses on the left with the cheese box and packages on the right.

What role does color play in the composition? The colors are mostly warm earthy colors, browns, umbers, reds, etc. They are mostly quiet colors with some points of intensity; for example the rich red of the wine in the glasses has its answer in the points of bright red on the china cups. The brandied apricots are a deep rich dark orange that find their echo in the brighter orange colors in the bread and orange/ lemon in the foreground. These are brighter more intense versions of the colors that dominate the whole painting. What about those dull blue-greens on the right? We see those colors in the large bundle in the background, and around the edge of the cheese box. Blues and greens are cool colors, the opposite of the warm colors that dominate the painting. We see these colors elsewhere, on the china cups, and cool color is implied in the wine glasses in the cool white and gray highlights. The presence of these cool colors sets off the other warm colors that dominate the painting.

This use of echoing colors and echoing shapes, for example the knife handle with the spoon handle with their similar colors and angles, is visual rhythm.

Another issue is how the artist applies the paint. Some artists lay on the paint in big thick strokes. Others go out of their way to polish out all trace of their brushstrokes. This painting is somewhere in between. Chardin applies the paint carefully and laboriously in layers of grainy opaque lights and transparent darks, building his forms out of color, light, and dark. This is where access to the original painting is very valuable.

Size makes a big difference in terms of the impact of the picture. This is not a huge painting, nor is is a miniature. It's a mid sized easel picture about 20 inches high.

Finally, why might Chardin have chosen to make a painting about such ordinary objects from a kitchen? In an age that produced magnificent porcelain and silverware, that was famously lavish, he chose to paint objects that were so comparatively plain and humble. Why might have he done that? Could there be social and moral issues involved in such a decision?

To understand this painting further will require research. You would have to compare this painting with other still lives by Chardin, with other still life paintings of the same time. How is this painting distinct in Chardin’s work? How is it similar to the rest of his work? How is it distinct from still life painting of the day, or from other painting that dominated that time? What might Chardin have looked at for inspiration? Perhaps Dutch still life of the 17th century. How is this painting similar to those, and how is it distinct? What is it about Chardin’s own life that informs this painting? How does this painting fit (or not) with painting in 18th century Paris? If is doesn’t quite fit, why not? Is he trying to send a message to people of that day?

Research means searching for information in libraries, archives, museums, and online. That means finding information on the artist, on still life painting, on painting in 18th century Paris, on what was happening in Paris of that time and in Chardin’s life. It is up to you to figure out how much of the information is relevant and useful.

*A note about online research: The Internet is a great place to start your research, but a bad place to finish it. All information should be treated with a measure of caution and skepticism, especially information online. Most articles online are very short and very general. For more detailed and insightful information, you have to crack some books.

Articles in journals are another great source for information, especially about certain specific aspects of a work of art. Films and TV programs are also good sources of information.

Your best source of information is the work of art itself. If it is accessible to you, then you should try to see it in the original, preferably more than once. This painting by Chardin is now in Toronto, so would be inaccessible to us, unless you’re willing to take a bus to Canada.

So why use the MLA (Modern Language Association) format for writing these papers? Why all these formats and rules for research papers?

First, you don’t want to come off sounding like this guy:

The purpose of the MLA format is professionalism. You don’t want to sound like a half-baked guy in a bar late at night. You want to sound like an expert. You want your argument to be credible.

Second, the MLA format is for the sake of clarity. You want to be understood, by everyone including other experts.

You should always cite the sources of your information, at the very least with a bibliography listing the sources that you used. Something to always remember about bibliographies and footnotes or insert notes, they are armor. They announce to all the world that you’ve done the work, that you know what you are talking about. Bibliographies and footnotes cast down the gauntlet before skeptics and dare them to do the research themselves (some people might take you up on that dare, always a risk).

“Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin was born November 2, 1699 …” is a terrible opening line for a paper on Chardin or any artist. Your reader will tune out instantly. You should open a paper on an artist with a sample of their work. When you discuss that work, you can raise the issues that you wish to address in the paper.

Try to remain focused upon your primary task, to explain the artist's work. This gets difficult sometimes when you are writing about artists with famously dramatic and tragic lives, for example Vincent Van Gogh or Frida Kahlo. We can get so caught up in the drama of their lives that we forget sometimes to talk about their work, the whole point of writing a paper about them.

Usually the best practice is to begin a paper with a description of the artwork in which you raise issues you wish to discuss.
Then in the second part, discuss and fill out the issues that you raise using relevant information.
Finally, you can conclude your paper with a summary of what you discussed, or with an opinion based on the information that you presented.

Some further suggestions:

*Use the active voice whenever possible. The passive voice sounds dull and pretentious, and makes long tedious sentences when a shorter active one would do nicely.

For example:
Passive voice -- "This painting was made by Chardin."
Active voice -- "Chardin painted this picture."

*Write a rough draft of your paper and have someone else read it. You can also read it aloud to yourself. If it sounds awkward and difficult to you or someone else, then it probably is.

*Write your first drafts like you talk. You can clean up the grammar and spelling later. Don't try to talk like an art professor (art professors shouldn't sound like art professors either). Even in your final draft, you want to be yourself.

*Be generous with insert notes, especially in a research paper. It is always better to err on the side of too many than too few.

*In this age where everyone texts, we're forgetting what capital letters are for. Always capitalize proper names of people, art, ships, institutions, whatever. Always capitalize the titles of your papers, and other people's essays. And don't forget to capitalize your own name.

For example: Professor Blanchard at Bronx Community College