Tuesday, 15 April 2008

EARTH, AIR, FIRE and WATER (and of course, ART)

In the flickering light from ancient torches, the shadows on cave walls suggested mastodons and bulls to our prehistoric ancestors. They became the world's first artists, reaching out with charcoal to complete visions that were inspired by the earth's shapes:


This cave wall suggested the head of a deer to some prehistoric artist



This large rock reminded an artist of a horse

In this way, the earth and the artist came together to create art.

30,000 years later, artists discovered stained glass. Rather than drawing with sticks in the dirt or making marks on parchment, artists were now able to combine their art with the radiance of light. Look what glorious things happened when artists added sunshine to their palette of colors:


Nativity scene from Priory Church, circa 1501


Prayer of a righteous man, St. Mary's Church, late 14th century


The Last Judgment, 15th century

Just like with the earth, the artists combined with the sun to create art.

At some unknown point in the distant past, artists discovered that by making designs and colors on cloth rather than on hard surfaces, their designs could take on the shape of the wind. Static images became flying banners that inspired armies and flags that symbolized nations.










Christo's "Gates" in NY, copyright 2005 Christo and Jeanne-Claude

Once again, the artist teamed with the elements to make art, combining wind and image.

Artists who use watercolor, if they are wise, take advantage of water's special properties rather than concealing its role. Even artists who specialize in tightly controlled images seem to gain depth and profundity when they give the freedom of water a larger role in the artistic process.


Saul Steinberg began his career with technical pen drawings with geometric shapes and cross hatching, but later turned water loose to create lovely skyscapes.


Here, Andrew Wyeth wisely did not attempt to paint snowflakes. He randomly spattered liquid tempera, using the qualities of water to contribute the effect of snow.

Just like with earth, sun and wind, the artist can interact with water to create a higher form of art.

All of these beautiful images we have seen were made more beautiful because the artist opened the artwork to the elements. Nature adds variety, change, unpredictability, ambiguity, mistakes and uncertainty to the product of human will. Water does whatever it wants, and watchful artists keep their eyes open for the happy accident. The light through stained glass windows changes depending on the time of day or month of the year or the weather outside, creating very different effects. When the wind shifts, flags do a completely different dance.

One concern I have with digital art is that it seems to reduce the important role played by the elements in the creation of art. We can now assert greater and greater control over the screen, pixel by pixel. The light from a cathode ray tube or a plasma screen remains constant, regardless of the time of day or year. The mathematical formulae used for CGI are immutable. Color can be adjusted for saturation, brightness and contrast in tiny increments. Mistakes and accidents can be effortlessly eradicated with mid-course corrections. And the pictures never, ever change with the wind.