What is art?

I have wanted to write a blog post with this title for along time. According to Wikipedia

Art refers to a diverse range of human activities and artifacts, and may be used to cover all or any of the arts, including music, literature and other forms. It is most often used to refer specifically to the visual arts, including media such as painting, sculpture, and printmaking. However it can also be applied to forms of art that stimulate the other senses, such as music, an auditory art. Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy which considers art.

Art critic Alan Gowans says in The Unchanging Arts (1972), “To know what art is, you must define what it does. You can define art only in terms of function. High art historically grew out of low art, and the functions of low art have remained unchanged throughout history.”  Those functions might be to convert the sinner, to define the human form, to tell a story or to perpetuate power. This applies equally well to popular culture. “The Unchanging Arts” was written before the invention of video games but I think Gowans would certainly recognize them as a form of “Low Art” (not a pejorative, in his view).

The low arts, might sometimes be called crafts, or graphic or commercial art and design. They also include most photography, illustration, cartooning, architecture etc. He contends that both high art and fine art grow out of the low arts. High art fulfils the same sort of functions as low art but stands out by virtue of extraordinary skill, originality or beauty. Fine art on the other hand fulfils no function but is low art taken out of context and produced for its own sake. Remember, he was writing at the time that Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein were at the height of their careers. He says that the concept of fine art is largely a modern one, although he gives some examples from antiquity. Fine art is art for arts sake, unlike high art which is always for a purpose, often religious, sometimes practical.

Basically he felt that art is defined by its function not its style or method of execution. Art is (and has been for all time) produced for one of four purposes:

1. Substitute Imagery (creating a likeness). This function has been taken over almost entirely by photography and film (and now their digital equivalents), but there would be a few other examples, map-making and theatrical maquettes perhaps.
2. Beautification (and decoration). This is fairly obvious and covers everything from wallpaper to airbrushing.
3. Illustration and Narration (telling, or helping to tell, a story). Comics to epic film making.
4. Conviction and persuasion (making a point, be it religious, political or commercial). Advertising and iconography.

One of his more quotable quotes: “Once objects are saved solely as Art you may be sure that for all practical purposes they are dead, and you may suspect that the civilization collecting them for only that reason has begun to die too.” Gowans died in 2001, I wonder what he would have made of Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the dawn of the 21st Century?

Categorized as Thoughts

Using Social Networks for Marketing

I have been working in Marketing and Development (fund-raising) for many years and have always been aware of how the mindset of the two disciplines differs. Marketing, and to some degree low-end fund raising, tends to be about being in-your-face. Keep on asking, stay front and centre all the time, sometimes even bombard people with materials with the thought that it can’t do any harm.
High end fund-raising is different. There is a term “moves management” which refers to the careful management of the relationship with the prospect. Sometimes years can be spent cultivating and stewarding a donor without any guarantee that there will be a payoff. But sometimes it can pay off very handsomely indeed, with a multi-million dollar gift or bequest.
It has recently occurred to me that the use of social networks by marketing has a lot in common with moves management and perhaps marketers could learn something from fund-raisers.
It is very difficult to measure the success of Twitter or Facebook unless there are direct click-throughs to you web-pages that can be measured on Google Analytics. But if all you are doing is posting links to you website and doing in-your-face marketing there is a good chance that you will be blocked or ignored on Twitter and Facebook and who is going to subscribe to your blog unless you have something really interesting to say or are offereing discounts every week?
In Development we offer many value-added experiences to our lower end donors, always trying to educate our donors or bring them closer to us. We want them to understand more about us and feel part of the family. The more engaged they feel the more that they (some of them at least, the ones who can afford it) want to support us in any way they can. It is sometimes very hard to justify the cost of these events to Management because they often don’t result in an immediate donation or upgrade.
I think that companies that want to use social media for marketing need to learn some of these same lessons. Don’t look for an immediate sale; build relationships, build trust, engage and educate your customers, give them something that interests them and keep them coming back for more. The payout is down the road but it will come, just keep managing the moves.

Categorized as Thoughts

Secret Knowledge

I am currently rereading David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge. The premise of the book is that painters have been familiar with the use of optical aids since at least the early 15th century and possibly as early as the second. As Mr. Hockney points out, it is only in the last few years that improvements in art reproduction, and internet access to high resolution images of the great collections, have made his research possible. He created a wall of images arranged in a timeline that allowed him to see the startling trends and changes that took place.

Contrary to the accusations of his opponents he doesn’t suggest that all, or even most, artists were copying projected images. These critics hotly deny that the “Old Masters” would have needed any assistance and were more than capable of drawing realistically without optical aids but I don’t think that is his point. Although it is in fact perfectly possible (though darned difficult) to create photo-realistic images by eye alone, nobody actually did so until the Dutch introduced a startlingly different style of painting, quite suddenly, in the early 15th century.

Starting with van Eyck, the style of rendering, especially the human figure, but also still life, changed within a remarkably short span of years. It wouldn’t have been necessary for all artists to be using lenses and mirrors as artists have always learned by copying their masters. When the masters learned by copying a two dimensional projected image, a whole new style of drawing was born and this style would have been copied by those who came after.

His thesis fascinates me despite the fact that it is often dismissed as a crackpot theory and he is in fact vilified by some of his detractors. It is obviously a very emotional issue for some people who find it necessary to make highly personal attacks on Mr. Hockney in order to refute his theories. Actually I got the impression that some of his critics had not in fact read the book, or only skimmed it very superficially. This is unfortunate because it isn’t actually very long. I have always been attracted to controversial theories and I think that Mr. Hockney makes some excellent points. This book is definitely worth a read and it is so lushly illustrated that I felt the need to add it to my collection.

Categorized as Reviews

Cigar Box Pochade Hardware

I spent some more time finishing off my pochade.
I replaced the hinges and clasp and made a brace from a couple of mending strips. I have an old camera tripod which is missing the block that is supposed to screw into the camera. So I made a mounting block out of three pieces of boxwood and glued and screwed them into the botom of the cigar box. I actually used it today for one of my Daily Paintings. I am still on the look out for some accessories. I need a suitable palette and a way of securing it in the box so that I can transport it without the paint getting all over everything. I would also like to find a good way to secure the panel while painting. Watch this space.

Pochade Clasp

Pochade Clasp

Pochade Brace

Pochade Brace

Pochade Hinges

Pochade Hinges

Pochade Mount

Pochade Mount

Mounted on a Tripod

Mounted on a Tripod
Categorized as Projects

Making the pochade

Well I made some progress today. Whether this will be worth the time I am putting into it remains to be seen. I must have spent two hours this morning seeking out the right hardware. Everything I have read insists that it is essential to replace the existing hardware with something sturdier, so I have found some small brass hinges, a new clasp and a pair of brass “mending strips” to use for a brace. I have also used some box wood from a fruit box (the sort of thing that mandarin oranges come in) to reinforce the back and front where the new hinges and clasps will be attached. The cigar box is made from very thin cedar and I want something for the screws to go into. I cut the reinforcing strips with a box cutter and am gluing them with carpenters glue. So far so good.

Categorized as Projects

Cigar Boxes

I have been thinking for some time that I wanted to replace my antique pochade with something a little less precious. The one I have belonged to my grandfather and is at least 100 years old. I have looked at the commercially available ones and they are mostly too big, too expensive or too fancy. I have read a couple of blog-posts about making them out of cigar boxes and so I want to give it a try.
One of the advantages of working in a tourist town is that although there may be a shortage of many necessities, like a pharmacy or hardware store, we do have a cigar store and my American readers might be shocked to note that it sells Cuban cigars. They sell the fancier wooden boxes for five dollars but they give away the paper-covered ones. It is the wooden one with the recessed lid that I need for my project but I couldn’t resist picking up a couple of the others as well. They are so attractive and I am sure I can use them for something.  On the bottom of the pile you can see my current box.
Cigar boxes for making a pochade
The next step is to replace the hardware with something a little more sturdy. I will try to post again as I progress.

Categorized as Projects

Social Media

My intention with this blog has been to post thoughts, news items and the occasional WIP that I felt wouldn’t be appropriate on my other blog. Recently I have been using Twitter and I think that has kind of siphoned off much of the material that might have appeared here. I seem to be addicted to trying new social media, strange because I am not naturally the kind of person who wants to live my life in public. I blogged a couple of weeks ago about my uncertainty of how to use Twitter and other media. I have settled into a semi routine of throwing in links to stories that I like during the day, I use Tweetdeck which helps with shortening the urls and “retweating”.
I tend to come upon ideas, stories or pictures that I want to share with someone and often have been unable to find anyone who enjoys the same things or whose interest is piqued by the same stories. My sisters and my daughter come closest but they all live many miles, provinces and countries away. To the men in my life I might as well be a foreign country. The internet has allowed me to throw these things out  to the world in the hope that they will resonate with someone out there.
My “art” is actually the same. I have always maintained that I have no pretentions to “fine art” as it is defined today. My painting makes no attempt to “redefine our preconceptions” or “speak to the human condition”. I see something and I want to capture some part of it. I post it and I am saying, “this is what I saw, isn’t it pretty/inspiring/funny?” I am rarely satisfied so I don’t suppose I communicate it very well, but I try nonetheless.

Categorized as Thoughts


Who says you can’t grow paperwhites outside in Ontario? They look like paperwhites, they smell like paperwhites, I think they are paperwhites. I must have planted them by accident last year, there were a bunch of left-over bulbs in the shed that I thought I might as well throw in somewhere, and look what I got.

Categorized as General

Make a Sketchbook

Watercolour Sketchbook

I live in an art-supply desert. There are a couple of hobby and craft shops that sell some stuff but I know of nowhere locally that I can buy a nice, hard-bound, watercolour sketchbook.
Fortunately they aren’t really all that hard to make, so I thought I would share this with you. These instructions aren’t very detailed, the only tricky part is sewing the signatures together. I am assuming that most people with some artistic ability will have some understanding already of simple crafting skills.

Supplies needed:
Paper, this is just a sketchbook, so an inexpensive pad of 9″X12″ watercolour paper should be available almost anywhere, even Wal-Mart sells them. Obviously you can use better quality paper if you like but it might be best to start out with something cheap.
You will also need one piece of plain paper a little lighter weight, this needs to be just an inch or so longer than the watercolour paper, you could use kraft paper or wrapping paper.
Card, about 1/8th inch thick and around 10″X14″. An off-cut of matt board is ideal.
Fabric, a remnant is fine. You can use just about anything for this but you don’t want it to be too thick or too thin, cotton is probably best to start with.
Coloured paper, only if you want to use endpapers, wallpaper, wrapping paper, something sturdy and decorative.
Thread, you will need one piece of strong white button-thread about 40″ long. A very fine crochet thread would do too.
Darning Needle
PVA Glue, aka white glue

Cutting board or mat
Vise or press
(not essential, but helps to produce a neat finish)

A “perfect bound” book is made of a stack of “signatures”. Each signature consists of several sheets of paper folded in half and sewn together at the fold. The number of sheets you use depends somewhat on how thick the paper is. I probably wouldn’t use more than four sheets of 90lb paper. About 4-5 signatures would be good for a first attempt. Five signatures of four sheets each will give you a 40 sheet book, that has nearly 80 usable sides, not too bad.
1. Fold each signature in half, you might want to score the paper before doing this, and then stack them one atop the other.
2. When the signatures are folded and stacked neatly, mark the spine with a pencil 1/2″ from each end and twice more evenly spaced in between. You don’t need to be absolutely precise with this, just make sure that the marks are in the same place on each signature.
3. Use your darning needle to pierce each signature at the pencil marks, this will make it easier when you are sewing them.
4. Thread the needle with 40″ of thread and knot it (a good sturdy knot that won’t pull through) about one inch from the end.

Sewing the Signatures
5. This is really the only tricky bit of the whole operation and is remarkably simple once you get the hang of it. Follow the numbers (this is important), starting in the upper right hand corner. Dotted lines indicate that the thread is running under the paper. Between 10 and 11 run your needle through the starting knot. Between 16 and 17 take the thread back through the stitch from 4 to 5 . Likewise, between 22 and 23 pass back through 11. On the last signature tie off the thread and cut. You want the result to be firm but not too tight.

6. When your signatures are sewn you should cover the spine with glue and clamp the whole in a vise or press until dry. If you place it between two sheets of wax paper you can just use a pile of books to weigh it down.
7. Cut the card the same width as the book and 1/4 inch taller. The spine should be cut the same width as the spine of the book and 1/4 inch taller.

Sketchbook Cover
8. Cut the fabric with about 1 inch to spare all around, see diagram.

9. Glue the card to the fabric, turn the edges over, mitering the corners.

10. Then cut a piece of lighter weight paper about 1/4″ smaller all around than the cover and paste it over the inside, covering all the raw edges of fabric
10. Glue the first and last pages of your book to the cover and put back in the press until dry.

If you want a fancier finish, or if you are using better quality paper and don’t want to waste any, you can use end-papers to glue the book into the cover. There are various ways of doing this, have a look at a good quality bound book to get an idea of how it is done.

Because this is “perfect bound” you should be able to open it out completely flat without breaking the spine.  Needless to say, there are many more tricks you can use to obtain a more professional finish, but you should be able to create a workable sketchbook with these instructions and with practise the results will improve.

Categorized as Projects

Right Brain vs Left Brain

Anyone who has spent any time studying art has heard of the whole right brain vs. left brain debate. I read “Drawing on the right Side of the Brain” by Betty Edwards many years ago, but many of her strategies weren’t new to me even then. I remember a game we played in high school that involved copying someone’s handwriting upside down. The idea was to fool the brain into thinking only of the shapes and not the meaning. This forces right-brain thinking, except we didn’t know that then.
There has been a lot said about the right brain being supposedly “creative” and the left brain “logical” or “linear”. If you do a google search on right brain you return countless pages spouting the same stuff (often verbatim). If you believe what they say, nobody would ever want to be classified as left brain (dull plodding, middle-management drones). It reminds me a little of those “true colours” tests that we put our grade nine students through in career studies. Everybody turns out to be orange (energetic, spontaneous, opportunistic) because no-one wants to admit to being gold (dependable, responsible, conscientious).
I have taken various left vs. right tests and I seem to fall squarely in the middle, with a very slight leaning toward the right (hemisphere that is, not politics). I have always enjoyed language as well as visual arts and while I am perfectly capable of being organized I have a tendency to find the answers first and then go back and figure out how I got there. I am often accused of being a “detail person” by people who think that they are “ideas people”. Personally I think that any fool can have ideas but it takes true creativity to figure out how to make them work.
Where I disagree with a lot of what has been written is on the subject of math, science and engineering. These are often said to be left-brain activities. I think that the sciences and the arts have been divorced for far too long. It wasn’t always that way, during the Renaissance artists and scientists worked side by side (and were often in fact the same people). In my personal experience the people who find it easiest to grasp systems design and computer technology in general are actually the same ones who have a natural talent for the arts, either graphic or music. I also think that most math, with the possible exception of arithmetic, requires a great deal of right-brain activity.

According to Psychology Today:

The best scientists are much more likely to be artists, musicians, actors, craftsmen, and writers than are typical scientists, or even the general public. Scientists draw skills, knowledge, processes, concepts, and even inspiration from their non-scientific avocations.

Categorized as Thoughts