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  1. #1
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    The problem of subject for today's artists

    It is the biggest problem painters face today. Outside of work for the games industry and to a much more limited extent in illustration itself, subjects beyond 'the painter's subject' of still life, landscape and figure study have largely vanished. The narrative subject in painting had been flourishing for over 500 years until the 20th century broke the tradition. This was partly because of the nature of what art was thought to be and partly because of the culture born of the events in that period.

    The main players in the high end 'art world', both the ruling mandarins and the superstar artists, are now mainly dealing with ideas and essays illustrated by object symbols; sharks in formaldehyde, diamond encrusted skulls, light bulbs blinking on and off, cliffs wrapped in polythene, a walk around the park on a yellow brick road of bannana skins.....you get the idea.

    All this is the outcome of the plastic arts being reduced to still life, landscape and figure studies as a mainstay of selling art in galleries. Anyone who paints 'The Wreck of the Hesperas' however superbly is going to find it tough selling their work. Of course I am exaggerating the point a touch, but if one walks through an average contemporary exhibition of realistic painting compared with the exhibition catalogues of the 19th century salons the difference is immediate. This is not to say there are not painters dealing with narrative subject, only to say that they are in the minority.

    To say that TV and film are responsible for this is to miss the fundamental distinction of pictorial narrative from dramatic narrative.
    The pictorial narrative of Waterhouse's 'Lady of Shalott' cannot be spoken, but rather has to be seen. For its meaning and purpose is beyond the poem that inspired it, only to be found in the written image.

    Attachment 1118639


    This is a huge topic (which I have over simplified in the interest of brevity) and one that concerns everyone trying to sell work as a painter.....

    So what is you guys take on all this?
    From Gegarin's point of view
    http://www.chrisbennettartist.co.uk/


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    And so starts "Banishment of Beauty," "Episode One". . . .

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    Haven't seen it - is it any good?
    From Gegarin's point of view
    http://www.chrisbennettartist.co.uk/

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    Heh, I just mentioned the loss of narrative in the 'English Art is Boring thread'.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Chris Bennett View Post
    Haven't seen it - is it any good?
    Heh! That was a "Star Wars" metaphor coupled with a thread predicated on some videos by a fellow named Scott Burdick-- posted by dpaint-- and evolving into a long philosophical discussion betwixt kev ferrara and dashinvaine.

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    Chris,

    Not to be flip but it is only a problem if you want to paint something and you can't sell it. I know plenty of gallery artists painting narrative in America, mostly historical subjects based on our history, but still narative.

    Michael Whelan and Michael Parkes have made the transition to very esoteric narrative paintings in galleries and there are others if you know where to look.

    If anything Narrative Painting has vanished because a general lack of skill not a lack of interest.
    Last edited by dpaint; December 9th, 2010 at 09:45 PM.

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    What's so great about galleries?

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    Hey guys!

    Funny how more or less the same topic is raising again and again these... anyway, i think it's rather interesting and to some point agree with you chris.
    Nevertheless, i dont find myself on either one side...

    (just realised that i somehow hijacked your thread... sorry chris! might be a bit offtopic )

    There's only one thing that makes me think... i really like traditional arts and narrative subjects as you call them, maybe more than abstract arts but that depends... anyway, the one thing that bothers me when wanting to paint something similar is that i dont know what to paint.
    i live in cologne, germany, a rather crowded place and don't see much of a beauty in it. When i look at other realists work, mostly american and pre-ww2 art, i find it much more appealing than looking at a modern photograph for example. So right now i'm only painting "vintage american scenes" and well, i really dig it and enjoy this topic, but some part of me thinks that it's not honest... why should i, a twenty-year-old guy living in germany paint something i never experienced? I really would like to capture what life is like today (just as most realist artists did, i think) but at the same time don't see much beauty in it...
    sometimes i wish i would have lived 70 years ago

    Maybe that's one of the issues with todays realist art, that lots of people, just like me, don't cover current issues but paint vintage scenes, and then again, i can somehow understand that this kind of art loses popularity... But that's just a thought, i'm not much into galleries and todays "art-movements", so i dont know what people are really painting etc...

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    Quote Originally Posted by dpaint View Post
    Chris,

    Not to be flip but it is only a problem if you want to paint something and you can't sell it. I know plenty of gallery artists painting narrative in America, mostly historical subjects based on our history, but still narative.

    Michael Whelan and Michael Parkes have made the transition to very esoteric narrative paintings in galleries and there are others if you know where to look.

    If anything Narrative Painting has vanished because a general lack of skill not a lack of interest.
    Not flip at all dpaint, I should have made my OP a little more of a question than I did, since I am more interested in what people think about this than what my current take on this is.
    It is certainly true that it is a problem only if you are wanting to paint a subject that may not have general, and thereby comercial, appeal. But being able to continue to paint pictures for a living depends on you selling them of course and my experience in England is that subject is extremely limited.
    Jack Vetriano is an interesting case whos popularity points up the problem rather than contradicts it. His paintings and prints are about nostalgia and sex and he has found a way of nailing this in his painting style extremely well - I have quite a lot of regard for his work. Now, when I was taken up by a big print publisher a few years back it was for a romantic nostalgic element in my work that was quite different. However, as feedback about what was selling built up in the publishers minds I was increasingly pressed to produce a very specific range of subject.......you guessed it; 50's nostalgia and romantic love.
    Here are three of my paintings at three stages of my time with the publishers from the beginning, the middle and the end......

    Attachment 1118871

    This is a very honest reflection of what happened. (and it hacks me off a little even to this day - but I take full responsibility!)
    Now, in general the later stuff sold no better than the earlier stuff. The problem as I see it is that the people with real distribution clout have a very fixed idea about what might sell which boils down to: "whatever is selling elsewhere, we will do something similar." But this is a self fulfilling prophecy because the other distributers are thinking the same thing.......hence we go around in circles. I tried to argue for a sort of 'research and development' policy where new types of subject were pushed properly into the market place......but my sales were not sufficient to give me enough influential clout.

    This is why I see the gallery system as a better indicator of 'what people want' because some galleries do take chances....
    So, I'm wondering if you are right dpaint, and it is the lack of skill and 'image making undersatanding' with regard to the narrative picture that is causing this narrowness of subject that is generally prevalent.
    Last edited by Chris Bennett; December 10th, 2010 at 07:20 AM.
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    Maybe it's just that the subjects aren't up to date? Usually the best narrative art touches upon "eternal" issues, the human condition, etc., but all the great narrative paintings I can think of are also very insightful about the politics, philosophy and historical events of their time. That'd be true even for Waterhouse since the role women in Western society was a new and much more controversial issue at the time. Today I see very few narrative artists willing to tackle the truly controversial aspects of our time.

    The reality of out time is pretty grisly, but then Goya or Brugel the Elder could paint worse situations with great success. I think the main problem today is misinformation... the issues we face are so complex and so wrapped up with lies that the artist's sensibility is no longer enough to see the truths beyond the surface. One has to read and study for years just to realize that the real world is not what he sees on TV.

    On top of that most painters come from humanistic studies (I think) but nowadays neither humanistic nor scientific culture are enough to figure out reality, nobody can say something truly interesting about politics or the contemporary human condition without solid fondations in both.

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  15. #11
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    Quote Originally Posted by Elian View Post
    i live in cologne, germany, a rather crowded place and don't see much of a beauty in it. When i look at other realists work, mostly american and pre-ww2 art, i find it much more appealing than looking at a modern photograph for example. So right now i'm only painting "vintage american scenes" and well, i really dig it and enjoy this topic, but some part of me thinks that it's not honest... why should i, a twenty-year-old guy living in germany paint something i never experienced? I really would like to capture what life is like today (just as most realist artists did, i think) but at the same time don't see much beauty in it...
    sometimes i wish i would have lived 70 years ago

    Maybe that's one of the issues with todays realist art, that lots of people, just like me, don't cover current issues but paint vintage scenes, and then again, i can somehow understand that this kind of art loses popularity... But that's just a thought, i'm not much into galleries and todays "art-movements", so i dont know what people are really painting etc...
    Elian, I was posting my reply to dpaint while you were writing this so my post is kinda relevent to your question - I have the nostalgic gene too! But for a long time I resisted it for the same kinds of reasons you have mentioned. But a sense of nostalgia or whimsey, or elergy is part of what makes a subject too and when I realised that and thought 'fuck it, I ain't selling too much anyway so I'm just gonna paint what makes me feel right' - when I did this I suddenly 'found myself' as an artist and very importantly, this coincided exactly with a public finding me as well.

    My point in the post above was that within nostalgia there is still a broad range of things to paint about. If you think about it, the great history painters were painting the past...even Michelangelo was looking to the ancient Greek art just being dug up at that time and which kicked off the whole ethos of the Renaissance.
    From Gegarin's point of view
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    Hey Chris, i dont have much time atm so sorry for the short reply.

    Feels good to hear somebody else is feeling the same way!

    And maybe just that is what makes todays society or contributes to it, that people aren't all happy and linger for the past...

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    Chris,

    I see it all the time, people who have a voice and something to say from the heart tend to get ground up by the system. The system rewards people who listen and do what their told. The best way to get around it, and the hardest way to succeed, is to ignore them and do what you want. As you said you attract people with honesty.

    I struggle with this all the time; galleries are always telling me what to do or trying to limit my subject matter to what they want or what they think will sell for them. Screw them, I paint what I want. My best selling gallery takes whatever I give them, never complains if it doesn't sell, and we have a great relationship.

    You're a great painter, if you have affection for some time or theme that's what people respond to, your emotions about it, created by the care you paint it with.We all want to make more money and be comfortable but you have to believe in the work itself even if others don't. I believe eventually this attitude is rewarded.

    People don't see narrative work because its hard to do, and frankly most people can't pull it off. Rendering the snot out of a figure doesn't get you there; it takes work and time to get the emotion in it and find the sweet spot for the piece. Exactly because it is rare people need to be educated about it, that's what a good gallery should do; but galleries are run by bored retirees now, with no knowledge of art, and they treat their gallery as if it was a Walmart, something for everyone, all at the lowest possible price.

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    But this is a self fulfilling prophecy because the other distributers are thinking the same thing.......hence we go around in circles.
    Yeah but my experience with galleries has also been that galleries also look at others for direction. I get told a lot by a few forward-looking(how ironic) galleries to do video art or installation, who think that new media is the new thing, so I get pushed to do that, and I get told off how my work is illustrative. Now a lot of galleries are even apprehensive about just taking painters and such. Its much better to be an artists with some conceptual art in hand a few pages of artists statements and such.
    Obviously I decide after this conversation with these galleries that fuck them I will do what I want, hah.
    And I guess the galleries and so called art experts are also stuck with the theme of here and now.
    So nostalgia... just irks them I guess. And thats why narrative art doesnt get done.
    I goes against their model of whats contemporary and important, and artist follow suit.
    And yes narrative art is hard to pull off, and now when people dont even know how to draw, it just seems even harder to do narrative art. Its easier to make a movie about somebody vomitting.


    And then after all that where would my paintings get placed?

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    This subject came out of the classical english artists thread, and we're still going on about the pre-raphaelites over there... I think the pre-raphaelites in general are a really great example of narrative fine art done really well. I get the feeling that they painted their narrative paintings not because they thought that this particular story might sell well and not because someone needed it illustrated, but because they really thought it was a story worth telling. And because pictures make any thread better, here are some examples:

    John Everett Millais, Lorenzo and Isabella
    The problem of subject for today's artists

    Millais, The Black Brunswicker
    The problem of subject for today's artists

    Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Godhead Fires (part of his series about Pygmalion and the Image)
    The problem of subject for today's artists

    Another great storyteller from the 19th century is the amazingly funny Jehan Georges Vibert:

    The Church in Danger
    The problem of subject for today's artists

    Un Scandale
    The problem of subject for today's artists

    The Serenade
    The problem of subject for today's artists

    A Fine Point
    The problem of subject for today's artists

    Now, the point of this thread was of course not the namedropping of amazing 19th century artists, although that is a very worthy pursuit. We're concerned with the contemporary art scene here. I think it's important to point out that I don't think that any and all still lifes, figure paintings or portraits are boring or just technical excercises just because they're not narrative. I think we can all agree that there are amazing works in these genres made by artists both past and present. But when it comes to 'modern classic' or 'modern academic' art, I think the narrative genre is something that's missing. I think the greatness and charm that these examples I posted have does not come solely from the technical skill of the artist or from how they're significant from an art history point of view, but from the stories they tell.

    But someone might say that the field of illustration, concept art and all that stuff is filled with artists doing amazing narrative stuff, why can't we just be happy with all that? And I agree to a certain degree, that yes there is a lot of truly amazing art being created in the field of illustration, and I'm very happy about that. But I think that the lack of this genre in the 'fine art' field (even though I sort of resent that dividing wall between illustration and fine art - who put it there anyway?) is problematic for two reasons.

    One, if the representational fine art of today is mostly pretty pictures and academic studies, no wonder some people don't take it seriously! Again, I'm not saying that such pictures are inherently less worth than a narrative piece, but if the critics of modern realism (whatever that means) only see the same kind of figure painting and reclining nudes, of course they're going to scorn it for having no imagination and being flat displays of technical masturbation. So some really great art with more narrative or why not allegory could, in my opinion, make the fine art world in general take modern realism more seriously.

    Two, even if a lot of great illustrators are doing great work that is really a worthy legacy, one can only assume that the freedom that being a fine artists gives would make a better opportunity to really paint what you want - and make the results be truly amazing art. What I'm trying to say is that if, in and overly simplified world, your only choices as a representational painter is either illustration work or fine art figure painting, there wouldn't be as great an opportunity for some really amazing stuff to happen.

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