Talking about art

Learning to talk about your work and that of others is a key skill that needs practice. It can be learnt and developed. Identifying the underlying emotions, compositional foundations and intellectual stimulations of an artwork helps you produce better work.

This week we will practice on our own photographs and the art of others.

This is about trying to understand and articulate the underlying reasons why an artwork talks to you.  I like to remind myself that there are three components of a photograph.

1.  The artist / photographer and what they were thinking, feeling and communicating.

2. The viewer who interprets the photograph / artwork with their own thoughts, feelings and beliefs.  

3.  The photograph / artwork itself.  For each has its own life.  It seems to have something to say that may indeed be different from its intention.


Then there is a few different things you can talk about when describing an artwork.  These include:

1.  Emotional response.  How does it make you feel?

2. Intellectual response.  What does it make you think about?

3. Compositional, structural and technical underpinnings of how it is constructed and created. 


Threes seem to be today’s lucky number.  So, you have to write about three things for three different artworks.  The three artworks you will tackle this week are:

1.   One of your own recent photographs that really captures your heart.  You may repeat this for more than one photograph as the more you practice the better.

2. An artwork by another known (read common in the art world) accomplished artist.  This can be from any art medium such as painting, photography, film making, sculpture etc... Please post a photograph or a link to the artwork.  Under Australian Copyright Law you can post someone else’s work if it is for the purpose of genuine critique and discussion (and for educational purposes).  

3.  A photograph that another photographer in this group has posted that captures your attention.  


Now for each critique that you write you need to address each of the three areas.  Emotions, intellectual and structural components.  No negative or improvements are to be discussed.


I think the best way to help you understand this is to demonstrate with some examples.

Cradle Mountain and Dove Lake. Photograph copyright © Len Metcalf 2019

Cradle Mountain and Dove Lake. Photograph copyright © Len Metcalf 2019

This photograph immediately takes me back to Cradle Mountain on this quiet winter morning. It wasn’t so much as a fresh dusting of snow, but a very cold night and a thick heavy frost. Not all mornings at Dove Lake are so still, and this reminds me that each visit is very different. The cool blues make me feel the cold in this photograph and the warmth in the golden sunlight as it caresses Cradle Mountain in warmth gives me hope for warmth and the future ahead.

Feeling wise, it is the cold of the blue and the warmth of the sun.

Intellectually, I am pleased with the tree silhouetted against the white cloud. Making this as much a portrait of the lake and mountain as of the tree.

In a design sense this photograph is constructed with many triangles. They are the two mountain peaks, the triangle of the cloud, the triangle of the foreground and the little triangles reflected in the water. The warmth of the sunlight that hits the mountain jumps forward and dominates the composition with its warmth. Warm colours project forward in an image while the blues recede.

Untitled (Red) 1970 Mark Rothko

Untitled (Red) 1970 Mark Rothko

This painting by Mark Rothko fills me with warmth. Gorgeous reds remind me that this was my favourite colour as a teenager. It is such an intense colour, full of strength and feeling. Power… Lust… Sensuality… As a Colour Field Painting, a subset of Abstract Expressionism it tries to work on a primal emotions devoid of symbols. Interestingly Rothko never thought of himself as a colour field painter, yet art theorists have definitively classified him as one.

When I stand in front of a Rothko I find I either love them or dislike them. Ones that are full of harmonies I connect with well. Some make me feel sad and I don’t particularly enjoy looking at them. This is one that connects with me in a positive way.

As I stare into it I follow individual brushstrokes and am reminded it is a painting. I examine the colour harmonies and notice that the hues complement each other beautifully. It is gentle classical music that comes to me head as I stare into this beautiful painting.

I am fascinated at how he has divided up the square shape. With a line that isn’t straight, isn’t perfect and isn’t even defined at the ends. The white in it strengthens the gaps between the two larger rectangular shapes. Yet the two are joined. Fascinating.

How does he make something, so large and monumental, yet so harmonious with such simplicity.

How can a painting be so beautiful and so full of emotion without a subject?

Colour has the power to trigger and communicate.

Hopewell, Marlborough Sound, New Zealand. Photograph copyright © Len Metcalf 2019

This photograph is full of very very intense feelings for me. I can clearly remember taking it. I was so fascinated by these delicate leaves I spent 30 minutes playing around to get something I was happy with. I was so excited afterwards I couldn’t find anything else to photograph for the next hour. Until the rush of excitement had worn off. I still can’t look at this photograph without being taken back to that very moment and the feelings that came on at the time. It was one of those peak photographic experiences I have described in one of my articles. Because of that I think it is a fantastic photograph, and I am unable to critique it with any objectivity. Yes, very very intense feelings.

As I look at it my mind tends to draw a blank, because my eyes just dance along the beautiful and delicate branches that hold this precious leaves.

It is constructed with a few triangles. A strong vertical with the main tree branch. The eyes are drawn to the areas of greatest contrast which is between the almost white leaves and darker water in the background. This photograph is a play of contrast. The repeating shapes of the leaves resonate with each other making each one stronger. This photograph reminds me about the importance of searching for clean backgrounds rather than for perfect subjects.