Why do I like?

ghost-bikeTo me, the most interesting art isn’t necessarily well-rendered, accurate, realistic. Often, quite the contrary.

So, what does make it interesting? What are the qualities that make me like a work, my own or someone else’s?

This seems important, so let me think on it a bit.

First of all, specificity. A drawing that is of a very particular thing. Not just a car, but a specific car with all its dings and reflections.  A car that looks like it was really studied by the artist. It’s true in all art forms, in a documentary, a novel, a record. The little details that make me know more about the subject.

And it’s not just that the artist noticed and captured the specifics of the subject, it’s also the specifics of how he or she did it, the feel of the hand behind the pen, the little eccentricities that make it original, the catch of the pen on the paper, the oneness of the particular piece, the particularity of the personality and the vision behind the line.

That’s why I like a recording where you can hear Segovia’s fingers squeak over the metal strings of his guitar. Or the recognizable grit  of a specific New York street corner in 1970 in Panic in Needle Park when Al Pacino crosses Amsterdam and 86th early in the morning and you can just smell it, taste it. A Ronald Searle drawing that has splashes and blotches of ink and redrawn lines. Karl Ove Knausgard’s amazing novel, My Struggle, bringing to life the tiniest, most specific details of everyday memories to give the mundane deep meaning.

Art that is too perfect, Photoshopped, processed, loses this specificity. In fact, any reproduction lacks these little specifics. That’s why seeing an original is always a completely different experience, even if the image seems familiar.  When I looked at a pyramid of Cézanne’s oranges in a Google image search, I get the gist. But when I see them hanging on the wall of the Met, I get a feeling, a series of revelations as I see more and more through the varnish. I have the opportunity to explore deeper and deeper with my eyes, to see layers and brushstrokes that the “image” alone doesn’t convey, the way the paint that Cézanne chose and placed does when it’s sitting right in front of me. The specifics.

When I draw from a photograph, it’s often impossible to get that deep sense of seeing, to see the particulars on a deeper and deeper scale. All too soon, I hit grain, pixels.

For me, drawing is an opportunity  to avoid the clichés and the symbols and to focus on what is really there, warts and all.

Story is another aspect of specificity.

Not an illustration per se but a drawing that captures my imagination and starts a movie in my head. A captured moment that evokes a bigger context, like any painting by Hopper. Or shows the marks on a object that tells you where it’s been or what’s done. The lines and wrinkles on a face that are a roadmap, a drawing that become a biography.

Scale is another way to add interest.

To zoom in tight on something and see it afresh.  The details of a butterfly’s wings, a bagel’s crumbs, a bicycle’s greasy chain. Or to stand way back and see it in a different context. To look at the Empire State Building poking out on the horizon from behind a row of four-story brownstones. Giant blades of grass on a lawn and a tiny plane in the sky way above. A page crammed full of tiny drawings of giant trucks.

Interesting art also contains a surprise.

It could be in the lines themselves, lines with an unusual but true thickness or movement. A variety of sweeping brush strokes and then details in fine pen lines. Inconsistencies that draw my eye and, with a moment’s reflection, become a revelation.

In color: Complimentary colors, A wash of liquidy teal watercolor and a tiny, sharp spot of orange gouache.  Unexpected shades. Purple cheeks, orange eyes, a green sky.

A wall of perfectly drawn bricks and then a hastily drawn broken window. A third ear that lets me in on the artist’s process, a reconsideration, a redrawing.

Elements that make me pause, break my assumptions, jar me into reconsideration. The art in startle.

None of the above are rules, just springboards that can turn ho-bummery into something fresh and exciting. Or can help guide me in understanding why I like or don’t like the art in front of me.

Are there more? You tell me.

16 thoughts on “Why do I like?”

  1. I like it when the imperfect line is the very line that gives the drawing its special quality; when watercolours are allowed the freedom to create their own unique magic; when the painting seems to have painted itself and you wonder – who did this?


  2. I like my work about ten minutes in, while its raw and full of possibilities. If I lose that, and I usually do, I won’t like it finished. The most moving art I’ve ever seen were the unfinished works of Michelangelo before I got to David. While David was perfect and magnificent, I wept in the hall of the unfinished work. I can’t explain it.


  3. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. It has been scientifically proven (google Joseph Albers for his famous color studies) that the eye and brain crave the complimentary and will supply it if not present. That is why a grey square on a yellow background will seem to have purple tones, and the same gray square on a purple background will seem to have yellow tones. Add a touch of the complimentary to the composition (as you describe above with teal and a bit of orange) and the grey will not have the overtones. Perhaps that is one reason seeing complimentaries together satisfies. Conversely, our brains working to supply the missing complimentary may produce interest, too. That said, there is so much more to why we like a piece of art. It is a very personal experience, combining how we are affected emotionally by line, form, color, layout and subject. The time spent with a seemingly ordinary subject somehow makes it wondrous. I love this Joseph Albers quote: “Easy to know that diamonds are precious. Good to learn that rubies have depth. But more to see that pebbles are miraculous.”


  4. Shape and shadow. Drawing the shapes of shadows. Shapes of shadows that gesture toward an object or form and suggest a depth that makes it look “real.”


  5. When one part of a rendering is really closely observed and then there’s a lot of loose drawing sort of cascading away from it, I really love that. Your mind has a true experience of seeing through the arttist’s eyes. The other nonperfect element is “counterpoint.” A dark shape moves through an even darker space and becomes the light element. Your mind sort of vibrates when you see that.


  6. So well put, I am not sure if I can describe why I like the paintings/artwork that I do. I will have to think long and hard about that one. All I know is my tummy feels ‘wobbly’ inside when I see a painting or similar that I really like.
    I enoyed reading your Post immensely.


  7. You are right about the original… there is nothing like it. Upon entering a room in a gallery and immediately facing several original Renoirs, I, too, wept.


  8. Wow this is too spooky… on way home tonight I was reflecting on exactly this… a week and a half into SBS I am beginning to realise many things (and not just that coloured pencils are prob not the right medium for me right now).. I can see very clearly that there is a definite pattern to what I like (both to see and to produce myself): basically imperfect (good excuse I guess!), impressionistic, things that convey the essence of something as opposed to being an almost photographic rendering of it, lots of contrast and counterbalance… and boy have I realised how much I really love colour… What I dislike is homogeneity (horrible word but best best descriptor I can think of… or maybe it is uniformity…?) There have to be variations and imperfections for me… but with overall balance, especially of colour… I stood in front of some Monet paintings recently and cannot describe how incredible they were in that respect… I literally had goosebumps… ridiculous I know, but honestly just amazing…


  9. I feel that way about music. To hear a symphony live is to also watch the humans creating the sound, the conductor bringing out the emotion in the music and getting all the artists to work together, to see the expressions on the musicians faces while they play — the quiet joke between a couple of musicians, the “oops” expression of the player whose string just broke, the serious expression on their faces as they work a strenuous piece, the look of pure joy when they finish and are appreciated by their audience. All of this enriches the musical notes on the page in a way that a CD can’t.


  10. I just know that if a camera/computer could have done it, it’s not as interesting to me. The “hand” of the handmade element makes everything much more interesting. The unexpected, the sponteneity (even compared to a instantaneous moment caught by a camera), the personality is what I want to see.

    Great post!


  11. I remember walking into the Phillips Museum in Washington, DC and seeing Renoir’s “The Boating Party”. It’s huge, in a small room and you can look at it very close-up, look at it a little ways back, and then all the way back in the room. Seeing all the different levels of the painting — the overall structure from far back, more detail as I got closer, and then the amazing array of colors in the skin that you can only see close-up and gives a real feel of warm, moist flesh from a distance– was only something I could see and appreciate in person — not in a photo, postcard, poster, etc.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.