To 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.