Developing Your Artistic Eyes

By R. Llewellyn Jordan

This article first appeared in NANthology, the NAN newsletter, in winter 1996. 

Becoming a gallery-goer can provide endless opportunities to sensitize your eyes to art. It is a provocative experience for each and every individual who attends an art exhibition. The individual need not be an artist. It will be an aesthetic happening for all.

For the artist, including the needle artist, viewing other individuals’ works of art is beyond an artistic appreciation event. It reinforces and reaffirms learning. An artist’s intuition improves with each visual experience. Every ingredient of a well-balanced composition of art affects the viewer’s understanding. The arrangement is successful when every detail falls into place, and each element of design creates a definitive image.

The medium we select to view does not matter. The visual language, or language of art, is the same. Each and every artist must utilize the same elements and principles of design. These elements are the language of art and must be used by artists to express their ideas, or convey a story, their ideals, or emotions from their sight, insight, heart, or imagination. For example, one can portray the beauty of flowers or a landscape to allow the viewer to experience what the artisan feels, or merely express what he or she imagines. Every element is designed to present the narrative with clarity and establish dialogue with the viewer. It can be accomplished in any medium of visual art – even needleart!

If done successfully, the visual language used by artists to convey their ideas enables individuals with a passion for art to gain an understanding of that language. If the artist is effective, he or she has created a composition with unity, rhythm, and harmony. To do so the artisan makes use of lines, shapes, direction, color, value, scale, proportion, space, and texture. These elements are used in contrast and with variations. They are emphasized in such a manner as to create interest and achieve goals established by the artist for the viewer’s understanding. Elements which are best suited for the lucidity of expression, or the non-verbal voice of the artist, may be emphasized. If not important, the roles of other principles of good composition can be limited.

When you visit an exhibition ask yourself some of the following questions as you view and enjoy the splendors and aesthetics of each composition.

How does the artist use lines? Are there variations? Are they straight, curved, loopy, horizontal, vertical, diagonal, thin, or thick? How do they affect the composition? Do they lead you effectively in or around the design? What feelings do they convey? Do they create adequate or superb interest? Do some of the lines show strength, softness, stimulate visual excitement, create contours, convey movement, establish a mood such as tranquility, or ignite anxiety causing emotional discomfort? Do some lines overlap with objects of various shapes, hues, and values to create a high degree of interest? Do some of the lines suggest continuance beyond the design area?

How does the artisan employ shapes? Are there variations in size and types in the composition? Are they geometric, natural, or organic?

Color is a very essential aspect of a good composition. How effectively was it used? Were there enough variations of value to define each element? For example, we know in nature that color tends to lose its intensity, saturation, purity, strength, and distinctiveness at a distance because of the increasing volume of atmosphere through which it is seen. If you are viewing a landscape, how effectively was this handled? Was it realistic? Was visual or optical mixing employed? Observing how artists manipulate color can be a wonderful learning experience.

How was the design area utilized to define foreground and background? What elements were emphasized to accomplish this? How did the negative and positive spaces interact? Was it a pleasing effect? Was the center of interest or focal point close to the largest mass or element? Were each of the objects’ shapes and surfaces defined clearly – by use of color, value, light and/or shadow?

How was scale dealt with? Did the artist use perspective correctly – using smaller objects in the distance and converging lines to create a vanishing point?

Did the finishing or presentation enhance the composition? The physical size and shape of a work of art has an immediate effect on us. The subject’s characteristics are usually reflected in the shape of the overall composition. For example, landscapes are presented horizontally, portraits vertically. Finishing or presentation should mirror this.

Was there any symbolism used? Was it religious or cultural? Was color used to present the symbolism?

Were the quality of workmanship or technique and utilization of the principals of good design effective? Superb? Was there order and balance?

The more frequently you view various visual arts, the more sensitive your artistic eyes will become. The longer and closer you look, the more easily you can distinguish between good and poor compositions. The appeal of a good design increases with each viewing. The breadth of learning, the appreciation of art, and the journey of the artisan become a treasure to behold and enjoy.

As an artist, your human thirst for beauty and self-expression will reach a new level You will become more informed, gain new insights, and become more aware and thoughtful of what you see. You will absorb more knowledge of the artistic means of nonverbal expression. You will become more proficient in the language of art and the elements of good design.

I urge you to become a gallery-goer as well as a participant in various art classes. Your comprehension of how different artisans convey meaning in their work will be greatly enhanced. You will see how they deal with the principles of design in order to be effective. Your own artwork will improve with more frequent observation of art as your eyes become more sensitive to design principles. You will discover a common ground with other artists in your journey. It will be thought-provoking. It is by questioning that we learn.