Welcome back to our monthly series Ask Angella, where we do exactly that.
If you’ve ever had a potentially sensitive creative question, we want you to throw it our way so that we can hand it over to Angella: our resident art writer, expert, and all-around kind, funny and wise human being. Here’s the question we’ll tackle this month:
“The fundamentals of art: what are they, and do they even matter to my own artistic practice?”
I should warn you now, I have an ambivalent take on fundamentals. I’m not sure I necessarily agree with the phrase “you have to know the rules in order to break them.” I personally never knew the art rules: I grew up with a fundamental religious education which did not include arts programming outside of a summer camp-style ceramics class. But I was still creative so I just made things up as I went. I definitely had the feeling that I was doing something “wrong” but I didn’t care. I wasn’t trying to draw a perfect circle or master the lines of perspective. I only cared to express myself and I found ways to do it without classical training. And even without knowledge of the rules, I was prolific.
Still, for anyone who has taken an art class, the fundamental elements of art were likely hammered into your head: color, form, line, shape, space, texture and value.
Early models of art education included students working under master artists, mostly painters, who learned how to paint by essentially being an intern for 10-20 years. In an interview with Pablo Friedeberg in Autre Magazine, the elder artist describes his art school experience. “I belong to the old-fashioned school. You went to an academy. First you draw a hand and a foot. And then, the next year, a knee and a nose. And after ten years, you draw a whole body, and you made it beautifully…perfectly. But people became tired with that I suppose.” For the most part, the traditional model of arts education has endured though you don’t spend 15 years perfecting a figure (although I know some illustrators who would say otherwise!). These seven elements listed above continue to guide formally trained artists. (You can learn more about the academy and the salon here, thanks to the Met Museum.)
Basic skills are concerned with technique and technique is a rubric for creative expression. I know a friend who resisted professionalizing and attending art classes because she was worried it would diminish her style. When she finally gave in she found that the basics empowered her, rather than taking something out of the essence of her art. You’ve seen work done by people who are very talented with drawing a nice line but are totally devoid of style. That work is boring! And since we’re not in the early Renaissance when technique was highly prized, it seems unbalanced to be so good at fundamentals but lack ideas.
At the same time (told you I was ambivalent!), there’s no harm in revisiting the ol’ sacred seven if only to refresh your artistic practice. Basics are meant as scaffolding which support your ability to explore and push you images further. Think of it as a means to strengthen your foundation. If the bones are good, the building (or art practice in this metaphor) can be even greater.
So learn the basics—or don’t. There’s only so far you can get with technique before you need a compelling concept so I wouldn’t stress! You know what you’re doing.