A Few tips for starting a new art project

“Art does not reproduce what we see; rather, it makes us see.” ~ Paul Klee

In order to find wonder in the ordinary an artist must study their subject matter, some artist achieve this by doing countless quick sketches of the object, for example Leonardo da Vinci. So before an artist start creating their master piece, they first have to look around them and truly see – the shapes, textures, values and colours of an object. Their creativity and freedom of expression comes into play in how the artist arranges the chosen objects; what is place next to the object and subtle changes to the object to translate into new meaning.

Picasso said, “There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality.”

Thus, the artist starts from the known and by process of elimination removes the unnecessary details that might distract from the final message; the same way that a director will remove the background noise so that the argument of the main characters can be clearly heard.

Looking for reference material on the internet can initially be overwhelming and one can easily get side-tracked by all the images and new ideas to the extent that none of the creative ideas comes to be fully executed. For me, it helps to limit myself with say using only the first three images for my reference material. Starting to work immediately with my preparation drawings I can see if I need a different angle of the object or need to add an object to my composition. Just remember that in art – less is sometimes more!

ERROR: Signal lost/Bad reception – types of readings.

Previously we discussed the deconstructions of symbols and signs in a picture to gain the meaning of the picture. The meaning of a picture may change in different situations and over time as demonstrated with the analysis of “Beauty and the beast”. The next question we need to ask: is the receiver/viewer – the person who is looking at the picture and analysing the picture – always neutral in his/her approach to the deconstruction of the picture?

For example, if one is looking at a mobile phone advertisement, we can have 3 views or readings of the advertisement, namely 1) the viewer loves the brand phone because s/he has previous positive experience with the brand; 2) the viewer despises the brand because they had a bad experience with similar products; and 3) the viewer does not care one way or the other because they just bought a new mobile phone or does not use a mobile phone at all.

Understanding that visual communication can be received differently may help the communicator choose different symbols to ensure that misunderstandings are less frequent or avoided, but it may also be used specifically to extract a reaction from the viewer – e.g. starting an argument or illustrating conflicting views in order to get the viewer to respond and communicate back. For example, Nando’s advertisement campaigns generally seek to engage the viewer by enraging the viewer with discriminating statements or social taboos.

The same can be found in artworks – some images want to encourage the viewer to follow the rules and feel kinship to their land, for example German art made during the world war; while contemporary artworks provoke the public by questioning the leaders actions (think about artworks relating to USA and their presidential campaign), and still others evoke little response from the viewer beyond the momentary enjoyment of the painting.

Beauty in the eye of the beholder

A visual deconstruction of Beauty and the Beast 2017 poster…

Fig 2. Beauty and the Beast dancing
Fig 1. Beauty and the Beast 2017

In order to deconstruct a picture we must first “read” (describe) what we see. Looking at Fig 1: you first notice the girl with the rose (Belle) that is lighter than the image of the beast and the castle in the background; beneath the two main figures you see the different characters surrounding the gate and a girl with candelabra exploring inside a building.

To determine the meaning we can now use the following questions to start our deconstruction: 1) will the meaning of the image change if the artist used different colours or elements? 2) Will the message remain the same if some of the codes (symbols/detail e.g. the rose) are removed or substituted with something else? 3) Will the message stay the same if we rearrange the symbols, e.g. switch Belle with the beast? 4) Will the meaning of the picture stay the same over time? 5) In what period are it set and how does it impact the meaning of the codes? 6) Are the picture universal or cultural specific? 7) What is the message of the picture?

After answering the above questions we may also determine what type of reading this is – in other words who are the specified receiver? Are the receivers interested in the message? Is the message received positively, or not? And why? Will different receivers interpret the message differently? Does the age of the receiver impact his/her ability to decode the message? What about the gender of the receiver? Thinking about these questions, did the meaning of the picture change?

Now let us answer the questions:
1) The overall colour scheme in Fig 1 is blue; changing the colour will definitely change our reading of the message since colour convey very specific meanings and help determine the overall mood of the image. In this case we may determine that the blue creates the mood suggesting coldness, isolation and lack of love. This cold blue is also used to contrast with the yellow of Belle’s dress and the warm light on her face suggesting that she has the ability to love. That is further emphasized by her holding the red rose – universally accepted symbol for love. But red can also symbolize aggression and the subtle use of Gustav’s red coat illustrates his aggressive nature. Using mostly primary colour scheme gives the picture a sense of stability.

2) Changing one code can change the whole message, for example, changing the rose to a white lily will suggest the girl’s innocence and perhaps give her the appearance of being aloof. Changing Gustav’s coat to orange for instance will change the meaning from aggressive hunter to flamboyant generous gentleman. And what if we just remove some “unnecessary” elements like the teapot, cup and the clock? Well then the film advertised here may be an altogether different story about a girl in love that is stalked by a beast with the hunter being her rescuer and hero.

3) If we rearrange the elements in the picture the meaning will change, e.g. if Belle is looking at the beast, then the receiver may feel he/she does not need to go to the movie since it is already obvious that Belle loves the beast. You may wonder why they decided on this option in Fig 2. in this example, none of the other characters is shown leaving the viewer to wonder if they start out happy or end happy?

4) Since these codes are arranged very specifically and with defined meanings the message will probably stay the same, since it is unlikely the meaning of the rose for example will change.

5) The hairstyles and fashion in the picture gives the clues as to the period within which it is set, namely French Rococo – an age known for frivolous romantic notions. The playful nature of some of the characters like the candelabra and clock comes to mind here. Thus the use of this particular period faintly hints at the playfulness of these characters and the underlying love theme of the movie.

6) Set within a very westernize setting the universal themes of the story makes it accessible to most audiences. The story itself can be found in different cultures around the world. A few examples of Vintage illustrations of Beauty and the Beast:

Beauty and the Beast by Edward Corbould
Beauty and the Beast by A L Bowley
Beauty and the Beast by Edmund Dulac

7) Belle brings light (enlightenment because she reads a lot she is not as narrow-minded as the rest of the town’s people and are therefor able to see past the exterior of the beast to the man he has become) into the dark castle and even darker heart of the beast – the girl with the candelabra exploring the dark building. Belle with the rose but turned away from the beast – she has the compassion to love the beast, but she must still come to terms with her feelings before she can give the rose and her love to him. The beast is in shadows turned towards his castle – his only refuge. The surrounding characters is placed almost like a clock indirectly suggesting time and their individual roles played in the story.

Next time – types of readings (deconstructions) of visual messages.

A picture says a thousand words – An Introduction to Visual Communication

We all know the saying that “a picture says a thousand words” but what does it really mean?

Well nonverbal communication makes up more than 70% of our communication spectrum, leaving only a small part to verbal communication. Nonverbal communication in other words is all forms of communication without sound, including body language, text messages and pictures. When speaking to somebody it is the nonverbal signals that ensure that the message is correctly interpreted by giving the receiver of the message context and emphasis through movement of the hands for example that points to where the communicator wants to go.

Nonverbal communication is a language just as must as the spoken language, although it seems to be more universal it is still cultural specific in certain situations. For example, when you ask directions to a place hand signals pointing in the correct direction can transcend spoken language barriers but a symbol of a specific animal might have very different meanings in different context and cultures – a bull in South Africa can symbolize the rugby team but elsewhere be a religious icon.

It becomes even more complicated when one starts to put symbols together to form a message since the meaning of a single symbol may change when in juxtaposition with another symbol. To ensure that the message is clear nonverbal communicators must be very certain of the symbols meaning before using it in an advertisement or painting. Since the Middle Ages the use of pattern books gave strict rules and defined meanings to symbols that may be used in religious paintings, for example a white lily signified purity.

Working Title/Artist: Birth of Virgin Leaf
Department: Medieval Art
HB/TOA Date Code:
Working Date: c. 1375
photographed by mma 1993, transperency #1A
scanned by film and media 8-20-01 (jn)

Example 1. Manuscript Illumination with the Birth of the Virgin, Don Silvestro de’ Gherarducci, Florence, ca. 1375 (Tempera, ink, and gold on parchment).

In this example the message of the picture is clearly the purity of the Virgin since her birth – being untouched by sin.

Next time…a deconstruction of a painting in order to examine the nonverbal codes that gives meaning to the message.

A Question of Identity, Ownership and Patriotism

Headlines in the news today read “whites had no claim to land in South Africa” – statements like these take away one group of the rainbow nations rights to belong to South Africa. Is it any wonder then that the artist, which is to represent SA at the 57th Venice Biennale, Candice Breitz, chooses to live and work abroad?

Candice Breitz, born 1972 in Johannesburg, studied Fine Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand (Johannesburg). After graduating, in 1993, she moved to America – where she continued her studies, receiving her Master’s degree in Art History at the University of Chicago and her doctoral at Columbia University (New York).
Currently she is a Professor of Fine Art at the Braunschweig University of Art (Berlin).

Although she has an impressive repertoire of exhibitions and publications one have to wonder if she is indeed the best candidate to represent South Africa today? She has lived longer abroad than in South Africa. Could they not find ANY suitable candidate that lives and works in South Africa to represent our art at the Biennale?

During 1994-8, her work focused on questions about gender and identity in South Africa. Examples of her early work includes “The Ghost series” (1994-6) and “Rainbow series” in which she questions commodity and gender.

"Ghost series", Candice Breitz, 1994-6.
“Ghost series”, Candice Breitz, 1994-6.
"Ghost series", Candice Breitz, 1994-6.
“Ghost series”, Candice Breitz, 1994-6.
"Ghost series", Candice Breitz, 1994-6.
“Ghost series”, Candice Breitz, 1994-6.

She also created series in which she question commodities, trademarks and the art market (art as commodity), e.g. “My Twin” and “Painting by Numbers”. (1997).

In works that are more recent her art consist of video art. In “Working class hero” (2006) she explores modern peoples disillusion with believe systems and societies values as accepted status quo that needs to be re-evaluated.

"Working class hero (A portrait of John Lennon), Candice Breitz, 2006.
“Working class hero (A portrait of John Lennon), Candice Breitz, 2006.

Her art is most definitely Conceptual Artworks but very little of her South African identity can still be found in her thinking and creative process. In the current climate where many South African’s find themselves living abroad – perhaps she is the best choice, after all, to represent all those displaced South Africans since they can better relate with her way of thinking!

I, for one, am looking forward to seeing the artworks created for the Biennale! Make us proud!

Wat is Waterverf en Gouache?

Die volgende piktogramme dui die eienskappe van waterverf en gouache aan. Dit gee ‘n kort opsomming van bestandele van die twee tipes watermediums. Hoop dit maak dit bietjie makliker om te verstaan. Kontak my gerus indien u nog vrae het! Lekker krabbel met die watermediums! 🙂

Volgende keer ondersoek ons die verskille tussen olie en akrielverf.

South African Art: Captured Prey – Defenceless Victims of Art

With August being Women’s Month in South Africa it is a great opportunity to look at one of South Africa’s famous female artist – Diane Victor.

Diane Victor is a graphic visual artist that is always looking to push the boundaries with her experimental art. The beauty of her mark making holds your attention even if the depicted image pushes you away – you as viewer are caught looking again and again, making you her captured prey as defenceless as the victims she depicts.

Diane Victor was born in Witbank, South Africa. She received her BA Fine Arts degree at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, majoring in Printmaking, in 1986. Graduating with distinction, she continued to win various awards, including the Volkskas Atelier Award in 1988 that included a ten-month stay in Paris.

Since 1990 to 2014, she has been a part-time lecturer at various South African institutions including the University of Pretoria, Wits Technicon, Pretoria Technicon and Open Window Academy to name a few, teaching printmaking and drawing.

Using etching, charcoal, lino, lithography and embossing to create satirical commentary on contemporary life, she prefers to use figures as signifiers, especially her own self-portrait. With her complex narratives, she explores not only South African issues but also the global crisis of war, corruption and violence in all aspects of life, both public and private.

Disasters of Peace - Blind Justice
Disasters of Peace – Blind Justice
Disasters of Peace - Glass Houses and Fence Sitters
Disasters of Peace – Glass Houses and Fence Sitters
Disasters of Peace - Made to Measure
Disasters of Peace – Made to Measure
Disasters of Peace - All for the right price, Diane Victor
Disasters of Peace – All for the right price, Diane Victor

Above images are part of a series called “Disasters of Peace” done in 2001 by Diane Victor with strong social comments.


Image: Diane Victor, “Straightdress”, 2002, Etching and Embossing (Flicr share). The image of a straight dress refers back to Victorian times and women’s place in society – not only their expected role but also their confinement and inability to defend themselves against domestic abuse. Even though women no longer wear straight dresses domestic abuse have not ceased to exist.

Undertaker, Diane Victor
Undertaker, Diane Victor

Image: Diane Victor, “The Undertaker”, 2014/15, one colour lithography. Here she explores her personal battle with genetic kidney disorder. The crocodile signifies the decease pulling her down – drowning her like a crocodile its prey.

A Hyena skin for doctors, Diane Victor
A Hyena skin for doctors, Diane Victor

Image: Diane Victor, “A Hyena Skin of Doctors”, 2014/15, Two color lithography.

Employing the Book Advantage, Diane Victor
Employing the Book Advantage, Diane Victor

Image: Diane Victor, “Employing the Book Advantage” 2014/15, Two-colour lithography. Book Advantage refers to lawyers and recent trails.

The Usher, Diane Victor
The Usher, Diane Victor

Image: Diane Victor, “The Usher (Self-portrait with goat)”, 2014/15, Single colour lithography. In typical Victor style, she questions our relationship with animals, death and sacrifice.

These images are but a small light on Diane Victor’s vast spectrum of work, but I trust that you will go explore her repertoire for yourself. She is really an inspired artist that does not treat softly but shocks her viewers into self-questioning and action. Her action to defend the powerless is to draw and make society take note of the corruption and violence – so easily forgotten when you are not the victim. Let’s take up her call to action – let us start drawing!

The glittering beacons of Light in the Dark Ages.

The Art of Byzantine.

(Image from Wikipedia)

The Byzantine Art can be divided into three distinct periods: Early Byzantine started around 300 to 750 AD, the Middle Byzantine period around 850 to 1204; and the Late Byzantine period lasted from 1261 to 1453. Most of the art produced during this time was related to the Christian Church. The Church commissioned most of the artworks, thereby dictating the norm for what was acceptable or taboo. From the very started of Early Christian Art, the question would remain whether an image was acceptable or not and at what point do an image become an idol? The artists of the times solution, that was deemed acceptable by the Church, was to focus less on the physical realm and more on the spiritual realm. Artist started to abandon Classical conventions like shading, perspective, illusions of any kind related to the natural world and any individual characteristics in their illustrations of the Biblical figures. Still not fully satisfied with the artist solutions, this question would eventual lead to the Iconoclast at the end of the Early Byzantine period.
During the Iconoclast, some scholars like Augustine, argued that all illustrations was lies and therefor was intolerable since it promoted the use of lies in the Church that was supposed to preach Truth. By 800 AD, the Iconoclast ended, when the scholars of the Church decided that images may be used to educate the illiterate mass, but the style and appearance was strictly prescribed to become almost abstract with no natural illusion of space and rather two-dimensional depictions of people, animals and objects that just barely resemble the physical objects. With these restrictions, the Church no longer had to worry about idolatry.

The Early Byzantine period started in 330 AD, when the first Christian ruler, Constantine, took over Rome. He moved the main city from Rome to the “new Rome” that was to become known as Constantinople (today Istanbul, Turkey) – an important trade city during ancient times with its own harbour. During his reign, the Christian religion becomes the official religion in Constantinople. This facilitated the dissemination of the new religion to the distant corners of the Empire, as far as Egypt. During this period, numerous Churches were built, including the Hagia Sophia (Istanbul, Turkey) and the Basilica of San Vitale (Ravenna, Italy). Many of these Churches also had monasteries were literate monks spend much of their time copying manuscripts that is known as Illuminati. An important further development by the monks was the Codex – bounded manuscripts – that replaced the ancient scrolls.
Most of the church buildings include a dome and glittering mosaics that narrate the Bible to the illiterate masses. The use of gold inside the church buildings along with candelabra and the few window openings manipulated the natural light to brighten the dark building – creating a mood that subdue people into a spiritual realm and ensuring that people understand that God is the Light in the dark world.

(Image from Wikipedia)

The Middle Byzantine period follows the Iconoclast, with renewed enthusiasm to building churches that are smaller in scale than the Hagia Sophia is but also includes domes and richly decorated interiors. Frescoes and mosaics are used to decorate the ceilings and domes of the churches. It is the illustrations inside the curves that create the most drama within the narrative. This use of the physical space and juxtaposing images to work together demonstrate a thorough knowledge, understanding and excellent planning of arranging images to create the narrative.
The floor plans of these churches are increasingly based on a centralised cross-inside-a-square. A plan that was to become synonymous with the Byzantine Art. Later the exterior of these churches are also adorned, a beautiful example of this is, Hosios Loukas Monastery, Greece.

During the Middle Byzantine period, the Christian religion spreads to the Slavic nations. Russia accepts the Orthodox Christianity during the 10th century leading to new inspiration in the art – beautiful iconography paintings of saints.
The supreme authority of the Pope from the Latin Church of Western Europe would eventually lead to the crumbling of the Byzantine Empire. The small remnant of the Byzantine Empire in Nicaea was all that remained of the once magnificent and strong kingdom.

(Images from Wikipedia)

The Late Byzantine period can be found in two separate Realms: one includes Constantinople with provinces in the north and central parts of Greece and south to Peloponnesus; and the other at Trebizond in the east. These Realms finally ended in the mid-15th century when the Turks invaded them, Trebizond was the last to fall in 1460.
During the final years of the Byzantine Empire, even though they were desperately holding on defending on all sides and with extremely limited funds their art flourished. New buildings were erected, old ones restored and newly decorated with monumental scale narratives, iconography and church adornments. One of these buildings that was restore and enlarged was the Hagia Sophia. Other example is the Choro Cloister in Constantinople, here they used more economical mediums, replaced expensive metals with cheaper ones and used glass or coloured stones instead of precious minerals.
Even after the fall of the Byzantine Empire, their standards for beauty would persistently influence the Latin Western Empire’s ideal of art. The new masters of Constantinople, Islam, also continued to inspire the West.

(Images from Wikipedia)

And so the lights dim… until next time keep making art to light the way!

A view Byzantine inspired class warm-ups:

A few icons made by students
A few icons made by students

Catacombs of art treasures – Early Christian Art

Next, we turn our attention to Early Christian Art dating back to around 300 AD. Very few examples survived but some of the most significant icons are in the catacombs of Priscilla, outside the walls of Rome. Priscilla was the owner of much wealth and she opened part of her family’s Villa, namely the catacombs for the early Christians to use. These catacombs were in use from the 2nd century to the late 5th century AD. The catacombs of Priscilla consists of 3 levels and add up to about 13 km of tunnels, some sources suggest that there was almost 40 000 graves by the late 5th century AD when catacombs seized to be used as burial place. By that time the catacombs were mostly visited by pilgrims come to see the martyrs tombs. Many catacombs with holy relics had a basilica build on top of the catacombs for religious congregations to visit the relics during the late 5th century AD.

(Images: Wikipedia, Reuters and the official site of the Catacomb of Priscilla)

The catacombs of Priscilla’s upper level is very irregular in the layout since it was initially part of a marble quarry and was only later converted to catacombs, while the two lower levels is structured into a fish-bone-like symmetry. Galleries containing loculi (individual niches just large enough for a body) stacked on top of each other to form a pilae, as well as larger rooms of wealthy families with sarcophagi – cubicles – can be found throughout the tunnels. The loculus (individual tomb niche) was sealed up with a terracotta tile. Using frescoes and marble engraved epigraphs individual loculi were distinguishable.

The imagery of Early Christian art roots are based on the cultural heritage of the newly converted Christians, thus Roman Art, including common poses, compositions and mediums used. Mediums such as frescoes, mosaics and relief sculpture with naturalistic approach to the human figure and a clear understanding of the natural world surrounding them. Frescoes are murals painted into wet plaster or in this case lime. Beautiful examples of frescoes in the catacombs of Priscilla suggest that symbols later found in Christian art were already developed much earlier that previous believed. These symbols include the Good Sheppard, the dove, the fish and peacock. Illustrations of Biblical stories narrate hope for the early Christians while staying in check with local customs. These illustrations were done so subtly in order to avoid prosecution – only other Christians would recognize the story by understanding the acronyms. Especially popular was the acronym: IXΘYS (Fish) the Greek for Jesus Christ son of God and Savior.


The frescoes at the catacombs of Priscilla were done in the style of Pompeii. Cubicles were painted to give the illusion of architectural space and details. Artists used red and green to define this space into different parts, thus separating the image plane into distinct parts in which to tell the story, almost like a storyboard.

Continues development of Christian art eventually lead the artist to focus increasingly on the spiritual rather than the physical nature of life during the Byzantine period – to follow next time!