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   Experiencing the Humanities


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CollegeHumanities.org,  or  OnlineHumanities.org




10. The Visual Arts:
Feast for the Eyes



Angel by Gabriel Jewell*

Chapter Ten of

Experiencing the Humanities

by Richard Jewell

Introduction--The Pleasure of Seeing

What really grabs you when you look at a picture? Is it the color, the subject matter, or the way it was made? Often it is, for many of us, a combination of two or three of these. Great visual art not only attracts us strongly but also can offer us new experiences and even new emotions.

How can it teach us? What, in fact, is the language of the visual arts? The colors, images, shapes, and people in them are symbols of something very different from our spoken language. These elements of visual arts are a language of feeling: emotion, intuition, motion and rest, and form or idea without words. Through paintings, drawings, and other visual arts, we can discover worlds of experience that are all around us--or inside of us--that cannot be described quickly or easily with mere words. There is an old saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words." Sometimes this is very true. The visual arts can help us give meaning to what seems meaningless and help us recapture feelings and experiences that we have once had or would like to have again.

The visual arts are arts that we see. This category usually includes visible art forms that also are flat or two-dimensional. Visual arts are objects like paintings, drawings, visual designs, photography, and computer art.

Because "visual arts" usually means two-dimensional objects, other art forms such as sculpture and architecture are in a separate chapter. Likewise, works of art classified as "visual art" usually imply an object that stays in one place, unmoving, while we observe it. For this reason, the performing arts--stage, screen, music, and dance arts--also are discussed in a separate chapter.

Powerful Paintings

The visual arts are especially powerful for most people. Often they are very pleasurable, but they also create other powerful feelings.

They are powerful because, first, we are a very visual race. Human beings are primarily visual sensors of five- sense data. Second, so much of what we experience can be identified and recalled much more quickly with one picture-- "A picture," the old saying goes, "is worth a thousand words." And third, we have parts of our brains very well trained from infancy to absorb and process visual images, brain parts that are quite different from those that process verbal thinking. So we are very primed and ready for the visual stimulation of the visual arts.

When an artist creates a visual work of art such as a painting, he or she is communicating with us just as surely as if she were talking to us. Her "words," though, are not spoken things, but rather are color, line, shape, and texture. There are so very many things that go into making a visual art work what it is, and so very many different things an artist can say just by making the different combinations.

For example, what does red make us feel? What does grey? What does a bunch of sharp, jagged lines, as opposed to a series of gentle curves, make us feel, especially when they are drawn in forms we recognize such as sharp, jagged eyebrows or gently curving ones?

There are so many other ways, too, that an artist can "talk" to us. We are supposed to feel something when looking at a painting or other work of art: we are supposed to react to it, even if the painting makes us react with tears, anger, or discomfort. Paintings and works of art in general are meant to move us, especially in ways that words often can't. When we search for the meaning of a painting, we shouldn't be looking for some kind of abstract symbolic meaning or other intellectual idea. It may be there intellectually, or it may not. Either way, what really is there is feeling--that is what we should search for first in trying to figure out what a painting or photograph "means."

By letting ourselves aim to discover the feelings of a visual work of art, we can develop a more wide and far- seeing eye for what the artists really were trying to do.

Types of Visual Arts

Here is a list of some visual art forms (ones not considered as sculpture, plays, dance, or the like). They are listed by mediums--by the types of "canvas" and "paint" used to created them.

Chart of Basic Visual Art Forms

painting/drawing: 2-dimensional medium

pencil drawing

carving/weaving: 3-dimensional medium

stained glass
stage setting
carved design or picture

electronic art: medium of light

computer art
abstract video
web art
stage setting
light display
digitized video

Oils are oil-based paints. Today, most artists use synthetic oils known as acrylics. Charcoals and pastels are sticks of chalk-like substances that come in black (charcoals) and pastel colors (pastels). Watercolors are water-based paints.

Photographs, posters, and comics are images placed on paper from reality or from originals by a photocopying process. Sensitive chemicals react to different light, darkness, and colors to create copies of those shades and colors on paper. Modern newspapers and books are made by photocopying--use of light-sensitive chemicals. In older times, newspapers and books were made from engraved letters (see "engravings" below).

Lithographs are prints made when a flat stone or a sheet of metal is treated with chemicals that either hold ink or repel it. A picture is drawn with chemicals that hold ink, and the white or blank spaces in the picture are treated with chemicals that repel ink. Then the picture is inked and laid on paper so that the ink-holding parts leave an ink print on the paper. Many such prints often can be made from one original before the chemicals wear out.

Silk-screen prints are made when silk or other fine cloth is treated with ink-proof substances. The cloth is framed tightly, and then the parts that will be blank or white in the final print are treated with an impermeable chemical or substance that ink cannot go through. Then paper is laid under the silk-screen, and ink is forced through the part of the cloth that is untreated. The resulting image is called a silk-screen.

Engravings are prints made from hard surfaces--usually wood or metal--that have been carved. Some areas of the wood or metal are carved out, and others are left as they were. Then the wood or metal is given a coat of ink just on the outer surface of the carved areas--just on the remaining high parts--and laid on paper. The resulting print or "engraving" will show ink where the high parts are on the wood or metal, and the print will show white spaces where the carved out areas are on the wood or metal.

Imagine, for example, an alphabet block with the letter "A" carved into its surface. If the side of the block was inked and then laid on a piece of paper, the result would be an ink print that showed a black square with a white "A" inside of it.

Woodcuts and etchings are engravings made from wood (woodcuts or woodblocks), or metal plates and stone sheets (etchings). Etchings are so named because the metal plates or stone sheets are etched or carved chemically with acids instead of carved as is wood by hand or machine.

Stained glass is created by making colored sheets of glass, cutting them into pieces, and joining them together with thin lengths of lead.

Mosaics are made in similar ways, usually with tile or some other form of masonry, except that the pieces of tile are laid into a glue-like cement base.

Tapestries are, in a sense, cloth carvings. They are woven cloth designs and usually are meant for hanging on walls.

Fireworks, or pyrotechnics, were invented in China around 1000 CE and used since that time throughout the world on special occasions to create beautiful displays of differently colored and patterned lights and sounds as the explosive materials burn for several seconds in the sky.

Electronic arts are relatively new to the human race. The visual arts forms of electronic arts include computer- generated designs, cartoons on TV and videos, and abstract videos--those with no real people or things in them. Videos and TV with real people and things usually are classified with the stage arts (the performing arts), along with plays, dance, and musical performances. Some of the more innovative video and stage shows also have very creative stage settings or light-show displays, and these probably are visual arts, too.  In most recent years, digitized photographs and sections of movies have developed, and this trend of digitizing visual images promises to become a dominant part of photography and movie making in the next few decades.

"Real" Versus "Abstract"

Another simple but important way to label or categorize the visual arts is not by medium, as above, but rather by how realist or abstract the artistic creations are. Some visual arts automatically are much more realistic (e.g. photography), while others are automatically abstract (e.g. light displays).

In fact, often we get a bit edgy when we hear about or see "abstract art." We wonder what others see in it, especially when it is so abstract that we cannot even see anything remotely like a person, place, or thing within it.

It might be helpful for us in such situations to remember that we already thoroughly enjoy some forms of so- called "abstract art." Music without words is abstract. So are the arches of MacDonald's hamburger stands and most other buildings modern and old. Light shows are abstract. So are natural sculptural forms that are pleasant to touch such as rocks pleasant to hold in the hand, fur that is pleasant to stroke, and the feel of different clothing on our skins.

All these experiences are abstract--without content. Some of them we enjoy and some we don't. So when we are confronted by abstract visual art, it may help us if we just let the visual forms and swirls and geometric patterns and colors fill up our eyes and our heads--will such a piece then affect us like being swept away by music or stroking fur? Or will it still leave us cold? This is a better way to approach abstract visual art--a way that can open some of it to us and help us understand why it does appeal to some people.

If we categorize the visual arts by how realistic or abstract they are, we end up creating a scale something like the one below. Some nonvisual types of arts are mentioned as helpful examples. Some of the names below are used in connection with types or "schools" of art, and several other common labels for art are used, too. The scale actually applies to all the arts, and not just the visual arts. Its starts with realistic art and moves downward to abstract art:

Chart of Visual-Art Styles from Real to Abstract

Full of Subject--"Representational"
Without A Subject--"Nonrepresentational"

3D Printing
Abstract Art
Nonobjective Abstract Art
Copy of reality: 3D laser prints
--Objective image of reality: photos
--Nearly as detailed and accurate as photos
--Easily identifiable: Mona Lisa, Last Supper
--Main forms can be identified: Van Gogh, Picasso
--Abstract, but partly identifiable:
Burger King's burger sign
--Identifiable mainly as feelings or intensities
of beauty: buildings, pleasing shapes

We can use this chart to put different kinds of art in perspective to--in comparison with--each other. We may find that we are more accustomed to some forms of abstract art than we had realized--and more ready to give other abstract art forms a chance.

Schools of Art

A "school of art" is a group of people who have done similar types of art during a period of history. They do not work in any school or place together, usually, and often they are not even found in the same city or state. They just happen to be working with similar types of mediums, subjects, styles, or plans such that they somehow can be fitted together as a single group.

Sometimes they associate with each other, help each other, and perhaps even purposely name their own group. At other times, it is art critics who group them together and give them a name. There are dozens of named groups or schools of art or artists throughout history, with various subgroups and even subgroups of subgroups. It is not important to know all of them. Knowing just a few of the major schools is enough to get a sense of the diversity and importance of visual arts.

Abstract Expressionism -- This school of artists likes to express emotion through color and abstract form. Abstract expressionists dominated the American art scene in the 1950s. Abstract painters such as Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock were part of this movement.

Baroque -- Baroque arts were popular in the seventeenth century and made use of dramatic scenes and characters, especially religious subjects. There were scenes of religious ecstasy and hellish despair, martyrdom, and conversion, with strong coloring and dramatic dark-light combinations of shading. The Dutch painter Rubens used a form of baroque style.

Classicism -- A classicist is an artist who creates like the Greeks and Romans did--with clear, simple, realistic lines, not emotionally but calmly and with reason, in an orderly, restrained, careful manner. (Compare "classicism" to its opposite, "romanticism," below.)

Cubism -- Cubist painters show the front, back, and sides of a subject at the same time in geometric patterns. All sides of the "cube" of space in which the subject rests are shown. Picasso (Guernica et al.) and Braque made cubist paintings and etchings.

Expressionism -- There are two meanings for this word. The main meaning is a general one: art that is emotional, intense, passionate. Expressionist art often uses intense color and presents disturbingly strong feelings. Such painters as Van Gogh and El Greco both are expressionistic. A second meaning of "expressionism" is a particular school of the arts, German expressionism, from the early part of the twentieth century.

Fauvism -- A small school of art that is similar to expressionism in that it encouraged intense colors, free form, and a strong decorative affect. The French painter Matisse was a fauvist.

Geometric Abstraction -- This kind of art shows pure geometric forms and colors that often look, on canvas, like black-lined "windows" with colorful top, bottom, and side panels. Mondrian was one such painter.

Impressionism -- Impressionists tend in our time to be among the most popular painters. They worked mostly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Names like Degas, Renoir, Manet, Monet (and in music Debussy and Ravel) are almost as recognizable to many people as the type of art they produced: vivid slice- of-life visual scenes that shimmer and dance with light and color, air, water, and land. (See also "postimpressionism" below.)

Minimalism -- In the visual arts, this has represented a movement in the mid-twentieth century to reduce painting to the minimum of elements--abstract geometric lines and basic colors.

Naturalism -- Naturalist painters of the twentieth century tried to show an almost photographic likeness of reality--all the details the eye might see from the given distance. Manet, Degas, and Harnett were naturalists. (Compare to "realism" below.)

Op Art -- Op art was a major art movement in the 1960s. Op artists show vivid, visually stimulating geometric forms and colors that repeat themselves, much like computerized geometric pattern drawings, overloading the senses and sometimes creating illusions. Mondrian and M.C. Escher are two examples of op artists.

Photo Realism -- Photo realism or "new realism" painters of the 1970s paint slice-of-life photos with great detail and with an emphasis of light or color of certain objects. We thus see reality in a new way, through the eyes of the artist, noticing things he or she sees but we don't. Often the new things we see are not pleasant. American Richard Estes is a photo realist.

Pointillism -- Pointillists worked in the early twentieth century. When one stands close to a pointillist painting, all one sees is dots of color. But when one stands back, the colors blend together in the eye to create an unusually precise, almost vibrating scene. Seurat and Monet were pointillists.

Pop Art -- Pop art often tries to reproduce objects-- especially advertising objects--accurately. Andy Warhol's paintings of Campbell's Soup cans and of Marilyn Monroe are good examples, as are the works of Roy Lichtenstein.

Postimpressionism -- Many artists in the early and middle twentieth century used impressionist painting styles to develop further styles. Renoir, Gaugin, and Van Gogh (see "expressionism" above) did this, as did Picasso (see "cubism"). Impressionists tried simply to show what the eye sees; postimpressionists also wished to convey some deeper personal message or meaning.

Realism -- Realists, twentieth-century painters, created scenes that were easily recognizable or realistic, and also showed the subject in both its attractive and unattractive lights. Realists, for example, might paint a scene of urban life that shows homeless and wealthy people side by side.

Romanticism -- Romantic painters paint joy, fear, anger, pride, hurt, and love. They prefer emotion to reason, freedom to constraint, and the personal to the universal. Romanticism is a self-expression movement in the arts. Romantic art makes strong, personal statements. (Compare "romanticism" to its opposite, "classicism," below.)

Street Art -- This can signify graffiti, murals painted by community members on community walls, or gang-related logos and messages painted symbolically. The term usually designates that the art is of or on the "street"--it comes out of an urban working class or poor environment and the artists have not had formal training.

Surrealism -- A mostly European between-world-wars art movement, surrealism emphasized dreamlike reality full of mysterious symbols and meanings. Salvador Dali is a well-known example of surrealism (see his modernistic Last Supper).


Here is a personal story. In my first year of college in a small, isolated Midwestern town, my friend and I were in a required art appreciation course. We had to learn the names of all the main elements of art. We did so, not taking them very seriously at the time. The following year, we both were among a group of forty students who got to go to school in Europe for a year. One of our first major field trips was to Paris, France for several days. He and I went to the Louvre, perhaps the most famous museum in the world. When we stood before one of our first famous paintings, an old portrait of an ancient important person from centuries ago, I wasn't impressed by it. It was just an old painting, not even very colorful. Just for fun, Istarted talking out loud about it, using some of the terms we'd learned for the elements of art a year earlier. I was doing this with a humorous tone as I mentally described the terminology as I could see it in the art. He was doing the same, acting as if we were great art experts discussing the painting before us.

Then a funny thing happened. The painting, as we used our official terminology, began to open up and become alive to us. As we described the pyramidal structure of the main subject, the tones of lighting, the balance, and other elements, I began to see the painting more as the painter himself probably saw it--and as viewers many centuries ago saw it. It began to acquire an actual beauty to us, and in that beauty it began to make me feel moved by it, to feel an emotional response. Excited, I began doing that with many of the paintings we saw that day. We ended up spending hours in just one part of the huge museum, so we went back to it two more days.

The entire experience was a revelation, a high point in my month, perhaps my whole year. My eyes had opened to a much wider, brighter, and more meaningful world of art.

What is art to you? You can never say, now, having read this chapter, that art is nothing: this is because you aware now, if you weren't before this, that you are surrounded by art.

The fronts of buildings, the existence of photos (which artfully use good framing of the subject, good lighting, etc.), the splashes of abstract color that make walls, cars and trucks, and other objects in life brighter--all of these are art. The better question is, "What kind of art do you prefer?" Do you like your art very real, abstract in just color and shape, or somewhere between? And more to the point in the study of the Humanities, now that you know more about several different art forms, can you better understand some of them, at least in your thoughts? Better understanding can lead to greater appreciation.

By working to understand art forms that you previously have ignored, you may not particularly love those art forms more. However, you will gain a better understanding of why and how the artists made them--and how they fit into the Humanities.


Exercise 1

Make a list of several of your all-time favorite visual works of art--whether they are paintings, drawings, prints, posters. Choose ones that appeal to you not because of subject matter alone, but rather also--or more importantly--the beauty or intensity of the line or color.

Now describe briefly what is special about each work of art.

Exercise 2

Describe an abstract "nonrepresentational" work of architecture that you like and tell why you like it. Then describe an abstract "nonrepresentational" painting, drawing, or visual design that you like and tell why you like it.

Exercise 3

Which of the schools of visual art do you think you might like best? Why? What are some examples you have seen from this school? Which do you think you might dislike the most? Why? What examples have you seen?

Exercise 4

In an art book, find several examples of several of the schools of art. Try especially to look for the ones you might like and/or dislike the most.

Exercise 5

Think of a painting or other visual work of art. Then tie it in with some historical or cultural event or style in the Humanities. For example, think of a color you like on the body of a car or truck: how would you describe the culture or group/type of people who would like this particular color on this particular vehicle? Pick a color opposite of this for the same vehicle: is it even possible that any group, culture, or type of people would want to buy or drive the vehicle with that color on its body? Why or why not? Try this with the surface of a building, inside or outside of it. Then try this with a painting you know.

(for Chapters 8-10)


(a) Museums: Here are some useful search terms: "museums world," "museums United States" (or a country or continent of your choice), and "museums _[name of your state or a state near you]."

Most of the world's best museum collections are available online for you to see,. At most museum websites, you can search for one work of art, a group of them in a time period, by type of art, or by subject. At most museum websites, you are welcome to copy a work of art and paste it in your own documents if it is for personal or academic use--without asking permission. Many museums welcome use of their images for public showing, as well as long as no one is making money from the showing and you give proper credit.

(b) Individual works of art: If you know the name of a work of art and/or the artists, often you can search online for it and, if it is very well known, a description of it. You also can find what museum owns it.

In Person:

Nothing can beat the experience of seeing good art in person, up close, yourself. If at all possible, visit a good museum near you. The experience of seeing real art in person is very different from seeing it online or on a printed page or poster. Allow at least 90 minutes for wandering around. Go with a friend or family. Talk about each art work as you observe it: the lines, coloring, organization, balance, the artist and his/her methods, purposes, or history, etc.

Talking about a work of art or artist often can open the art work to you, letting you "fall into" it--experience it--more fully. This can be true especially if it is a type of art that you don't initially like or understand. But be sure to look as much or more at art that you love, even going back to look at a work that is special to you two or three times. You may find, after your first visit, that you did not have nearly enough time to see everything that is interesting.


*Image in Chapter Title: Gabriel Jewell, Angel, Acrylic oil. Photograph by Richard Jewell. Private collection. All rights reserved.
Retrieved 25 Mar. 2020.

Most recent revision of text: 29 Sept. 2020



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