Friday, December 26, 2014

204: The Artist's Mark

If we envision a continuum with the artist's physical presence on one end and manufactured objects on the other where does a work of art fall on that spectrum? Researchers at Yale and The University of Chicago recently concluded that works of art are conflated in the observer's mind with the physical presence of the artist. This phenomenon–known as magical contagion–is one of the reasons people esteem art more than replicas or manufactured objects.

Although there are negative aspects to this phenomenon–celebrity worship for example–the concept gives strong reasons to maximize the mark of the artist's hand.

As I explored abstraction I have found myself attempting to minimize marks considered accidental. But research–as well as intuition– suggests it is best to surrender absolute control of one's medium.

After years of experimentation I realized that woodcut is the art of imperfection. If I obsessed over getting every stroke cut with absolute precision the emotional impact of the woodcut vanished. The miscuts and errors added texture and energy. I learned that, paradoxically, a perfect work of art is a weak work of art.

River Rocks, 10" x 12", 8 block woodcut
I actively promote imperfection with my abstracts and am beginning to infuse such abandon into my landscapes. I have a high regard for technical competency so it is not an easy transition. I have to remind myself that imperfection makes art perfect by revealing the artist's hand.

Brad Teare–December 2014


  1. May I present a counterargument? Consider the exquisite surfaces of paintings by Vermeer, Bouguereau, or the living, breathing exterior of the Pieta by Michelangelo. One doesn't forget they were made by hand; on the contrary, part of the power of such works comes from the tension between the life they convey and the inescapable knowledge that they were fashioned by hand from earthly matter.

    1. Well said, Jim. There are lots of paradoxes in the making of art. I like the idea of tension between seeing and knowing. That might explain some of the fascination with trompe l'oeil painting.

      I remember well the Bouguereau I saw at the Clark Museum. Truly amazing! Magical contagion certainly has its questionable aspects and might be akin to group hysteria, certainly not a great value. On the positive side I suspect artists are more immune to magical contagion than non-artists. This subject certainly is deserving of further exploration and I look forward to your counterpoint.

  2. Morning, Brad. Interesting post. I'm sure you are well-aware from my previous posts that there's a prodigious amount of low-quality art being made today, especially in the plein air field. And as before, I put myself into the category of those who need to improve their art.

    Stapleton Kearns influenced me by his perpsective that an artist has a responsibility to seek out those things that need to be fixed with a painting, seeking them out with diligence and correcting them to the extent and capabilities you can. An artist has a responsibility, in his view, to ensure quality in a painting. He takes that responsibility very seriously.

    Personally, I find that my skill and capabilities at this point do not grant me the ability to fix everything in my works that needs fixing. I just don't have the skill yet or know-how to do everything the way I want it to be. But I'm working on it. Mistakes happen, and my works have flaws. The hardest part is learning how to see those flaws through new eyes. When you work on a piece for so long, it becomes a challenge to learn to see it afresh to find those critters and do what you can to judge whether they detract enough to warrant fixing or correction. Sometimes, like you, I just accept that every painting is imperfect or imperfectly done.

    But I agree that art holds a significant value above manufactured things. I do not understand those who buy prints from Hobby Lobby rather than having an original work hanging in their homes. I do not understand cheap chinese frames, cheap chinese knockoffs and imitations and fakery. I do not understand why our American Culture seems to have lost their value for original works of art.

    The original artist poured their imagination, their talents, their skills, their experiences, their dreams, their passions into creating the works they do. No two artists produce the same exact piece of art, though they may be similar at times (again, plein air has a lot of 'me too' happening).

    I wonder if it's the digitization of our culture that is at root here? that we live virtually now in smartphones and tablets and online communities?

    I see a lot of slop being sold today, uninspired works that I think are a big part of why the value of art in America is diminishing. How many sloppy copies of tea spoon and orange slice do we need? How many sloppily done plein air works are done today with little care for quality? (Trust me: I get the value of Plein Air. I ask you to compare the average works you see versus say a Jim McVicker or a Clyde Aspevig or Stapleton Kearns. Those artists use plein air in mulitple sessions along with intention to build a quality painting. They do not produce slop.)

    Really interesting post, Brad. Like I said, I probably fall in that area of not being able to produce the qaulity works that I'd like. But I'm working on it. I keep taking the occasional painting down off my wall and putting it back up on the easel to correct a flaw I was able to see at a later time. That has really helped me grow as an artist. I just wish I could see those flaws closer to initial production...

    God bless, Amigo! Thanks for the interesting post!

    1. A lot of painting is about making I suppose the decision to remove imperfections or to leave them as part of the artistic process.thanks for your comments Bob! Appreciate your feedback.

  3. Hi Brad, Great post! I think you bring up a very interesting point regarding "imperfection" in artwork. What does that mean exactly and how is it judged? Webster defines imperfection as: the quality or state of being imperfect; also: fault, blemish

    If something occurs in our painting "by accident" that we didn't initially intend, is that an imperfection if we choose to leave it in our finished piece? If something doesn't adhere to the exact "rules" of composition, color, or rendering, is that an imperfection? If a painting or sculpture is left with a rough or seemingly unfinished surface, is that an imperfection?

    I think it depends. As artists, we're creating an illusionary world with our painting or sculpture and the marks that we put down have to make sense within that world and create a cohesive experience for the viewer. A piece by Turner, Rodin, or Egon Schiele, presents a different paradigm and therefore a different judgement for "imperfection" than a Vermeer, Bouguereau, or Michelangelo.

    Each of these artists were brilliant and skilled and used their own visual language to interpret the world. If Egon Schiele or Turner had employed the same refined and "perfectly" polished surface to their paintings that say Vermeer used, I think their pieces would have lost much of their power. The same would be true in reverse.

    Thanks again Brad for your wonderful post!

    1. I love your idea of a different paradigm for each artist, Bruce. The Greek word for perfection meant "to be complete". Which I think is apropos in regard to an artists intent. If a perceived flaw fits within the artist's vision how can it be a flaw? I think that is what I like about the woodcut and abstract worlds–that virtually nothing is a flaw. Strangely though, I have done woodcuts and abstracts that I will not show, so the concept of flaw is at an entirely different level.


Thanks for your comments!


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