Belly of the Beast, 2017. acrylic on canvas, 8x8 inches

The Most Powerful Art is the Most Memorable

Whenever I come across a powerful work of art, it makes an impression on me. I can conjure it up perfectly in my mind decades later. The most powerful art tends to be the most memorable.

But why is that? I think it has to do with composition, emotional connection, recognizability, and complexity.

Powerful art has a strong sense of composition.

When art uses the rules of composition it comes off as very powerful. Especially when it uses one of the classic compositions with triangles and strong lines. What comes to mind for me is Jaques-Louis David’s “The Oath of the Horatii.” It’s a brilliant combination of static and dynamic composition. The columns in the background form a static rhythm in a rather theatrical space. I feel it would be easy enough for a stage crew to recreate this. The angles of the arms create a triangular form with the focal point close to the center of the canvas. I could keep going, but there are lots of triangles, which are inherently dynamic.

By Jacques-Louis David -, Public Domain,

Jacques-Louis David, 1784. Le Serment des Horaces (The Oath of the Horatii), oil on canvas. 329.8 cm × 424.8 cm (129.8 in × 167.2 in). Louvre, Paris. Source, public domain

Schematic showing compositional lines:

Schematic of the Oath of the Horatii

The most powerful art elicits an emotional connection.

I’ve talked about this in greater detail elsewhere, but is worth reiterating: art that offers an emotional connection is more memorable. It could be a positive emotional connection, or a negative connection. It doesn’t matter.

If art does something to the viewer, if it moves the viewer at all, it’s succeeded, especially in art created since roughly 1880. Any sort of emotional connection is sufficient, just like the saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Powerful art can be boiled down to its essence and still be recognizable.

Real quick, sketch a doodle of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” You have 30 seconds.

I bet you drew a lady in three-quarter view from the elbows up with her hands crossed over her lap and a slight smirk on her face. If you’ve spent time studying it, you probably included the landscape behind her, or the delicate circlet on her forehead.

But the overall details are sufficient. The simplest version still tells you exactly what it is.

If you can do a napkin sketch of a famous artwork and people recognize it no matter how rough your doodle is, the original artwork is iconic enough at the most basic level. It succeeds at its simplest, lowest common denominator. This recognizability makes it memorable.

It’s a hard thing to pin down and predict, but once you know it, you know it.

Yet complexity keeps you interested.

One of my painting professors in college told me: “Complexity creates interest.” I’ve always tended toward simplicity, perhaps out of laziness. But Mr. Robinson was correct: those little details don’t let your eye go so fast. They give you something to look at. I mentioned “Mona Lisa” a moment ago. There are all kinds of details in the background, to the extent that thriller novels get written about arcane details in da Vinci paintings that are clues to unraveling some fantastic mystery.

Powerful art is complex enough that you don’t get bored looking at it. There’s enough detail to keep your eye interested and coming back to it.

Belly of the Beast, 2017. acrylic on canvas, 8x8 inches

Belly of the Beast, 2017. acrylic on canvas, 8 in. × 8 inches

Composition, emotional connection, recognizability, and complexity.

These are the things that make a work of art memorable and powerful. I try to include at least two of those in my paintings. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I don’t. I always keep trying.

What’s an artwork that has been particularly memorable for you?