How painting from my imagination is more real

October 24th, 2020

Sometimes I feel that painting from my imagination is more real than painting from reality.

In the past few years, I have increasingly painted from my imagination more than photographs or life. Painting from my imagination is more real to me because it reflects something deep in my soul — and yours. Here’s why.

Painting from photographs — or better, from life — is good practice for an artist who is learning their craft. It teaches proportion, depth, line, color, value, all that good stuff. Any artist worth their salt needs to know these things to produce good art. And they need to know these rules in order to break them, also to produce good art.

The value in painting from life is that it teaches the artist how to see.

Urban landscape of Boot Country, a tourist attraction in downtown Nashville, painted in the early 2000s by Brad Blackman

“Boot Country,” 2007. Oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches.

The artist begins to see color and light and proportion and form like never before. She discovers colors that weren’t there a moment ago because two colors have been put side by side. There are new ways of presenting forms. And new surfaces to touch. New harmonies and discords that evoke a mood.

Once an artist gets to a certain skill level, it’s not enough to present what simply is, but what it means. What’s beneath the surface? What do these colors mean? Why is this figure here and not there?

This is how traditional art techniques have conveyed meaning for centuries. Some artists still work in traditional, “realistic” methods and convey a great deal of meaning. A good artist can arrange a still life, or compose a scene with a sitter and certain objects, or imagine certain objects that aren’t actually in the room, in order to express something they feel is important.

The artist has employed their imagination to make their vision appear on the canvas.

The internal world and the external world are linked: how science says imagination may be more real than you think.

The internal world can have as much an impact on a person as the external. After all, internal things such as our emotions and moods can have a strong effect on our physical well-being.

I took a psychology class in my Freshman year of college. There was a case we studied where research compared the brain patterns of depressed people versus healthy people. While wired up to the equipment that measured brain activity, an otherwise healthy woman was talking about her recent breakup, and she momentarily showed the same patterns as a depressed person.

This may be anecdotal evidence at best, but for me, it confirms that “internal” emotions can have a definite physical effect. Internal pain is just as real as physical pain.

I think at some point, what the artist sees or imagines internally is more real than the external world.

The imagined can be brought forth into reality, because for the artist it was real all along.

For a while, I took photos with my smartphone, edited them digitally, and then painted them. This approach creates some wonderful results. But after a while, I felt like I was simply copying my photographs and painting them. So I have tended toward creating new, imaginary scenes lately. Sometimes what I want to express just isn’t in a photograph that I’ve taken. I might combine several photographs, or let the canvas intuitively guide me to something.

What’s my soul guiding me toward? Is it real? Is it abstract? I can’t always say. For me, it is real the minute I put it onto the canvas. What I do know is that’s what I’m supposed to be doing at that moment. I feel like it’s my job to just watch and listen. I’m just a vessel.

Imaginary landscape, work in progress by Brad Blackman - where imagination is more real than any real thing.

Imaginary landscape, a work in progress – where imagination is more real than any real thing.

What does the artist see when he or she closes their eyes?

By doing this, the artist sees, and asks what is possible: what could happen? What wants to happen?

It’s important to realize that prospettiva isn’t just perspective, but pro-spective, a seeing forth. Your vision is very much informed by who you are, so you see through your own lens of experience and attitude and mindset. True vision is seeing forward. And often that seeing forward happens by first looking inward. Look inward, see what is there. Then look outward, and make that a reality.

What I see inwardly is all the possibility of what can be.

My obsession: finding magic in liminal spaces

October 15th, 2020

For years I felt stuck in a certain situation I couldn’t see past.

I was between two phases in my life, on the threshold between two things. We call these liminal spaces. I’ve since come to learn that there is magic in the discomfort. Instead of fighting it, I chase it.

Morning Fog, oil on canvas board, 14 x 11 inches.

“Morning Fog.” Oil on canvas board, 14 x 11 inches.

The word “liminal” comes from the Latin limen, which means a threshold, such as a doorway or portal, anywhere you enter or exit or begin or end. So a liminal space is that time between “what was” and “what’s next.” It’s a period of transition and transformation.

It’s often uncomfortable.

Richard Rohr describes it like this:

… It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else.  It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing. 


where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our old world left behind, while we are not yet sure of the new existence. That’s a good space where genuine newness can begin. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible…This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed. If we don’t encounter liminal space in our lives, we start idealizing normalcy.

There are all kinds of reasons for finding yourself in that transitional space: job or career change, moving to a new place, financial stress, quarter-life crisis, midlife crisis, divorce, changes in health, becoming a parent, and so on. It’s a time of transition and transformation that has an enormous impact on you in such a way that you have a lot of uncertainty about the future.

We all experience these things, and they impact us in different ways.

My roller coaster ride with liminal spaces

2020 has been a strange year for a lot of us, but for me it has simply been a time when everyone was experiencing the same strange sensation of “no place.” There’s nowhere to go, and you lose track of where you’ve been.

Yet a few years ago, I was in the middle of some turbulent times. In the space of five years, I:

  • got married
  • became a parent
  • lost my job
  • moved several times
  • started a new job
  • had another kid
  • changed jobs a couple more times
  • lost a grandparent
  • had another kid

It was a lot to take in, and I had a sort of “I’m in my thirties” crisis.

Meanwhile, my painting subject matter reflected this transition in my life.

Over that five-year period, I shifted from urban architecture to foggy abstracts. Urban structures are rigid and clearly mark a place. I painted buildings and markers for buildings and highways and architectural details. In time, I painted a few parking garages and abandoned buildings. Parking lots are by definition liminal, since they are a space you occupy briefly on your way to another space.

Then my work evolved into to hazy, foggy abstracts that could be anywhere. I had fully moved from the concrete to the ephemeral, although my instinct for the manmade structures was one of a slow ephemerality as buildings slowly decay and give way to nature.

“Boot Country.” Oil on canvas, 24 x 36 inches.

West Park, worms-eye view of building

“West Park,” oil on canvas, from the Nashville 365 Series.

"Morning Mist." Acrylic on canvas, 20 x 24 inches

“Morning Mist.” Acrylic on canvas, 20 x 24 inches

Abstract sunrise painting with blue and red sky

“Morning Drive.” Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 8 inches.

My tendency to paint sunrises and shorelines emphasizes the liminal, as the sunrise or sunset marks the transition between light and darkness, and the edge between water and land is itself another kind of transition.

I’ve come to embrace those transitional, liminal spaces as sacred.

Now, when I find myself in those transitional periods, I embrace them. There’s something sublime about them. I get the sense that something important is about to happen. I want to relish the opportunity. It’s easy to get paralyzed or push as hard as you can. I don’t want to run away to avoid the discomfort. I believe those experiences have much to teach me.

Are you embracing liminal spaces, too?

Nearly all the artwork I’ve made in the past five years touches on some aspect of liminality, and it has only increased now that I recognize it. You can shop for it here.

How do you know if art is good or bad?

October 12th, 2020

One of the questions I get asked is, “How do you know if art is good or bad?” In this day and age of oversimplification, that gets hard to answer. We like quick, easy answers. Right now, people in the United States are telling each other in simple terms which presidential candidates are good or bad.

Brad Blackman - Rebirth. acrylic on canvas, 8 x 8 inches

“Rebirth,” acrylic on canvas. 8 x 8 inches

The truth is, what makes art good or bad is not that simple. But I think there is one main thing art has to do for me to consider it to be “good.”

But before we get to that, what are the things we can measure?

  • the level of craftsmanship and technical skill
  • adherence to the so-called rules of design or composition
  • the number of references and clues for people “in the know”
  • Pull up any famous artwork and you can “grade” them, or create a scorecard around these criteria. That’s not an entirely bad way to go about it. But what makes deciding if art is good or bad so hard is that everyone has different standards and it’s hard to agree. (Just like everything else in life.)

And sometimes you come across artworks that check all those boxes but still lack life. It might be objectively good or bad. They are impressive, but they don’t do anything to you on a deep, visceral level.

That’s why I think the most important thing for art to do is make you feel something.

I’ll go so far as to say that some art can be good even if it is technically or compositionally inferior. It’s good because it has meaning and makes you feel something. It has soul. It’s the difference between a song played by a computer, mechanically hitting all the right notes at the right time, and the joy of a crowd singing along to their favorite song at a concert, even though they aren’t perfectly in sync or in tune with each other.

Do the “rules” help make art stronger? Sure. But sometimes you lose something in the process by overthinking it. I think that’s why some so-called “naive” or “outsider” art works so well. It’s free from all the overly intellectual stuff that gets in the way of saying something meaningful.

The bottom line: art needs to make an emotional connection.

In my own art, I try to make sure there’s some kind of feeling in it.

Do I want my paintings to be strong by checking off the boxes I mentioned earlier? Of course. But more than that, I want to make sure you feel something when you look at it.

One simple way for me to do this is to think about how I want people to feel when I’m creating a new painting. Yes, I’m thinking about you. I’m asking myself how you are going to react to it. How do I want you to feel when you see it? Excited? Awed? Terrified? Anything but bored.

Most often, the feeling I’m after is a sense of hope and optimism about the future even if things are going bad. Which is what I’m usually feeling myself, while painting. (I call myself an optimistic pessimist, if that’s even a thing. Personally, I can be kind of moody and gloomy, but I’m always looking for the upside of things.) So for me I’m always chasing after that spark of hope.

So tell me, what’s one piece of art that has moved you and left an impression on you?

One last thing: shipping is free on my online shop through the end of the year! Go check it out.

Why Make Art When the World is Burning?

August 6th, 2020

This pandemic is the golden age of memes

When the world is on fire and everything is going wrong, we make memes and share them on the internet. Memes aren’t high art, but they’re a great coping mechanism.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, memes have absolutely exploded. They’ve helped us gain a sense of levity about the situation.

The most recent one that has caught my eye popped up about 7 times in 24 hours early last week on my Facebook feed. Several artists I know who aren’t connected to each other shared the meme below. It shows the world on fire with a photo of Will Ferrell, representing artists, his hands cupped around his mouth, yelling, “ANYONE WANT TO BUY A PAINTING?”

caption: THE WORLD RIGHT NOW - picture of a burning city
caption: ARTISTS: ANYONE WANT TO BUY A PAINTING? - comic actor Will Ferrell cupping his hands around his mouth, yelling.

Art imitates life, or life imitates art?

This pandemic underscores what many of the rest of us — mostly artists — have been aware of for a very long time:

  • Productively working from home is possible. Freelancers of all kinds have worked from home for decades.
  • Racial injustice has been a problem for generations, but it has been swept aside. Now we all see what “other people” have experienced for so long. (I think the pandemic has made the awareness of racial injustice all the more obvious.)
  • The choice between keeping a job and childcare is really hard, and it’s getting even harder now that schools are (sort of) reopening and working from home while managing your kids’ education is harder than it was before. How many artists do you know who try to squeeze in a little bit of work while the kids are napping?
  • The world is on fire, and everyone is trying to just make a living. Artists have always hustled to make a living despite everything that is going on in the world. People are scrambling to pay the bills, and artists are no different.

Billy Joel was right: the fire has been burning since the beginning

Billy Joel – We Didn’t Start the Fire (Official Video)

Artists will keep making art, no matter what happens. Art doesn’t get put on hold just because it is not considered “essential.” And often, artists keep making art because of what is happening. A lot of art is a direct response to what is happening in the world.

Why make art when the world is burning?

A couple of years ago I came across an article by Lee Camp, who cites a book called My Bright Abyss, where poet Christian Wiman deals with a cancer diagnosis, asking, “What is poetry’s role when the world is burning?”

The short version is that poetry, and all art-making, really, is part of what makes us human.

Art is essential to our humanity.

Creating is one of the ways we grapple with our world. It’s how we understand reality and parse it and make sense of it. We make paintings, we write books, we sing songs, we write poetry, we tell jokes, we share silly memes. We capture the world and transform it and express it and share it.

Sometimes we create things to escape the world, or to retreat into a place in our minds and hearts that is better than what we are currently facing, but it always comes back to our connection to the outside world.

Art keeps us connected to each other

Why make art? It keeps us connected. Photo: Abstract painting of gold and white interconnecting loops, showing how everything is connected.

Everything is Connected, 2016. acrylic on canvas, 8×8 inches. Buy here.

Art reminds us we are all connected. There’s a common thread between our various experiences and so many aspects of our society, from politics to religion to philosophy to history. Art touches all of those things, and by extension, all of us. When we look at art, we see that others have similar experiences. Sometimes the art is the experience. And when art is the shared experience, we have even more in common.

I can’t say it’s been easy to keep creating in this weird time

It’s been incredibly hard. My energy has been depleted more than once, and I’ve felt all the emotions (sometimes all at once.) But I think I really have no choice but to make art, especially since it is such a spiritual thing for me.

When the world is burning, art is absolutely necessary

I love how Lee Camp says that “precisely because the world is burning is there so much art to be done, so much poetry to be written and so many songs to sing.”

Art, as “inessential” as it is, becomes the most necessary thing there is.

I’ll close this with a quote from Toni Morrison:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art.

How I use the Golden Section When I Paint

July 23rd, 2020

Ah, the Golden Section (or Golden Mean), that mysterious mathematical concept found in nature, art, architecture, and music. A little-understood principle of design that people like to talk about to sound smart, myself included.

Once you become aware of it and understand it, you start to see it everywhere. I’ll tell you a little about what it is (without going into too much detail because there are entire websites dedicated to the topic) and how it is used in art and how I use it myself.

What is the Golden Section?

First of all, the Golden Section is a Mathematical concept that is seen in nature and used in art, architecture, and music. It’s based on something called the Fibonacci sequence, which is a sequence where each number is the sum of the two numbers preceding it. It goes like this:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144…

If you get far enough along in the sequence, the ratio between the numbers is very close to 1:1.61803. What that means in art is you can use it to draw a rectangle or use a canvas where the sides have a ratio of 1:1.61803. So it is close to a two-thirds ratio or more accurately, a 5-to-8 ratio. It’s considered one of the most harmonious and pleasing ratios in the universe. There are several ways you usually see this expressed:

Golden Rectangle

Simply create a square, divide it in half, and draw a diagonal line from the bottom left to the top corner of the half. From the center, extend that same length of line and the end of that is the end of the rectangle. Square it off from there and you have a Golden Rectangle where the short side is 1 and the long side is 1.618. Or the long side is 1 and the short side is .618 of the long side.

How to make a Golden Rectangle - from Empty Easel

If you take a Golden Rectangle and cut out a square, the remaining section is also a Golden Rectangle. You can keep doing this to infinity.

Dividing Rectangles

With any canvas, you can find the Golden Mean point between the edges by multiplying the length by .61803. It’s close to a third — more on that in a bit. You can place these lines on the canvas coming from all directions, then where the lines converge, place important elements there. It gives it a harmonious structure.

Golden Spiral

This is perhaps the most well-known depiction of the Golden Mean. If you connect the points of a bisected Golden Rectangle and make a curve from it, you get the Golden Spiral. You see it everywhere in nature. Make a fist, and look at the spiral of your pinky finger to your hand. That’s pretty close to the same spiral. The shell of the Chambered Nautilus looks like this when you cut it open. Each chamber is 1.6108 times the size of the previous chamber.

Animated Golden Section Spiral

By Jahobr – Own work, CC0, Link

Golden Triangles

Golden Triangles are a bit more complex. You can find them in the Golden Spiral, and by joining the “big” and “little” triangles, you get another Golden Triangle, similar to how the Golden Rectangle repeats itself. A regular pentagram contains Golden Triangles.

The “other” Golden Section: The Rule of Thirds

The Rule of Thirds is a simpler, yet related concept. Since 1: 1.6180 is so close to the 1:1.5 ratio, which is the same as 2:3, you can fudge a little and work with thirds instead. Divide your canvas into thirds vertically and horizontally, and place your focal point on one of the four intersections. Chances are you won’t be right on the nose on that point but in the vicinity of that point as well as the Golden Mean point, which is often close enough.

The rule of thirds: divide the canvas into thirds, and place the most important element at one of the intersections.

The rule of thirds: divide the canvas into thirds, and place the most important element at one of the intersections.

Some famous examples of the Golden Section from Art History

The Parthenon: Many have said that the Parthenon was built on a 1:1.618 ratio, but it’s actually more like 4:9. The effect is similar, though.

Leonardo Da Vinci famously used the Golden Section (or Golden Mean) in his artwork. I think people look too hard for it in his work, which is highly detailed with lots of elements which can be construed as lining up a certain way. Was it intentional or coincidental? Who knows? That’s probably how Da Vinci wanted it.

Salvador Dali intentionally used the Golden Ratio in his artwork, as you can see in this preliminary sketch for “Leda Atomica.” He was influenced by the book The Geometry of Art and Life (1946) by Matila Ghyka. He cast his wife Gala as Leda, in love with Zeus as the swan, and set her inside a pentagram inside a circle, aligning elements of the painting with the lines of the “divine” shapes.

Salvador Dali's sketch for Leda Atomica, 1949 uses the Golden Section in the form of a pentagram and triangles.
Salvador Dali, Leda Atomica, 1949. Oil on Canvas, 61.1 cm × 45.3 cm (24.1 in × 17.8 in). Dalí Theatre and Museum, Figueres.

Salvador Dali, “Leda Atomica,” 1949. Oil on Canvas, 61.1 cm × 45.3 cm (24.1 in × 17.8 in). Dalí Theatre and Museum, Figueres.

Demonstration of how I use it

When I use the Golden Mean when I paint I usually just find the lines from the edges and place important elements there. It’s most often where I put the horizon line.

Brad Blackman, "Hope," 2018. acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 x 24 inches

“Hope,” 2018. acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 x 24 inches

Golden section lines overlaid on

Golden section lines overlaid on “Hope” painting.

In my painting “Hope,” you can see where most of the gold “cloud” fits between the lines, and the peak is at one of the intersections.

If I’m not using a square canvas, I use a 2:3 proportion, or something close to it. A 5:8 canvas proportion is more exact. I’m not a slave to using this proportion, since I actually prefer painting on squares. I use the Golden Mean as a general guideline.

When I’m doing page layout as a graphic designer, I like to start with a 6×9 page, and divide that into a 9 x 9 grid, which is easy to build on. I totally stole this idea from Jan Tschichold, who created the classic Penguin book covers.

Animation of applying the Golden Section on a page grid by using a series of 2:3 rectangles and grid lines.

I like this 2:3 method which works well for creating a nice page grid. Most of the time I don’t get to use that page proportion, but I often create a 9×9 grid on the page and use that as a general guide.

The Golden Section is not a hard and fast rule

I don’t think you have to use the Golden Mean (Golden Ratio or Golden Section) in artwork for it to be good. This is just one tool among many, and I don’t always use it. Some people draw lines all over stuff and then say it means something profound when it doesn’t mean anything at all. I just use it as a rule of thumb and then break the rules as I see fit.

Why I Love Abstract Painting

July 16th, 2020

I love abstract painting because it speaks to our time and creates a sort of emotional purity.

I love a challenge. Abstract painting can be hard to understand and even harder to create. Yet there’s a certain universality to it that it bridges communities in an incredible way. It just takes a little effort.

"Drawbridge," acrylic on canvas. 8x8 inches, 2017.

“Drawbridge,” acrylic on canvas. 8×8 inches, 2017.

I love how abstract painting speaks to our time

The longer I live, the more I see so many interpretations of the world and everything we all experience. There’s not just one experience or interpretation of the world, but many. (Or there is one experience, and variety is the very definition of it.) Interpretations are as varied as individuals. It makes life interesting! There’s so much to explore, and the Social Age gives so many a place to share and explore together.

It’s a lot like looking at clouds: everybody sees something a little different. When you look at an abstract artwork, your own interpretation is based on who you are and what you’ve experienced. Where highly realistic artwork often tells you what the interpretation is, abstract painting is open to interpretation. And a lot of times, your interpretation is a mirror of who you are.

At the same time, I can make a similar case for highly detailed, highly polished realistic or surrealistic artwork like that of my friend Sam Dunson, because your reaction has a lot to do with who you are and how you look at things.

Abstract painting reduces things to its essence

It’s easy to confuse abstraction with non-objectivity when you first begin looking at abstract art. Non-objective painting isn’t based on reality. It might be geometric or areas of color or pattern. Abstraction is based in reality. It just removes extra information so that the most important parts are shown. Abstract painting is challenging the way poetry is challenging: information is condensed, compressed, and edited.

A few years ago I came across Scott McCloud’s book Understanding Comics. He does a phenomenal job explaining the levels of abstraction, and how meaning is retained despite abstraction. What’s amazing is how the mind can see a circle with two dots and a line and interpret that as a face, when in fact it looks nothing like a face.

Page 31 from Understanding Comics: The human brain has the amazing ability to interpret an abstract circle, two dots, and a line as a face.

Page 31 from Understanding Comics: The human brain has the amazing ability to interpret an abstract circle, two dots, and a line as a face.

I love a challenge: abstract painting is a lot harder than it looks

I know a lot of people look at modern, abstract, and contemporary art and say, “I could do that,” or “my kid could do that.” (But you didn’t.)

The thing is, abstract art is a lot harder to pull off than it looks.

It looks simple enough to paint an entire canvas blue and call it art. But it takes a lot of mental and aesthetic gymnastics to get there. In hindsight it’s easy to see how over time, from the 1880s to the 1960s, art gets more and more simplified to the point where it gets reduced to a single color.

Creating good abstract art takes a lot of knowledge and understanding of composition plus the skill to pull it off. You have to understand things before you can deconstruct them. Picasso explored a different way of seeing space and time by showing multiple viewpoints at once, as well as express the horror he saw in the world. But before that, he was an excellent draftsman who knew how to render things as well as Rembrandt.

Abstract painting expresses an emotional purity unobscured by unnecessary details

Because abstraction is reduction and simplification, abstract painting isn’t weighed down by unnecessary details. Like I said earlier, it’s a lot like poetry since it is condensed and compressed. Showing the essence of a thing or idea allows it to be purer and more direct. The result is that abstract painting is often rawer and more visceral both in how it is seen and how it is painted.

Art and My Obsession with the Sublime

May 26th, 2020

As an artist, I’ve been obsessed with expressing the sublime for a long time. Most often, this shows up in my art as misty, hazy, moody paintings and dramatic compositions.

I’ll dive into what’s meant by “the sublime” and give some examples of it that I’ve experienced in art and music.

Pink and orange abstract sunrise, accented by teal and burgundy.

“First Light.” Acrylic on canvas. 8 in. x 8 in. Private collection.

What is “The Sublime?”

The term actually goes back to 1st Century Rome. Longinus wrote about the sublime as a way to describe great, elevated, lofty thought or language, mainly in the context of rhetoric. The sublime is associated with awe and veneration. The Great Texts, such as Homer, and even Genesis, are full of the sublime. 18th Century philosophers rediscovered Longinus’ work and applied it to their theories on aesthetics.

The Grand Tour

In the 17th and 18th Centuries, young men in the wealthy upper class would embark on the “Grand Tour” of Europe, taking in all the sights of the high cultural touchpoints on the continent. It was a sort of pilgrimage for the elite, a precursor to modern tourism. As railroads developed, this sort of travel became affordable for more people, so British, German, and American philosophers, writers, and artists did the same tour. Even I did a version of this in 1999 when I was 20 years old, and I grew up in a middle-class American family.

On such a Grand Tour, the word “sublime” began to be used to describe aspects of the natural world such as the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps, which became a theme for Romantic painters such as J. M. W. Turner. Or for describing the experience of seeing great architecture in Athens, Greece.

Reaction to the Enlightenment

Meanwhile, an aesthetic movement, Sturm und Drang (German for “storm and stress” or “storm and drive”) evolved from this same reaction against the Enlightenment, which was focused on logic, reason, and the intellect. The clash between the Enlightenment and the Romantic movements is an exemplary illustration of the Classic-Romantic split that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance talks about. This movement grew into the Romantic movement, which later influenced the Vienna Secession, which influenced psychedelia.

(All the art movements are connected, either as a reaction to or continuation of earlier movements. It’s one big multigenerational conversation.)

When I study art history, I resonate most deeply with all the romantic movements far more than the analytical movements. Matters of the heart seem more real to me than matters of the head. I find more connection to the transcendental, the awful and the awe-inspiring.


There’s an exhibit at The Frist Art Museum here in Nashville right now that I really want to see, called J.M.W. Turner: Quest for the Sublime. (The museum is closed at the time of this writing due to COVID-19.) Turner’s quest for the sublime is the same Romantic pursuit of the dramatic power of nature, which shows our own impermanence and evanescence.

That’s the thing about the sublime: it’s abstract, and not-quite-there. It’s ever-changing, yet it’s always there. It’s permanent, yet fleeting. It’s this exquisite paradox, definitely liminal, in-between. This explains why I’ve been obsessed with fog for so long.

Some examples of the sublime that have moved me, personally.

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

Probably the most classic example of the Romantic movement in art is Caspar David Friedrich‘s painting Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, painted in 1817 or 1818. It’s typical of the 19th century Romantic artists who created epic nature scenes as an expression of the sublime. It’s both awe-inspiring and terrifying. There’s a sense of mastery over nature, yet there’s a sense that we will never master nature.

The fact that we don’t see the wanderer’s face puts us in his shoes: is he terrified at what’s before him? Or is he smiling in satisfaction at mastering the ascent? If he has mastered the ascent, has he discovered more difficult challenges? What’s hidden in the fog? I think the fog is symbolic and he is searching for clarity. Will he ever get the answers he is seeking? Did he make it this far only to find there is no answer? Which, I think, sets the tone for the modern era perfectly, especially this was painted right at the beginning of the Industrial Age.

The hiker stands as a back figure in the center of the composition. He looks down on an almost impenetrable sea of ​​fog in the midst of a rocky landscape - a metaphor for life as an ominous journey into the unknown.  By Caspar David Friedrich - The photographic reproduction was done by Cybershot800i. (Diff), Public Domain,

Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1818. Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, oil on canvas. 94.8 cm × 74.8 cm (37.3 in × 29.4 in), Kunsthalle Hamburg

The hiker stands as a back figure in the center of the composition. He looks down on an almost impenetrable sea of ​​fog in the midst of a rocky landscape – a metaphor for life as an ominous journey into the unknown.


High Hopes

Pink Floyd’s 1994 song “High Hopes” and its accompanying video and Division Bell album cover art by Storm Thorgerson get me every time. David Gilmour’s lyrics reference former band members Syd Barrett and Roger Waters. It looks back fondly at their days growing up and starting the band, back when “the grass was greener,” but mourns when the seeds of division were planted early on.

The part that gets me the most is the solo/bridge before the final chorus, which for me evokes wistfulness and youthful optimism, characterized by a soaring cry which is tempered by a crash back to reality. The video captures this same mood with the banners rising and falling in the air, and young people around a campfire, dancing in “the dawn mist, glowing.” In a way, despite all their disagreements and troubles, some part of them will always be in that optimistic, youthful pursuit of the sublime, traveling the “endless river.”

The guitar solo from Stairway to Heaven

I know, “Stairway to Heaven” is kind of a cliche. It’s a song people love to hate. It’s overplayed. But it’s not without its merits, the way it builds from a folk song to a heavy metal song, culminating in a signature-changing solo before the final verse. It’s that solo that I love. It seems to express something otherworldly and more real than real, much like the songs themes of a mystical underlying reality.

The paintings of Magdalena Morey

I discovered Magdalena Morey on Instagram a few years ago, and her paintings do an excellent job of expressing the landscape in a way that elevates it beyond what you see with your eyes. It’s kind of how I want to paint “when I grow up.” There’s a high vantage point, and you feel inexorably pulled to the horizon, like there’s something just beyond your reach.

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“Rose Tinted Memories” 60 x 60cm. Oils, pastels and gold leaf. This piece is based on a much loved photo taken at the place where I grew up in Poland. With everything going on at the moment nostalgia is rearing its head in unstoppable waves. I find myself getting lost in memories from my younger years as I think about my family and friends scattered across the world. Please get in touch if you’d like more info about this piece. . . . . . . . . . #stayathome #yomequedoencasa #staythefuckhome #staypositive #oilpainting #oiloncanvas #oilpaintings #contemporarypainting #contemporaryartist #nostalgia #sunsetpainting #sunset #inspiredbynature #fineartist #magdalenamorey #loveart #artcollectors #collectart #buyart #buyartonline #onlineartgallery #mixedmediaart #mixedmedia #goldleaf #polishartist #dailyart #artbuyers #artistacontemporanea #artwatchers #artecontemporaneo

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Split by Kenneth Noland

I wrote about this as a painting that had a profound impact on me when I was about 23 years old. It’s unsettling because nothing is centered. That square almost touches the circle in an uncomfortable tangent. I don’t know if Noland meant for it to be off-kilter. I have a feeling that’s intentional, because it’s so unsettling. When I look at it, I feel like the delicate balance of the universe has been bumped, and everything will collapse any moment now. Which I think captures the mood of the Cold War era. And it applies today during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet with anxiety lurking in the background, there’s a hint that alignment is possible. We just haven’t gotten there yet. It is just beyond our reach. We are in that liminal, in-between space, and that is sublime.

Kenneth Noland, "Split." 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 94 x 94 inches.

Kenneth Noland, “Split.” 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 94 x 94 inches.

The beauty is in the pursuit. It’s not something you capture.

The beauty of the sublime is that it is ephemeral. I don’t think we’re supposed to grasp it. It can’t be grasped. But pursuing it is beautiful. The value is in the journey, not in arriving at the destination.

Abstract of trees in mist at blue hour, just before dawn.

“Cold Dawn.” Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 8 inches. In situ.

The Most Powerful Art is the Most Memorable

May 19th, 2020

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?

The Best Art Makes an Emotional Connection

May 15th, 2020

When art is made with love, it makes an emotional connection with the viewer. Unless art stirs the emotions, it falls flat and makes no connection. So the best art comes from a place of love.

Knowing the rules and tricks of composition can only take you so far

You can learn all the rules of composition to make powerful artwork. I understand focal points and color schemes and can line everything on a grid based on the Golden Section. But I’ve found that the art that sticks with me the most comes from the heart. I can admire paintings that use perfect perspective and color, but if there’s no soul, the painting won’t stay with me. You can use the brain all you want, but the best art comes from the heart.

Unless art has soul and energy, it will be cold and sterile and void of connection with its viewer. I realize this might be a romanticized view of art. But I wager that even the most “documentary” of approaches comes from a place of love and caring: the artist is seeking understanding.

Style without content is dead

This is something I realized in art school. If art looks cool and has no depth to it, it’s lifeless and dull. You can paint something that is all style without depth. There’s no heart. This isn’t to say that all art has to be deep, but it has to have something to it. Sometimes the simple expressions are the best.

Have you heard the term “drugstore cowboy“? It’s somebody who is trying to dress like a cowboy without actually having any experience being a cowboy. Real cowboys wear certain clothes for their function, not for their looks. Sure, they might lean toward a certain color or texture out of personal preference, but more often than not their look is based on practicality.

Likewise, some art is technically excellent, but when it’s all style and no substance, it’s boring and forgettable.

Zen and the art of caring

In college I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance one Christmas Break. It’s one of those books that I come back to every few years. The main premise is about the two main views of the world: the Classic and the Romantic. (I did a painting about this Classic-Romantic Split.)

One thing that stood out for me was a passage about caring. It taught me that when someone truly cares about their work and who they are doing it for, it shows, whether they are an artist, or a designer, or a writer, or a mechanic.

“Care and Quality are internal and external aspects of the same thing. A person who sees Quality and feels it as he works is a person who cares. A person who cares about what he sees and does is a person who’s bound to have some characteristic of quality.”

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

The artist who cares about their work cares about their viewer and does the best they can out of love for the viewer.

The most profound art comes from a solid belief in something

Art that is presented where it is clear that the artist started, lost interest, and gave up, leaves you feeling “meh.” The artist didn’t believe in the work enough to finish. Which tells me the artist doesn’t believe in themselves.

Yes, some of the world’s greatest art has come from a place of self-doubt, but that self-doubt exists because some amount of self-love exists. The artist knows something of love and is reaching out for it. There may be despair, but there’s not That makes an emotional connection.

Not all emotional connections are happy

Sometimes the emotional connection is one of anger, or hurt, or injustice, or disappointment. People will connect to that. And I think it’s because there is a certain childlike idealism in all of us that constantly yearns for truth and justice. Some of us have just gotten better at denying it. It seems to me that authenticity on the part of both the viewer and the audience is of utmost importance.

A lesson from a mime: touch the audience

If a piece of art moves you, it will stick with you. The French mime Marcel Marceau, aka Bip the Clown, said, “il fault toucher le publique” (we need to be able to move the audience).

Finding Hope in a Frightening Pandemic by Making Art

April 27th, 2020

This pandemic is an odd combination of boredom and terror. It’s frightening, and we are all looking to find some hope in the middle of all this bad news. Thankfully I’m finding hope by making art.

If you’re lucky enough to still have a job, you’re frantically working on your laptop all day during the workweek, keeping one eye on the news. Weekends are depressing because you can’t go anywhere. You’re confined to your house. No going to the movies, no meeting friends for dinner or drinks. You don’t have the energy to read a book, and you’ve watched everything on Netflix. You finally found the mythical end of Instagram, and you just spent five hours watching crazy TikTok dances.

So you scroll Facebook, bored.

Pink and orange abstract painting created during COVID-19 lockdown

In that boredom amidst the memes and political arguments is an artist trying to calm himself down by putting paint on canvas.

I am that artist. Like you, I’m bored and scared, too.

That’s why I’m trying to brighten things up by inviting you into the studio for a while. Not to forget our cares, but to honor them, and to come to a sense of peace about what’s going on in the world.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I was sad, anxious, and scared.

Like a lot of people, I initially made a mental list of projects to work on, books to read, and so forth. My wife and I figured if we were going to be at home for two weeks (ha – it’ll be 6 weeks tomorrow!) we might as well tackle some of those projects we’ve been putting off for ages (nope, still haven’t done them), so we went to the hardware store to stock up on supplies.

The week before the lockdown was Spring Break, and since we didn’t have vacation plans, we had already stocked up on books for the kids to read. And the week before that, Nashville was hit by a severe tornado.

So everything was upside-down.

But after a few days of trying to adjust to the “new normal” of all five of us being at home 24/7, we got into a rhythm. We had our workspaces set up. We ordered new Kindles for the kids. We exercised every morning. We tried to deal with the weirdness of the whole experience by quickly setting some normal patterns.

Then my part-time graphic design job had to let me go since the economy tanked in a matter of weeks.

I was not prepared for the trauma that would come with all this.

I allowed myself to grieve.

But I numbed myself a bit by staying up too late watching Netflix and then sleeping in. My sleep cycle got messed up. (It is still messed up.)

I found my anxiety growing. When I get anxious, I work myself in to a frenzy and do lots of things without getting anything finished. Lots of puttering around and wondering what I actually did that day. I found myself getting depressed.

Finally, I got in the studio. I had been making a little bit of an effort to paint more, but I’ve now fallen into a rhythm of getting in the studio at least once a week. Saturday night seems to be when most people are online. They are bored, sad, and anxious.

Making art regularly helps me slow down and breathe.

When I paint, I tend to be frenetic, but I get the best results when I slow down. There’s a certain effect I like to achieve when I use the palette knife (or painting knife – I use the terms interchangeably) but it doesn’t work unless I slow down.

So when I drag paint onto the canvas with the knife, I stop and take a deep breath. As I exhale, I slowly drag the knife across the canvas. The paint rewards me by going on exactly how I want it to.

My audience calms down, too.

I suppose my mood is contagious. It makes sense: if I appear on screen all jacked up, it will spread to my audience and I’ll stress them out. If I’m calm, and bring a message of hope, whether through my words or my painting, it’ll calm down my audience, too.

I’m not Bob Ross, but as I paint live, I find myself coming around to some of the same hopeful themes he expressed on his show.

Nine times out of ten, the things I say are the things I need to hear, myself:

  • “You can’t appreciate the bright spots without the dark spots. The dark areas make the bright areas stand out more. Paint the bright areas on top of the dark areas and it’s more dramatic, more rewarding.”
  • “Slow down and breathe. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.”
  • “Colors don’t exist in isolation. Every color is affected by the colors around it. Everything is affected by everything else.”
  • “I have to work all the way around the canvas, instead of only on one thing. I can’t get too focused on one spot and overdevelop it.”

In the process, I find hope.

Sometimes that hope gets buried. But it’s been in me all along. Often, I can’t see it, but it’s there. I just have to look for it. Sometimes I’ll go after it directly, or I take a lateral drift approach to find it. Hope always shows up. It’s there. Hope may be loud, or it may be quiet. But when I find it, it’s my job to share it. A sacred duty, as it were.

Staying Productive in a Crisis with a Morning Ritual

April 14th, 2020

The month of March has been bonkers. A month ago, Nashville was hit by a tornado that got up to class EF-4 and ran for 50-plus miles. A week later, the stay-at-home order came, and we went into self-quarantine.

Video: Staying Productive in a Crisis

Initially, I thought I might get some stuff done during quarantine: projects around the house, read some books, start some paintings, get the kids to do some research projects, that sort of thing.

But I haven’t been as “productive” as I expected. I was a little disappointed for a minute. I realized this situation is more emotionally taxing than just “staying home.” You might have discovered the same. It’s hard to stay productive in quarantine.

I’ve found that if I brush my teeth and wash my face and make sure my kids have done the same, we’re doing ok.

Our family has a helpful morning routine that keeps us feeling at least somewhat productive during this strange season. I talk about it in this video:

Stay well, stay home, stop the spread. Go easy on yourself.

This Painting Crushed Me And Brought Me To Tears

January 21st, 2020

Several years ago at The Frist Art Museum, I saw van Gogh’s “Wheat Field with Crows.” The sky was so heavy it brought me to tears.

Vincent van Gogh, "Wheatfield with Crows," 1890. 50.2 cm × 103 cm (19.9 in × 40.6 in). Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Vincent van Gogh, “Wheatfield with Crows,” 1890. 50.2 cm × 103 cm (19.9 in × 40.6 in). Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

I learned that it was one of van Gogh’s last paintings, if not THE last painting he made. (Some say it is his “suicide note” written in paint.) Maybe it was this knowledge that moved me so much, since he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the same field where he painted this.

I could see the heaviness on his heart.

The weariness.

The oppressive sky pushing down on the wheat.

The crows are harbingers of doom or death.

When the sky holds you down, you can’t move. You’re trapped. I’ve never felt this weighed down by life, but I can relate to it.

I felt suffocated, and I wept.

(Another painting that moved me is Kenneth Noland’s “Split”.)

What Makes Painting Abstracts So Thrilling?

January 14th, 2020

I love looking at abstract painting and I love painting abstracts. It’s so thrilling to experience the raw energy the artist put onto the canvas. It’s even more fun to create abstract paintings.

A big part of what makes painting abstracts so thrilling for me is that it helps me understand and tap into the language beneath the language we all know. It’s a complex, wordless language that goes deep into our collective subconscious. Yes, it’s kind of mystical and Jungian. And I’m fine with that.

It’s challenging for me because I have to break past the layer of the more or less “literal” way of thinking that I grew up with.

In that sense, abstraction is a “pure” form of art unencumbered by the language of realism.

100 Days of Abstracts, Day 30

100 Days of Abstracts, Day 30, acrylic on canvas

The language of realism tells you “this is a tree” or “this is a person.” Abstraction allows you to hint at those things, or do away with them entirely, favoring composition over referencing real things. (This is called nonobjective abstraction. DeStijl pioneer Piet Mondrian was a master of this sort of abstraction.)

In the past few years I have grown more obsessed with the color field paintings of Mark Rothko. I have yet to see one of his works in person, but I hear they are deeply moving. There’s something about a large canvas flooded with subtle variations of a single color that stir something deep in your soul.

Since so many of us in the West grow up looking at art from an objective point of view, it is sometimes difficult to understand abstract painting since it doesn’t fit your frame of reference. To that, I say to think of it like music. Look for texture, rhythm, loud and quiet. Music rarely references things in the real world. Painting doesn’t have to, either.

By painting in an abstract manner I am able to explore my emotions and find answers to those wordless questions deep in my soul. The more primal a piece of art is, whether it’s music or painting, the more it resonates with our core.

Realism tends to be obvious in its interpretation

"Hoth" painting surrounded by jingle bells and twinkle lights

Hoth, acrylic on canvas

Sometimes a realistic painting is just a painting of whatever you see, nothing more. Other times, the artist adds symbols with personal meaning, or the subject matter is intended to inspire the viewer to consider a certain worldview. (Brian Rutenberg would argue that all paintings force the viewer to look at the world differently, if only for a second.)

Of course, some surrealists have fun with objective visual language, especially when their paintings are realistically rendered but full of double meanings and visual tricks on our our perception of space. Painters like Salvador Dali, Rene Magritte, and Donny Smutz come to mind.

Abstract painting invites the viewer to participate and interpret

Brad Blackman's custom painting "Silver Lining," shown in a living room.

Silver Lining, acrylic on canvas, 20 x 20 x 1.5 inches

I love hearing all the things people say they see in my abstract paintings. Most of the time I have a landscape in mind. Personally, I often see clouds and a horizon, littered with landforms and foliage.

But lots of people tell me they see something else, and it’s amazing. It’s a lot like looking at clouds with a friend: sometimes you see something whimsical, and sometimes you see something profound that changes your life. And your friend sees something else entirely.

All paintings are abstract in some way.

Bob Burridge says that under every great painting is a great abstract painting. The rules of composition apply to abstract painting as representational painting, perhaps more so since that provides a frame of reference.

Sometimes abstraction looks like an unfinished painting that invites the viewer to invent their own story. And that’s what I find thrilling.

Behind the Scenes: How I Choose Calming Color Schemes

December 16th, 2019

Over on the Happier Home blog, I wrote about how to pick artwork that creates a calm space. I talked about how color is one of the things to consider when looking for artwork that enhances a peaceful home. Here’s how I create calming color schemes in my artwork.

But first, a little color theory! Here’s how complementary color works.

Basically, complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel. Think of classic Christmas colors like the rich red of poinsettias and the deep green of evergreen trees. They look nice with each other, right? That’s because they are complementary to each other on the color wheel.

But if they are too similar in value (lightness/darkness) or saturation (intensity), they clash and “vibrate.”

“This initially exciting effect also feels aggressive and often even uncomfortable to our eyes. One finds it rarely used except for a screaming effect in advertising, and as a result it is unpleasant, disliked, and avoided.”

Josef Albers, Interaction of Color

So I use that effect sparingly, since I want to create a sense of peace and calm in my artwork. Clashing complementary colors don’t create a calming color scheme.

Now for more color theory: analogous color.

This is when the colors used are next to each other on the color wheel. Since there’s no wild variation to distract you, the effect is calming. This chart from Elle Decor does a great job illustrating various analogous color schemes:

An analogous color scheme is usually more calming than a complementary color scheme, since the colors are related to each other.

However, to really go for a calming color scheme, I have to dial the contrast down a lot.

My approach lately: nearly monochromatic with a hint of complementary color or a surprise color

It’s been my approach lately to work in neutrals and add something bright or metallic to it. I think it works well. The neutral colors are naturally calming, especially with soft transitions and subtle contrast. The bright or metallic colors break the monotony and offer a nice surprise. This shows that a little color goes a long way.

Brad Blackman, "Hope," 2018. acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 x 24 inches

Brad Blackman, “Hope” acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 × 24 inches

Abstract landscape showing a snowy field with a high horizon and a gold mass against the gray sky.

Brad Blackman, “In Sun and Snow” acrylic on canvas. 10 × 10 inches

And sometimes, I break out the intense color, and it is calming yet energetic at the same time.

Since I love color so much, sometimes I crank up the saturation. While the colors are intense and somewhat complementary, the effect is an overall calm color scheme since the transitions are subtle.

Hazy, abstracted sunrise in pink, orange, and yellow behind a dark purple landscape.

Brad Blackman, “First Light” acrylic on canvas. 8 × 8 inches

How to make buying art not so scary

October 25th, 2019

Buying art for the first time can be scary! But it doesn’t have to be. Here are some things that scare new art buyers and what to do about them.

Where do you start? What if you don’t know anything about art, just that you want your space to be more attractive and represent what you want to be? What if you’re just tired of having blank walls or generic furniture, or handed-down artwork you don’t care about?

You know beautiful art is out there. On the walls of someone’s apartment on TV, in restaurants, or on someone’s Instagram profile. You say, “How can I get me some of that?” You walk into a gallery, or pull up an artist’s online shop, and you’re overwhelmed.

Just like all nice things in life, getting into art can be a little intimidating.

Photo by Andres Urena on Unsplash

Many “unnecessary” things in life are considered luxuries. Especially “gourmet” foods. Luxury doesn’t always have to equal outrageously expensive, either. Gourmet coffee or gourmet donuts cost more than their “everyday” counterparts, but the average person can still enjoy them.

Since art isn’t necessary for daily survival like food or water, it’s considered a luxury, but I would argue that it’s important to our humanity. Art says something about who we are and where we are going. Humans are about much more than survival. We take the time to enjoy things we don’t necessarily “need.”

My own “luxury” experience

Brad Blackman examining works-in-progress while drinking coffee

Speaking of coffee, I’ve become a little bit of a coffee snob. It has been a bit of an educational journey! At first, it was a bit overwhelming. There are so many types of coffees and ways to brew it.

Likewise, getting initiated in buying art can be a little intimidating. I’ve put together a list of some of the things that scare people about buying art, and what to do about them.

“I know nothing about art!”

A lot of people are intimidated by the art world because they don’t know how to talk about art. They lack the vocabulary or language. They’re afraid they will look dumb. Or they think modern or postmodern art is too complicated and exclusive and they aren’t “in the know.”

If you want to talk about art, you just need to know a handful of terms about art to talk about it, such as form, color, and contrast. And it helps to understand the context in which it was made.

But if you want to buy art, you just have to know what you’re looking for. It can be as simple as having a blank wall of a certain size and you want to put something there. Or you want more of this color in your house.

Or you just had a transformative experience and you want a piece of art that reminds you how you came through it. Just having that information on hand can help you find what you want.

“Am I over-paying for it?”

Only if you don’t really want it. If you’re buying art just to impress someone else, you probably won’t enjoy owning it.

If money is a concern and you find a piece of art you have to have, you might be able to negotiate with an artist or a gallerist. Many artists accept payment in installments.

Or you can commission a smaller, less expensive version of a work you love. I have done commissions where I painted something similar to a previous painting in a different size or a slightly different color scheme.

“What will _____ think?”

A lot of people worry about what other people will think about their art purchase. “Will my spouse like it?” or “What will my friends say?” If you’re sharing your space with someone else like a spouse, it is worth getting their input since they will be seeing it, too.

That said, I feel like it’s ultimately a personal choice what art you purchase. It’s part of your self-expression.

“How do I take care of it?”

Paintings on canvas need to breathe, so storing them vertically by hanging them on a wall is ideal. You can periodically dust them lightly. I don’t make sculptures, but I imagine they need to be dusted frequently. Don’t be afraid to ask the artist or gallery you buy your art from. They’ll appreciate that you want to take care of it.

“Where am I going to put it?”

Sometimes you fall in love with a piece of artwork without having a place in mind for it. But isn’t that part of the adventure of buying art? If it moves you and you can pay for it, get it. You’ll figure out where to put it later. 😉 Alternatively, you can commission something similar in a different size, like I mentioned above.

“Rumble,” acrylic on canvas. 8 x 8 inches

“Is it a good investment?”

Some people buy art as an investment. Those people have lots of money to spend and advisors helping them decide what to buy based on a variety of factors, with the intention of reselling at a higher price later to make a profit.

But for most people, buying art is an investment in themselves. They want to say something about themselves to other people, or to remind themselves of something important. They buy it so they can tell their friends, “I bought this painting the year I had five different surgeries and it reminds me of the divine strength that sustained me.”


Buying art for the first time can be intimidating, but it can be a lot of fun. Remember that every piece of art has a story behind it, which adds tremendous value to your life. If you’ve got your heart set on buying some art, but you’re still nervous, don’t be. Decide what’s best for you, and make it something you’ll enjoy for years to come.

3 Surprisingly Powerful Factors That Make Up Contemporary Art

October 1st, 2019

I’ve found that contemporary art is dominated by 3 factors: place, politics, and personality. This really is not new. They’ve been part of art for hundreds of years. But I’ve seen a lot more of them in the past 20 years or so as contemporary art (art since 1970) has evolved.

The art movements of the early-to-mid-20th Century still have a lot to teach us. To be sure, the wider culture’s visual language has evolved since then, and contemporary art embraces the conceptual over all else these days, even if it is highly rendered (realistic). It’s less about style and more about social consciousness.

Brad Blackman, Hope, 2018. acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 x 24 inches

Brad Blackman, “Hope,” 2018. acrylic and gold leaf on canvas. 30 x 24 inches

Most of the art I see today features three P’s: Place, Politics, and Personality.

“Place” in Contemporary Art

Graffiti art has exploded the past few years, especially in Nashville (where I live.) What used to be a sign of gang activity is now a sign of commerce (and on the downside, gentrification). Bachelorettes line up to get their photo taken in front of giant wings. And it’s not just “graffiti.” Toronto has a famous “TORONTO” sculpture that tourists love to get on their instagram feeds. Incidentally, the “3D Toronto Sign” was a temporary installation, but it got so much attention on social media that it is now a semi-permanent feature of City Hall. (I believe there are plans to make a permanent version of the sculpture.)

Contemporary art and place: 3D Toronto sign

By { pranav } from Hyderabad, India – Toronto sign, CC BY 2.0

Politics in Contemporary Art

Art has long had ties to politics, either in the service of or in opposition to the prevailing ruler. It can be propaganda, or it can state a specific view that may or may not be popular or “safe.” Brian Rutenberg argues that all art is political — even his abstract landscapes of South Carolina swamps.

The Cult of Personality in Contemporary Art

KAWS is an example of personality in contemporary art

Again, this is nothing new, and perhaps less outsize than in the past, but in recent years I’ve seen artists exploit their strong personal brands on social media with the likes of Ashley Longshore, Joyce Pensato, KAWS, and more. Warhol and Dali set a precedent for this decades ago. “Personality” might better be thought of as a “personal brand” these days.


While my own art doesn’t blatantly possess these characteristics, I agree with Brian Rutenberg that all art is political by default since when a viewer looks at it, they are seeing from your eyes, even if for a moment. What I try to show is that the world, for all its brokenness, is a beautiful and hopeful place.

“I laugh when painters claim to make political painting because all painting is political. The very act of making a work of art is a political act. Whenever you see a play, or read a poem, or look at a picture in a gallery, you are submitting to and and investing in the entire political belief system of that artist. Art can only be political because the artist is subverting and undermining the way the viewer sees the world for a moment. So I think it’s kind of sad when younger painters are led to believe that painting has no real value in and of itself, that it’s only a delivery system for some other message, which sounds to me like propaganda, There’s a lot of clever, witty work being done out there, but we must never let semiotic wit replace dreaming.”

Brian Rutenberg, Studio Visit 58

What is the purpose of art today?

December 16th, 2014

What is the role of the artist today? What purpose do the arts serve nowadays?

Over the centuries, artists have had a lot of different roles. While the roles have all been different, the one constant is to transform. To create change.

The artist has been a…


This is the original role of the artist, to make functional things that improve the quality of life. In a way it overlaps with engineering. Photo Credit: Let Ideas Compete via Compfight cc


A lot of people think of art as just decoration or simple creative expression. By extension that makes art an indulgence on behalf of the artist or the collector/consumer. I don’t completely agree with this, but I’ll allow it since it is not a “necessity” for “survival.” (I’ll touch on that at a later date since I believe art is more necessary than you’d think.) Photo via Compfight cc


Art has always been used to promote political figures and leaders as well as the wealthy. You can use art to make certain people more appealing in the public eye. Photo Credit: x-ray delta one viaCompfight cc


This is an offshoot of propaganda. Art produced to sell something is propaganda for a company. Under most circumstances it is harmless as everyone has to make a living somehow, but it can easily be twisted to be disingenuous. Photo Credit: kevin dooley viaCompfight cc


There is something sacred about creating art and looking at art, since it comes from a place that isn’t ruled by science alone. In a very real sense I think artists are shamans who see more than meets the eye and try to reveal things that plain science cannot. Photo Credit: Crysco Photography via Compfight cc


It should be no surprise that many artists are politically active or have causes they wholeheartedly support. If art can be used as propaganda, it can certainly be used to promote personal causes or seek out justice. Photo Credit: ★ spunkinator via Compfight cc

All along, the role of the artist has been to create change and transformation.

Art makes life better, sells things, and influences the way people think about something or another person.

Seth Godin would say we are all liars.

Now, I’ve said it before: even art that comes from a place of beauty still aims to transform you: it changes your mood by eliciting feelings of awe, inspiration, and being uplifted.

Photo Credit: beautifulcataya via Compfight cc

But what is the role of the artist today?

What is the artist trying to transform right now, in the early 21st century? This is something I grapple with. Why does art exist today? Is art there to serve a documentary purpose?


Art serves as marker of cultural achievement. It’s an indicator of society. So it should stand to reason that in many ways it is a mirror of society.

The major function of art is to show society for what it really is, even if it is unflattering. (Tweet that)

And it often is.

I’ve come to believe that the role of the arts today is to be a mirror and show society what it is. We have so much propaganda already. So many artists make a living making propaganda after all as designers and advertisers. Plenty of artists are decorators as well. Craftsmanship has its place but has largely been relegated to machines or artisans in quaint shops.

So what I see happening is the “fine” arts serving as a mirror to society.

What artists create on their own is very often a personal record of who they are and where they’ve been.

But if you extrapolate that to a societal level, or if the artist chooses to go beyond himself, you end up with social commentary. And often it is pretty discouraging.

Personally, what I want to create right now, is art that creates peace because we live in such a noisy world.

We live in a world that is so busy and distracted by cool apps. We keep score on Instagram and Facebook. We live in a world where everybody is obsessed with being right. Spend five minutes on Facebook and watch people hurl insults against each other because somebody is for or against (leader).

So maybe the purpose of art in this day and age is to be a mirror.

But I could be wrong. What do you think it is?

The Purpose of Art is to Transform

September 23rd, 2014

For hundreds of years, for many people, the purpose of art has been to be beautiful.

The 20th century changed all that. We saw a lot of upheaval. Art became ugly.

It became clear that the purpose of art is not so much to be beautiful or convey a sense of beauty or have an “uplifting-ness” (if that’s a word) but to move people.

But maybe that’s not quite it. Maybe it’s more than just moving people.

For a long time I thought the purpose of art was to move people, but now I think that the purpose is even greater and deeper: to transform.

Maybe the purpose of art is to transform the viewer.

Perhaps that transformation evokes a sense of beauty in the viewer. Or perhaps it evokes anger and confusion.

Either way, the viewer is not only moved, but transformed, because this is something they weren’t experiencing before viewing the art.

There’s a lot more than just simple movement. Good art will always leave a mark. Its viewers will be changed, different from before they saw it.

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August 12th, 2014

Taste, along with talent, is what usually gets you into art in the first place. You probably have a knack for what looks good, what doesn’t, what sounds good, what flavors go together and so forth.

A hunch?

You have a knack for pairing things, really, based on hunches but sometimes theory understood intuitively. Other people may not come up with it on their own, but they are pleasantly surprised when you do it.

Then of course there is the problem of “bad” taste. Combinations that disappoint. And sometimes what looks bad now might look great tomorrow, dated next week, yet beautiful and timeless a hundred years from now.

The definition is slippery, but taste is a real thing for sure.

While I’m certain taste starts with liking things (or disliking them, even), it goes beyond that.

I think good taste can always quantify and explain itself given certain principles that have been proven time and again. What we have to be careful of is that we don’t confuse taste for personal preference.

In short, it’s a sort of pursuit of excellence.

Ira Glass and the Gap

Ira Glass (the guy who hosts This American Life on NPR) has talked about the gap between a beginner and his taste. In short, you have good taste, but your skills don’t always match up. And that’s frustrating.

Video: THE GAP by Ira Glass from Daniel (aka frohlocke) on Vimeo.

Also, don’t miss the Zen Pencils comic-strip version of Ira Glass’ talk.

What’s been your experience with taste and the struggle in getting your skills up to the same level as your taste? Or do you even worry about it at all?

Photo Credit: visualpanic via Compfight cc

I Like It.

July 15th, 2014

All too often this is what I hear from people regarding art or design. They have an either/or response: they like it or they dislike it.

I suppose this is natural and a fundamental part of our humanity. If something makes us uncomfortable or unpleasant, it’s probably a good idea to stop doing whatever that thing is.

Yet what makes art “good” isn’t necessarily what makes it pleasant or even likable.

Nowadays the creative process or the theory behind it is what makes art compelling.

Not what it looks like or even how beautiful it is. While beautiful art is making something of a comeback, there’s still a lot of 20th century art sitting around that isn’t necessarily fun to look at, but it has some strong concepts and processes driving it.

But back to liking or disliking something: when you say this, it sounds like you haven’t given it further thought. Sure, you may be going on your instincts, and your gut is often right, but simply liking something makes it sound as if you haven’t critically observed whatever it is you’re looking at.

I want to hear more people qualify what they are liking or disliking. Picasso’s Guernica (1937) isn’t pretty, but it is important, because it makes some pretty bold statements about how ugly total war is.

It is both personal and impersonal: the impersonal war obliterated a town not far from the place Picasso grew up. There’s nothing pretty about it and there isn’t supposed to be. It’s brutal.

The painting moves you because it tells you how terrible war is. Everywhere Picasso turned, the newspapers were full of death and destruction of people, animals, property. He was overwhelmed and outraged and it shows.

And you want to say whether you like or dislike “Guernica”?

That’s about as dumb as saying whether you like or dislike the war that prompted it.

Look deeper.

Not just at art, but the world around you.

We’ve become so dumbed down by a simple thumbs-up. Life is far more complex than that. Develop a vocabulary to talk about it.

Honest Art?

May 6th, 2014
“Art is a lie that tells the truth.” — Pablo Picasso

Art on one level is inherently false. Images that seek to express in two dimensions what exists in three dimensions is a lie: this flat surface creates the illusion of three-dimensional space. It’s not really three-dimensional, but it looks like it. That makes it false by definition.

Rene Magritte, The treachery of images (This is not a pipe) (La Trahison des images [Ceci n’est pas une pipe]). Oil on canvas, 25 in × 37 in. 1948.

Rene Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe) underscores this: it is a painting that depicts like a picture of a pipe. But it isn’t a pipe. It makes the true statement that it is not a pipe. It’s just a flat representation of a pipe.

Bad art posing as serious art

There is another kind of art that is rather dishonest. It pretends to be serious art, but is in fact a mockery. Thomas Kinkade is the first that comes to mind. Sure, he was technically good, but there’s a point where he ceased to be good and just did whatever the market wanted.

To me that is dishonest. I’ve read that Kinkade wanted to do other art, art that was more expressive, but what he wound up making was essentially bad copies of what made him famous.

It would be like Elvis trying to sing like Elvis. Which I don’t think he ever did. As Elvis got older, his voice got deeper, and he put on really big shows in Vegas. Singing “Can’t Help Falling In Love” in a deep, rich baritone, wearing a glittery, sequined jumpsuit with big hair and flashy sunglasses. Contrast that with when he was getting started: a young white guy in a work shirt playing a guitar, singing with a Negro voice but giving it that edge that made him popular with white kids.

People make jokes about “Fat Elvis” but I think he accepted that he wasn’t young anymore, and he wasn’t capable of doing the same thing he had done 20 years before. He probably wasn’t interested in it, either.

The point is, how honest is your art? Are you making your art solely to fit the whims of the marketplace, or are you being true to who you are as an artist?

Leave room for reinvention

That’s not to say you can’t adapt your art to the situation in order to make a living. For example, Metallica have successfully reinvented themselves many times, when the popular music landscape changed, and when they decided selling their music online wasn’t such a terrible thing after all. They’ve had members come and go, all been in and out of rehab, and their style has changed somewhat, but they’re still the same Metallica.

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The Number One Ingredient for a Creative Life: Wonder

March 18th, 2014

So many people say they are not creative. And they’re right. Because they don’t even try. They have no sense of wonder. No imagination. They stick with the status quo even though they are unhappy with it. They throw their hands in the air and say, “Oh well, that’s just how it is.” They never get past that first hurdle.

Living a creative life requires a sense of wonder. Be like a child if you want to live a life with any amount of creativity.

“Every chid is an artist. The problem is to remain one when we grow up.” — Pablo Picasso
With a little work and commitment, you can train yourself to marvel at the everyday things around you. I have to remind myself sometimes. Thankfully, I have three little children who are in a near-permanent state of discovery.

This sense of discovery is why a lot of artists paint things that are relatively ordinary. Normal, everyday things presented in such a way that it feels new and beautiful. It turns something normal into a novelty you’ve never seen before.

Children go around saying, “Wow, look at that,” or, “How does that work?” or, “What if that was green instead of blue?”

Go and do likewise.

But is anything new?

Of course, we know there’s nothing really new out there. It’s all been there for millennia. Ecclesiastes reminds us there is nothing new under the sun. A major theme from Battlestar Galactica is “All this has happened before, and it will happen again.” Technology advances, but people are just as mean to each other as they ever were. Read the book of Genesis sometime and watch how people treat each other, and look at how they treat each other now.

It’s kind of depressing.

But for a child, everything is so new. So beautiful. So pure and wonderful and overwhelming.

Recapture that outlook and be a child again. See everything as new. In a new light.

Lamentations 3 tells us that God’s love mercy is new every morning. If God, who has no beginning or end, is continually new, then that gives me hope for seeing with new eyes. Every morning I wake up and am thankful for the chance to do things better than yesterday.

It is a challenge, because a lot of people aren’t used to thinking like that. They’re used to the same old same old. The familiar is comfortable, safe, predictable.

To be creative requires a certain kind of openness. You have to accept that you don’t have it all figured out. If you think you have it all figured out you are dead! If you’re not learning, you’re not growing.

“If it ever becomes clear that I’ve stopped learning, dig a hole and push me in, because I’m of no use to anybody.” — Dan Miller on the Read to Lead Podcast, Episode #001

Surround yourself with things that inspire you.

Collect unusual things. The “junk” you “hoard” may have a common theme. Or it may not. Look for anything that gives you ideas. And ideas come from anywhere.

Recently I was designing a postcard for my day job, and I got stuck. I found an annual report design that had photos cropped at a diagonal angle. That one thing triggered another idea: what if I presented these photos with a similar diagonal framing? The colors are entirely different, the subjects are entirely different. Everything about the annual report and my postcard is different. Even the angle of the diagonal frames. But that one thing gave me a seed of an idea, and it worked.

So, be childlike, and be open to triggers that may come from anywhere. Collect things. You never know what will inspire you. Scrapbook them. Catalog them.

Finally, I highly recommend Life After Art as it is about this very topic. Watch my interview with the author, Matt Appling, and then go buy the book. (I don’t get any sort of kickback. Sure, Matt sending me a free copy of his book before I interviewed him, but that is it. It’s just a good book and I think everyone should read it.)

Resources: a few places on the web that fire up those neurons:

Photo Credit: horrigans via Compfight cc

Art & Entertainment

January 9th, 2014

A month or two ago my coworker Dan Newsom turned me on to the White Horse Inn podcast episode called “God in the Gallery.” It’s an interview with Dan Siedell, author of the book of the same name.

(After listening to the podcast, I keep searching for an audio version of his book, but it doesn’t look like there is one. If you know of one, let me know! I love listening to audiobooks and/or podcasts while painting or designing.)

One of the things that jumped out at me in the program was the discussion comparing high art and entertainment.

What Dan Siedell said boils down to this:

(High) Art (as opposed to illustration, propaganda, etc.) has a long memory, and is made with the intention of touching someone now as well as many years from now.

Entertainment has no memory, and is made to touch someone right now, not necessarily with the intention of helping them become a better person.

I’m not going to condemn either one. There is a place for both art and entertainment. But they aren’t the same thing at all.

I compare it to food. You have healthy, solid, nourishing food and you have junk food. Problems arise when you have too much of either. And a little bit of junk food is okay, and possibly even beneficial. Likewise, I think mindless entertainment is fine in small doses.

But if you eat potato chips and watch Family Guy all the time, you won’t be doing yourself any favors. You’ll have the same physique and intellect as Peter Griffin.

On the other hand, if you only eat salad and read Proust, your body probably isn’t getting the protein, fat, and sugar it needs, and you’ll become a pretentious bore.

Can you separate an artist from his art?

November 19th, 2013

Ender’s Game” is in theaters now. I really want to see it, but I haven’t had the time or the money to go to the movies. (Who wants to fund the Blackmans’ date night and provide child care for three easily-excited munchkins?)

It’s a movie about a young boy named Andrew “Ender” Wiggins, who is sent to Battle School. Battle School is in a space station, and the young students are being equipped to fight the coming second wave of an alien invasion. The idea is that if they start training at a young age, they will have the skills to defeat the enemy. They train with a variety of war games, some of which turn out to be more real than they suspect.

I loved the book by Orson Scott Card, which I actually didn’t read until I was well into my 20s. What’s striking about the book is how humanity rallies together in the face of an alien threat. Races, genders, nationalities, religions, etc. are all put aside to preserve humanity. Yet in the “Shadow Series” books that follow Ender’s companions after the events of Ender’s Game, humans go back to business as usual, squabbling over territories, religion, and commerce. Same as it ever was, right?

You would think that the author has this same all-accepting worldview, embracing tolerance of all stripes. The heroes in his novels come from various walks of life, bringing with them varied lifestyles and worldviews.

The media hasn’t portrayed him that way, since Card has made some rather bold statements that sound judgmental and homophobic. What’s really crazy about this is some of his novels’ heroes are homosexual. I can’t think of any that are Mormon, as he is. Granted, there have been religious themes throughout his books. The Homecoming series is very much a sci-fi retelling of Joseph. (Card has blogged some pretty out-there conspiracy theories. So who knows what he really thinks. I’ve never read his blog, so I couldn’t tell you.)

This controversy begs the question: can an artist be separated from his art? Can a writer be separate from his writings, especially when it comes to fiction? Or are the two inextricably linked? I listened to a podcast about this very topic recently, and it got me thinking.

How separate are the artist and his or her creations?

Your work is inevitably influenced by your worldview. Whether the two agree is something else entirely.

I think this is because we are all fallible. Some of the greatest artists have struggled with some pretty severe addictions, to the point that that is now part of the artist’s mystique. There are many who expect artists to live a careless, hedonistic, bohemian lifestyle contrary to the rest of the world, since the rest of the world is too blind to “the truth.”

The other extreme is a monk-like lifestyle in perfect keeping with the ideas espoused in the work.

In reality, most artists are probably somewhere in the middle. We know we can’t be as perfect as our work. Besides, our work is endlessly edited to show something beautiful or ugly in an effort to expose some kind of truth.

And I think we often become obsessed with those things we have a difficult time achieving. That’s how you find ministers who condemn something or other who happen to struggle with the very thing they condemn. While it is shocking, it isn’t coincidental. We know what our flaws are and what we really should be doing.

So, I think the answer is yes and no. Yes, you can live a degenerate lifestyle and take advantage of people and be an awful person while creating the most beautiful music there ever was, or lead a very disciplined life and work hard at creating something in keeping with your values.

I think in the end there is a definite relationship between lifestyle and output, since one tries to either redeem or support the other. In the case of the former, the art is meant to be better than its creator. With the latter case, the art supports the creator’s views.

Recommended reading: ‘Ender’s Game,’ its controversial author, and a very personal history

Throwback Thursday: Split Motorcycle

November 7th, 2013

On the social web, Thursdays are special. For about ten years now, Throwback Thursday has been a thing, in which one posts pictures of things that are vintage or classic, but in 2011, it took off as a hashtag on Instagram, where people posted pictures of themselves some time ago. I’ve dug up a few old photos at my parents’ house, like this one from when we went to Europe when I turned eighteen.

Rather than post old pictures of myself here on my blog (that’s what Instagram is for, right?) I’ll post pictures of my old art. I don’t know how long this will last or if I’ll keep it up, but it might be fun to see where my art has been and how it got to where it is today. Know yourself, and all that. Plus, while I showed you older works in the context of what influenced me, I thought it would be fun to look at things I’ve done just in the sense of what I painted or drew in the past. Throwback Thursday. Because nostalgia is fun.

So without further ado…

Throwback Thursday: College Edition, #1: The Classic-Romantic Split

Yup, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance made quite an impression on me in college. So I painted it. I’ve blogged about the ideas several times, most recently here.

I painted this in 1999 or 2000, while I was in college. With the motorcycle as a metaphor (as in the book), I split it in two, showing the left side as an abstracted blueprint and the right side painted colorfully and expressively with a split-complementary color scheme. I’m pretty sure I was listening to jazz when I painted the right-brained side. I know for a fact that the tight line art took several days to complete, but the loose palette-knife work took me about 45 minutes.

When I showed it to a friend who was an engineering major, he got it immediately even though he hadn’t read the book. He knew he was the left side, and he preferred it over the right.

God Wants You to Make Better Art (Uncovering My Own Story Made Me Realize How Much Work I Have To Do)

October 11th, 2013

Last month, I attended a multimedia webinar hosted by Blaine Hogan, Creative Director at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. “God Wants You to Make Better Art” was on a Wednesday night, just after when I would normally have been at mid-week Bible study. So I skipped church, put the kids to bed early, and attended the $10 webinar that Blaine hosted. Hope had a meeting of her own, too.

(You can find a version of his presentation here on his blog: Move More People and Make Better Art.)


Blaine’s overarching theme was that of story. I thought this was pretty interesting since last year our congregation studied from The Story, a Bible study that puts everything in a continuous narrative from the framework of viewing the Bible as God’s story.

Blaine’s angle was that we look at our own stories, and search for the themes that connect us with those around us.

His own story can be viewed as tragic, starting from sexual abuse as a child, moving to pornography and alcohol addictions as an adult, while following a career path as an actor. “At 18 I had become a professional actor and by 25 I had become a professional addict as well.” But it doesn’t end in tragedy: he wound up finding healing at seminary.

Blaine’s story is one of constant redemption, a testament to God’s amazing grace: He redeems us no matter what we’ve done, what we will do.

God redeemed us once, for all time. I think it has taken Blaine many reminders over the years to understand this. (I need to be reminded of this frequently, too.)

Themes & Metaphors

For the 2012 Christmas event at Willow Creek, Blaine explored this theme of redemption and wanted to make it relatable to people from all walks of life. He saw Christ’s coming as a salvage mission. So the stage set for the multimedia presentation had reclaimed materials such as found wood, and the Christmas story was narrated as one where God was coming to earth to rescue the people he loved.

(Hogan said the challenge for making it accessible to everyone was to avoid dumbing it down or devolving into kitsch.)

Clearly, Blaine’s own experiences cause him to vividly experience the theme of redemption in Scripture. And that’s important. You can’t downplay that. It just might be the most important theme of the Bible other than love — the motivation for redemption.

Newtonian Physics and Art

Hogan talked a little bit about Isaac Newton. Newton’s first law of motion maintains that
An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted on by an unbalanced force. An object in motion continues in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
The application to art is that if you want to make art that moves people, you have to make moving art, and to do that, you must deliver a moving pitch, and to do that, you must develop a moving idea, and before that, the artist must be moved first. So, to do any of that, you start with stories. And that’s where Blaine’s own story comes into play, and how he found his themes and put them to work in his own art.

How can your art move people to Christ? Of course, before knowing how to do this, you must start with your own story.

What are the themes and metaphors I can draw from my own experiences to inform my art and make it accessible to everyone so that they are moved to Christ in some way?

So, I set out to uncover my own story.

I had no idea what I was in for.

Some say that to find your own story, you should journal a good deal and find your themes that way.

Thing is, I’ve been actively journaling about ten or eleven years now. It started out as Morning Pages (as outlined in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way) but I got away from that and currently use a journaling template somewhat like Michael Hyatt’s.

It has been a long time since journaling has uncovered much of my themes (and I really don’t want to go back and re-read and re-live the bad parts where I whined a lot a decade ago.) So I’ve been stumped.

I’ve let this percolate in the back of my mind a few weeks, and on a lunchtime walk, it hit me: my biggest theme is one of loneliness and anger and resentment.

This might surprise you. Then again, it might not. Depends on how well you know me.

I’ve long resented my hearing loss, and the way that has held me back in numerous ways. It makes me angry on some deep, vague level. I think this is the root of everything for me. And on some level I’m an angry person. Most of the time I’m neutral. Sort of. Definitely not as mellow as I thought of myself when I was a teenager. I guess the anger and resentment started to surface in my 20s, once I was out of college. I put my fist through a pantry door once. I’ve been to anger management classes but that was 11 years ago, and a lot has changed in my life since then.

My hearing loss has made me angry, resentful, and above all, lonely. I think on some level I’ve been angry at God about this, resenting my hearing loss for at least thirty years.

In college I discovered porn on the Internet. So for a long time, I tried to treat that loneliness with porn. But that only made my loneliness more intense. Which made me angrier. And magnified the resentment I felt toward anybody who seemed to have a connection with anyone other than me, so it spiraled deeper and deeper. This lasted over a decade.

Until last year, I realized what was going to happen to my marriage and my children if I didn’t do something about it. I made a conscious decision, breaking down into tears in the bathroom with my wife, promising that I wasn’t going to look at porn again. It’s the same as cheating on her. Wait. No “same as.” It is.

It hasn’t been easy. There are times I want to load something disgusting online for a quick thrill or simulation of intimacy without the effort. (But I know there is no reward for that.) I’m not about to damage my relationship with my wife and my children and even my parents for the next 30 or 40 years just from a half-second jolt to the lizard brain.

I’ve also got a lot of resentment toward the idea of false praise. There have been significant moments where I’ve displayed my art and heard, “Ooooh, Brad! That’s amaaaazing!” and it rang false. As a result, I have had a hard time accepting praise.

Yet I hungrily seek approval.

Nowhere is this more evident than on social media, where it seems everyone else has more clicks, pins, likes, plusses, or hearts than I. No wonder social media sends me into such a dark funk. I try hard to make a concerted effort to get likes and clicks and retweets, and then after a week or so I throw up my hands and give up, depressed and angry when I look at Buffer’s analytics and see what I’m sharing isn’t getting clicked on. Then I’m back at it again the next week. Again with the spiral, looking for a quick fix that makes me feel accepted.

• • •

Wow. This been cathartic. I don’t know where this came from, nor what to do with it. In many ways I’m still on this journey. As it turns out, my perspective is rather pessimistic and distrustful. There’s no hope or redemption. I’m shocked at my own pessimism. I’ve never looked at myself this critically or deeply. It’s depressing. I don’t like this.

And yet.

Somewhere inside me there is hope. I think my parents instilled some spark in me that is optimistic, that believes there is good in this world, that somebody believes in me.

I do know this: I want to give my kids the self-confidence that I didn’t have. Every day, I make a point to tell them how proud I am of them, and that I will always love them no matter what they do, for the sole reason that they are my children, and there’s nothing they can do to change that. It’s hard, being as preoccupied as I am with my art (or lack thereof) let alone deep-seated doubts about my own merit.

This is not the story I want. Looking in the mirror is difficult when I discover how apparently intrinsically negative I am.

I suppose now I should set about writing myself a better story. But how?

I don’t have any answers right now, but I’ll get there. I just know it involves forgiveness. Probably again and again and again.

See? There is hope. Even if it is just a tiny spark.

Painting Quiet

September 20th, 2013

I’ve blogged about quiet and silence before, but not until recently have I painted it. It’s been percolating in the back of my mind a couple of years, actually, since my creative injury with the N365 project.

I’ve known I was moving toward abstraction in some way, but I’ve been unsure of how to go about doing it.

The best way to find out is to just jump in and try.

So here is my first attempt, back in July. It’s based on a portion of a photo I took over a year ago, and I wanted to experiment with a sort of “soft” abstraction. I suppose in a sense I may be becoming an Abstract Impressionist — something I never thought existed except in the minds of people who misunderstood Abstract Expressionism.

Haze, Brad Blackman, 2013. Oil on canvas board, 11 x 14 inches.

Want to make your art really compelling? Just add mystery.

September 17th, 2013

I’m something of a TV junkie. Which is funny, because I don’t watch a lot of actual, live television. But I love watching TV shows on Netflix. A few years ago it was TV-on-DVD. Now I stream everything through the Wii, my iPhone, or on my laptop. I’ll go three hours at a stretch after everyone in the house has gone to bed, watching shows like LostAliasBattlestar GalacticaFringeStargate SG-1Covert Affairs, or Warehouse13.

While these shows tend to be science fiction and spy shows (or both), the thing that ties them all together for me is the sense of mystery about them. Everything is strange but somehow connected. How? Why?

Quite a few of these shows are J. J. Abrams projects. That’s not a coincidence.

What’s in the box?

A few years ago, J. J. Abrams gave a TED talk about how “Mystery” played a huge part in his work. He tells the story of when he was a kid, his grandfather got him this magic box from Lou Tannen’s magic shop.

For whatever reason, he never opened it. To this day, it remains unopened. It sits on a shelf in his office, still sealed.

And I think that — the endless wonder at the possibility in the mind of a child — is what has driven Abrams from day one. There’s some surprise there that he doesn’t want to ruin, and he knows that sometimes the suspense is more fun than the actual revelation.

This is probably why his shows leave so many questions unanswered at the end. And it’s exactly what makes them so compelling and addictive. What happens next? What’s reallygoing on? The world will never know. And it keeps us guessing for years to come. (What was that island, really?)

A mysterious smile

A list of facts don’t usually draw people in unless there is something compelling about them, some kind of thing that is unexpected. Or, you know there is a connection, but what is it? This is mystery. It’s emotionally engaging.

The opposite of a story with mystery is a factual report. It’s boring. It becomes white noise. White noise puts people to sleep. Literally.

The most compelling stories are those that give you a sense that everything is connected, but you can’t quite figure out how. You know something is going on, but you’re not sure what. And often, it’s not what you think.

This works in movies, novels, plays, even Powerpoint presentations.

And of course, it works well in paintings.

The most famous example I can think of is Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa. Apart from the fact that it was stolen in 1911, Mona Lisa is famous for it’s mystery.

Who is the subject? Was she a patron? A lover? She looks like she knows a secret. What is it? Some theories say that she is the artist as a woman. Leo was a cross-dresser, or something like that. Or he had a dead twin sister. Who knows? Who is she? Does this painting hold some secret code? Dan Brown has made a fortune writing fiction based on the theories.

The painting uses lots of layers in a hazy technique known as sfumato. It’s rooted in the Italian word for “smoke.” If you’ve been to the Smoky Mountains in East Tennessee, you’ve seen this same atmospheric haze. It has to do with the quality of the air, the humidity or something. The air in northern Italy is like that, too. It probably has a lot to do with the Mediterranean Sea on three sides of the Italian peninsula. I think that’s part of what gives Italy it’s dreamy, romantic atmosphere. The light really is different. Things up close sparkle, and things far away are hazy.

Strive for mystery in your art. Not for the sake of obfuscation in itself (though keeping people guessing is a good way to create engagement) but be sure to reward people at some point. Use mystery to draw people in.

Humans are compelled to sort things out. It’s what we do. It thrills us to try to make sense of what’s in front of us (but not to the point of frustration). We love mystery because it excites us and stimulates us when we make new connections.

The Classic/Romantic Split

September 10th, 2013

Back in college, a girl I dated recommended Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. So, over Christmas break that year, I bought the paperback version with the Pepto-Bismol pink cover. I devoured it. Though it was written in the 70s, the book’s ideas made quite an impression on me.

Robert Pirsig lays out a story of a father and son taking a motorcycle trip across the country. This trip becomes a parallel for the intellectual journey into philosophy. The motorcycle they ride is a metaphor for the Self. The underlying theme is the notion of Quality and the two modes of looking at it as exemplified by the Classic/Romantic Split.


The “Classic mode” is distinguished by rational, analytic thought. It is typical of Enlightenment thinking and embraces technology.


On the other hand, the “Romantic mode” refers to an intuitive way of thinking, characterized by inspiration and creativity. I’ve come to understand this to be a somewhat inaccurate definition of Romanticism. I knew it in my gut when I read it all those years ago, but it was cleared up recently when I read Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcy. But for Pirsig’s purposes, it works since the point of ZMM is to learn to think of Quality beyond those two modes, as a thing just beyond consciousness that we strive for.

What this means for art

In regards to Art — the implications for this split are pretty huge. It underscores a large division in the world for two main types of people you are likely to encounter. Rationalist and Romantic thinkers. Or, put another way, technophiles and technophobes. It also points to two directions in art. The Classical mode is rooted in rationalism either based on what can literally be seen or in an abstract sense based on numbers such as De Stijl or Constructivism.

The Romantic line of thinking manifests itself in art that is rooted in myth and imagination. The best example I can think of is the art of William Blake and the Surrealists.

In the end, I don’t think the split is as clean as Pirsig wants it to be since most of us fall somewhere on a continuum between reason and intuition (or technology-loving and technology-fearing) but again it provides a rudimentary framework for understanding two ways of thinking.

Image Credit:

Split, Kenneth Noland, 1959. Acrylic on canvas, 94 x 94 1/4 in. (237.8 x 238.5 cm.) Smithsonian American Art Museum

Book Review: Saving Leonardo

September 3rd, 2013

The cover got me. It’s got the Mona Lisa and Pulp Fiction. Plus some Kandinsky-looking abstract and a Lichtenstein pop-art comic-book painting. And this is a Christian book? This has to be cool, right? I have to admit that’s what first got my attention. Things I’m really into: fine art and movie-junkie movies. And it’s about saving Leonardo. What’s wrong with Leo? He was a talented guy. So I picked this up and decided to give it a read.

Now, it took me the better part of a year to read Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning. The first part is a bit slow, but certain parts really stood out for me and got my attention. Like most good books, once I hit a certain point, I couldn’t put it down. Nancy Pearcey did a good job with this.

It’s 336 pages, so it’s not a quick read. But it’s aimed at the “student of culture” and Pearcey’s goal is is to expose “secularism’s destructive and dehumanizing forces.” What this means is that what you see and hear in the arts and the media is not necessarily innocent (the buzzword to use is “value free”) but deliberately set against Judeo/Christian thought.

The Fact-Value Split

It starts off with a look at the fact-value split in today’s society and how that has affected many Christians. This refers to the idea that facts are essentially empirical data, but values are personal opinions and thus inferior to facts. This leads to the whole mentality that says “you can have your opinion, I’ll have mine, but that doesn’t make either one true”:
“Values are not considered matters of truth but only personal perspectives and preferences.”
The problem is that many Christians slide into this same line of thinking: “If someone wants to do something immoral, that’s their prerogative. In fact, I’ll even support them because it’s bigoted to do otherwise.”

This is where secular thought becomes destructive, because it slowly unravels one’s conviction in the Christian faith, which is based on certain absolutes.

The Threat of Global Secularism

The first section, The Threat of Global Secularism, is about the need for tools for detecting the underlying philosophies present in culture today, in movies, the arts, media, schools, even Saturday morning cartoons. Pearcey goes to great lengths to caution against the “fortress mentality” that is so prevalent in Christianity, which ends up isolating us from the world instead of helping us become familiar with the very world we are trying to bring to Christ.

Two Paths to Secularism

The second section, Two Paths to Secularism explores the root of the fact-value split and the two main ways our society has taken to arrive where we are today. So how did we get here?

This split occurred when The Enlightenment, or Analytic Tradition, began. Enlightenment is based in fact, scientific method, and above all, reason. The other route is the Romantic path, or Continental Tradition. It is rooted in story, myth, and imagination. Eventually, either stream becomes reductionistic and destructive.

The final two chapters are the most practical. The most entertaining is Chapter 9, Morality at the Movies. It reveals the agendas behind some popular films. Many are most definitely not “value free,” no matter how much they pretend to be.

The epilogue gives a great example of how art can reach the world for Christ by demonstrating the effects of Bach’s music on Japanese fans today, and how his music, more than 200 years after his death, can lead people to Christ.

What I think

It’s a bit academic, but it isn’t dry. It does require some foundation in art history. It might help to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance first, which is all about the Classic-Romantic split (Pirsig’s term for the same split).

There were times reading Saving Leonardo where I felt it would have been a good textbook for the “Christian in the Visual Arts” class I took my senior year at Harding University, but the tone is engaging and well-informed. Reading it, I felt like I was having coffee with a smart professor who is truly interested in helping me understand the way our culture operates.

It’s very sympathetic to the arts and artists. Pearcey herself is a trained violinist coming from a family of musicians, and she studied under Francis Shaeffer, so she has a firm grasp of the art world and today’s socio-political landscape.

The fact that it is filled with full-color images of artworks relevant to the topic at hand keeps visual types engaged.

It’s a must-read for anyone wanting to make a difference in the world with their art, because understanding the culture your art “lives” in is important to keeping it relevant.

Should art be uplifting?

July 2nd, 2013

This is a tough question for me, and perhaps for a lot of other artists, since the idea of uplifting art seems to fly in the face of anything done in the past 100 years or so, just like the idea of “beautiful” art. It’s something of a rhetorical question, since it carries with it the assumption that the answer is yes, art should be uplifting.

Again, it goes hand in hand with the notion that art should be beautiful. It stems from the same experience, really.

When you experience beauty, the emotional response is almost always that of feeling lifted up. So to a large degree, beauty = uplifting. So if art should be beautiful, then art should be uplifting as well. We tend to define beauty as or associate beauty with uplifting, positive feelings, even if they make you cry.

Of course, ugliness has the opposite effect: you recoil from it. Ugliness doesn’t make you happy.

Like I said before, though, happiness is cheap these days. Well, a quick rush is, anyway.

Thomas Kinkade tried to make his art as beautiful and uplifting as he could. Unfortunately, it rang hollow with a lot of people, so much to the point that the art “establishment” went to great lengths to deride him.

I can make the case that some art is beautiful and it isn’t necessarily uplifting. Awe-inspiring, yes, which is not quite the same as uplifting. Take for example, ancient weapons made by Native Americans thousands of years ago. A knife for slaughtering an animal might have an intricate and beautiful design carved on it, but it is done out of respect for the sustenance brought by the animal whose life was taken. Why be brutal and crude when you can be reverent?

Social Media Response

I posted this question on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram last week, and didn’t get a lot of responses, but the few I got were pretty telling.

@popesaintvictor said: “Art should tell the truth. “

I think this goes back directly to the idea that art, truth, and beauty are the same thing.

@JoppaThoughts said: “Uplifting? Not necessarily. Thought-provoking? Absolutely.”

I agree with all of it, actually. Art should be true, even when it “tells a lie.” And much of the time it should be thought-provoking.

Then Mark said: “Good Q @BradBlackman Art shouldn’t be anything, except art. It can do many things however. It may uplift, challenge, outrage, shock, pacify.”

Nathan Ketsdever on Facebook said that art shouldn’t ask questions. Maybe he was being facetious. Either way, I disagree. I can’t remember who said it, but I once read a quote from a great graphic designer who said that “design is about solving problems and answering questions. Art is about asking questions.”

Probably the best social media response was from Dean Melbourne on Instagram. He said: “Lets change that should to a could Brad.”

My take

As a Christian, everything I do, especially as an artist, should at the very least point people toward hope and redemption. I realize sometimes the truth (and art) might be brutal and ugly at first, or it might be light-hearted and comedic, but it needs to find a way to be honest and show some kind of hope, even if you find it only when you really dig for it. I think a lot of 20th century art has gotten it partially right: art should cause some sort of emotional response. Most of the time the response has been outrage, and artists have settled for that, seeing “happy” and “uplifting” as cheap (again for good reason). But there should always be a glimmer of hope at some point.

You know, Jesus got (and still gets) that reaction of outrage out of people. And his message is that of hope and redemption. So I suppose a lot of it boils down to where you are, where you’ve been, and where you are headed, if life, art, music, or anything else, really, is uplifting or offensive.

What about you? What’s your opinion on the idea of art being uplifting? Please share in the comments.

Photo credits: both by me, taken with iPhone 4.

Remix In Visual Art

June 30th, 2013

If you’ve been on the Internets™ a while, you might’ve heard of a nifty little series of videos called Everything Is A Remix, where Kirby Ferguson takes a look at how a lot of music and movies borrow heavily from each other, sometimes to the point where copyright and trademark infringement becomes a matter of debate.

There are some pretty notable examples, such as Led Zeppelin’s music, which borrows almost verbatim in some cases from old blues songs, and the huge influence of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai on George Lucas’ Star Wars.

Of course, remixing is a huge part of the creative process. (Copy, transform, combine.) So much of what an artist creates in any medium is influenced not only by the world around him, but the work of other creators.


Again with Star Wars — it follows very closely the idea of Monomyth, which is the concept of a basic story that takes on about a dozen variations. In Star Wars, you have a young hero who goes on a journey, meets a wizard who gives him a special gift or ability, he has the blessing of a beautiful princess, and he defeats the black-clad villain in the end. It’s classic storytelling.

So how does this work in visual art?

Since I like to talk about visual art so much, let’s dive into some of the ways themes recur and are remixed from a two-dimensional perspective.

Madonna and Child

This is one of the classic themes of all of Western art: some variation of mother and child, whether it is religious (depicting Mary and Jesus) or simply a mother and child. It’s probably one of the most emotionally charged themes. While Madonna and Child themes were common in the Renaissance, especially for Raphael, it was a huge part of Mary Cassatt‘s work.


Ones’ physical surroundings are a constant source of inspiration for many artists, whether various scenes, or repeated looks at the same scene in different kinds of weather. Claude Monet painted Rouen Cathedral in all sorts of weather and lights, and the result is extraordinary.


Rembrandt probably popularized the self-portrait, but it’s been done forever: you are your own cheapest model.

Nudes/the female form

There’s no denying the beauty of the human figure. It’s also easily distorted and sexualized, and can symbolize so many things. Shown here: Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, Man Ray’s Ingres’ Violin, and Jenny Saville’s Hyphen.

Las Meninas

In 1958, Pablo Picasso created a series of 58 paintings that reinterpreted and/or recreated Velázquez’ iconic 1656 painting “Las Meninas.”

Dutch Masters

In recent years, I’ve seen quite a few attempts by photographers to recreate the iconic works of the Dutch Masters. It’s relatively easy nowadays to mimic Vermeer’s sumptuous lighting. Why not go all the way and recreate Vermeer’s paintings altogether? Or turn the Dutch Masters on their heads and swap class, race and gender within a form we are already familiar with?

Hipster Antiquities

The most recent thing I’ve seen is Photoshopping modern hipster-style clothes onto classical sculptures. It’s a little silly, but at least it exposes the great sculptures in the Louvre to people who might not otherwise know this art even exists. What’s funny is those wooly beards and curled mustaches are right at home in today’s hipster culture.

Art and Truth

June 6th, 2013

Truth is one of those concepts that is so simple, complex, and profound at the same time.

It seems there is always some debate over what is true, as well as the nature of truth itself. I think Truth (capital “T”) is some kind of entitity closely related to God. In fact, Jesus calls himself “the way, the truth, and the life” in John 14:6.

I think where a lot of us get stuck and disappointed is we have this idea that if something is true, it is also beautiful.

There’s merit to that. John Keats in his poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” declared that truth and beauty are one and the same:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
There’s a big part of us that wants truth to be beautiful, pretty, and uplifting.

The sad reality is that life is not always so.


“Art is a lie that makes us realize truth …” — Pablo Picasso, 1881–1973
I think what Picasso was getting at is that art is an edited version of what we see, feel, hear, taste, smell, or otherwise experience. Empiricism can only tell us so much, because our human condition colors so much of what we experience.

And if beauty and truth are the same thing, why are the realities of war and the world we live in so horrifying?

It’s like the scene in My Name is Asher Lev, where Asher’s father asks him why he doesn’t paint pretty things:

It’s not a pretty world, Papa.’

‘I’ve noticed,’ my father said softly.

And it isn’t.

There will always be horrors. There will always be war, sickness, pain, poverty, extortion, death.

But there will always be beauty: redemption, love, grace, hope.

Life is beautiful

“La Vita È Bella” (Life is Beautiful) is about a family torn apart by the Holocaust in fascist Italy. There are some funny scenes, some touching scenes, scenes of heart-wrenching beauty, and scenes of heart-wrenching horror.

The most beautiful part of the story is the father’s love for his son, and the sacrifice he made for his boy.

And that redemption — heartbreaking as it is — is beautiful.

I think the bottom line is this: the truth is beautiful. It just depends on which side of it you are on.

Photo Credit: Seattle.roamer via Compfight cc

Art & Beauty (Or: Why Modern Art is So Ugly)

June 4th, 2013

You’re in a museum. You’re surrounded by a lot of famous paintings and sculptures by famous 19th and 20th century artists.

But there’s one thing that really jumps out at you: a lot of the art is, well, ugly.

Colors clash, faces are distorted, and images are disturbing. There are themes of violence and sexual abuse. Sometimes the art hardly looks like art at all. Almost all of it is depressing.

How is this even art? Why isn’t any of it beautiful? Why don’t I feel better after looking at it?

To understand this, you have to understand how and why art got the way it is today.

A little history goes a long way

There are two big things that completely changed art from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. When you look back at it, you can’t imagine art going any other way.
  1. Photography
  2. Global war


“Painting is dead,” said Paul Delaroche, upon seeing the first Daguerreotype. Advances in photography did a lot to make the role of painters as documenters or portraitists outdated and outmoded. With cameras able to quickly, more cheaply, and more accurately reproduce what is seen, artists had to move beyond just portraying what they could see with their eyes.

This also coincided with Romanticism, in which art became more inwardly-directed. It’s a reaction to the Age of Enlightenment, which placed importance on science and technology. The Romantics put imagination at the forefront. Emotions ruled over logic and rationalism.

Romanticism in this sense isn’t sappy emotionalism, but a focus on imagination and internal truth and the idea of the mind as the ultimate thing that makes us like God, if reality is first conceived in the mind.

Global war

By the early years of the twentieth century, I suppose it all came to a head when rationalism and for lack of a better word, Romanticism, clashed and culminated in the first world war. I know that’s not the official story, but but when when you look at the rationalist underpinnings of fascism, you can see what I’m getting at.

You can’t deny that two world wars made man’s brutality unmistakable. We keep inventing more efficient ways of killing each other on a massive scale. And that’s a lot of what Romanticism was against, the development of technology for the purpose of killing or otherwise demeaning humanity.

The world got ugly and so did art

It’s said that art imitates life, but life imitates art as well. Art and life imitate each other, really. Everything was turned upside-down. People in power took philosophical ideas and twisted them into justifications for controlling and destroying those they didn’t like. The world got ugly, and art followed suit. People were stripped of their humanity, and massively destructive weapons were created.

There have always been bleak aspects to life, but up until the past 100 or so years, said bleakness was often a matter of course, due to famine, disease, and war. Now, massacre on an unprecedented scale was seen every day. Out of what can be boiled down to plain old meanness justified “rationalist” principles.

So it’s only natural that art became more distorted, more inwardly-focused, and more brutal. And more “rational,” ultimately so rational that painting was reduced to a single color spread on a canvas.

Just like our society. Self-absorption may be at an all-time high now. Everyone tries to justify their actions based on some rationale that makes it okay.

But where do I stand?

I hope this explains in part how we got here. The full story is much more complicated, of course, but it should give you some idea of how why art today is so “ugly.”

Personally, I think there is a place for beauty and a place for ugliness. I think in a hurting and uglified world, beauty and redemption are necessary. At the same time, one of the functions of art is to be a mirror and show the world to itself. A lot of the time, we don’t like what we see.

Let’s look at it another way. Think of your favorite songs or your favorite movies. Chances are pretty good that they’re not all uplifting. I bet one or two make you cry, and one or two make you feel like dancing and shouting.

The point is that good art will change you in some way. This is pretty widely accepted in the art world, whether artists and critics will admit it. A lot of artists take adopt a platform that is more complex than this, but this is what you will find at the core.

If there’s some sort of emotional impact, whether it makes you mad or thrills you or shocks you, a work of art is considered a success. A movie that has no effect on you is considered a failure. If it makes you laugh or cry, it’s done its job, right? Things are more interesting at the edges.

Plus, in this day and age where “happiness” is so accessible in the form of TV, drugs, food, and sex, happiness is a cheap commodity. So making art that raises people’s spirits is seen as a waste.

That’s my take on it.

I suppose my bottom line is this: the existence of beauty and ugliness in art really just depends on what the artist is trying to do.

Personally, I want art that makes me feel something, whether that is happy, sad, uplifted, or claustrophobic. I want to make positive changes in the world, but I am aware of the fact that sometimes I may have to make people uncomfortable with the realities of life.

What about you?

What’s your take on beauty in the arts? Is beauty necessary? Or do you think beauty in art is a waste? Let me know in the comments.

Photo Credit: katmary via Compfight cc

How can you tell if art is good or bad?

May 16th, 2013

In my early twenties after I had moved back home from college, I asked my parents what they thought about a painting I was working on. I can’t tell you what piece it was, but I remember my frustration that they had no means of objectively looking at the art and giving it any sort of merit beyond the fact that their son did it. While I know that’s hard for a parent to do (I’m a dad of three now), there are plenty of objectives at stake when it comes to looking at art.

It’s easy to think (and even want) art to be some subjective thing that is good to one person and bad to another. (We also live in a society that wants to deny absolutes unless it is convenient. See how we give students trophies for half-attempted work?)

And I think a lot of people confuse taste or preference for merit or intrinsic goodness. They aren’t the same thing.

So what is good?

Without getting into a fundamental philosophical discussion, there are a lot of ways to approach this question.

1. Technical Skill

The first approach is perhaps the most common: how well-executed is the piece in terms of technique? How realistic is it? A lot of early or experimental works fall apart quickly because the technique is bad. Maybe the paint is not mixed right, so it falls off the canvas or the sculpture collapses because it isn’t well constructed.

This happened with Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” fresco in Milan. He used an experimental technique for mixing the pigment and plaster. It started decomposing almost immediately. But, even though it was already needing repair at the time of his death, it’s one of his masterpieces and an icon of the Italian Renaissance.

I’ve seen some of Salvador Dali’s early work and not been that impressed with how he applied the paint. It’s clumsy, and you can tell he really struggled with creating the refined, smooth, dreamlike images he is famous for. It took him decades for his skill to match his ambitions. After a lot of hard work and study, eventually he was able to create the sublime, giant “atomic” paintings of his later years.

2. Composition

Remember the elements and principles of design we talked about earlier? Line, shape, value, texture, color, and so forth. Another way to evaluate artwork is to look at how the formal elements interact with each other. Is the art clumsily composed? Do elements barely touch each other in weird tangents that make it awkward? Sometimes this is done on purpose, just like some songs intentionally have discord and jarring contrasts to create a mood or make a statement. Most people find a lot of beauty and pleasure in harmonious compositions, so in most people’s eyes that is artistic success.

3. Content

Of course, no discussion about artistic merit is complete without talking about content. What message do you think the artist is trying to send, and how well does that message get across? If the artist deplores the atrocities of war, is it likely to have soft, pastel colors?

Picasso’s “Guernica” is a reaction to war in his native Spain. It is over eleven feet tall, black-and-white, and filled with writhing, jagged figures: a mother clutching her dead child, a startled horse, a trampled soldier, a traumatized bull. News of the battle was plastered across Paris newspapers, where Picasso lived at the time.

It’s not a beautiful painting. It is a powerful painting that poetically talks about the horrors of war.

“I like it”

Now that you’ve been through this objective evaluation, you can form a personal opinion of the artwork in question. It’s at this point where you can safely say whether you like it or not, because you can back it up. You’ve done the work of actually looking critically at the art and deciding for yourself if it is successful.

This is why artists are often offended if you just say, “Oh, that’s pretty,” or “how nice.” Because it’s pretty easy to tell when someone hasn’t really paid attention.

The same goes for people who have a knee jerk reaction to whatever they don’t consider “art.”

Taking the time to objectively consider a piece of art goes a long way to create a richer and more rewarding experience.

My friend Matt says that “really studying art is the difference between glancing at the night sky, and actually getting a telescope and charting the stars.”

So, the next time you are at a museum, gallery, or an opening, pick two or three pieces and spend some time getting to know them. Figure out what makes them work and why. Then, form your own opinion about it beyond a mere like or dislike.

I promise it will make your time more memorable.

Photo Credit: wvs via Compfight cc

How to Look at Art

May 14th, 2013

Ever been to a museum or gallery and seen a work of art that just had you flabbergasted? What was it even doing there? How is this thing even art?

Sometimes it seems like you need to have an advanced degree like a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) to even look at art. Maybe something is loaded with Renaissance symbolism or obtuse postmodern pastiche.

How do you really look at it and really understand it without being a pretentious snob or looking like a bumpkin who doesn’t know anything?

I have been doing this for so long that it’s difficult for me to articulate it, so I reached out to my new friend Matt Appling, who just so happens to be an art teacher. (You may remember where I interviewed Matt about his new book Life After Art.) He was nice enough to shoot me an email to remind me of some ways to get started looking at art.

The two main things you need to understand about art are FORM and CONTENT. Let’s dig in.


In a nutshell, form is how a piece of art looks. Things like color, line, shape, value, texture, contrast. When you’re looking at the form of a piece of art, you’re looking at how all these things interact with each other. It’s in both abstract and realist styles of art, and if you look carefully, you can find it in both.

Here are a few of the elements and principles of design (or composition):

  1. Line
  2. Color
  3. Shape
  4. Space
  5. Form
  6. Unity
  7. Balance
  8. Hierarchy
  9. Scale
  10. Dominance
  11. Contrast
There’s more, and art students spend at least a semester studying all these things, but having a basic grasp should help. Just having the vocabulary to talk about it makes a huge difference, and it becomes so much more than a gut “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” (You can check Wikipedia to learn more about the fundamental ideas about the practice of good visual design.)

As in music, the word “composition” refers to the way the art is put together. Yes, this is where visual art and music overlap in a big way.


Content is what a piece of art says. In some art works this will take the form of symbolism, where something stands for something else, usually a concept. For exempt, in Renaissance art, a skull symbolizes death, or a dog symbolizes fidelity or faithfulness. With almost any visual art that descends in any way from the Romantic era, symbolism is very common. Even today’s emo artists (both visual and musical) employ symbolism. (Unfortunately they don’t have the same breadth as their 18th-Century forebears.)

So, symbolism does a lot to convey a message, or content.

On the other hand, content shows up in the way a particular subject might be glorified, ridiculed, or vilified. Pairing things makes a statement as well.

Never forget that art is almost never neutral, even when it says it is. A position of neutrality is a pretty strong position, after all. And I’ve found that a “neutral” position very quickly becomes negative.

Artists will often use these tools to make a statement. If the artist has done his or her job well, that statement will be fairly clear. Sometimes it is intentionally cryptic, like a riddle. The more postmodern it is, the less clear the message is. Sometimes there is no “message.”

At other times, art is just an exploration of form.

What’s next?

Next up, we’ll have a look at evaluate a piece of art, and then form an opinion about it.

Photo Credit: Susan NYC via Compfight cc