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What makes a good painting?

By February 15, 2009Art talk

So what exactly is it that constitutes a good painting? What is it that makes us view a painting and say, mmm, I like that!

I have theorized over this many times and have my own theories, but the other day I heard one that really caught my attention.

In an interview on ABC radio, professor of philosophy of art, Denis Dutton, theorized that our love of art, particularly  the tradition of landscape painting, is hard wired into our brain and Psyche. Professor Dutton offers his theory of the ‘Savannah hypothesis’ as follows:

” In the early 1990s a couple of Russian expatriate artists named Komar and Melamid in New York got some money from the Nation Foundation in order to find out what people’s tastes were around the world. So they did some actually serious scientific polling in ten countries (they ended up actually doing more than ten but the original publication list was ten countries) to find out what their favourite subject matter for painting was, what their favourite colour was, if a painting told a story what kind of story they would like it to tell, if they liked abstract art or if they liked representative art and so on. And they did this in the Ukraine, Denmark, France, Holland I think, the US, Kenya, China, Iceland, Turkey…”

What they discovered was :

” the overwhelming favourite of all the other countries which was that they liked landscapes. They like landscapes not only that you would expect from, let’s say, Americans, but they liked landscapes where you had people…let’s say, in Kenya, for example, where they didn’t have the kind of landscapes in question, those were the kind of landscapes they kept choosing. In other words, what everybody in the world seems to like is a kind of standard calendar landscape. And we call it a ‘calendar landscape’ because in fact it exists in calendars across the world.

It includes open spaces with lower mown grasses, thickets of bushes, maybe groupings of trees, copses of trees, the presence of water or water indirectly shown, maybe in the distance, an unimpeded view of the horizon somewhere, the presence of animals, and especially what people seemed to like is some kind of a path. It could be a river bank but often it’s a path or a way which you could take to walk into the distance to go over those last hills to see what’s on the other side. “

Professor Dutton went on to say:

“But there’s another way to look at it and that’s the Savannah Hypothesis. That is to say that the reason that people all over the world gravitate toward this same kind of landscape is that this is the landscape where we evolved, this was the most advantageous landscape for human beings in the Pleistocene, in the savannahs where we came into being as modern human beings, and that’s why you continue to find it. You’d find all sorts of different interests in different kinds of landscapes around the world. But some interesting experiments have been done with children showing that when you take the standard 8-year-old in Europe or Australia or South America or Africa they will tend to choose a landscape which has the savannah features. That is to say it has trees that fork near the ground (that’s interesting; trees that fork near the ground are popular), undulating spaces, open areas where you can hide and where game might hide. It seems to be some kind of an atavism. “

This theory tends to sit well with me. It has been my experience that most people gravitate towards a nice landscape, be it  a photograph, painting or drawing.

Think wall calendars, not the one with nude models (that’s a different story again) but the ones with the serene landscape. The open vista of rolling hills and trees, the lake surrounded by trees and backed with snow capped mountains, that all seem to evoke in us some primordial longing for something that we have lost touch with.

Even in my own work I have experienced this. Many times I have ventured into different territory with my paintings, sometimes omitting the landscape element altogether. Each time the result has been the same, less people like those works than the ones that contain elements of the landscape.

Salvador Dali, the famous Spanish surrealist also knew this.  His paintings almost always contain the vistas of the Catalan region where he lived. Red earthy desert-like landscapes, empty mystic beaches and rugged coastlines, the type of environment our neolithic hunter gatherer ancestors knew well.

Perhaps it’s our gradual separation from this environment that evokes a deep subconscious longing for the landscape. As many of us now live in cities or the urban environs, we tend to look fondly to our romantic notions of  ‘the bush’ or going camping down by the river, or hiking in the mountains. Perhaps there is an opportunity there for an adventure tourist company: “come on holiday with us in the savannah, hunting, fishing, spearing live animals and eating their raw livers!  We’ll bring out the Cro Magnon in you!”

Of course as humans, we have evolved intellectually and tend to crave challenge and creativity. Thus we have moulded, kneaded and manipulated that ‘savannah longing’ through abstraction, modernism, pointillism,surrealism, dada-ism and so on and so forth, to where we are today, with art in its many shapes, forms and ideals.

Which brings me back to the original statement!  What makes a good painting?

Well beyond the Savannah theory, here are my theories:

Balance: There is nothing worse than a lop sided painting!  By that, I mean a work that has too much ‘stuff’ painted over one side or top or bottom. The basic rule of art/ photography, is the rule of two thirds. One third sky and two thirds land and vice versa. Many a good painting has been ruined by bad balance!

Composition: When you look at a good painting, your eye is drawn to the most important part of the piece. Usually just off centre, what you don’t realize, is that a good painting, will lead your eye over the whole canvas, then draw you to this point. Many of the famous old masters, were experts of composition. Most compositions are based around a triangular structure, which leads your eye around the painting. One of Leonardo’s famous paintings, Madonna of the rocks, is a circular composition, just brilliant. Have you ever see a painting that appears to be rendered beautifully,  you like the subject and the colour, but something just does not seem quite right?  Look a little closer, with a basic comprehension of structure, you will probably find that the composition has been botched!

Colour: Colour is an important facet of our lives, it can affect our mood and emotions, it represents so much symbolism in our culture and mythology .  Bright vibrant paintings, make for a lively atmosphere. Dark coloured paintings make for a sombre, reflective mood. Blue, is melancholy, red is angry, green is sublime and so on.

Colours that we can perceive from the visble electromagnetic spectrum are basically red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and voilet (ROY G BIV!)  In painting, these colours are broken down into groups. Primary, secondary, triadic and complimentary. These combinations of primary, secondary and complimentary colours work together to form patterns and forms that are aesthetically pleasing to the human eye.  If this basic law of colours is broken when producing a work of art, then our perception is that of ‘unpleasantness’ or something being fundamentally wrong  with the work.

Subject Matter: Here we come full circle again, back to the Savannah theory. I believe the subject matter also determines the success of a work. Someone once said to me “You know why the famous Australian artist Pro Hart is so successful? Because he paints people doing things”  This stuck in my brain for many years and I still believe it to this day.

Pro’s works were all based around the landscape. Particularly the ‘bush’ and desert environs of Broken Hill.   This is the romantic landscape of the ‘outback’, the harsh Australian environment that has been expounded in many books, movies, poetry and folk lore in Australia.  Pro then added the elements of people and every day social activities. Cricket games, footy, church services, outback station life and so on. Together with his colourful lively technique, this was a recipe for success and one that endeared Pro Hart’s work into the hearts of many Australians, myself included.

What’s your thoughts on this?

Shane Gehlert

One Comment

  • David Peters says:

    Thanks Shane – an intersting article.

    I just thought I liked the paintings! You are obviously helping me to get in touch with my deepest roots.