Monday, April 25, 2022

How to describe art

There are various terms and phrases used to describe different approaches tp the development of artwork and working from life and subject matter. 

Below are my interpretations of what these mean.

"Working from life" 

Working from life is a practice deeply rooted in artistic traditions - before photography and projectors and other forms of technology were invented. 

It is commonly used to mean working with the subject in front of you whether it's a landscape, an interior, a still life or a person.

No photographs are involved, there is no tracing or projection of the subject. The artist has to sight size the subject and make judgements about values and colours using their eyes and the experience and skills they have developed through working from life. 

Bottom line - it's essentially about:
  • developing your skills by drawing from life a lot and 
  • then trusting your eyes and drawing and painting what is in front of you.
Practice helps enormously with developing skills. A number of artists routinely make a point of keeping sketchbooks and drawing something from life each day

Family Pets make useful subjects as they tend to sit around a lot - waiting to be drawn!
This is a very fast pen and ink sketch of my sadly departed cat Cosmo
It's informed by having drawn him many times before
- so that I know what the key lines which need to be included
(Pen and ink; Katherine Tyrrell)


"Plein Air Painting" 

"en plein air" is a French term. It's frequently used to describe painting from life in the open air and out of doors and away from the studio. Devoted plein air painters keep painting whatever the weather!

Artists Sketching in the White Mountains by Winslow Homer (1836-1910)
1868, oil on panel, 24.1 × 40.3 cm,
Portland Museum of Art

It's also sometimes used as a euphemism for painting nature and the natural world. 

It mainly developed during the nineteenth century. The practice of paintings landscapes 'on the spot' became possible as technology advanced and allowed artists to use tube paint - rather than paint in bladders.

There are 
  • numerous groups of painters devoted to plein air painting around the world - and some periodically host exhibitions.
  • individual painters who make a career and develop a reputation for painting landscapes plein air - and some even record the process on Instagram! (see below)
The sketching equivalent in towns and cities is called "Urban Sketching".

Other references:

The French term plein air means out of doors and refers to the practice of painting entire finished pictures out of doors

Working from life INDOORS

I don't ever recollect coming across a universally accepted term like "plein air painting" to describe artists who paint from life but do so indoors.

It's been one of my regular practices. I specialise in working from life in terms of 
  • drawing my meals and the places I eat in!
  • drawing in art galleries
Lunch in a French Restaurant
Sketchbook drawing at the Hotel Crillon le Brave in Provence
pen and ink and coloured pencils
Katherine Tyrrell


"Life Drawing" 

This term is usually reserved to describe observing and drawing (or sometimes painting) a person or people lying or sitting or standing or moving in front of the artist. 

Life drawing is often identified by artists who work from life as being the artistic equivalent of the scales which musicians practice on a regular basis. Skills in life drawing enhance and underpin a lot of the other skills required to draw and paint from life. 

Life Drawing went out of favour amongst the art establishment and colleges at one point but seems to be experiencing a bit of a revival. It's now possible to google "life drawing" and find a number of local groups and/or classes.

I used to attend a "life class" for drawing a head when I first retired and it was an excellent way of getting my eye to work again which had a beneficial impact on other artwork I did. I ended up setting myself challenges to improve my skills - and one of those (drawing in pen and ink with no outlines or contour lines) is shown below.

This was a drawing I did in pen and ink using hatching strokes only.
I set myself the challenge of drawing the entire head
with ABSOLUTELY NO CONTOUR LINES! 


"Studio works" 

A fairly self-explanatory term frequently used to describe 
  • EITHER artwork which originally started life as a drawing or painting from life. The information in the original study is hugely valuable - but maybe it was not completed or the artist feels they can improve on it and hence continues to work on the subject back in the studio. 
    • Monet for example, when painting Venice, started an enormous number of canvases in Venice in front of the subject - but completed them at Giverny in the studio. 
    • There is no guarantee that an artist who indicates that they work in a studio is actually working from life - they may be working from photographs - hence the second category......
  • OR artwork developed in the studio based on sketches, studies and photographs taken at the site. These should of course be done by the artist doing the studio work.
There are various perspectives on what developing a Studio Art Practice involves. 

Often the nature of the studio itself has an influence and impact on the artwork which is produced in it.



This post is a development of one I first wrote after first starting this blog some 16 years ago! (see note at the end). It's based on "Painting from Life" which I wrote in February 2006 and was one of the first 50 posts on this blog

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