Monthly Archives: August 2013

Aristotle’s Emphatic Dramatic Values

Nail Fence

When I was in college we learned about art criticism using these five emphatic dramatic values, interpreted from Aristotle’s writing in his Poetics, where he discussed poetry, theater, and music. He wrote of six values, including one called  “melos” or melody relating to the Chorus that was so important a part of Ancient Greek Theater.

His belief was that art works contained all of the values in different degrees of balance, but that especially for Tragedy Plot was most important followed by Character. He placed Spectacle at the end of the list. Rather than assign a judgement to the relative importance of each Value, I prefer to use them as tools that help me to understand a work as a whole, including defining genre. It is how the Values interact that ends up defining the worth of an undertaking or project.

In looking at each of these values, rather like the Elements of Design, it’s useful to consider the Principles of Design in reference to them –  Balance, Unity, Progression, Symmetry, Contrast, Harmony, Dominance, Repetition. Each can apply within a value, as well as how the values relate to each other.

In no particular order the Values are:

  • Spectacle
  • Plot
  • Language
  • Character
  • Theme

Dramatic values poster

The Values are so interesting to use for dissecting and understanding all kinds of works of art – and they work especially well when examining or critquing film.

Under the banner of spectacle – the visceral enjoyment of action, the art direction, the emotional sweep of music.

The plot or story – how the narrative engages us, perhaps surprises. Twists and turns, or a logical progression.

Language – how words are used. Simple or rich and melodic. The importance of dialect. How language reflects time as well as place. Poets focus on this value. Shakespeare emphasized language, by intentionally using Iambic Pentameter. 

Character – the participants of the story, their motives, their history, their interactions. How we identify with them, or not. Portrait painters investigate character.

Theme – the meaning and importance of a piece. The moral of the story, or the absence of a moral.

The Values as Inspiration

As an artist moving forward with intentional design, it is just as important to be aware of the Values as it is to be aware of the Elements of Design. Much of this is obvious in considering screenwriting – but there are equivalents in all kinds of artistic endeavor. For example, consider the “Grammar of Ornament” by Owen Jones –  elucidating the language of visual design.

Sometimes the values are easier to see in failure. I’m sure we are all familiar with a movie that is all spectacle (eg special fx) without much substance or story, or books where the author is so involved with his own use of esoteric language that the characters are unknowable.

Personally I don’t enjoy atonal music. It seems to me it all about using the stripped back language of music, with mathematical precision as the overriding theme, at the expense of the spectacle of an emotional range or any story. It doesn’t take me anywhere, but I know other people love it.

Sometimes a piece isn’t working out, but we can’t put our finger on what’s wrong. Examining the Emphatic Values might winkle out the problem.

In planning your project, you can list the Values and plan how you will realize each, as well as determine the emphasis of each one.

  • How will you incorporate or show each Value?
  • How will this affect the other four values?
  • Will this make the piece feel unbalanced?
  • Is it worth it for the pay off for the audience/reader anyway?

Here’s an exercise:

Take a simple, familiar personal story, such as a family memory or recent event. Maybe it’s the same old story that your Uncle trots out at every Thanksgiving dinner that starts with “Remember when…” Maybe it’s a story that you haven’t thought to retell – how you met your beloved, or how you chose your pet, or the time when something different happened at a familiar place.

What happened? Consider how it might be told with each of the Values emphasized, and played with. If you normally tell it in straightforward prose, try turning it into poetry, or a series of single emotive words. Draw it, collage it. What if it were told like an action sequence in a movie? what if the setting were described or illustrated in great detail? What if it were seen as illuminating the character of each participant in turn? If you were to set each moment to music, what would you choose? Now choose something entirely different. Instead of telling the story, show how the story illuminates your family values or philosophy.

It’s not a short exercise, is it? But it could be a valuable one. You might come out with any number of different art or written pieces just from one event. You might gain new insights to your own reactions, or to how other people might be experiencing the same event.

Let me know in the comments if any of you choose to take this on. I’d love to see the results. Remember to follow me on Twitter!

Aesthetic Preference – Art Deco Industrial Chic

Art Deco carved Penobscot facade

Ooh this is one of my personal favorite Aesthetic Preferences! I find it appealing on so many levels – partly because of where it leads visually (to Steam Punk especially in one direction, and Craftsman in the other) and partly because of the places where it is found – those wonderful glamorous movies, books, theater and retro magazines. I like clean lines and simplicity, but I also like curves.

Here’s how I describe it on my Etsy Treasury:

Geometry, repetition, symmetry, Fred and Ginger, high contrast, the Chrysler Building, Erte, clean lines, metals, hard edges, Ayn Rand, “Metropolis”, Poirot, the Nile, luxury train travel.

To this I would add the Pyramids and Scarabs, 1930’s Vogue magazines still lush with fashion illustration, and some of that hard edges, three color screen printing that transformed so dangerously into totalitarian propaganda. (That’s where I stop liking it.)

Cunard Line Poster

Of course I was imagining “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile”. Add “Hugo” for the clockpunk end, and never forget Busby Berkeley and all the theatricality of “Gold Diggers of 1933” and the harder edged “42nd Street. Had it softened by the time “Casablanca” added Moroccan lushness?

Thoroughly Modern Millie movie still

Julie Andrews in “Thoroughly Modern Millie”.

You can see still it in Gary Cooper’s ties in “The Fountainhead”. You can enjoy it on the roof of spook central in “Ghostbusters”. “The Great Gatsby” – both the movies, and the book. For a very light take try “Thoroughly Modern Millie”. For the dark side try Fritz Lang. “Metropolis” is his most famous, but his work includes “M” a film noir classic.

In no other style or time period are the architectural forms so clearly influential in jewelry design.

So many of those wonderful buildings are lurking in New York, but Los Angeles has a surprising number of them downtown – the old Wiltern Theater on Wilshire is one example. You can see many examples on my Pinterest board.

In terms of design Elements, Art Deco Industrial uses line to create simplified shapes and moves away from the uneven abstracted leaves and flowers of Art Nouveau nature forms (that’s coming, never fear). The Principles it embodies include high contrast (High Major Tonal Schemes), repetition and symmetry. (This is coming too.)

Using Art Deco Industrial Chic

As a style of decor, it can be quite easy to incorporate into many modern homes, by the use of painter’s tape and paint. Try a little Trompe L’oeil and create some faux molding with painted shadows. Chevrons, so popular right now, are an offshoot of it.

 

 

Winged Circle from Egypt

Collect vintage posters and frame them simply, or incorporate a bit of Egyptian into your decor like my late mother-in-law did with her black and white striped mirror frames.

Egyptian applique scarab

Art Deco definitely lends itself to stencils. Try layering – start with a light grey or silver paint over white, then offset the same stencil again in black.

Silhouettes, that work so well with romantic styles, look great in an Art Deco situation, with simple black and silver frames or perhaps with a fan shape in the background.

I like it because it is so easy to incorporate actual and reproduction vintage with very simple modernism and the clean lines of Mid-century Modern furniture – although I would be cautious with the textile prints and textures from that period and let Art Deco textile designs create my drapes and pillows.

Is this one your favorite too?

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Element of Design – Texture

Encrusted beading on art doll

Texture is a tactile experience, or the visual illusion of a tactile experience. Texture is characterized by changes in the surface, or the apparent absence of changes in the surface. Texture is about adding interest and the sense of layers, so that we wonder what lies beneath that so interesting surface.

Texture functions emotionally to generate desire – you want to touch and feel – or to repulse – something is scary, dangerous or uncomfortable. It’s not that it tastes bad, it’s that the texture is unpleasant in the mouth.

Texture is a continuum, from smooth or shiny through to rough. It is partly defined by how much friction it would generate. .

To paraphrase Horatio GreenoughTexture follows function. In nature it’s all about surface area in a limited volume – bumps, pores, folded shapes. Think of villi in the intestines, the surface of a tongue, spines or scales, the shape of pine needles, fur to capture and hold heat.

Human design also uses texture for surface area, to generate or eliminate friction, for practicality. Think of knitwear (“warm and fuzzy”), rugs and home insulation, the old “cottage cheese” ceilings, aerodynamics in aircraft and cars.

Flip Doll

Texture becomes more important when other Elements of Design are simplified – a monochromatic color scheme for example, or when simple shapes are repeated. Texture can add the sensation of depth.

Monochrome heritage layout

Texture in Art – Texture as Illusion

In visual art there is the implied visual texture within the images. Think of old masters painting the lush velvets, encrusted embroideries, glowing skin of their royal patrons. But brush strokes – the mechanism of the art – were hidden and minimized as much as possible.

Then came the explosion of Impressionism and later Expressionism, making texture serve an emotional meaning. Then with the rise of Modernism, Texture became a primary element. The qualities of the paint itself, no doubt influenced by the invention of new paints including fast drying acrylics and the new acrylic “oils” – are revealed by intentional brushstrokes. The art increasingly shows the artist’s hand and thought processes as more important than whatever the subject of the painting might be.

Here’s my little bit of controversy – because I don’t care for the Wikipedia definition of Abstract Art. I’m recalling instead discussions of art theory we students used to enjoy back when I was in college.

I prefer the definition that Abstract art is taking a personal point of view, personal vision of a subject away from realism to find the soul or express an attitude about that subject. The subject can become abstracted to the point of being totally unrecognizable, reduced to geometry or just color and texture.

Non-subjective modernism, often misnamed as “abstract art” embraces the qualities of medium entirely. It is about the paint, the texture, the color – without narrative content (supposedly). Ah humans – we tend to want to construct stories and make connections no matter how much the choreographer says “don’t feel, just count”.

Think of sculpture which for thousands of years has been about manipulating a hard, dense material to create the sensation of soft, pliable surfaces. In recent times, artists making soft sculptures have used fabrics and flexible materials to visualize the opposite.

Rolled and inked paper roses

Surprises

Sometimes the visual appearance belies the texture and the viewer gets a surprise on touching the object. Or distance mystifies the amount of texture in a surface. Think of electron microscopy revealing the unseen textures of surfaces beyond our imagination. The smooth steel of a knife blade revealed as pitted and layered as a rocky sandstone. Here is the fractal universe displayed.

Texture might be a function of randomness – spraying, splattering, combing, cross hatching.

Jayn at Hearst Castle

Photo Credit: James Coburn

Texture in Music

When I think of texture as it applies to music, I think of layering of instruments and the repetition of motifs or phrases with different instruments. Perhaps resonance is an equivalent of texture, or vibrato in a voice. Anything that adds interest and depth to the music might be termed adding texture.

In Writing

I like to think of texture in writing as creating a sensory experience with the words. Texture might be filling in visual background detail (but not so much that it detracts from the progression of the story) or imbuing minor characters with different voices or quirks. It is a way of adding interest.

It also might be created through manipulating word sounds – so that it is revealed viscerally through reading aloud. Read “Harry Potter” aloud, or indeed any of J.K. Rowling’s work aloud. It changes the experience. The addition or absence of sibilance, the repetition of certain sounds or words, the cadence of dialects revealed – that is texture at work.

Creating Texture

Sometimes texture is inherent in the material like marble countertops, granite building blocks, woodgrain, or honey comb candy. If not, and it is desired for interest and depth, then it must be added.

The illusion of texture can be created with lines, including cross hatching, shapes and repetition, and shadowing or shading. I have created the illusion of texture with lighting – using gobos and angles to cast shadows.

Multiple textures actual and implied

Actual texture can be created by adding material, removing material (think carving or burn out lace) or manipulating material, either in the construction process (like crochet or tatting, weaving or impressing into clay) or with a finished base (like ironing in pleats, gathering or folding).

Layout using textures and vintage photo

Texture added with pleated paper, crumpling and sequin embellishments to the sense of texture created by the differently scaled prints.

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Retrospective and Prospective

Suzani embroidery Collage Sheet Image

I’m taking a break this week from a new Creativity Blast. I will be sending out a new topic again next Monday. Upcoming Blasts will include more Elements of Design, and starting on Principles of Design, as well as more aesthetic preferences, finding your “gateway” art form, and more ideas for overcoming blocks and jump starting your creative process.

In the mean time, please revisit old posts which now have all the corresponding tweets attached at the end, and enjoy reading some of my older articles under the Robyn’s Writing tab.

Here are a couple more creativity quotes for you to enjoy:

 “Talking endlessly about something instead of doing it depletes you of the drive to get it done.” ~ Milli Thornton, Write Your Screenplay in 29 Days

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” ~ Richard Bach

“Every artist was first an amateur” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities” ~ Dr. Seuss

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” ~ Thomas A. Edison 

I’ve been asked to address some color theory, which I love so much I’ve been saving it. Color is the foundation of so much of my work in theater – costuming, lighting – and for my dolls and mixed media art. It’s a huge topic as an Element of Design, and will surely take more than one Creativity Blast to attack – and think of the fun activities. Any way – it’s coming soon.

If you have any Creativity questions or topics you would like me to write about, please let me know in the comments. Honestly the vast majority of the comments I receive are spam, so it would be nice to get some real comments every now and then.