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Journal Prompt: The Formalist Method
Understanding the formalist method helps us to look at art in a new way. Its important to understand the Formalist method of looking at artwork because it will allow us to understand STYLE, the aesthetic values or physical techniques used in making art, and FORM, the way a work of art looks. Use an objective description of what you see; remember, there is no subjective reaction to the artwork involved. Describe what you see using only the artistic elements in the next module well use the artistic principles too. We use this method to look at art that we may know nothing about to form an appreciation of it before we understand the symbols and meaning behind the work.
Use the “Analysis Note cards (click on link) as a resource for this worksheet. They include a list of questions to ask about the elements.
Using the list of questions about the elements of art to guide you, please write a Formalist description of one of the images from this module. Give the title of the artwork and fill-in-the blank with your short sentence for each of the elements. If you do not see that element, say “none present”. You could use a 1-5 scale of the importance of that element or to the work. Do not refer to the subject matter, your perceived meaning of the work, the artist or anything that is NOT VISIBLE IN THE IMAGE ITSELF.
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the notes in the link:
How important is line to this work?
What type of line is here? Thick or thin; continuous or
broken; constant or variable?
Does the line have movement or direction?
What quality does the line have? Delicate or bold?
Does the line create value, texture, shapes, or space?
Is there implied line? Where? How?
What visual effect does the line have? (Does it make the work feel a certain way?)
How important is shape to this work?
What kind of shapes are here? Simple or complex?
Are they organic or inorganic? Geometric or Biomorphic?
How are the shapes created? Line, color, value, texture?
Do the shapes have mass or not? (Weight or form?)
Do the shapes convey a sense of space, or not?
Describe the figure-ground relationship created by the shapes? (Weak or strong?)
What visual effect do the shapes have in this work?
How important is value and light to this work?
How much variation in value is in this work?
Are the values high contrast, or low contrast?
What function do the values play?
Is there a use of chiaroscuro? (Shading to create form and real effect) if so, where is the light source?
Does the local value predominate: or are the values assigned or subjective?
How does light function in this work: from value or color?
What effect does light and value have to this work?
How important is color to this work?
What colors are present? Name them.
Describe the overall color scheme?
Does this artist use a limited palette? Analogous? (Close on color wheel)
Contrasting? (Opposite on the color wheel)
Monochromatic? (all one color) Neutral (browns, grays, black, white)?
Are the colors intense, or muted? (Tint, tone or shade?)
Light or dark? Many or few?
How are the colors distributed? (Which colors are where?)
Are the transitions blended, or hard edged?
Does the work use color for specific effects? How? What effect?
What emotional effect do the colors have on this work?
What importance does surface and texture play in this work?
What kind of surface does this work have?
Are any textures a actual or an illusion?
Does the texture define areas or is it overall?
Is there evidence of the hand? Brushstrokes? What effect does this have?
Is there pattern present in the surface or texture?
How important is space to this work?
Is this work a window or a painting?
Is the work visually flat or the illusion of three dimensions?
What elements does the use to work create space? Line? Value? Color? Perspective?
If the work uses perspective, what kind is it?
Where is the viewer?
Is space defined or ambiguous?
How is the space of the picture plane and the picture frame used?
What effect does the space of this work have?
Is there a sense of equilibrium or stability to the composition?
Is the balance symmetrical, radial, allover pattern or asymmetrical?
Describe the visual weight of the various elements.
Is there a sense of tension or calmness to the composition?
How is the picture plane used to create balance?
How successful is the balance in the work?
Where do your eyes go first? Second? Third?
Are certain elements stronger visually than others? How much stronger?
What are they and how do they work? (Placement, isolation, contrasts?)
Is there a focal point, if so, what is it?
What effect do the controlled elements (placement or other elements) of the composition have?
What kind of relationship do the elements have to each other?
If recognizable objects are present, how is proportion used?
Does the composition appear to use a defined method of proportion?
How big is the actual work, and how does this change the effect?
Does the scale vary within the work?
What effect does this have?
Does the whole predominate over the parts?
What is the visual hierarchy of the piece?
Is the unity visual or intellectual?
How is unity achieved: proximity, repetition, continuation, theme and variation?
How successful is the overall unity of the work?
What emotional or sensory role do the elements and composition play in this work?
Which of the elements are most important to this work?
Why do you think the artist made these choices, what effect were they getting you to feel?
What overall mood or feeling does this work have?
What evidence is there in the elements or composition that explains this feeling?
Is the work successful in using the elements and principals to convey the above?
How does the subject relate to this analysis?
What is your personal response to this work?
Reading: Types of Sculpture and Other Three-Dimensional Media
Sculpture is any artwork made by the manipulation of materials resulting in a three-dimensional object. The sculpted figure of the
Venus of Berekhat Ram
, discovered in the Middle East in 1981, dates to 230,000 years BCE. It is the oldest example of artwork known. The crudely carved stone figure will fit in the palm of your hand. Its name derives from the similarity in form with so-called female fertility figures found throughout Europe, some of which date to 25,000 years ago. For example, the form of theVenus of Willendorfbelow shows remarkable skill in its carving, including arms draped over exaggerated breasts, an extended abdomen and elaborate patterning on the head, indicating either a braided hairstyle or type of woven cap. Just as remarkable, the figure has no facial detail to indicate identity. The meaning behind these figures is difficult to put into context because of the lack of any written record about them or other supporting materials.
Venus of Willendorf,c.25,000 BCE.Natural History Museum, Vienna.Image in the public domain
These earliest images are indicative of most of the cultural record in sculpture for thousands of years; singular figurative objects made within an iconographic context of myth, ritual or ceremony. Its not until the Old Kingdom period of Egyptian sculpture, between 3100 and 2180 BCE, that we start to see sculpture that reflects a resemblance of
Sculpture can befreestanding, or self-supported, where the viewer can walk completely around the work to see it from all sides, or created inrelief,
where the primary forms surface is raised above the surrounding material, such as the image on a coin.Bas-reliefrefers to a shallow extension of the image from its surroundings,high reliefis where the most prominent elements of the composition are undercut and rendered at more than half in the round against the background. Rich, animated bas-relief sculpture exists at the Banteay Srei temple near Angor Wat, Cambodia. Here humans and mythic figures combine in depictions from ancient Hindu stories.
Bas-relief sculpture at the temple Banteay Srei, Angor, Cambodia.
uses the subtractive process to cut away areas from a larger mass, and is the oldest method used for three-dimensional work. Traditionally stone and wood were the most common materials because they were readily available and extremely durable. Contemporary materials include foam, plastics and glass. Using chisels and other sharp tools, artists carve away material until the ultimate form of the work is achieved.
A beautiful example of the carving process is seen in theWater and Moon
from tenth-century China. The Bodhisattva, a Buddhist figure who has attained
but decides to stay on earth to teach others, is exquisitely carved and painted. The figure is almost eight feet high, seated in an elegant pose on a lotus bloom, relaxed, staring straight ahead with a calm, benevolent look. The extended right arm and raised knee create a stable triangular composition. The sculptor carves the left arm to simulate muscle tension inherent when it supports the weight of the body.
In another example, you can see the high degree of relief carved from an original cedar wood block in theEarthquake Mask
from the Pacific Northwest Coast Kwakwaka wakw culture. Its extraordinary for masks to personify a natural event. This and other mythic figure masks are used in ritual and ceremony dances. The broad areas of paint give a heightened sense of character to this mask.
Earthquake Mask, 9 x 7, early twentiethcentury. Kwakwaka wakw culture, North American Pacific Coast. Burke Museum, University of Washington, Seattle. Used by permission.
Wood sculptures by contemporary artist
Ursula von Rydingsvard
are carved, glued and even burned. Many are massive, rough vessel forms that carry the visual evidence of their creation.
Michelangelos masterpiece statue ofDavidfrom 1501 is carved and sanded to an idealized form that the artist releases from the massive block, a testament to human aesthetic brilliance.
Michelangelo,David,1501, marble, 17 feet high.Galleria dellAccademia, Florence.Image in the public domain
2. Casting:The additive method of castinghas been in use for more thanfive thousand years. Its a manufacturingprocess by which a liquid material is usually poured into a mold, which contains a hollow cavity of the desired shape, and then allowed to solidify. One traditional method of bronze casting frequently used today is the
lost wax process
.Casting materials are usually metals but can be variouscold-settingmaterials that cureafter mixing two or more components together; examples are
. Casting is most often used for making complex shapes that would be otherwise difficult or uneconomical to make by other methods. Its a labor-intensive process that allows for the creation of multiples from an original object (similar to the medium of printmaking), each of which is extremely durable and exactly like its predecessor. A mold is usually destroyed after the desired number of castings has been made. Traditionally, bronze statues were placed atop pedestals to signify the importance of the figure depicted. A statue of William Seward (below), the U. S. Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln and who negotiated the purchase of the Alaska territories, is set nearly eight feet high so viewers must look up at him. Standing next to the globe, he holds a roll of plans in his left hand.
Richard Brooks,William Seward,bronze on stone pedestal, c. 1909. Image by Christopher Gildow. Used with permission.
More contemporary bronze cast sculptures reflect their subjects through different cultural perspectives. The statue of rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix is set on the ground, his figure cast as if performing on stage. Hes on both of his knees, head thrown back, eyes shut and mouth open in mid wail. His bell-bottom pants, frilly shirt unbuttoned halfway, necklace and headband give us a snapshot of 1960s rock culture but also engage us with the subject at our level.
Daryl Smith,Jimi Hendrix, 1996, bronze. Broadway and Pine, Seattle.Image by Christopher Gildow. Used with permission.
Doris Chasewas also a strong sculptor. Her large-scale abstract workChanging Formfrom 1971
is cast in bronze and dominates the area around it. The title refers to the visual experience you get walking around the work, seeing the positive and negative shapes dissolve and recombine with each other.
Doris Chase,Changing Form,1971. Bronze.Image by Christopher Gildow. Used with permission.
is a method that can be both additive and subtractive. The artist uses modeling to build up form with clay, plaster or other soft material that can be pushed, pulled, pinched or poured into place. The material then hardens into the finished work. Larger sculptures created with this method make use of anarmature, an underlying structure of wire that sets the physical shape of the work. Although modeling is primarily an additive process, artists do remove material in the process. Modeling a form is often a preliminary step in the casting method. In 2010, Swiss artist Alberto Giacomettis
(c. 1955), a bronze sculpture first modeled in clay, set a
for the highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction.
4. Construction, or Assemblage, uses found, manufactured or altered objects to build form. Artists weld, glue, bolt and wire individual pieces together. Sculptor Debra Butterfield transforms throw away objects into abstract sculptures of
with scrap metal, wood and other found objects. She often casts these constructions in bronze.
used cut and shaped pieces of wood, gluing and nailing them together to form fantastic, complex compositions. Painted in a single tone, (usually black or white), her sculptures are graphic, textural faades of shapes, patterns, and shadow.
Traditional African masks often combine different materials. The elaborate
from Mali uses wood, fibers, animal hide and pigment to construct an other worldly visage that changes from human to animal and back again.
Some modern and contemporary sculptures incorporate movement, light and sound.Kineticsculptures use ambient air currents or motors allowing them to move, changing in form as the viewer stands in place. The artist Alexander Calder is famous for his
, whimsical, abstract
works that are intricately balanced to move at the slightest wisp of air, while the sculptures of Jean Tinguely are contraption-like and, similar to Nevelsons and Butterfields works, constructed of scraps often found in garbage dumps. His
works exhibit a mechanical aesthetic as they whir, rock and generate noises. Tinguelys most famous work,
Homage to New York
, ran in the sculpture garden at New Yorks Museum of Modern Art in 1960 as part of a performance by the artist. After several minutes, the workexplodedand caught fire.
The idea of generating sound as part of three-dimensional works has been utilized for hundreds of years, traditionally in musical instruments that carry aspiritualreference. Contemporary artists use sound to heighten the effect of sculpture or to direct recorded narratives. The cast bronze fountain by George Tsutakawa (below) uses water flow to produce a soft rushing sound. In this instance the sculpture also attracts the viewer by the motion of the water: a clear, fluid addition to an otherwise hard abstract surface.
George Tsutakawa,Fountain. Bronze, running water.City of Seattle.Image by Christopher Gildow. Used with permission.