A New Easel and New Paintings

I just posted this on Facebook so I thought I would show it here as well.  I designed a stationary easel and my friend Eric built it for me. I still use a portable easel sometimes but like to have a simple and efficient wall easel that slides up and down very easily, esp for larger paintings – metal is just better than wood for that. Its the best easel I have ever used.  If anyone would like one he told me he would could make more and he would charge $400, you would also have to pay for shipping of course.  Here is a picture of the easel:

eric's easel










Also, click on the word ‘Paintings’ below and take a peek at some of my newer paintings that I just posted on my website:




Into the Light

I have been teaching and preaching about the secrets of the Old Masters for many years now and the principles of light and color that were common knowledge for centuries.  These basic concepts about how to put together a painting have been lost in the last century or more and are, in my opinion, the most valuable information I teach in my workshops.  It is simple and intuitively obvious stuff really, but most of us have been taught to paint in ways that are in total opposition to how great painters approached their compositions for centuries; from Van Eyck to Van Gogh.  We are often told to start the painting dark and add the light, mix colors, don’t use brown or black pigments, use a limited palette, paint over things instead of around them.  Rembrandt, who had less than 20 colors available to him, would have been both amazed to see what paints and mediums we have available to us now, and dazed and confused to witness the way in which many of us have been told to use them.  Where and how did it all get turned around?  Well, that is a story for another time.  For now, let me briefly walk you through the 7 principles of light and color that I discovered were common knowledge for the great painters of the past.

Before I do that I will add the caveat that of course none of this means that there is a right or wrong way to paint.  Choosing to ignore some of these principles for aesthetic reasons is more than OK, great painters do it all the time.  But that is the rub, having the knowledge to make those choices deliberately.  Galleries and art shows are full of paintings that are dark, dull and muddy looking and many artists end up frustrated with their results simply because of a lack of understanding of the effects of their choices.   The idea is that if you understand how to make your colors as vibrant and luminous as possible, choosing to ignore those guidelines for creative purposes if you need duller or darker effects is a simple matter – this also means you have greater flexibility and creative or expressive freedom.  I would never even want to call them ‘rules’, but as the expression goes:  Rules are made to be broken, its just helps to know what they are.  So…

…here they are:

  1. Paint on a bright white, smooth ground
  2. Use the best quality paints and only single pigment colors
  3. Use colors straight from the tube without mixing
  4. Keep your under paintings and glazes light
  5. Use glossy mediums instead of matte mediums or water for acrylics, and solvent for oils, to thin colors
  6. Use transparent instead of opaque pigments to make tints, glazes and veils
  7. Paint around things, not over them

If you choose to ignore these principles your paintings will be darker and duller looking, and the effects are cumulative as you overlook increasing numbers of them.

I did some simple landscape paintings to illustrate the effects of following these guidelines of light and color so you can see how they may affect your compositions.  In all the paintings I used the same amount of paint and the exact same techniques.  Note that the painting on the left in all the examples is the same one, in it, all 7 guidelines are adhered to.

These two paintings illustrate the difference between using good quality single pigment colors vs cheap paint.

These two paintings illustrate the difference between using good quality single pigment colors vs cheap (inexpensive) paint.







3.  pure color vs mixing colors

The third guideline: Single pigment colors straight from the tube vs a limited palette approach of mixing colors.

 painting around vs painting over

Number 7: painting around vs painting over top







5.  dark bumpy ground, cheap paint, mixing colors, painting over

This is the cumulative effect of disregarding all of the 7 principles of luminosity and vibrant or intense color.









In sharing the kind of things I was keen to learn as a young painter I hope to help other artists become better painters so their endeavors are more enjoyable and rewarding.

If you want more detailed information about the 7 principles of light and color you can attend one of my workshops and of course check out the other articles on my blog and in the Technical Q&A section of my website.  I am teaching one more workshop in Whiterock this spring at the end of this month for the Federation of Canadian Artists.

Is it Done Yet?

…”A common malady among artists is we sometimes don’t know when to quit. Consequently we can ruin a good painting by overworking it or by leaving it too soon. There’s a fine line there somewhere and it’s hard to know when you’ve crossed it.” Lesley White

How do you know when a painting is finished?  This is a question that gets asked a lot.  It is one of the most common questions I am asked by painters that come to my workshops.  Sometimes people who just appreciate and enjoy art are curious to know how an artist decides when they have completed the painting.   Is there a formula or process that enables you to know when it is time to put down the brush?

There is no simple, one size fits all, response or solution of course.   Obviously the better and more experienced painters have a better time of it.  Still, paintings don’t always turn out the way you might want, or expect them to.  It is an issue that many experienced artists struggle with as well; Leonardo Da Vinci and Rembrandt come to mind.

I realized some time ago that I am one of the fortunate artists that has very little trouble knowing when to sign off, pun intended, on a composition.  I think it is partly because of my personality, and also because of my painting style.  I have a clear idea of what the painting will look like when it is completed and because I paint in layers using specific techniques to create various effects, I simply put the painting together by following the sequence of layers I know will get me the result I imagine.  Sounds easy.  I also don’t have a problem with decisiveness, or self doubt, when it comes to may art and my career.  I think that helps.

When I am doing a painting demo, or when someone sees one of my paintings unfinished, they sometimes remark that they think it looks perfect the way it is, that it is done.  Mostly though, they stare at the strange looking underpainting and can’t imagine how I could manage to make a decent painting out of it.  The point here is that no one can tell you when the painting is done, its between you and the painting to sort it out.  In any case, it is rare that I get stumped and have trouble finishing a painting.  I do have a couple of those rare examples to share however.

These two paintings represent the spectacular scenery in Mt Assinboine park.  In the first one, which is an oil painting, I had completed what could have been the last sitting, except I knew it was not finished. I was just not sure what I wanted to do next so I decided to let it sit for a few weeks until the idea struck me.  That is what most often happens, I let it rest and move onto other things until one day it hits me and I know what it needs.  In this case it was a red glaze over the entire painting that I could paint into while it was wet to create more warmth, and intensity.

assiniboine in the am, with more red 24x36 op assiniboine in the morning 24x36 op

In this next acrylic painting, I thought it might be finished but I felt that there was something array.  With this one I wanted to sit and look at it for a while over a period of time until the issue revealed itself to me so I hung it in our living room so I could have regular, and extended viewing sessions.  The changes are a bit more subtle here but important nonetheless.  I cooled down the beige moraine in the mid ground shadow area by adding a blue veil over it and I punched up the highlights and dark contours on the mountain.  I wasn’t happy with the rock reflections in the foreground, so I spent some time working on that area as well.

...(assiniboine) 36x48 ac without the french horn (assiniboine) 36x48 ac


I will end with a few choice quotes from various artists that address this very issue.  Some are philosophical, some more practical, and some are just funny.

…a piece is finished when the master has achieved his intention in it”  Rembrandt

“A painting is complete when it has the shadows of a god.”  Rembrandt

“Every great painting is left incomplete at the point where its completion is obvious”  Robert Brault

“The painting is always finished before the artist thinks it is”  Harley Brown

“One always has to spoil a picture a little bit in order to finish it.”  Eugene Delacroix

“The best way to finish a painting is to start a new one.”  Silvio Gagnon

“That’s the terrible thing: the more one works on a picture, the more impossible it becomes to finish it.”  Alberto Giancometti

“…letting well enough alone – which is the rule for grown artists only.” Winslow Homer

“Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.” Hennry Wadsworth Longfellow

“While adding the finishing touches to a painting might appear insignificant, it is much harder to do than one might suppose…” Claude Monet

“I’m never finished with my paintings; the further I get, the more I seek the impossible and the more powerless I feel.” Claude Monet

“The strength and clarity of the picture you envision at the start will tell you when you are done. You are finished when you have said what you wish to say, when nothing added can make it better.” Richard Schmid

“The minute you finish a piece, get rid of it! If it’s bad, it’ll drag you down, if it’s great, you’ll just sit there looking at it.”  Unknown

“When a thing is not worth overdoing, leave it alone!”  Henry S Haskins

“I’m finished when I can’t stand it anymore.” Ron Mosma

Investing in Art,… Supplies

When I was starting out as a full time artist all those years ago, another more experienced painter advised me to invest in art supplies.  After he explained what he meant, it made good sense, in fact, I thought his idea was brilliant.  When I have the opportunity, I buy extra art supplies at significant discounts.  With the bulk discounts on purchases over a certain amount, plus the hedge against inflation (a tube of paint sells for a lot more now than it did 20 years ago).  That all adds up to a massive return on your investment.  I have saved well over 50% on my ‘investment’ art supply purchases over the years.  I have never made anything close to those gains in the investment markets.   Remember to that every dollar saved is a dollar, plus tax, saved.  Because too we are taxed at a minimum rate of 25% on our incomes, you have to earn at least $125 to have $100 left to spend.

I was looking for a specific oil paint color in my collection the other day and I came across these tubes of paints that I have had for about 40 years now.  I switched from using acrylics to oils as a young teenager and one day I was out shopping with my mother when we came across a liquidation sale on oil paints.  You had to buy the whole lot.  My mother asked me if it was a good price, I said yes and she immediately bought them for me.  She understood, managing a household with 8 children on a very tight budget, the importance of saving when you can.

old paint

old paint










I also advise workshop participants and members of artist organizations and painter’s guilds to purchase art supplies in large quantities and split them among the members.  By buying a gallon of Fluid Acrylic paint for example, and splitting it among 10 people, they will save more than 1/2 the cost of buying a 4oz bottle of the same color individually.  The same applies to painting mediums and other products.  Getting together with a couple of painter friends and making your own painting panels will mean you can paint on a very permanent surface that will cost you only a couple of dollars per panel.  I wrote a blog about that recently.  See my notes on how to make your own painting panels on the Technical Q&A page of my website.

I ship my paintings all over the country and I got a membership with a shipping broker company (shiptime) several years ago and that saves me hundreds of dollars a year.   I also like to buy art supplies on Ebay once in a while.  I look for lots of paints or brushes.  Sites like Craigslist and Kijiji are also worth browsing for deals.  Here is a stunning example of savings.  I bought 36 jars of 8 oz Golden paints on Ebay, that’s 4 regular 2oz tubes, for $70 + shipping.

what a deal!

what a deal!

At approximately $27 + tax for a tube of Cadmium Red,…  do that math on that one!  Granted, not a lot of painters are going to use that much paint, and I will die with left over paint in my studio.  Still, you can always split it with friends, or resell!  I was talking to a painter friend last week about getting deals on paint supplies and we took a look on Ebay, I had not been to my search page for a while.  I spotted a lot of expensive hand made oil paints that I have been waiting to find a deal on for years, and there they were,… that tube with the orange label you see in the basket behind the jar of paint in the picture is one of them.  Shopping can also be dangerous,…

Artists are always looking for ways to make more money selling their art, often pricing their work out of range of the market as a result.  As painters, we are fortunate because our overhead costs are quite low compared to most businesses.  Still, it is a good idea to heed the advise of experienced and successful business owners that recommend that it is just as worthwhile to ‘increase your profits’ on the purchasing end by looking for savings on fixed expenses – those items that you will always need to spend money on to produce your product.  Don’t forget too to take advantage of all the income tax deductions available to you as full time, or part time painter.

I will be doing another one of my business talks at the FCA Gallery on Granville Island in Vancouver on the same weekend as my workshop in May.  In the meantime, here are two paintings, one acrylic and one oil, that were done with significant cost savings on supplies.

aspens in the way 24x36 op

aspens in the way 24×36 op

finally spring weather 48x16 ap+

finally spring weather 48×16 ap+

FAQ’s (technical) Greatest Hits

As some of you are no doubt aware, I spent many years studying materials and techniques of painting, particularly the methods of the so called ‘Old Masters’.  I have dedicated myself to teaching, writing, and doing presentations on the topic to help artists become better at mastering what I call ‘the craft of painting’ – the kind of stuff I was so keen to learn about when I started out as a young painter.  Basic stuff really, thinks like:  Why are there 3 kinds of blacks and two kinds of whites, and what are the differences; what is the difference between turpentine and mineral spirits; what does ‘fat over lean’ refer to; why are some brushes cheap and others really expensive; what is a glaze and a veil; why, when, and how do you varnish a painting, and so on.

I have also been writing a technical Q&A article for the Federation of Canadian Artists (FCA) magazine where I answer these kinds of questions from painters.  I have just submitted a compilation of the most frequently asked questions (FAQ) from over 15 years for the next edition of the magazine.  There is a lot of misinformation and down right mythology about the basic physical and chemical properties of the painter’s methods and materials going around out there since the decline of the Master/Apprentice studio system of old.  As a result, there are a lot of paintings that have been produced in recent times that will not look very good a couple of generations from now.  I hope my contributions can help to steer that ship back on course.








Since many of my artist friends and followers are not members of the FCA I thought it would be valuable to reprint that article here.  For more detailed information on these topics, visit the Technical Q&A page on my website (davidlangevin.com).


FAQ – Technical Q’s Compilation

After many years of writing these technical Q&A articles, as well as doing countless presentations and workshops on ‘the craft of painting’, I thought it would be a good idea to review the most frequently asked questions (FAQ).  My goal has always been to help people become better painters, more skilled and knowledgeable about how to use the tools of the artist’s craft to create art that will last for generations.

Q:  What is the best support for paintings?

A:  Overall, untempered hardboard is the most permanent and economical support for oils, acrylics, and mixed media. Acrylics will remain flexible indefinitely so just about any surface they will adhere to that is permanent is OK.  They are sensitive to acidic elements so sizing a support made of wood for example, is important.  Oils become more hard and brittle with age so prefer a non flexible support like hardboard. Unlike acrylics, oil paints are acidic so supports like canvas need to be protected from coming into contact with them.  You can prepare canvas to be more stable and less flexible for oil painting.  Go to “Supports’ in the Technical Q&A section on my site for instructions on how to prepare hardboard for use with any media, and canvas for oil painting.

Q:  Is commercial primer or house paint from the hardware store suitable as a ground instead of gesso?

A:  These products are not made for permanent painting applications. They would be OK to use for beginners and practicing.

Q:  Can I use gesso to cover an old painting before painting over it?

A:  Not if you want it to last, esp if it is an oil painting. If you are not concerned about permanence then you can paint over it with white paint, not gesso, and start a new painting.  Gesso will not stick to paint, it is a ground (primer), and has very little adhesive strength.

Q:  Can I paint oils over acrylics?

A:  Yes, oils will stick well to acrylics, but not vise versa. I would suggest this practice be done on a rigid support (see above).

Q:  Is it OK to dilute my oil paints with solvent and my acrylics with water?

A:  Oils and acrylics are ‘body’ paints so unlike water media paints they are designed to be used thick and rich in texture. Diluting them with solvent (oils) and water (acrylics) will make the colors dull and the paint film weak and unstable.

Q:  Is a mixture of linseed oil and solvent a good medium to mix with oil paints?

A:  No, modern oil paints already have too much oil in them and tend to yellow and wrinkle with age, adding more oil compounds this problem. Traditionally, oil paint was made of a mixture of drying oil and resin.   Use a good quality alkyd resin medium instead to mix with your paint.

Q:  Can you explain the ‘Fat Over Lean’ principle in oil painting?

A:  Briefly, it recommends that you not paint a fast drying color over a slow dryer. Also, a color with high oil content (fat) should be painted over a pigment with low oil content (lean) for better adhesion, and not the other way around.

Q:  Is it safe to mix different brands of paint?

A:  Yes, as long as they are of the same quality. Mixing low grade inexpensive paint with good quality professional colors will yield unstable results.

Q:  Is there a technical reason to not use black paint?

A:  No. It is interesting to note however that for hundreds of years great painters avoided mixing colors until the advent of the color wheel and the theories that have been built up around it.  Any mixture of two or more colors will always be duller and less vibrant than a single pigment color, including black.

Q:  Why are some brushes so expensive? Is it important to use good brushes” 

A:  There is no technical reason to spend extra money on good brushes but from an artistic point of view good quality brushes will give you much more flexibility and control in oils and water media paints. This is not the case with acrylics because of the nature of the paint and so cheap brushes tend to work fairly well.

Q:  Can all the different acrylic mediums be mixed together?

A:  Yes, with one reservation; it is not a good idea to use an abundance of hard mediums like molding paste and pumice gel on flexible supports as they are more likely to crack.

Q:  Are oil paints more toxic than acrylics or watercolor paints?

A:  No, they are all equally toxic. The pigment (color) is the toxic ingredient, not the binder/medium.  Treat them all with care.  Some people are sensitive the the volatile solvents given off by oil paints.

 Q:  Acrylic paints are relatively new, are they permanent?

A:  Yes, they are very durable and stable and accelerated aging tests show that they will last for centuries under normal conditions.

Q:  Should paintings be varnished?

A:  It is a good idea to varnish your oil and acrylic paintings so that they can be cleaned without damaging the painted surface. The best picture varnishes are acrylic solution varnishes.  Acrylic paintings need two layers of varnish:  an ‘isolation’ coat, then the final picture varnish.  Wait at least 3 months, depending on the thickness of the paint, before varnishing oil paintings.









New Paintings

I just shipped out a collection of new paintings, some are going to the Artym Gallery, the rest are going to La Galerie D’Art au P’tit Bonheur in Quebec.  You can click on the gallery links to view the paintings as soon as the images are uploaded to the sites.

Here is a sneak preview of some of the paintings I have been working on recently, including a collection of oil paintings.  These will not be ready to ship for a while.

the way in to assiniboine 24x36 op

the way in to assiniboine 24×36 op

I'll take the low trail 36x36 op


These two oil paintings are from a hiking trip at Assiniboine park I did with my friend Doug Smith a couple of summers ago.  Its fun to do these paintings at this time of year, makes me look forward to summer and some more spectacular hiking adventures.





make up your mind 24x36 op

make up your mind 24×36 op


This is another oil painting that I completed over several months and five different sittings.  It took a while for this one to come together.  More on that in another blog.




Of course I did a couple of tree portraits as well.  The titles allude to the feeling of spring in the air.  The one on the left is going to the Artym gallery, the other one to Galerie D’Art au P’tit Bonheur.

are you guys getting ready to bud 48x16 ap+

are you guys getting ready to bud 48×16 ap+

its almost over 36x12 ap+

its almost over 36×12 ap+











For those of you still hanging on to winter, weather (pun) you want to or not, here is one with lots of snow.

you're blocking the way 30x30p

you’re blocking the way 30x30p

Click on the ‘Paintings’ page on my website to see the new paintings, including these one, that I have recently uploaded.


2016 Calendar update

I have finalized the dates on my events calendar and it looks like I am doing more workshops than usual this year.  I may even do one more next fall, perhaps right here in Kamloops.  I will also be doing another presentation on the art of business in Vancouver in the spring.  I look forward to getting to know the many wonderful people in the workshops, it is always a treat for me to connect with other artists.

I am also doing a different kind of event in Calgary next October at the Stephen Lowe Gallery.  They are hosting a dinner gala evening at the Bow Valley Club in downtown Calgary with Cameron Bird and myself doing presentations/talks on our art careers.  I think I may do a picture presentation of some of my hiking adventures and paintings that came out of them.  This will be lots of fun.  We will also have a show at the gallery with a collection of new paintings.  In fact, I have just completed a couple of Rocky Mountain scenes in oil that I will likely put in that show.

I hope you all have a very fulfilling year.

Click on the link below and follow the links to the hosting organization’s websites for more detailed information about the workshops and presentations.

Events Calendar

I Want to be Liked!

I think my art career would have started earlier if I wasn’t so hung up on people liking me, and my art.  I suppose I could go on about the impact of my childhood experiences but for now I will simply say that like a lot of artists starting out I would have been happy to have my work represented in just about any gallery that would have me.  I brought my portfolio around to different galleries and got turned away several times, as is normal.

I remember having an appointment with a gallery in Montreal and I sat there surrounded by some of my paintings for at least an hour while the owner did everything but acknowledge my presence.  I am sure that she was hoping I would just leave, but I am persistent when I have a goal.  She finally stopped in front of me, took a quick glance at my work simply said, “J’aime pas ca”  (I don’t like that), and walked off.  Ugh.

Then it all changed, or more precisely, I changed.  I had moved out the BC to focus on painting landscapes and establishing my career as a full time artist.  I also decided that I would only do business with people that I liked and respected.  I turned the tables, I went out and interviewed galleries to see if I was impressed enough to want to start a relationship with them.  That was it after all.  I realized that for me, in business, like in life, its all about relationships in the end, and I only wanted to be close to people that I could trust and that were supportive of me and my endeavors.  That has made all the difference.  I have very rewarding relationships with all the galleries I do business with.

Speaking of wanting to be ‘liked’, I have finally joined the social media network, I’m on Facebook.  I say finally because after years of people telling me I should get on the network I did end up creating a personal FB page, but only because I needed to have an account so that I could be an administrator on my band’s page.  I let my own page sit dormant for a long time until some recent conversations convinced me that it might be worthwhile.  Understand, I don’t even use a cell phone.  I know there is Twitter and Instagram and others things I have never heard of, I just don’t have the time for all that.

I am actually enjoying the Facebook experience for the most part.  I still don’t understand some of what is happening on there but I get to check in on friends and acquaintances and fellow artists that I would normally only touch base with once or twice a year.  They are all my ‘friends’ of course.  Its fun.  I also set up a Facebook page just for my art and I am told that it would be good to have lots of people ‘like’ my page.  So come on over to my Facebook page and ‘friend’ me, and go over to my art page and ‘like’ it:  facebook.com/David-langevin


It has been snowing a lot around here for the last few weeks.  It started snowing again last night and it is still snowing this morning.  I will have a couple of hours of shoveling to do later, I’m going to wait for it to stop and for the plow to go by.  The up side is that I love to paint snow scenes.  I went out for a walk to find some inspiring images the other day.  Here is one of my favorites:

jan 2 1016 013

I am certainly going to paint something using this scene, but it really is beautiful just as it is.

I will be updating my calendar in the next few weeks with all of the shows and workshops that I have booked for  the year.  Right now I am working on a collection of paintings for my show in Whistler with Rod Charlesworth on Jan 23.  I hope to meet lots of ‘friends’ at the opening.  Here is one of the paintings I am sending the gallery for the show:

still blowing 60x30 ac+

still blowing 60×30 ac+


Scraping By

I thought I would share my story of scraping by as a painter.  I don’t mean financially, rather, I sometimes actually scrape paint off as I compose the picture.  I have looked at the statistics for artist’s income, and indeed, most are just scraping by.  But in this case I am speaking about a technique I demonstrated at the last workshop that I taught.  It is lots of fun and using the luminosity of the white gesso ground always seems to appear the most natural and, well, luminous looking it seems.  One of the ‘secrets’ of my style is that I often remove as much paint as I apply, esp when I am working on a textured surface.

It is a strategy that was employed by the early Renaissance painters and of course watercolor artists are quite comfortable with this concept.

Here is a painting that I recently completed, appropriately named ‘scraping by’.  I did a couple of compositions like this one, you can see the other one in a recent blog.  I took a picture of this painting at the stage in the process where I have just removed some of the wet glaze to reveal the light areas of the composition.

scraping by 24x48 ac

scraping by 24×48 ac






Below is a picture of the completed painting.  The light areas of the painting, particularly the poplar trees, are almost entirely the light of the ground showing through, there is very little white paint used.  Most of the browns are also simply the original glaze from the underpainting, this means that they are more vibrant because of the single pigment transparent color (glaze) with the white of the gesso shinning through.

scraping by 24x48 ac

scraping by 24×48 ac






How fun is that?

Speaking of fun.  It looks like next year is shaping up to be full of it, as usual.  I have a few workhops scheduled:  Vancouver, Edmonton (twice), a couple of others in the interior of BC and maybe even here in Kamloops in the fall.  I also have some shows booked.  I will update the calendar page on my website with all the details early in the new year.

Bark and Boxes of 2







As it turns out, I am also the official shipper, and photographer, for Lana’s remarkable chocolates.  So if you need a great gift, or just a wonderful treat for the holidays, email her @ lanalangevin@gmail.com.

…, But is it Good?

Don’t think about making art, just get it done.  Let other people decide if its good or bad, whether they love it or hate it.  While they are deciding, make even more art.”  Andy Warhol

“…But is it Good?”

Some people might be upset by this essay, particularly those in the arts community.  I have been a professional artist most of my life.  I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and a Master’s Degree in Art Education. I’ve also been teaching art now for, hmm…a long time.  Mostly I have focused on teaching artists how to be better painters, but here I’ll turn my attention to a question that I’m often asked by non-artists when they are confronted with the conundrum of ‘modern art’. The question: “But is it good?”  This question often surfaces when ‘experts’ in the art community claim that a certain piece is somehow important, even though we may be confused or even repulsed by what we are seeing.

Without getting into a discussion about the definition of what can be called art, suffice to say that although art can certainly be fashionable or culturally relevant (which is of course subjective) it’s fashionableness or cultural relevance does not necessarily mean that it is good or bad. Here’s my thesis: Fashionable or popular, or even culturally significant, does not equal good.  Good transcends space and time.  J.S Bach was a brilliant composer, but at the end of his life his music was falling out of fashion as the popular taste was migrating to a new style of music we now call “Classical’ (Mozart).  Bach’s work was revived some 200 years later however, and is still appreciated today. Why? Well, because it’s really good.

I have a theory we can test that supports my thesis, or perhaps more accurately, a formula for judging art that is as objective as anything I can imagine.  It is a tentative, and certainly not an all encompassing approach to the subject. That said, I think it’s a helpful approach. You can let me know if you think it has value.

Art is indeed subjective, in that we can all decide for ourselves our preferences—what we like and don’t like; a subjective personal opinion so to speak.  Saying something is good or bad however implies an objective proposition, a criticism, and for that we should have objective criteria that does not rely on opinion.  So, without having to become an expert on art I designed this little test to at least give people a reasonably objective tool to tackle the question of what is good in art.  This test would apply equally to music.  What I’m trying to draw out here is the tension between subjective and objective evaluations.  My point is this: you can dislike something even though it’s very good.  A lot of people don’t like Bach’s music.  That’s fine.  However, that person’s subjective taste in no way diminishes the objective value of Bach’s music—it remains good.  Of course, the converse of this agreement can be true as well.  You can like something even though it isn’t really good.  The formula I propose is simply a tool to help you in determining the quality and relevance of an artistic expression.

Before we test this idea it is important to note that much of what we call contemporary art is conceptual in nature, that is, it is based primarily on an idea or a concept, which takes precedence over the aesthetic side.  It is often this kind of art that inspires the average viewer to declare:  “That is not even art!”

Things like this:

conceptual art - chair

conceptual art – chair








Or someone’s bed on display in a gallery:

conceptual art (bed)

conceptual art (bed)







Or this artist who won one of the most prestigious international art awards for dismantling a shed and reconstructing it in the gallery:

conceptual art (shedboatshed)

conceptual art (shedboatshed)







People often declare about much of what is categorized as conceptual art, “I could do that myself, and I’m not an artist”.  I think this is a fair thing to say.  A clever or compelling idea, or concept, is not enough to make it good; which brings me to my formula:

Take an artist and or his/her art, and move them thru space (geographically) and/or time, and see if they are still ‘good’.

Let’s take a couple of very different artists and plug them into the equation to see how it works:  Barnett Newman (1905-1970) was a renowned American Abstract Expressionist, or ‘Color Field’ artist; Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, known as Raphael (1483-1520), was a famous painter, and architect, from the Italian Renaissance period.

Newman’s “Voice of Fire” painting was purchased by the National Gallery in Ottawa a few years ago and created quite a stir, and not a small number of people asked the question which is the title of this article.

'Voice of Fire' (1967) Barnett Newman

‘Voice of Fire’ (1967) Barnett Newman










The write up by the National Gallery describing the painting includes phrases like this:

“…Limiting his colours to red and blue, he created this powerful vertical canvas to be suspended from the dome’s ceiling. While it appears simple in form, Voice of Fire conveys a range of meanings. Newman intended the work to be studied from a short distance; its enormous scale transforms the space and tests our sensory experience….”

That kind of prose certainly makes the painting sound, well, at least interesting.

The painting has significant cultural relevance in relation to the time and place it was created: America at the height of the Cold War.  You can study up on what art historians have to say about that time period, but let’s just take the painting and move it in space over to Paris, or Tokyo in the 1960’s, to see if it is still an ‘important’ artistic expression.  Nope, those cultures are into their own thing, and are not in the same position as the USA as it tries to distinguish itself with its own cultural identity.  Now, let’s move it in time back to the Renaissance. No again. Barnett would be thrown out of the studio for using that much paint to make stripes.  What if you were to paint something like that today? Would it still be worthy of all the attention, and money spent on it?  Nope, it has already been done, so is no longer culturally relevant.  Besides, your dad would get mad at you for using that much paint just to make stripes.

Now let’s take Mr. Newman and send him back in time to see if he has the skill set necessary to sell any paintings in Italy in the early 1500’s. Hmmm…tough one.  Do you think you could paint something like this Mr. Newman?

'Transfiguration' (1516-1521) Raphael

‘Transfiguration’ (1516-1521) Raphael










Now, let’s put Raphael in the time machine to see how that works out.  With his exceptional skills and ingenuity I think it would be a good bet that if he were dropped into today’s world he would be a renowned artist of some sort making very good art. He would more than likely be a very successful one as well: Raphael was a good businessman.  Move him from Italy to France during his own time period, no problem.

If you were to make a convincing copy of Raphael’s painting, it would certainly still be a good painting (objective), but perhaps not culturally relevant or fashionable (subjective) in our day.  Whether a work of art is good or not, or what you think of it, often has little bearing on how much praise it may receive, or how much it will sell for in the market – that has more to do with what is fashionable or popular.  You can also rephrase the question this way:  “Is it good, or is it simply fashionable or popular.”  Times change, people’s taste change, and those who have influence in these matters understand that many people are easily swayed and can be told, and sold, on what they should like, buy, and support.

I had a mind to run some iconic Canadian artists thru the test, but I don’t want to come off  as being too blasphemous so I will leave it to you to apply the test to whomever you like.  Just remember, fashionable or popular, or even culturally significant, does not equal good.  Good transcends space and time.