On the Subject of Style

“The trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap…. Words exist because of the meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.”1 Chuang-tzu, Chinese philosopher

This used to be how I felt about writing. Even when I took up creative writing, I thought it was all about the content… and it’s not.

Getting to the meaning of one’s words is not the only reason why we listen.

We create to bring form to ideas, and this, I believe, is all about style.

I understand there’s a major difference between linguistic expression and visual expression. The first uses symbols (letters of the alphabet and the words they make) to guide you to conjuring up the ideas in mind, while the latter provides a physical structure to show you an idea at play.

But both can show how one sees the world.

I’m going to focus now on visual expression… and use a recent drawing to illustrate what I mean.

Initially, I got lost in the details and tried to copy this more precisely, but I stepped away for a day and when I looked at it again, I realized I had smoothed over all the nuances. It was static like a rock.

I often tell myself to “always know what you’re looking at,” but in this case, I decided to refer to a thumbnail of the original, so I could see again what initially made me decide to choose the image. I decided the goal is not to draw a poppy, per se, but to get ideas about what is a “good line.” Or, overall, when looking at a model, I am not drawing the model, I am making note of what makes the model pretty.

This approach is especially useful when thinking about auto-drawing, because with auto-drawing, the challenge is to maintain variation, to avoid making it look like patterns on wall paper. Looking all around me, I see “pretty lines” and beautiful color compositions everywhere and realize I can use almost everything as a resource. I just have to like what I see.

When I picked up drawing in 2008, I was mesmerized by a “pretty line.” It was a gateway into the visual arts, and a year later I wanted to utilize more color, but I couldn’t see where other artists were getting there ideas (color schemes) from.

Intuitively, I knew that you have to enjoy something to bring it into your work… or I should say you have to know what you like to gauge the progress of your work… to know that you’re achieving what you want to achieve.

Okay, it’s not simple. But creative work doesn’t need to be precise. Below is a video of me playing around with a recently opened set of Marie’s water color tubes.

I made a sketchbook for the purpose of experimenting with color schemes, and discovering how bright and vibrant the colors are made me giddy, particularly 511 (bright blue green) and 451 (looks like Prussian blue)

Here’s a picture of the poppy I painted in the video.

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1 This is from the introduction of Jerome Silbergeld’s Chinese Painting Style, and Silbergeld is using a translation taken from Burton Watson’s The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, published in 1970 by Columbia University Press, p 302.

Materials: Xuan paper

There were a couple of problems.

1. I thought my first problem was a lack of nifty, one-day projects. (I could only think of bigger projects, and for those I found myself procrastinating, while telling myself that I was waiting for the ideas to percolate.)

Believing this to be my first problem was a problem.

I finally picked up a brush when a “nifty” idea occured to me, and this had a lovely domino effect.

2. I wanted to make use of a set of Japanese watercolors.

I’d only made color cards, by applying a wash over individual sheets of cold press watercolor paper, each cut down to just larger than a playing card.

When they dried, they curled, and despite having them underneath heavy books for a month or so, they wouldn’t remain flat. (I’ve heard of “stretching paper,” but I’ve procrastinated on that too.)

Solution: xuan paper which dries very well.

3. I wanted to compile a “book” of my “sketches” on xuan paper but the material is very thin. Creating a traditionally designed book made only of xuan paper didn’t pan out even in my imagination.

Solution: I folded a sheet of xuan paper into a “book,” which allowed me to avoid stitching pages into signatures.

4. I hadn’t posted anything in a while.

5. I had stopped reading.

Solution: I would post something about the “book” I was making.

6. I applied a wash again of each color to each panel, but it wasn’t enough for a good post. (Yes, I let the idea of what others might think have an influence on my creative life.)

Solution: I browsed through the many books I own and looked for ideas.

7. I had a few books that had been waiting to be read for… well, a long time.

Solution: Peach Blossom Spring: Gardens and Flowers In Chinese Paintings by Richard Barnhart

(I have not really sat down with this, but from what I can tell, it looks anecdotal, which I think is the best way to write about art history.)

Below is the “book” unfolded. There are eight panels and the upper middle panels are each only attached on one side.

When you fold it in half, you see the first two panels (besides the “covers”) and the last panel.

The first two panels are based on a part of Plum Blossoms By Moonlight by Ma Yuan, who was actively painting 1190-1225. (p 21)

Here’s the “book” with the two upper middle panels folded in.

The lower bottom middle panels are the third and fourth panels. For the third panel, I was looking at the flowers in Carnations and Amaranthus by Yun Shou-p’ing (1633-1690) (p 84)

For the fourth panel, I was looking at Tree Peonies (1688) by Yun Shou-p’ing (p 87)

Here’s the book folded in half and the middle panels have been flipped to reveal the third, fourth and fifth panels.

For the fifth panel, I was looking at the leaves of One Hundred Flowers by Yun Shou-p’ing (p89)

For the sixth and final panel, I was looking at the rocks or depictions of mountainside in Peach Blossom Spring (1719) by Huan Chiang (active ca 1690 – 1746) (p 115)

I have to be more patient with waiting for the wash to finish drying before adding fine lines, so it got muddled there (and elsewhere), but hopefully I’ll improve with more practice.

Below is the book neatly folded.

Folded, it’s about 5″ x 6.” The paper didn’t exactly dry smooth, but it didn’t get warped either, with some parts more stretched than others. Instead, the pages are wrinkled and only because I creased them when applying the wash.

More Notes on Van Gogh

Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman by Sjraar Van Heugten

Here are some notes on two more drawings.

I posted a review of Van Gogh: Master Draughtsman to Goodreads, which incorporates the above as well as the better parts of the two previous Van Gogh posts.

For The Plain of La Crau (1888), Van Gogh followed basic rules of perspective, making what is in the distance darker and more obscure, while the foreground is depicted without many marks. You might also notice the marks depicting what is in the distance are divided neatly into what look like fields or agricultural land. The sky above, by virtue of the lack of marks, looks serene.

There is nothing careless about where he chose to mark the page and how.

Style of course goes beyond technique and I think marking the page to fill up space was part of that style. Leaving a space empty looks like the exception and not the rule. It looks like a  conscious choice was made to do so. The parts also share the space in a way that conjures up something beyond the whole. They are organized and convey a sense of balance.

Overall, his drawings seem to express a particular mood and each mark was chosen not just to distinguish a given part of the work from another part but to help convey that mood.

Looking at Fishing boats on the beach at Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (1888), there’s that emblematic steadfastness I spoke of before. The thick lines ground the boats as the main focal point, despite being surrounded by the marks depicting the sand and ocean. There is a again perfect balance, this time between the parts of the boats, as their lines intersect and the lighter details lead to the heavier details and guide the eye to the boat in the foreground.

Just for fun, I made of a copy of Van Gogh’s Fishing boats. I used Chinese ink (from Daiso) on Xuan paper and it created a very similar effect as Van Gogh’s materials, which I think was a reed pen on either laid or woven paper.

I also framed the boats in yellow and blue to highlight how the boats are in balance with not only themselves but with the lines created by the horizon and water line and the paper’s edge.

NB The yellow and blue are Roel Acuarelas Italianas water colors. They don’t absorb into the paper as well as the Chinese ink.

The Beauty of Nature II

Offering an example of standing near a waterfall, Noel Carroll argues the experience “does not require any special scientific knowledge,” that it may only require our sense of how small we are. He also says we are “able to intuit the immense force,” (172) and goes on to conclude that “the cognitive component of our emotional response does the job of fixing the aspects of nature that are relevant to appreciation… Carlson sometimes describes his preferred source of knowledge as issuing from common sense/science. So perhaps… the operative cognitions are rooted in commonsense knowledge of nature.” (175)

In other words, we may simply look at our common sense to know how to appreciate nature.

I’m reading a pair of essays from Arguing About Art, which discuss the problem of appreciating nature aesthetically. In the second essay, Carroll explains that Carlson’s environmental model (discussed in my previous post) is in line with cultural theories, which makes aesthetic judgments based on cultural practices and forms, such as artistic genres, styles and movements. When we create the work we determine what the terms are. With nature, however, there is no intent to be beautiful, so any aesthetic judgment can be neither true nor false.

If we discover categories in nature using natural history and science, as opposed to subjectively determining what they are, we can solve this problem and be objective about aesthetic judgments of nature as well.

II objectivist epistemology

Carlson’s environmental model sets a standard for other models of aesthetic appreciation to be objective.

Carroll argues that an emotional response can be objective, because we can assess whether or not it is appropriate and therefore open for judgment. He uses the example of a person being afraid of a tank because it is dangerous. If the person does not believe tanks are dangerous, then fear is not an appropriate response. If the person does believe tanks are dangerous, then it is. Going back to the waterfall, he argues “… being excited by the grandeur of something that one believes to be of a large scale is an appropriate emotional response.” If the belief in the large scale of the waterfall is true for others as well, then the emotional response of being excited by the grandeur of the waterfall is an objective one. (178)

In other words, if when using one’s eyes, you call it grand and others also call it grand, then it is objectively grand.

I think, by defining what moves us, given a specific context of time and place in nature, we can determine what is reasonable but not what is objective.

The most I can offer is my own testimony. I can say I see beauty in the sheer scale of a waterfall, of a sequoia, of the side of a mountain spanning the viewable horizon. There is beauty in the strength of its durability.

I cannot explain why this is beautiful. I cannot say whether my feelings for nature are a result of previous responses to experiences that took place before I responded to the natural environment or if my natural surroundings have intrinsic beauty.

What if a person does not see a tank as dangerous? Would one’s lack of fear be an appropriate response to standing in front of a tank? What if somebody is not moved by the comparison of a waterfall to oneself? In both cases, I would say he or she is being unreasonable vis-a-vis what is a normal response given a specific subject to respond to.  

III art as experience

Carroll helps us focus on what makes the waterfall an aesthetic experience. If somebody argues that it is not, because the galaxy by comparison is much larger, we could argue that comparison would not be appropriate. Instead, we should compare it to human scale, because that is where the aesthetic lies: we are moved by comparing one’s own size to that of the waterfall.

Carroll also offers the example of how children may be “amused by capers of Commedia dell’arte but who know nothing of its tradition or its place among other artistic genres, styles and categories.” (174) He anticipates that Carlson would argue that these children are not appreciating the capers on a deep level and offers a rebuttal: “… what makes an appreciative response to nature shallow or deep is obscure. … But if the depth of a response is figured in terms of our intensity of involvement and its ‘thorough-goingness,’ then there is no reason to suppose that being moved by nature constitutes a shallower form of appreciation than does appreciating nature scientifically. The Kantian apprehension of sublimity — and its corresponding aesthetic judgment — though it may last for a delimited duration, need not be any less deep than a protracted teleological judgment.” (180)

Yes, an emotional response can be deep and profound, but I find myself going down a line of thought I cannot resolve and which Carroll stops short of.

I think it is important for a discussion about aesthetic appreciation of nature that we be able to explain why something is beautiful.

But how do we do this without reducing it to one’s psychology. To explain this cognitively seems to miss the point of having a discussion about aesthetic appreciation. You would be looking at it not as something that is beautiful but as something that is psychological. Looking at it scientifically, you would no longer be seeing the beauty the appreciator is seeing.

If you don’t see what is beautiful, how do you judge that it is beautiful? We could be calling something beautiful when it is not.

IV

The debate over whether or not beauty is intrinsic to what is beautiful is an old one, but it’s at the base of this dialogue. By putting art into categories, we put the judgment of beauty in our own terms. If there are no terms, we are again left with the subject being judged vis-a-vis one’s response and this is subjective. One’s natural surroundings may or may not have intrinsic beauty. It may be reasonable to say that it does, but it’s up to the individual to see that beauty.

This is a problem for the field of aesthetics if we are to maintain that the judgment of what is beautiful must be objective.

I would like to say the viability of the art world relies on consensus, much like how the bell curve is based on what is statistically acknowledged, that the consensus is based on what is reasonable. But of course, this is art. There are niche categories. There is also the driving force of art as currency, either cultural or monetary. It’s driven by psychology as much as history or provenance.1 Overall, I cannot say much, but I can say we engage more honestly without prescribed notions of what is beautiful.

When we find ourselves in natural surroundings, we can enjoy what we enjoy.

I agree with Carlson, that we may be missing so much of what there is to appreciate, aesthetically, if only we were aware of all there is, and we must be objective to have some basis for holding a dialogue about what we see. But I also agree with Carroll, that it is not necessary to be aware of all there is to appreciate and be profoundly affected by one’s natural surroundings.

Why somebody finds something beautiful is elusive, but based on my personal response to my natural surroundings, I can honestly say I have seen beauty.


Carroll, Noel. “On Being Moved By Nature: Between Religion and Natural History.” Neill, Alex, and Ridley, Aaron, editors. Arguing About Art: Contemporary Philosophical Debates, 2nd ed, Routledge, 2002, pp 167 -184.

1 I’m talking about the viability of the art world and not the viability of art or whether or not there is beauty to see.