Using Artwork in Design, Part II. Of art, old and new | WebReference

Using Artwork in Design, Part II. Of art, old and new

  Of art, old and new

Art is not something that can be defined once and forever; instead, it is a perfect example of what is called a "consensus reality."  What is considered to be fine art now would not even insult viewers or listeners a couple of centuries ago - it would simply remain incomprehensible to them, would not pass for something even remotely art-related.  It's not that our ancestors were unenlightened; it's only that their notion of art was different from ours.

Undoubtedly, a classing painting may add a touch of class (which perhaps is why it's called "classic") to your paper ad or Web page.  But this idea is nevertheless of a limited use, for many reasons.  Even the best examples of "classical borrowings" carry some sort of historical and even "backward" feeling, while what many customers would prefer for their businesses if a forward-looking, modern, dynamic image.  Also, using a renowned classic work for a not too "classic" and noble purpose, for example in an advertisement, often balances between irony and what is called kitsch, or pretentious "overshot."

The majority of pre-20th century classic art is represented by finished pieces which, regardless of their particular style and epoch, may be hard to use in design exactly because of their finished features and closed composition.  From this viewpoint, modern 20th century art, with its cross-cultural and cross-genre breakthroughs and quite liberal notions of what is art and what is not, represents a much better match for contemporary design.  When putting your work in the 20th century stylistic coordinates, you can build a great thing around a piece of art consisting literally of a couple of brush strokes.

Of course the "brush strokes" must not be those created in Microsoft Paintbrush, or even Photoshop.  What we're after in hand-made artistry is its unfalsifiably natural, non-computer feel, which (paradoxically!) can only be imitated on the computer with specialized high-end tools (e.g. Fractal Design's Painter).  Mastering this software may be difficult, but it's the shortest way for an artist with previous "paper" experience to find a place in the modern commercial advertisement and Web design industry.

The visible stylistic difference also suggests the quite different values we're seeking in modern art.  Being unable to perceive an old piece of art the way it was perceived by its author and his contemporaries, we attach our own meta values to it, which to a large extent justify our decision to reuse it in our design work.  We like old art because, for example, it adds a distinctively antique feel, or because it is a famous and therefore easily recognizable piece.

From this viewpoint, modern art has a more direct effect: if successful, it conveys those moods and feelings that its creator meant to convey, and is therefore capable of communicating a much wider range of ideas.  It is not so common, however, to see direct borrowings from modern fine arts, as the diversity of styles and scarcity of widely recognized celebrities makes creating stylized custom artwork a more flexible and more affordable strategy for design projects.  Read on for an outline of some issues involved in creating custom artwork.


Created: Jan. 13, 1999
Revised: Jan. 13, 1999