A while before I wrote this article, I happened to watch a documentary on TV about the history of art in France. One of the interesting things was that I didn’t really learn that much that I didn’t already know. This was mostly because, during 2014, I went through a phase where I was fascinated by old European and Japanese art and ended up doing a lot of online research about it.
Yet, a year or two before that, I wouldn’t have seen the point of learning anything about old art. It seemed like a pompous and pretentious subject that had no relevance to the cartoons that I was drawing every day.
In fact, the only reason I even got interested in the subject was because I realised that most old (19th century and earlier) artwork is out of copyright (excluding, for example, Matisse’s paintings. Which are still copyrighted in Europe), so, I could just paint a copy of any interesting-looking old paintings or drawings I found online when I felt uninspired and needed something for one of my daily art posts.
And, to my surprise, there were lots of interesting-looking paintings and drawings from the 19th century and earlier. But, whilst most of the influences on my own art style are more modern, there are good reasons to take an interest in old art too. Here are three of them:
1) Modern stuff is inspired by old stuff: Chances are, if you see something that looks cool in more recent artwork, then there’s something at least vaguely similar from the past that has inspired or influenced it in some way.
For example, modern manga art styles are at least slightly influenced by the minimalist Japanese Ukiyo-e print tradition of the 18th/19th century. Likewise, “classic” British and American comic book art is heavily inspired by Art Nouveau(by artists like Pamela Colman Smith, Eugene Grasset etc..) that were popular in the 1890s-1910s. These styles were, in turn, probably also influenced by Ukiyo-E art.
Likewise, the wonderfully gloomy lighting style that is used in films like “Blade Runner” and on the covers of many classic heavy metal albums and horror novels of the 1980s/90s isn’t as “new” as it might seem. In fact, it’s just a more modern version of a centuries-old art style called Tenebrism and, if you see a few paintings by Caravaggio, you might be surprised at how “modern” some of the lighting in these pictures looks.
So, if you want to learn more about the really cool modern art styles that inspire you, then it can often be useful to go back to the older things that influenced them. Not only will this give you more influences on your own art (and the more you have, the more unique your art looks) but it will also give you a greater understanding of how your favourite types of art “work”.
2) It’ll show you that it’s ok to take inspiration: As well as copying out-of-copyright paintings, looking at old art can also be a great way to learn how to take inspiration in proper (eg: non-copying) ways. This is mostly because there has been a lot of research into what inspired a lot of old artists, and very few of them produced wholly “original” and “new” artwork.
For example, Vincent Van Gogh’s famous painting style was at least partially influenced by Japanese art prints that had made their way to Europe during the 19th century.
Likewise, when you see artistic “traditions” in the past where lots of artists use a similar style (eg: like how Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi often used a very dark and tenebristic style), then this is both an example of artists taking influence from other artists and artists finding their own interpretation of a pre-existing style because they think that it looks cool.
3) Visual storytelling: For most of human history, if you wanted to record an image of something, then you had to draw or paint it. What this means is that a lot of old art tends to be about storytelling, recording interesting scenes for posterity or making mundane events look interesting. Old paintings are also brilliant examples of how imagination and reality can be blended in interesting ways. This all means is that old art usually tends to be a lot more visually-interesting than you might think.
Like with the panels of a modern comic, old artists often had to tell a story using pictures. They had to create artwork that distilled an interesting series of events into one dramatic image. If you want to make interesting art, then it’s worth trying to learn how to do this. If you want to learn how to make art based on real life look more interesting, then it’s still useful.
For example, even a commissioned portrait like Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” can contain a lot of imagination and visual storytelling. This is a painting that is filled with activity and drama… which didn’t happen in real life.
From everything I’ve seen and read about the painting, the organisation who commissioned it had gone from being an actual group of guards to being more of a ceremonial dining club by the time that the painting was commissioned. But, with a lot of imagination and clever design choices, Rembrandt is able to present them as being bold, benevolent swashbucklers who are both needed and beloved by the people of Amsterdam.
Although the painting probably isn’t “realistic”, it is far more visually interesting (since it seems like it could be a scene from a novel or a film) than a simple portrait of seventeen men sitting around a dining table would be. Again, this is because visual storytelling both was and is a centrally important part of what makes art art.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂