Why “Modern Art” Paintings Aren’t As Easy As They Look – A Ramble


Although I’m busy preparing this year’s Christmas comics at the time of writing, I thought that I’d talk about “modern art” today.

Before I go any further, I should probably point out that I’m only talking about paintings and not about things like *ugh* conceptual art. In particular, I’m talking about the kind of early-mid 20th century paintings that usually get labelled as “modern art”, despite being slightly on the older side.

These are paintings from genres and movements like expressionism, the abstract genre, fauvism, cubism etc… One thing that many of these paintings have in common is that they’re often slightly on the minimalist side and this can often lead people to think that they’re “lazy” paintings that anyone could make in five minutes. I used to think something similar, until I put it to the test.

The day before I wrote this article, I wanted to make a quick painting to fill a gap in my art schedule before I could start my Christmas comics.

Since I’d seen a rather cool-looking expressionist painting from 1912 called “The Tiger” by Franz Marc a while earlier and had noticed that the painting was out of copyright (under both European and American copyright law), I thought that it would be a rather interesting thing to make a quick study of.

Franz Marc’s painting looked like it should be an easy painting to recreate. After all, the whole thing is a collection of geometric shapes. It’s like a low-resolution 3D model from a computer game made during the early 1990s. Seriously, it wouldn’t look out of place in “Alone In The Dark“. So, it should be pretty easy to create a study of it, right?

Wrong. It probably took me slightly longer to recreate a second-rate copy of this picture than it would have taken me to make a good original painting. If you don’t believe me about the “second-rate” thing, here’s a reduced-size preview of my recreation (which really doesn’t look as good as Franz Marc’s original):

This is a reduced-size preview of my recreation of Franz Marc’s “The Tiger” (1912). The full-size painting will appear here on the 18th December.

Although it probably took me less time to make my study than it took for Franz Marc to make the original, I still had to carefully judge the size, proportion and relative position of each “polygon” whilst sketching the picture (which is something I got wrong a few times). Compared to copying a more realistic historical painting (where there’s a lot more room for slight errors etc..), it was far more complex than it appeared to be at first!

Likewise, I had to “decipher” the painting whilst I was copying it and work out why various shapes ended up in the position that they did. For example, the two things sticking out of the lower half of the tiger are (probably) supposed to be it’s tail and one of it’s legs. Once you’ve noticed this, it seems really obvious – but it can take a while to figure out what these parts of the painting actually are.

No doubt that when Franz Marc was actually making this painting, this process was probably ten times more complicated. I mean, he had to work out a way to paint something as complex as a tiger using relatively few cleverly-placed lines, colours and shapes. This painting probably took longer to make than a more “realistic” painting of a tiger (which could just be painted from life if there was a museum or a zoo nearby) would.

Like with pixel art in old computer/video games, a lot of classic “modern art” paintings were probably more difficult to make than than they look for the simple reason that the audience rarely sees the complex process of distilling something complex and realistic into a relatively small number of shapes. Or, the imagination and skill required to turn a realistic image into an interestingly unrealistic one. Or, in the case of abstract art, making a combination of random shapes etc… that still look visually interesting, despite having no obvious meaning.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

2 comments on “Why “Modern Art” Paintings Aren’t As Easy As They Look – A Ramble

  1. Sofie Arts says:

    Very interesting thoughts! I really like the painting you where talking about and this did give me another unique view on why modern art is still hard to make! Great post!

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