Why Does Current Art Often Look Slightly “Old”? – A Ramble

Well, at the time of writing, I’m busy preparing a series of gothic paintings set in Aberystwyth. One of the interesting things about this art series is that each painting seems to be set in a slightly different time period.

There are some set in the mid-late ’00s, there’s one set in the early 2010s, there are some set in the 1980s/1990s and there are even a couple of paintings set in a cyberpunk-style future. Here’s a preview:

This is a reduced-size preview of a cyberpunk-style painting of a corridor behind the Hugh Owen building on the town’s university campus. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 11th June.

This naturally made me think about art and time. This is mostly because, although artists often don’t explicitly state when their paintings are set, they’ve usually got a fairly good idea. And, with the exception of obvious historical pieces and sci-fi/fantasy art, you might be wondering why current artists wouldn’t set all of their art in an accurate version of the present day.

There are a lot of reasons for this. The first one is that art isn’t meant to be accurate or realistic. If you want an accurate realistic picture of the modern world, take a photograph. Art is about the blending of imagination and reality. It’s about seeing the world filtered through someone’s imagination. So, many artists might use artistic licence (such as adding slightly old or unrealistic elements to their art) in order to create a more distinctive and interesting picture.

For example, in this other painting of Aberystwyth from earlier this month, I deliberately used a rather unrealistic 1980s-style colour scheme, mostly to reflect the old music I was listening to during the time period (eg: the late 2000s) that this painting is set in. Which brings me on to…

The second reason why artists don’t always set their work in a realistic version of the present day is because art allows us to re-visit interesting memories and to depict the world based on rose-tinted versions of parts of history that we get nostalgic about and/or are interested in. It allows us to paint or draw a more stylised version of the world that seems better, more reassuring and/or more visually interesting than a more “realistic” one would be.

For example, here’s a painting from life (a first-person scene showing me drawing a small sculpture of a tortoise) that I made last year. Although it is technically set in 2017, I’ve deliberately added some slightly 1980s/1990s-style lighting and colour combinations to it in order to make it look more dramatic and visually-appealing than a starkly “realistic” depiction of the scene in question would be.

“Drawing A Tortoise Still Life” By C. A. Brown

The third reason why artists don’t always set their art in an “accurate” version of the present day is because of artistic inspirations and influences. Generally, the things that have inspired or influenced an artist are probably going to be slightly older things.

They’re probably going to be things that, say, an artist first discovered when they were younger and then studied in more depth when they got a bit older. Even if an artist is somehow only inspired by “modern” things, then those modern things are probably going to be inspired or influenced by older things in some way or another. So, artistic influences usually come from the past in some way or another.

Finally, it’s an interesting artistic challenge. There’s something enjoyably challenging about making something in the present day that looks like it could have come from the past. In order to do this well, you need to have done a fair amount of research and have a good understanding of what made the recent past (and art from back then) look the way it did. For example, here’s a digitally-edited painting of mine that was inspired by the old early 1990s computer games I played during my childhood:

“Marina” By C. A. Brown

Although this painting includes some elements of early 20th century Art Nouveau and 19th century Japanese Ukiyo-e art, I also tried to replicate the more garish and limited colour palettes used in some old computer games. I used bold high-contrast lighting (which gives anything an instant 1980s/90s-style look) and I also tried to make sure that the fashion designs and hairstyles in the picture looked like something from the early 1990s. Likewise, I made sure that the background design was as random and eccentric as the location designs in old computer games often were.

So, yes, making current art that looks like it could have come from the recent past usually involves a fair amount of research and thought, so it can be an interesting artistic challenge.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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