In Art, Style Matters As Much As (Or More Than) Substance – A Ramble

Although this is an article about making art, I’m going to have to start by talking briefly about watching a review of a modern computer game (of all things). As usual, there’s a good reason for this that will become relevant later.

A short while before I wrote this article, I ended up watching a cynical game review on Youtube (viewer discretion is advised). Although the game in the review is too modern to run on my computer, the footage of it looks like the coolest thing in the world (eg: a “Blade Runner“-style cyberpunk horror game). But, the reviewer is heavily critical of the experience of actually playing the game since it aparently includes relatively few game-like elements.

This made me think about the subject of “style vs substance”, and – since this is supposed to be an article about making art – I thought that I’d look at how this relates to art.

Unlike games, films or novels – style can often be as important or possibly more important than substance in art.

For a great example of this, just look at a genre of art called “Conceptual Art“. This is a genre of art/sculpture that prioritises meaning over aesthetic concerns…. and it’s terrible! Seriously, the average work of conceptual art often just looks like a pile of random bric-a-brac that has been lazily thrown together in about five minutes.

So, yes, style matters a lot in art. This is why, for example, historical paintings from the middle ages to the 20th century are still revered as great works of art even though the vast majority of people couldn’t care less about the religious stories, historical events and/or people from the past who are depicted in these old paintings. The style of these paintings is appealing, even though most people don’t pay much attention to the substance.

Likewise, another way to prove the value of style in art is to look at a comic written in a language that you don’t speak. Since you can’t understand the dialogue, the only way you can judge the quality of the comic is by looking at the actual art. And, if you keep reading it despite not understanding the dialogue, then that’s usually a sign that the art is of a suitably high quality.

Yet, despite this, substance does matter in art. But, not for the reasons you might expect. Going back to the comic-based example, one of the reasons why a comic can still be compelling even if you don’t understand the dialogue is because the art contains a high level of visual storytelling. So, visual storytelling can be one way to add some “substance” to your art.

Likewise, substance can be a useful thing when it comes to being inspired. Often, when an artist is feeling highly-inspired, it is usually because they have a very interesting idea they want to turn into a painting or a drawing. So, having some “substance” behind your art can be a great way to feel inspired. But, even if you’ve got a good idea, you still have to express it in a visually-appealing way.

For example, the night before I wrote this article, I prepared a digitally-edited painting that will appear here later this month. The painting had a good idea behind it, but it didn’t end up looking as good as I had hoped. Here’s a preview of it:

This is a reduced-size preview. The full-size painting will be posted here on the 29th.

In this painting, I’d planned to paint a 1980s-style rural pub. Although I’d originally planned to depict it in a rather romantic and rose-tinted way, I suddenly realised that it would be a lot more interesting to make a painting that was both warmly reassuring and eerily ominous at the same time. A painting that evoked both the friendly coziness and the dreary, heavy traditionalism of an old-fashioned pub. A painting that showed how these two elements interact with each other and how they are both equally important parts of what makes old pubs so interesting.

But, although I sort of achieved this, I didn’t really do it that well. The emptiness and gloomy lighting ended up tipping the picture slightly more towards the “ominous” side of things than I’d expected. Likewise, I messed up the composition, perspective and shadows slightly too. Whilst it certainly isn’t the worst painting I’ve ever made, the stylistic elements certainly don’t live up to the original idea that I’d had.

Although my painting had an interesting meaning behind it, I messed up how I expressed that meaning. And, as such, the painting suffered as a result.

So, yes, style matters as much as – or more than – substance in art.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

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