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Elements of Art, Artist Essay by James J. Nance - Elements of Art - Abraham Lincoln Art Gallery

Essays on Art, Sculpture, and Abraham Lincoln 

By Bronze Portrait and Figure Sculptor James J. Nance



Inspiration, Composition, Style, Draftsmanship, Technical Skill, Craftsmanship









Artist Essays

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Elements of Art and Sculpture


Before any work of art can be undertaken the artist must feel a personal inspiration for the subject.  This may sound obvious, but it is an essential first ingredient if the artist hopes to capture the subject's character; it will separate good art from mediocre. For example, an artist who loves dogs and is intimately familiar with their anatomy and behavior can also create an anatomically passable horse with little study; but that horse may lack the conviction and passion present in the artist's dog sculptures and may be unmemorable and mediocre. Further, that same artist who has sculpted his favorite old soul mate dog will most likely produce a work of such feeling that every one who views the work will feel the love. This is not to imply that an artist can not embrace many varied subjects; but each subject must be of such personal interest that the artist is passionately motivated to become an expert on the subject through intimacy and insight. This is the major reason that many artists will spend a career exploring one type of subject.  


For thousands of years, since the sculptures of the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, mankind has attempted to identify and reduce to a set of codified rules a definition of proper composition.  Ultimately what we have learned is that memorable and meaningful  art can not be codified without stiffing individual inspiration and expression.  While societies and movements have been quick to embrace these codified definitions, individual artists have continually rebelled and broken those rules and moved forward into new styles and techniques, often with dire personal consequences such as burning at the stake.  When one admires a work of art, one is really experiencing the view of the subject filtered and defined through the eyes, sensibilities, and soul of the artist, and that artistic soul must be free to explore new horizons. 

The lesson for artists is not to slavishly adhere to any particular ideal defined by someone else, but to yield to  his or her own personal artistic vision.  Certainly an artist's personal tastes can and should be molded by serious study of past art, making conscious and  subconscious personal decisions about what he or she likes or dislikes about other's art. Each individual can then filter and interpret those experiences into his own work. In other words, good composition cannot be learned or mimicked, it must flow directly from the artist's personal sensibilities.  This is not to say that the first stoke of the brush or smear of clay will be to the artist liking, or that every work will be successful and to the artists own satisfaction; however a work that is successful will be the end result of many many additions and subtractions, trial and error until the final result "looks right" to the artist and hopefully to the viewer.  

Composition is a complex concept and is intertwined into every aspect of a sculpture. A successful portrait bust has just as much reliance on composition as does a sculpture group of several figures.  A successful bust is far far more that a collection of identifiable features such as a mouth, eye or nose.  Each individual has his or her own unique presence, the way the head is held, the slope of the shoulders, the gaze of the eyes.  In fact most people can recognize a loved one from behind without even seeing the face.  This is an element of composition. A successful portrait must capture a person's character before the features are even considered.  

Other aspects of a well composed bust would be the decision of how much of the shoulders to retain and the position of those shoulders, how the clothes are presented, and how large the work should be.  Often the different personalities of the subject will require different approaches to these questions. Is the subject meek or bold, angry or jolly.  These personalities must find their way into clay. 

Size has its own considerations as these few examples will illustrate.  A life size bust is most effective when displayed indoors; but outdoors, life-size seems small and puny to most people, so an effective outdoor figure needs to be larger than life.   Conversely a half size cabinet bust is appropriate for display on a desk, but a bust only 10% smaller than life utterly fails, because the viewer spends all his time wondering if the person was really that small and the viewers attention will be distracted from the point of the composition.  

Finally clothing deserves special mention in composition.  The object of clothing on a sculpture is not to show how clever the artist can be in slavishly duplicating every tiny wrinkle and fold, but to enhance the structure and movement of the body beneath.  In clothing, what an artist leaves out is as important as what is included.  While it is important that the character, flow, and fold of the cloth is believable and enhances the figure, an overly detailed drapery will distract the eye of the beholder from the work and destroy it's composition.  Many artists have avoided this challenge by simply modeling a disembodied head and calling it a bust.


Style is closely related to composition and deals specifically with the recognizable individual approach of the artist to the medium and subject.  The level of realism, abstraction, surface texture, implied motion, repose, emotion, and general feel of a work of art are all elements of style.  The most important consideration of style was best expressed by Cornell University English Professor Will Strunk Jr. (1869-1947) in his timeless book Elements of Style: "To achieve style, begin by effecting none."  Although Professor Strunk was addressing creative writing, his words are immensely profound and apply equally to all forms of artistic endeavor from music to sculpture.  In other words, if an artist follows his own vision, and makes every decision for his own tastes and sensibilities, then his own personal unique style will eventually emerge without consciously trying to effect any particular style. A personal style therefore must flow honestly and naturally from within and not be the result of intentional invention or mimicry of another artist. 


Draftsmanship is defined by how  well  an artist can see a subject either in his own mind or from a model then interpret and transfer that mental image to a medium. There is very little difference between mediums when it comes to draftsmanship.  An artist uses the same mental facilities to draw a picture or model in clay. Much can be learned by study and practice. One of the greatest lies in modern art insists that draftsmanship is unimportant.  The faulty reasoning is that since a work of modern art is non representational then there is no need to be able to represent. If free artistic expression is running then skill and draftsmanship is walking.  One needs to walk before running. On the other hand, superior draftsmanship alone without  inspiration and without sensitive composition will result in a boring mediocre work of art. True believable and inspiring art comes from a sensitive blend of draftsmanship, inspiration, technical skill and composition.   

Technical Skill

There is an endless array of techniques and skills associated with the production of art and sculpture.  Much can be learned from others or from books and refined by the artist to fit his or her own temperament and style, but each artist eventually finds his own way  by trial and error. Subjects of importance to artists would include: anatomy, knowledge of the mold making and casting process, manipulation of tools and materials, skill at welding, and knowledge of chemical patina application. Even if an artist contracts many of these jobs to others, a solid understanding of the processes is essential to communicate intent and to supervise. 


Craftsmanship can be defined by simply one question. Is the artist proud to sign his or her name to the work?




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James  J.  Nance  Sculpture  Studio    4617 Lonetree Drive,     Loveland,  Colorado  80537

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First Published to Web on  0 1/24/2003  /   Last  Updated on  05/16/2013 11:47 PM    /   Copyright 2003 James J. Nance