Art and Ideals by David Kelley

Just published for the first time.

On October 6th, 2003 The Foundation for the Advancement of Art presented this conference at New York’s Pierre Hotel. David Kelley, a philosopher, gives the talk Art and Ideals.

0:05 Stephen Hicks introduces David Kelley
1:54 Chavet Cave, images, music. Why artistic artifacts? Some evolution theories.
7:00 Universality of Art, cognitive and emotional needs. Concept of abstraction; language, science. Foreknowledge.
10:27 Earliest narrative in written form, The Epic of Gilgamesh. Choice, normative concepts, good and bad.
12:39 Moral codes, emotions. Issues of life and death why through art? Concept of love. Homer, Shakespeare. Art gives the power of immediacy to our abstractions.
21:20 Modes of the ideal. Polyclitus, exemplars such as Christ through Michelangelo. Beethoven, Chopin, Delacroix. Hunger for ideals.

Tats Series

Earlier today I signed off on the third tattoo painting. The series was a fascinating excursion in which I contemplated how we sometimes become the artwork. I have always thought that was true in a metaphorical way, in the sense that when we are young, we often form our characters, unwittingly, by the influence of movies, literature, songs, paintings, or by sculptures. With tattoos it is the reverse, it is the person that becomes the canvas. They literally become the artwork.

The process of painting them was difficult and fun. It is like working a jigsaw puzzle in 3d, with each piece curved to fit the human form, and each piece occupying its unique spot in space.

The Tats Series is part of an ongoing project of abstract, realistic paintings destined for The White Cloud Gallery in Washington D.C. this fall.

Michael Newberry

Rhythm a Beautiful Way to Organize Chaos

Rhythm a Beautiful Way to Organize Chaos by Michael Newberry

Joseph Castro, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 12 inches

Joseph, acrylic, 16 x 12 inches.

This is a portrait of a friend, architect Joseph Castro, with dark brown leather as the backdrop.

Any complex subject is visually chaotic; with incongruent shapes and lots of details. When you look at something like a person’s face or a panoramic landscape there are a million things to look at – out of all that stuff which do you draw/paint? One of the fun and great challenges for an artist is to organize this chaos in a meaningful way through the use of visual rhythms.

Joseph Castro, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 12 inches

Joseph in conversation would often raise his eyebrow and curl his lip. I noticed how these two things curved into arches, and arches would become the visual theme.

Visual rhythms are made up of similar or complementary angles, contours, or lines.

In the process of composing painting I was looking for shapes and lights that could “double” for an “arch.” Was it possible that I could accent an arch of the lip, nose, brow, collar, or ear?

Joseph Castro, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 12 inches

The more I looked for them the more I saw “arches” everywhere. A consequence of looking for rhythms is that you don’t get lost in details but are constantly looking over the whole painting.

Joseph Castro, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 12 inches

Here you can see all the rhythms of detail of shapes and light I was seeing in his face. I would like to mention that I was not making them up where I did not see them in real life.

Joseph Castro, acrylic on canvas panel, 16 x 12 inches

The folds in the leather background were perfect for finding more “arches” to accent and to integrate the whole painting.
Michael Newberry

Erotic Symbolism in Visual Art

Erotic Symbolism in Visual Art by Michael Newberry

Erotic Symbolism in Art
O’Keeffe, 1923, Grey Line with Black, Blue, and Yellow

Representational painting, such as landscapes, people, and furniture, is normally viewed at face value. A flower is just a flower; a chair a chair. But the manner in which an artist uses shapes can convey more than the literal content of the painting.

Once you grasp how an artist plays with shapes to convey another layer of meaning it can open up a universe of deeper insight and, sometimes, powerfully erotic subtexts. You may never see art again in the same way.

When thinking about erotic symbolism in art Georgia O’Keeffe springs to mind. The painting to the right is a detail of a flower, but it is also an excellent visual symbol of an open and flushed vulva.

Erotic Symbolism in Art
At first glance you see a flower and, on reflection, you might grasp features of female anatomical details such as the clitoral hood, the clitoris, the labia majora, and the labia minora.

O’Keeffe is making an interesting statement in associating the vagina with a flower. The vagina is to humanity what a flower is to nature: it is life-giving, beautiful, and fragile, yet resilient.

Erotic Symbolism in Art
O’Keeffe, 1924, Light Iris
Continuing with another O’Keeffe painting, notice that there are no sharp vertical lines here. Rather, there are organic, fluid shapes and outlines. These shapes are easy metaphors for the soft lips of the labia and the yellow bud serves for the small erectile body of the clitoris.

There is a strong sense that we are entering into the flower, but we also get a sense that inside is a whole new universe open to us.

Erotic Symbolism in Art
Velázquez, The Surrender of Breda

A painting that has intrigued artists, such as Dali, is The Surrender of Breda by Velázquez.

This painting is loaded with phallic shapes: vertical, rigid spears, as well as thrusting weapons meant to penetrate human flesh.

Erotic Symbolism in Art

Erotic Symbolism in Art

On a less obvious note, the spears in the upper part of the canvas are balanced below by phallic shapes of the men’s and horse’s legs and the vertical negative spaces between them.

Erotic Symbolism in Art

In a fantastic stroke of scope, Velázquez incorporated feminine, fluid, organic forms into the panoramic landscape. It is as if the organic landscape is imprisoned by the bars of weapons and the soft feminine mounds of earth are pressed underfoot by the rigid men’s legs.

Though this painting is literally about the civil and very polite-looking surrender of Breda, it is not a stretch of the imagination to see, through Velázquez’s use of erotic symbolism, that this painting is really about destructive rape.

Erotic Symbolism in Art

Going back to the first O’Keeffe, it’s easy to see that the inner lips are made up of phallic shapes.

I find it amusing that in constructing this painting O’Keeffe used phallic shapes, not as a dominant force as in The Surrender of Breda, but in subservience to the feminine whole.

I hope you enjoyed this escapade in seeing art in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
New York, September 15th, 2006

Details Don’t Mean A Thing If They Ain’t Got That Swing

Details Don’t Mean A Thing
If They Ain’t Got That Swing by Michael Newberry

da Vinci detail

Artists often agonize over the completion of a painting. The bugaboo for many realists is the detailing. Details are the crowning touches and yet, more often than not, they can rob the painting of its vitality.There are many great artists that manage to solve the “detail” problem. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is brimming with life and her famous smile is one of the most detailed details of any painting. I have viewed her close up and have seen how da Vinci has broken down the form of her lips into hundreds of tiny planes.So why is it that when other artists pay special attention to details, they do not come up the same results? I believe the answer lies in the swing of the big forms. In other words, details only work when they maintain the integrity of the big forms and their place in space.

da Vinci

Da Vinci, Mona Lisa

Stepping back and looking at the Mona Lisa as a whole, you can see that her head “sits” in the middle foreground, while her chest and hands rotate towards us, “locking into” the foreground.

da Vinci demo

Here you can get a sense of “leap-frogging” from her hand in the immediate foreground, to the corner of her breast, and then further back to her lips.If da Vinci had painted too strong of contrasts or gave too much, or too little, volume to her lips, he would have killed the lively dynamic of the swing of the forms through space.

There is no simple technique for placing objects in space. The contrast of light, dark, and color play a role, as well as high definition, perspective, and expanding the forms. All of these contribute to bringing objects forward. Transparency, less contrast, and blurring help make forms recede.

Rembrandt, Young Woman at the Window

Very similar in the setup as the Mona Lisa is this Rembrandt. Her head “sits” in the middle foreground and the corner of the breast comes forward.

Rembrandt demo

If you look for it, you will see how Rembrandt is wrapping the figure in light; he is swinging the light current around, behind, and up front on her form.

Rembrandt detail

Notice the meticulous detail of the leather cord and metal key around her neck.

Rembrandt detail

The earring also has extremely fine detailing, yet it occupies space way behind that of the cord and key.

Picasso woman_and_child
Picasso, Mother and Child

An interesting contrast to the above paintings is this Picasso. It is all form with very little detail. It is extremely deceptive in its simplicity. All the forms work in space as they do in the Rembrandt and da Vinci.

It only takes a little painting experience to discover that details are time exhaustive. Picasso opted to save time and sacrifice details.

If you are detail orientated, try to establish the big forms, like Picasso, has done above, and then embellish the forms with as much detail you like. Be careful not to flatten the form!


Beert, @1600, Still Life of Flowers

Here is a 16th/17th Century Flemish still-life. It is loaded with detail, but it is a flat painting. It is as if the flowers have been compressed and share a two-inch space of depth; as if the flowers have been painted from side to side, but not front to back. I would call this an example of indiscriminate detailing. The artist is not considering the interrelationship of the flowers’ positions nor their forms, hence, sacrificing the vitality of depth for superficial decoration.

The swing of forms through space excite eye movement and, for many observers, this creates an emotional response. Details that embellish and complete the forms bring with them an irresistible reality. Adding details to big forms is a tour de force of artistic skill.I hope you enjoyed seeing art in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
New York, November 18th, 2006

Seek the Big Form: Study Sculpture

Seek the Big Form: Study Sculpture by Michael Newberry

Figurative sculptors spend most of their time focused on the best way to present the figure. For painters, there is a lot to learn from how sculptors often bring out the big abstract form of the figure.

Seeing one perspective offered by the photo of the sculpture will serve our purpose. Our goal is to look for the abstract shape of the body.

When working with a model, it is always good for painters to shift your position so that you can find the best view that accents the big form.


This is Peter Schipperheyn’s Madonna. In this view, we can see three abstract mountain peaks. There is much going on in this sculpture, her expression and facial details, the detailed hands, and the folds of the material.

Because Peter kept to this rhythm of the three peaks, we do not feel overwhelmed by too much information. The abstract shapes work like major landmarks in a landscape; as long as they are in view you know where you are.

I don’t know if Schipperheyn as done this on purpose, but there are the symbolic connotations of the peaks representing earth and they pointing towards the heavens. Great touch.


This is Schipperheyn’s monumental Zarathustra. The green overlay shows the accent on the arched back and the forearms echoing the back’s arch.

Monumental sculpture Zarathustra by Peter Schipperheyn

Figurative sculpture by Martine Vaugel

This is Martine Vaugel’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Goat.

From this angle, the abstract view is an uneven triangle.

For painter’s we run into the problem of foreshortening. For example if we were facing this female model straight on, it would be harder to find the abstract shape.

I think it is wise for a painter to look for the view that expresses the pose the best. Often the silhouetted view does this.

Martine is also making a visual metaphor by abstracting the shape of a goat standing on a rock.

Look what happens when I shrink this image down almost to nothing, we can still clearly (well I can), the shape of the image.

If you can imbue your painted figure with a good abstract shape your image will register well from any distance.

Woman Holding Desire by Martine Vaugel

Another Vaugel sculpture, Women Holding Desire (this is the bottom section of the entire sculpture.)

Here we can see that the shape of the upper torso parallels her left thigh, and the pelvis connects them with a perpendicular thrust. From this view, we have a slashing “S” shape.

Desire in the Absence of Reason by Martine Vaugel

Desire in the Absence of Reason by Vaugel.

I think this is a wild piece. We have a straight on frontal view, but because the woman’s arms and legs are thrown outwards we get a big “X” shape.

I wonder if that “X” also is symbolic that desire without reason is something to delete off your list.

Icarus Landing by Michael Newberry

The cross shape in Icarus Landing is one of the most simple that exist. In the preliminary stages, I had thought to change the perspective, and look at him from the side, but I rejected that because I wanted this image to be iconic–which is driven home by the explicit cross shape.

Icarus registers quite well small.


Venus is a companion piece to the Icarus above. And I had a similar idea of the cross, but her’s is more curvaceous.

So before you sit down to draw a model seek the biggest and simplest abstract form of their body. I think you will be pleased by the results.

Venus by Michael Newberry

I hope you enjoyed seeing sculpted shapes in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
New York, April 29, 2008

Abstraction in Representational Art

Abstraction in Representational Art by Michael Newberry
Abstraction is one of the most important tools in an artist’s arsenal–it groups together masses of visual information into a cohesive whole, enabling the viewer to “see the forest through the trees.”

Rembrandt, The Little Children Being Brought to Jesus (“The 100 Guilder Print”), 1647-49, etching and drypoint

Abstraction is a guide that allows viewers to take in small details while simultaneously keeping their attention on the larger panoramic picture.

Abstraction, in representational art, is a grouping of visual units into a bigger visual shape.

Not surprisingly, Rembrandt uses light and shadow to mass people and settings into large abstract shapes. What might be more subtle is that he also organized those shapes into forms that rotate in space.

For example, in the shape I outlined in green, Rembrandt has grouped several people into this swirl of light. This large shape pulls the viewer into the work and sweeps them around behind Christ.

By bathing this abstract shape in such strong light, Rembrandt also added the metaphor that this group is enlightened or receiving his light.


As a counter balance to the large areas of light, he has grouped most of the background into a large cast shadow. Very few people, perhaps skeptics, are in the shadows. This dark area is not a cardboard cut of flat black. Rather, it opens up the cavernous depth of the setting, creating a sense of emptiness–a poignant contrast to the people-filled areas in light.


Abstract artists, such as Kline, distilled abstraction until there was little left other than abstraction itself. These bold expressions drove home the formal compositional elements, dividing the painted surface into simple positive and negative areas.

When studying an artist as complex as Rembrandt it is easy to get lost in all the things that he is a powerful master of: the human condition, the gestures, the light, the movement, etc. In contrast, studying Kline makes it easy to remember the importance of organizing the composition into big areas.

Kline, 1957

Monet does a beautiful job of abstracting the pink sunset and turquoise shadows and their reflections in the water.

Arm of the Seine near Giverny Claude Monet001
Monet, Arm of the Seine near Giverny
While researching images for this tutorial, I came across this fun image of Monet’s Poplars. The “S” curve of the poplars creates a gestural abstract shape.

Monet, Poplars

It’s easy to see the similarity of Monet’s “S” curve with the staircase of this Rembrandt. I cannot help but think that Rembrandt accented this staircase, not only as a major abstract shape but as a metaphor for learning in stages or steps.

Philosopher in Meditation (Rembrandt)001
Rembrandt, Philosopher in Meditation, 1632

I hope you enjoyed seeing abstraction in a fresh way.

Michael Newberry
New York, January 14th, 2007