Context in art

What is ‘context’ or ‘contextualisation’ and why is it important for you as an artist.

Recently I have been thinking about ‘Context’ – it’s crept into my conversations with people when they have been asking me for advice about their drawings and paintings. So I thought I’d share some thoughts with you.

It’s a word that gets thrown about by art students and artists and confuses just about everyone else!
‘Context’ in your drawings and artwork provide visual links that helps us to fully understand what your art is about. A drawing or painting may be beautiful without us knowing its context – we can enjoy the emotive colour, the energising mark-making, the lyrical shapes and patterns, etc. However, its full meaning will not be fully appreciated without us being able to ‘read’ the visual links or clues you have included.  Knowing something about the making of the drawing can also help.

What comes first – making art or understanding context?
If you are a beginner don’t even think about context as it will get in the way. Too much thinking inhibits creative flow – draw first, make art, experiment, try things out, find out what you love to draw, have fun.
Understanding and building the context within your art comes with time, with reflection, through talking and discussing, with making links between your art and everything else that is going on in your life. Keeping a sketchbook is important and can help you to develop a deeper awareness of the contextualisation of your art.

An example
The painting above titled ‘Vision after the Sermon’ painted by Gauguin in 1888, has lots of visual links or clues that shows the influences of the different things that were going on in his life at the time and gives deeper meaning to what the painting is about.

On one level it is a beautiful painting of a wrestling match watched by a group of women, with beautiful colours and the figures drawn in a wonderfully simplified, stylised, lyrical manner. I’d love this on my wall as the rich red colour, brushstrokes, shapes and expressions of the figures capture my imagination every time I look at it.

However, to appreciate it more deeply and get a more satisfying experience of the painting, I need to understand more about its Context. I need to pick up on the visual links that Gauguin has very knowingly placed there on purpose to help us understand what his art is about. It is a very contextually rich painting.

These are;

• The rich flat areas of colour are a move away from the Impressionists broken colour that was very popular at the time with avante garde artists.
• His use of the rich red colour may have been influenced by Japanese prints and their use of non-natural colour that he and van Gogh were so fascinated by at the time. This ties in with the growing awareness of Japanese culture within Europe in the late 19th century due to political changes within Japan.
• The tree dividing the painting is a clue to his interest in Japanese art as it’s style comes directly from a Japanese print. It divides reality (the women watching) from the biblical allegory (Jacob and the angel wrestling).
• The position of the wrestling figures is not only showing Jacob and the angel from the biblical allegory, it also alludes to the local wrestling matches that were held regularly – very much part of the local Brittany customs.
• The animal on the left is not a sheep as you may expect given the title of the painting, as we all know Jacob was a shepherd, but a cow.  This is because a cow was the prize for the winning wrestler as per the local custom that Gauguin was trying very hard to show he was a part of.
• He even included himself in the painting on the right had side as the priest overseeing the event as he was so intent on showing how important the local culture and lifestyle was to him.
• His bold simplified brushstrokes and shapes can even be understood to reflect his fascination with the basic simple peasant lifestyle he went to be part of by going to live in Brittany – away from the bourgeoise culture in the city. It also links to his fascination with ‘primitive’ Peruvian culture where he lived for many years as a child.

So you can see – we can all enjoy and appreciate the painting perfectly well without knowing any of this, but when we do understand the visual links it gives us a far deeper, richer experience enabling us to understand what Gauguin the artist was all about.

What are contextual links?
These are the visual clues in your drawings and paintings that help us understand its deeper meaning. Not every kind of context is relevant to every artwork, but the kind of things that are useful to know about are;
• The impact the artist’s feelings, emotions and physical abilities had on the making of the drawing.
• The wider influences of location, landscape, weather, geography, etc that influenced the making of the drawing.
• The wider set of beliefs that the artist shares with their community; their heritage, faith, culture and the influence this may have had in the making of the drawing.
• The influence other creative artists, authors, musicians, thinkers have had in shaping the ideas held by the artist that may have influenced the drawing.

As an artist, you don’t need to be bothered by these things – they can find their way into your drawings and art automatically. But to enable your art to develop and grow you need to deepen your awareness of what it is you are trying to say as an artist. What is your art about?
If you begin to question why you make your drawings, paintings and sculptures more deeply, you may start asking yourself, “What are the contextual links in my drawings that will guide people to having a deeper understanding of my art:” Questions such as;

• How does my use of the Art Elements (line, tone, colour, shape, form, texture, pattern) to give people clues to the ideas that are important to me?
• How does my choice of certain images or symbols give people deeper insight into what my drawings are all about?
• Do the images I include provide links to ideas by other artists, philosophers; lines by poets; or link with religious or mythological allegories, etc. which may give clues to the deeper meaning behind my drawings?
• Have my choices about what I like to draw been influenced by other artists styles and give people clues as to what my interests are?

You will become an increasingly professional artist the more aware you are of the things that make you make the kind of art you make. Equally the people that view your art will be able to gain a deeper experience from looking at your art – if they wish to delve.

Why is it important?
Drawings that only have visual links to your personal experiences – remain isolated from the wider world – they remain personal to you, the artist that made them, and although everyone is able to enjoy and appreciate your art, it is difficult for people who do not know you to fully understand your art.

• These artworks have a narrow context.
• This isn’t a problem if you are making art just for yourself for enjoyment and a hobby.

Artworks that have visual links to things beyond your own personal experience, to the things in your life that have influenced what you do – are outward looking. They connect your personal experience to wider culture, politics, creative ideas of other artists and thinkers, etc! It makes your personal experience more understandable to other people because they are able to piece together the visual links and clues you have provided in your drawings, either consciously or unconsciously, to gain a deeper understanding of what your art is all about.

• These artworks have a richer or wider context.
• More people will more deeply understand, enjoy, and appreciate what your drawings, paintings and sculpture are all about.

My advice to you is;
• Make art, draw, paint, sculpt – read, visit galleries, look at online galleries, immerse yourself in art + culture. Always look at the world with inquiring eyes – then worry about how this filters into your art much later on.
• Much of it will seep into your artwork quite naturally without any effort being made on your part. Often it is the things you find creeping into your drawings and paintings most regularly that are the things that provide the contextual links that we are talking about – it can happen quite naturally.

• You need to become aware of it, so you can begin to make it happen on purpose – this is how we become better artists.
• Lastly… Read the quote at the end of this article.

I hope this will get you thinking about drawing and painting. There is a lot more that can be said about this. Write your thoughts in the comments section below – I’d love to hear your views. Or ask me when you attend your next course!

“It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

Jean-Luc Godard (Swiss film director)