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What makes an impact?

What makes a piece of art mean something to someone? What makes it “speak to” someone, or touch someone?

The answer is different for each person since all experiences are personal and subjective. Even though some art (like famous classics like the Mona Lisa, the Scream and the Thinker) does seem to have universal qualities.

A painting can catch our attention and trigger a reaction by its:

  • Motif (what is depicted)
  • Composition (arrangement of light shapes, dark shapes and colours)
  • Execution (how the picture was painted)
  • Story (what the viewer knows about the painting or the artist)

As for motifs, we’re generally more drawn to the sight of beautiful flowers, landscapes and faces (especially those belonging to young women) than of disturbing scenes and hidious figures.

It’s not just about being nice to look at. If we like the motif, we tend to like the painting more. If we like open, vast landscapes – which I happen to do – we’re inclined to enjoy paintings of open, vast landscapes. If we are anti-war, we are more likely to appreciate images anti-war images, and so on. Indeed if we hate flowers, chances are we find still-lifes with flowers repelling.

A composition in itself can be more or less pleasing to the eye. It can invoke different feelings and moods, like a sense of drama or serenity. Composition is less based on each person’s predisposition since human biology controls how it affects us. That means that we all react more or less in the same (or at least similar) way to the composition of an image. For instance, the eye naturally appreciates patterns, visual balance and contrast. If it’s lacking, the brain compensates for it when it creates the image we see. That´s why we see faces in the moon, castles in the sky and greener greens when it’s next to red of similar value.  

Execution is the level of technical skill, but it’s more. It’s the way of working. A personal and unique method or style will probably result in more personal and unique images. Many naïve, quirky pictures with deliberately “inaccurate” figures in them have had much bigger impact on the audience – and certainly a much bigger audience – than than yet another perfectly rendered classical masterpiece. Did I hear “Picasso”?

Finally, the story surrounding the work makes a whole lot of difference. To reference Picasso again, would any of us have seen or hear of his iconic “Guernica” without the story of the artist and the story of the tragic air raid on the Spanish village. An anti-war story that many resonate with has become an important part of their experience of the painting.

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