Thursday, June 10, 2010

Philosofossilising- What is Palaeo Art (Matt van Rooijen)

This is a reply to the question:
What is Palaeo-Art?

This is an individual opinion on this topic. To read a number of different peoples' answer to this question click this link here. If you have your own answer, read the last paragraph of this post for details on how to get yours posted.

We have our first guest essay entry to this topic from Matt van Rooijen! We would like to thank Matt for taking the time to send us his thoughts, and hope our members and readers could take the time to show our collective appreciation for him taking the time to enter this discussion!

The administrators would just like to apologize to both Matt and our readers, that due to blogger's formatting restrictions, we were unable to underline the capital A's in Matt's essay as he wished them to be. So whenever you encounter the word "Art" with a capital A, Matt places emphasis on this as per his discussion.

Hi, my name's Matt van Rooijen and I'm an illustrator and animator living about as far away as you can get from anywhere else in Tasmania, Australia.

You might know me from illustrations such as these: or this:

I really wanted to talk about the notion of Art and art/illustration, and why the majority of Paleo-art isn't Art.

Before you rush to the keyboard to set the comments section on fire, take a deep breath and read on to discover why this is a good thing.

Now you might have noticed I've used Art with a capital A which I've underlined to make it stand out even more (insecure ain't I?).

This is because when most people talk about art what they really mean is a practice that depicts the world or an idea through human craft.

This is art with a small 'a'. People who are in the capital 'A' Art world consider this to be illustration, or even craft.

Why? Well there's a couple of things missing before something can be moved into the Art category.

Art has two significant components that move it away from illustration.

First is a conscious act of interpretation on the part of the Artist. What does this mean? Stuffed if I know.

Sorry, wine talking.

It's the decision to use the technique of the Artist(whether it be paint, sculpture, etc.) as a vehicle to interpret the meaning of the subject.

After re-reading that sentence possibly the wine is still talking.

Essentially the Artist doesn't care about accurate depiction or technique beyond achieving the second component of Art, which is:


A modern Artists' function is to personally comment upon their subject, usually to send a message to the audience of the Art.

To most people this sounds like self indulgent claptrap and their 5 year old could do Jackson Pollock's 'Blue Poles' in a frenzied 5 minutes of red cordial induced paint frenzy.

This is because the majority of people see Art as it was before the advent of photography. Accurate or even photographic depiction is what people admire because it has recognisable craftsmanship and demonstrates an ability honed with practice and dedication.(remember I said this, it'll help below)

Art had to move on and many painful decades on, guys throwing cow blood at walls elicit the same reaction now as the Impressionists did in their time.

So where does this leave Paleo-art?

Generally in the same place as Fantasy art, Science Fiction art, Wild life art, movie concept art, comic book art etc. It's for the most part Illustration.

Before firing up the flame cannon in the comments section remember: this is a good thing.
Often when I've said this to people who consider themselves Artists (who are actually doing illustration) they've become a bit insulted, for some reason they feel I'm saying what they do is somehow inferior.

It's not, it simply has a different goal. Art's job is to subjectively interpret and comment upon human existence.

So just stop and ask yourself, is that what you're doing when you paint, or draw or sculpt?
Then ask yourself, "Why the heck would I want to???? I was just painting Styracosaurus as accurately as I possibly could! Look, it's drinking at a river! It makes me happy! Leave me alone!"
So here's the clincher, Art doesn't demand what most people admire and recognise as skill: craftsmanship, realism, beauty, accuracy, style, interest.

Illustration, on the other hand, is a cruel and demanding mistress who actually asks you to make something that looks like something! Draw in your viewer! Use your understanding of perspective, values, composition! (must stop drinking wine)

It isn't to say Art can't have those qualities, but they aren't a prerequisite, and they certainly aren't valued in the same way.

After reading a couple of essays on Paleo-art, for the most part the goal of Paleo-art is to create accurate images which are the depiction of a somewhat removed reality.

People talk about accuracy and current understanding of the science as significant criteria, not whether the work will convey the deeper meaning of that science on culture and subjective human existence.(yawn)

I've seen a few works here that do actually do this, but those quietly move themselves outside the realm of Paleo-art and into just Art. The Paleo tag becomes redundant.(Art's selfish ain't it?)
So what is Paleo-art? I know it's most often not Art, but most of what we think of as Art isn't anyway. What we usually value and regard as admirable doesn't need that label.

Nor should it want it.


PS: I trained as a Fine Artist, but what I admire and enjoy most in life is illustration, art with a little 'a', in all its forms.

-- Matt van Rooijen

ART Evolved is very interested in other opinions on this topic, and would welcome your answer to this question. If you would like to enter an article on "What is Palaeo-art", please read the brief criteria here, and send your essay to


davidmaas said...

You state directly and succinctly what I was trying to get at. Its illustration and we can be proud of that!

Glendon Mellow said...

Great essay!

In my opinion (as another fine artist who often illustrates) "Art" is the umbrella term. "Fine Art" is what most people think of as capital-A art, and largely what I would say you describe here. But Art is the umbrella over both the flamboyant Fine Art and its younger, sharper sibling, Illustration.

Anonymous said...

The important thing to remember is that both Art and illustration are about communication, they're very close together and both allow for personal expression.
I haven't been a 'Fine Artist' for a very long time, and I don't miss it.

Jules Ruiz said...

What you said definitely resonates with me.
Also, this: "I was just painting Styracosaurus as accurately as I possibly could! Look, it's drinking at a river! It makes me happy! Leave me alone!" is brilliant. I think I've had that conversation with more than one art teacher in the past.

Brett said...

Completely agree.

I've also been told that if you do it ONLY for yourself it's art, if you do it for others its work;)


Brett (one of them Illustrators;))

Anonymous said...

"if you do it ONLY for yourself it's art"

This sort of definition comes from the romantic idea of the 'suffering artist'. It's certainly not the way modern Art defines itself and is more a popular notion.
We need to be careful about such definitions because they perpetuate the idea that art and it's many disciplines needn't be paid for as 'You'd be doing it for yourself anyway'.(as a commercial illustrator I'm guessing you might have come across clients who use this slant to wriggle out of paying? I have.)
People who make visual communication are in the terrible position that it is usually also their passion. Separating profession from passion is difficult and personal, but we have to make sure we don't rip ourselves, and others trying to make a living this way, off!

Glendon Mellow said...

Wise words, OP!

I work with a lot of fine artists as well as some illustrators. It's still work. Cast out into the wild, hoping to find resonance with someone with cash: less targeted, less communicated a priori to the desired function of the image.

But fine art is still work.

davidmaas said...

If you do it ONLY for yourself it's therapy.

Capital-A-art is just as rigorous as making-sure-your-Plateosaurus-is-plausible-art, just that the focus is on a different intent and a different audience.

Brett said...

Too serious people, I don't actually agree with it just some of the crap people say, thus the winky smiley thing;)

I don't do anything for free unless its for the starving paleontological community:) Other wise a price is set up at the beginning, they don't pay they don't get the final work, simple. That's what jpegs are for. I might call a lot of what I do art on the my blogs, but it's really product. Just with an artist twist. Can it also be both? Why label it either way, since art like beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Half of the 'art' I see I don't consider art as it doesn't appeal to me. It's ALL subjective.



Anonymous said...

I guess what I'm saying is that there *is* actually an Objective criteria for the different kinds of art.
It's a popular notion to think it's all subjective but that's simply not true.
My argument is that ultimately it doesn't matter and you shouldn't require the 'A'rt label for what you do.

Brett said...

Optimistic Painter,

Here's a definition: Britannica Online defines art as "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others."

That's not criteria, everyone interprets things in their own way, what is imaginative or pretty or ugly to some is the opposite for others. You can't tell me it's art because it meets your standards but not mine. Something might stir you but not me, is that art or is it art because the majority think it's nice? Your trying to jam a square peg into a round hole.



Glendon Mellow said...

Brett, I think what Optimistic Painter and I are getting at is there are objective criteria for different fields or genres of art. (There's vast gulfs of grey area in between these different fields, of course).

Standards of the quality or appeal are of course open to interpretation. That's not in dispute.

If someone says to me, "That scientific illustration is *art*!" in a fit of enthusiasm, well sure. It is art.

If they say "That Picasso's Guernica is *scientific illustration*!" in a fit of enthusiasm, I'll disagree.

Art is the umbrella term that fine art, illustration, cartooning, graffiti and many other forms of visual imagery fall under. Distinctions under the umbrella can be made.

Brett said...


You're telling me there are absolutes and then telling me but it's mostly grey or subjective. Yet you fail to give me examples or criteria.

Here's an example. Jack Kirby, the co-creator of The X-men, Fantastic four and a bunch of other stuff, he's considered the comic art god... Every penciler will tell you they love his stuff, so you would conclude that that is an example of good comic art... I on the other can't stand it. I don't fall into the good art category (I would hardly call most of it art, anatomy all over the place, ugly, ugly people, ugh. But it can be argued that my dislike is and emotion and thus art..) But it does show you that it is subjective, there will always be someone who doesn't like it. Another example the Mona Lisa, it's NEVER done anything for me, just meh, I actually have no opinion on it. Now, I love the David sculpture like most people, one I would consider art (and it can be argued that NONE of that is art since it was all commissioned work, nothing more than what I do with a bit more skill;))

What about the 5 year old who draws a horrible dinosaur? You might laugh, but the parents might love it. Subjective. Now if you want to say there is a level of competencey that needs to be met for professional level work, I would agree to that in theory. But who sets the bar on that? I've done exactly 3 things for the paleontological community. The rest I do for my own pleasure what is art out of that? I consider it more plain illustration as 'Art' to me needs to have some sort of emotion attached... I don't actually do that with anything I do so is what I do 'Art'? I don't really think so but others do, they buy the originals or list me as there favorite artist (weird I know.) Sounds subjective to me.

We mostly agree with you, it's the absolutes that bother me since I can't seem to get what they are.



Brett said...

Perhaps that's the problem, I'm not inclined to think that scientific illustration is ment to be art from the get go. If it becomes art later to some that's cool but since it really just shows a hypothetical scene documentary style the emotional response isn't there. To stay accurate you have to put aside the emotional side and maybe that's why I don't consider it really art but product. Hmmmm.

Ah well, I think we'll be beating a dead horse soon;)



Anonymous said...

Hey Brett, it's real late here but I'll try to give you an answer to your quite rational question.
I agree, Scientific Illustration isn't (Fine)Art that we throw in the same basket as Cubism etc.
Ironically, DaVinci's scientific illustration *is* Art, **by the definition of his time**.
You could also make Art inspired by Science.(I did at Art School), but these days it has to move beyond a representation of a thing to being a comment about a thing.
So what the heck was I writing about? Probably(it's 2am so I can't be sure anymore) that the word Art is such a loaded term, and its true definition is such a bunch of horse hockey that we needn't cling to it to feel that what we do has value...
Die horse die!(is it dead yet?)

Glendon Mellow said...

Brett and all,

I'm not saying there are total absolutes; however, distinctions in types of art can be made amid the shades of grey.

Let me put it this way. Imagine all the types of visual art as colours on a nicely gradated colour-wheel. In between yellow and green, it's hard to pick a precise spot where yellowish-green becomes greenish-yellow: it's a continuum.

Yet, the majority of people can point to a colour on the wheel we collectively consider "primary yellow" and another spot as a kind of "true green".

As I said in an earlier comment, people have a tendency to confuse the large umbrella term "art" with the distinct subset "fine art".

So consider the entire colour wheel of my analogy "art". Let's say scientific illustration is yellow; fine art is green; maybe comics are orange; and so on around the wheel.

While in some cases categorizing a type of image may be as difficult as deciding whether it is "yellowish-green" or "greenish-yellow" along the continuum, another image will distinctly, unmistakably be yellow (scientific illustration) and not green (fine art).

Deciding what constitutes "art" is too broad a question in many cases. But deciding what kind of art an image falls under is often within our grasp.

ie: Picasso's Guernica is not scientific illustration (it's green, not yellow) but something by Lichtenstein is comic-style fine art (orangey-green).

(fun discussion, everyone!)

Weapon of Mass Imagination said...

This is a fantastic discussion, and very interesting to hear people's take on this reclassification of Palaeo-art as illustration.

While I wouldn't entirely see the whole of palaeo-art as illustration (what about the poor sculptors and fossil casters etc?), overall it is the SORT of classification and defination I could definately get behind.

While my definations (two posts) of Palaeo-art haven't tried to remove Palaeo-art from the overall realm of art, I'm actually a big fan of breaking the greater field of art into its own individual subfields and types.

This is more a part of a debate on "what is art?" (which we have sort of jumped into here in this comment thread), and I avoided it in my posts.

As an at home philosopher (I try to model my thinking on Socrates and his awesome method) one of the biggest issues I have in debating anything with anyone is semantics. The definations and meanings of words are so important is serious discussions about things.

Art is one of the absolute worst words for a vague, nebelous, and yet all encompassing meaning with people. My friends and I have had numerous debates on the subject, and 99% of the time we got sidetracked on what this word means for everyone...

So I'm all in favour of labels and classifications to break things down and make them more clear, so that people can get to the heart of discussing them. Even just the debate of what defination applies to what is a worthwhile pursuit (think if it as intellecutal taxonomy :P).

As I've told a few people, I don't feel photography is art. Not because I dislike photography or mean to insult people who partake in it (I myself take about 50-200 photos a week). Simply I feel it is an easy to seperate entity and improve its semantics compared to "art".

Art is created, photos are captured. Both share common elements, but differ in their execution. Yet I hit a lot of hostility to this notion, because photographers want to be labelled an artists... Which to me is a meanless term unless you specify what sort (painter, photographer, singer, etc...). Why cling to the art label, if you have to clarify it anyways?

I also like Glendon's colour wheel metaphor. It is very true, there are things that exist between classifications, and it is important to acknowledge that...

However when you have a single non compartmentalized drawer to keep everything in, you and the things all get lost. You need labels to keep things straight.

Illustration works as a good base for the discussion on a label for palaeo-art... Though it might need a bit more refinement.

Cheers everyone!

Brett said...

Optimistic Painter,

LOL! I do agree with you, really:) I'd say the whole **by the definition of his time**. Sort of proves that it is subjective and I might actually disagree a bit with this particular idea about Leonardo's scientific work being art at the time, but it's really insignificant to this conversation, so to me the horse is well and truly dead;)


But you see the color wheel idea works if everyone sees the colors the same, people aren't color blind or aren't blind to begin with. I will agree that for most 'art' we can place it in a certain type/box, but what if the actual artist didn't intend that?

I actually have a problem with 'Fine Art' as most of the great masterpieces were actually commissioned, which most Fine Artists don't agree with now, selling out I belive the kids call it;) And to be completely honest, the fine 'art' I've seen is badly done, bad foreshortening, bad layouts, no use of space... I can easily go on! It's a moot point since most, if not all pro paleo artwork is done FOR a purpose, either for publications, TV/Movies or like I do to show the ignorant comic fans what the damned things actually may have looked like... Devil Dinosaur... I die a little inside when I see it.

Anyways, we can pretty much dump most paleo art into scientific illustration no problem, but is all of it really art too? That's the subjective part. Since most of us also call ourselves 'artists' it sort of sets the art thing in place even before the work is seen.


Is there even a term for paleo sculptures? If not, do the same rules apply to the naming of species? ;)

I disagree about the photos, having tried to take good quality photos is FRICKEN HARD. It's an art form to me, maybe more like composing things in a pleasing order, which is really what I do only I draw the stuff out. Since what I do would be more technical illustrations I can see it. But that brings me back to my whole point, everyone's idea of what art 'is' is different for them, I don't think anyone can actually say what it is and isn't.

Ok, my brain hurts from thinking about something I never think about. Off to work were I can mindless draw people beating each other!