Thursday, June 14, 2007

Gwen Diehn's The Decorated Page is one of the most useful books I've encountered on the topic of art journaling, and I've found its lessons (like to buy good quality materials and tools even though they're more expensive, because you'll be happier with the results) follow through to other work. The concept that has really stuck with me is that of neutral vs. determined materials, which is really applicable to collage, assemblage, etc. - anywhere you repurpose materials or images.

Determined materials are those that come with their own identity - patterns and colors that suggest a particular meaning, readily recognizable images, images that carry with them a historical interpretation. Neutral materials are those that have no inherent "meaning" of their own and can be used in any way one would care to. In Ms. Diehn's own words:

"Art materials can be described as falling along a continuum from neutral materials (those that don't have any meaning or much connotation of their own) to strongly determined materials (those that carry meaning and connotations of their own.) Neutral materials would include plain white sheets of paper, standard colors of paint, uncarved rubber stamp-making material, ordinary black ink, colored and graphite pencils, or any other materials that, rather than assert themselves, become transparent once they've been incorporated into artwork. Because these materials don't carry any meaning of their own, they won't interfere or conflict with the ideas that you're trying to express.

"Strongly determined materials, at the other end of the continuum, already carry messages... it tends to dominate and weaken any artwork in which it's used unless it's changed in some way or used very deliberately, relating to the content and concept of the piece.


"When gathering materials, things about the meaning and connotation of the particular material, especially if it's strongly determined. Decide whether or not it can be used to express the ideas and feelings you want to get across in your work. If you decide to use some strongly determined materials, be sure that the meaning of the material contributes to the expression of your own meaning, and that it doesn't leap out and overwhelm your work. You can also use a strongly determined material ironically."

The most obvious examples I can think of involve the extensive use of public domain images in altered arts - etchings from 19th century books, Victorian greeting cards, mid-20th century magazines, even those handy Dover books of clip art. They can be extremely useful, especially if you're looking to sell your work and trying to avoid copyright infringement, but there's a wealth of underlying meaning to those images. If you believe what they're telling you, children are always clean and well-behaved, women are graceful and impeccably dressed in sweeping floor-length gowns or "day dresses" complete with a string of pearls, men are strong, businesslike, lantern-jawed. All very nice if you're trying to be ironic, but the tone doesn't work for every project.

I'm not saying don't use those materials, but be aware that you're telegraphing an idea to the viewer that you may not intend.


Anonymous said...

Yes! This is one of my most cherished books. It's not just pretty, but also useful!


Dusty said...

The Decorated Journal by Gwen Diehn is an excellent book as well.