February 1, 2022 Design vs Fine Art


I’ve been thinking about the subject of design versus fine art since I was in undergrad.  The zeitgeist's prevailing thoughts on this issue keep coming back around, so I decided it might be helpful to write about it and in writing, I can clarify my own ideas surrounding it. 


A little personal history here and I promise I won’t take long.  My first big experience with the prejudice around design in the fine art world came about when I was searching for a grad school.  I ended up at a very prestigious midwestern school having an interview with the head of the fine arts department about what I wanted to pursue in my studies.  My plan was to get my masters in fine art and painting.  When my interviewer heard what my background was (I had been working as a designer for the best part of twenty years), he told me outright, and I quote  “ design is the cancer of the art world.”  Yikes.  Now that is a statement for sure, and at that moment I felt my life and efforts, as well what I wanted to pursue, were instantly invalidated with those eight simple words.  Or, at least it was how I reacted at the time.  I was unsure about where he was going with this when he told me that he didn’t think painting was were I should concentrate my energies. And, incidentally, this particular university had just started a new masters program in product design and he would be willing to give me a full ride scholarship and a grad assistant position in order to sign on to that.

Well, I thanked him for his time and left. He did not take the time to look at my work, or even inquire as to why I was interested in the MFA so I left, feeling very deflated thinking I just didn’t have what it was going to take to pursue this direction, much to my dismay.  Later though,  stubborn woman that I was, I I took all my information to Western Michigan University and was accepted into their program.  It was a much smaller school, certainly less prestigious, but they let me in and I was thrilled.

Since then, I have honed my thoughts about design within fine arts, which at the time was probably some kind a process of justification for my life and felt like an apology to the creator Gods for how I had spent my time taking care of existential needs…like food and a roof over my head. Even though, I was actually doing something I loved…an important fact for me  to remember.  During those years, I painted in my spare time and entered shows and competitions whenever I could.  Today, I have finally stopped apologizing for the path my life took and how I got to where I am now and can call myself a fine artist without cringing inside with imposter syndrome.

Each time I begin a new piece, I begin with nothing in mind, I am just reacting to what my eyes, hands, and body tell me to do.  Once that is established, I start refining, and strengthening the composition and color.  One learns about composition in art school, no matter which field you decide to concentrate on, as well as color theory.  The way I looked at it was that once the initial impulse to express myself began and the initial passages were on the page it became an exercise in refinement of color and composition…ie. DESIGN, as part of or within, FINE ART.  It all seems like a no brainer to me now.  

Recently I took a 12 week class on line during COVID.  I was so gratified when the teacher, a well known fine artist, did several weeks of the class course to study color, value, and design.  Suddenly, I was reminded of all those dilemmas I had thought about as I was gaining expertise in my craft which is probably why I am writing this blog now.  Each week and each subject in the lessons, brought back to me some essential teachings I had tried my best to take out of my vocabulary and my thought processes.  Now I think my work is stronger and more painterly than before from reincorporating those very principles. Nothing in my efforts to express myself is innate except perhaps the original impulse.  Craft is craft is craft, and it's the impulse that is the actual creative moment.  I refined my thoughts on the subject through reading Santayana's philosophy books " The  Life of Reason".  Book four is " The Life of Reason in Art " where he touches on the basis of artistic expression and its grounding in reasoning with chapters dedicated to the visual art of painting and also music.  


I am sending out a wish for all of us fine artists struggling with our beginnings, middles and ends, and I say, use what ever tool you have in your arsenal to communicate your feelings. That is what art is ultimately all about, communicating ourselves to ourself and allowing ourselves to be seen outward in the world translating the common experience we all have as human beings.


Here is a link to the books from Santayana.



BELOW are a set of images that show my use of design principles ( color, shape, texture, values, composition, repetition  ) in the process of finishing a painting.


Image 1 : shows the first pass after preparing the canvas.  The main objective is to get some large spaces defined and paint on the entire surface exploring some color at the same time.


Image 2 :  In the first image, there was a block between the different parts of the canvas, so this pass refined large spaces and opened the piece up.


Image 3 : Again the large areas defined and additional mark making and color removed and added.  


Image 4 :  More marks, removal of the dark diagonal line keeping you caught in the right of left side of the painting.


Image 5 FINAL :  Color saturation intensified and details brought out, small additions and subtractions for final.