Emotions in Art

I’ve written a lot about emotions in art. For me, emotion is what draws me to a particular painting when I’m looking at works of art. Now, as an artist, emotion also draws me to particular scenes, and when I pick up a paintbrush, emotion is what I want to paint. It may be disguised as a sunny field, a mighty tree,  a majestic mountain, a river, a lake, or other landscape elements, but the emotion must be there, otherwise there’s no real meaning or purpose to the scene.

But what is emotion when it comes to art? And more importantly, how do we create it?

These are questions I’ve been exploring even more since I listened to Phil Schmitt talk about his criteria for judging art. A good painting, he said, should make the viewer feel something — in a very literal sense. In looking at the paintings he selected as winners in each category of our HFAA art show, it became apparent that Schmitt liked things that were a bit frightening or — I hesitate to use the word — disgusting.

The Best in Show award went to a small watercolor titled Ants in My Americano. As the title suggests, it featured a small army of ants scurrying across a honey-filled spoon next to a cup of coffee. The judge liked the painting so much he not only awarded it Best in Show but later purchased the painting from the artist.

first-place ribbon in the photography category went to a rather dark and dreary photograph of a deserted alley. In discussing the entry, Schmitt talked about how hesitant he would be to walk down that alley. The photograph made him feel that fear.

I don’t want to think, of course, that fear is the only emotion upon which art should be judged. As an aside, I do wonder, though, if this fear factor played a part in the judge’s decision to give me a merit award for my painting of gathering storm clouds. I know that every judge is different, and maybe the next time I enter a show and know that Schmitt will be the judge, I’ll choose entries accordingly. Or, maybe not.

The emotions I want to convey in my landscape paintings have more to do with hope than with fear. I want my paintings to be more about light than darkness, to evoke thoughts of peace rather than discord, tranquility rather than noise.

Learning to create emotional art means understanding what I want to express in a painting, learning to be more intentional in how I paint — in the way I compose scenes, in the colors I choose, in the lights and shadows. That’s one way to approach emotion in art. At other times, according to Jill Poyerd, an artist whose works are filled with emotion, those emotions may happen without conscious thought. Sometimes our mood, our state of mind may subconsciously direct the choices we make.

Either way — deliberate or unintentional — art that makes the viewer feel something achieves its purpose. Art is emotion.

For a close look at emotion in art, I will turn again to Jill Poyerd. She has put together many excellent art videos, including this 12-minute discussion of the role of emotion. It is definitely worth watching.

For me, emotion comes mostly through color. I’m still learning about composition, still struggling with basic oil painting techniques, still working to create strong value contrasts in my landscapes. Many of the methods other artists use to create emotional responses aren’t yet part of my repertoire.

Another element I’m learning which I hope will help me convey more emotion are the basic principles of design — concepts such as rhythm, movement, position, and scale. In the video, Poyerd shows paintings by Mark Rothko  — whose work I’ve never fully understood — and Jackson Pollock — whose work I’ve always loved and whose tragic life always saddens me.

Now, considering these abstract paintings in the context of emotion, I can begin to see the value of Rothko’s work, and I love Pollock’s paintings even more.

While I’m not drawn to images of human suffering, scenes of war, or paintings with fearful, frightening elements, I do recognize the incredible artistry displayed, and I think I’m more aware now of the need for these works of art. We are all emotional beings, and art allows us to feel emotions at a very deep level. In that way, art celebrates our humanity. At the same time, through those emotions, art connects us to the divine.

How do you create emotion in your art? Do you begin with deliberate intentions? What emotions do you want others to feel in viewing your art? What elements do you feel are most important in conveying those emotions?

Please share your thoughts!



    1. I always feel emotions when I view paintings, and when I paint. It’s hard for me to know, though, how to express the emotions I feel through painting. I hope, in time, as my technical ability improves, I’ll be able to make my paintings more expressive.

      Liked by 1 person

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