Imitation or Representation – Art Philosophy

Recently I mentioned the connections between art and philosophy — a branch of study referred to as aesthetics. On this point, which deals with beauty and taste, I’m content to go with the conventional wisdom that says beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. You like what you like. I like what I like. Sometimes we’ll be in agreement as to what is beautiful and note-worthy; at other times we’ll have very different opinions. Still, all is well. We’re each entitled to our opinions.

My study of tonalism, however, has brought me a bit deeper into philosophy and art. I’ve been reading more about the life and work of Asher B. Durand, one of my favorite artists. Several years ago as I first began oil painting, I read Durand’s collection of “Landscape Letters”. While I enjoyed his essays on art, I was beset with questions. I addressed these questions in a post from January 2017. I had been oil painting for about 2 months at this time. I was excited and eager to learn, but Durand’s words made me question how an artist should approach nature.

He wrote about resemblance, and he wrote about representation. What was the difference? I wasn’t sure, but at the time my skills were so limited, it hardly mattered. Here is where my confusion began, with Durand’s insistence that an aspiring artist should choose a simple foreground object, such as “a fragment of rock, or trunk of a tree” — one marked by strong light and shade — and then to “paint and re-paint until you are sure the work represents the model — not that it merely resembles it.”

In my reading this morning, I came across these concepts again while learning about Durand’s “nature studies”. Now, his “studies” aren’t quite like my “quick studies”, but even so, he viewed them as preliminary works, not finished paintings. Making nature studies — en plein air — was the method by which he acquainted himself with nature.

Here is one study, “Interior of a Wood”:


To me, this is nothing short of a mind-boggling example of art. To Durand, it was simply a study. I can see at once why he chose this interior of a wood — all those minute details, the fungi, the subtle variations in color. These were the elements Durand insisted an artist must learn… and master.

Mastery of nature in art demands more than mere imitation; it requires representation. So, what do these different — yet similar — concepts mean? Frustrated once again with my inability to fully grasp what Asher Durand is trying to teach me, I went off on a philosophical tangent, turning toward ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and to a modern-day philosopher, Noel Carroll.

It was an insightful morning.

According to ancient Greek philosophy, art imitates life. Works of art, therefore, should try to accurately resemble real life subjects. It is this imitation that creates an aesthetic or artistic response in the observer.  Going back again to the adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Aristotle and Plato would suggest that it’s only when the beholder’s eye falls upon an accurate imitation of a subject that it can be considered a true work of art.

Moving forward in time now to contemporary thinking, we find Carroll defining art much differently. In the “representation” theory, a work can only be considered art if two qualities are present:

  • The artist intends for a work to stand for — or represent — a subject or concept
  • The viewer understands that the work is intended to represent that particular subject or concept

In other words, to put it plain and simple, a work of art can represent something without having to imitate it.

There are, however, problems with Carroll’s representational theory in that some artworks truly make no pretension of representing anything. Abstract art may or may not be representational. Design patterns can be art yet not be representational. Despite these questions, however, I now have a much better understanding of the differences Durand wrote about in his landscape letters.

For me, this is a liberating concept. I feel freer now to explore landscape art in my own way, playing with different colors, using the different methods I’m learning to add mood and atmosphere to my paintings. It’s bringing me back around to the idea of painting from the heart, painting what I feel, and sharing the beauty of nature in my own unique way.

The theory of representation allows each artist — even me — to speak with a unique voice.



  1. Interesting read. As you may know, photographers have a much stronger attachment to representing reality, and even though some more recent techniques deviate from that (intentional camera movement, adding texture, composed photographs etc) most international photo contests do not allow for much in the way of post-processing, and photographers still spend hours debating what’s a photograph and how much can it deviate from what’s there. The problem is, however, that what’s there is often very boring and everyone passing by there will produce a similar product. Quite frankly I cannot stand to see another photograph of Yosemite’ s half done, but I would like to see an artistic representation of it.

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    1. It’s interesting to read your comments and think about “art” from a photographer’s point of view. I know a lot can be done “post-photo” but as you pointed out that’s a no-no for competitions,. Simply finding a good composition isn’t enough because other photographers will likely find that same good composition, so how do you make your work original? Very interesting to think about this! I imagine catching the lights and shadows at exactly the right moment would be a big part of how a photographer approaches art. BTW, I recently did a graphite drawing of Yosemite Falls (working from a reference photo). I’ve never posted it. I’ll have to get it out and share it. 🙂 I’m thinking about possibly painting the scene one day.

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  2. Certainly, an interesting article. However, I believe that art doesn’t have to imitate life, reality or nature. Art does much more, but can include imitation of life and reality. I suppose, this idea has led to concept of hyperrealism where the artist patiently and very closely imitates the reality, and, nowadays, with technical abilities to recreate sketch in any size or outline drawing on any surface, or paste a black and white photo on canvas, it has become reproduction of reality. I know cases when artists were disqualified from juried show because they just painted over every detail on a large photo which was printed on canvas.
    Many years ago, especially in Europe where I am from originally, it was supposed to be the worst artistic sin to copy a photography. So, an artist developed ability to see, observe, memorize and recreate.
    The image shows a stunning piece of art. Since the artist assumed and called it only a study, this tells us how the artist did not emphasize that every tiny bit of creation is art with the capital “A”. What we are seeing often today, is that there is a total lack of self-criticism. If you look at published art, you frequently notice that every piece of beginner’s attempt, every trial, every smallest piece of color testing is called art. That definitely points to high standards before and no standards whatsoever now, for instance, in conceptual art, where artist works without a skill, and, regardless of how this direction in art is called, also without any concept frequently.
    As always, insightful and informative article.

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    1. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. I’ve wrestled with so many questions about art and about my place in this world of art. As a newcomer, I still question whether or not I have the right to call myself an artist. Maybe in some respects I set my standards too high and my work always falls short of what I want to be able to do, but on the other hand I’m learning that art is expression, and an imperfect expression that comes from the heart has to be worth something, even if it doesn’t measure up to “artistic standards”. I agree that art does not have to “imitate life” as the Greek philosophers believed. I think art can be many different things. The most creative forms of art are, in my opinion, those that deviate from “the real world” and show imagination as well as artistry. But that idea can be taken too far, I think. Much of what passes as “art” isn’t really art at all. Later on I have a post coming up that addresses some of these questions regarding abstract art. We can see art everywhere, yes… but at some point, it can’t really be called art if it’s only random lines and colors and marks. It’s a tricky topic, and I truly appreciate your comments.

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  3. I will have a look again at your art, but I believe I liked it. It’s been a while I visited your blog, and your articles are very insightful and very deep. I think that’s a sign of a serious person who takes art seriously. That is quite rare today.
    well, internet brings out everything, the best and the worst, and we are left to make our decision. Along with no self-criticism we can see also too much self-criticism when artist has created an excellent piece of art but they feel unsure of its value and place in the very multi-faceted global art landscape.
    The thing which is always true is this one: when art displays not only technical abilities of artist, but also has emotional impact, it is good art. I’ve seen sometimes paintings which are far from perfection (and art shouldn’t be about perfection), but which make one look at it, think and feel. My personal assumption is that good art makes people experience it on emotional level and is attractive to them in a way that also non-artist can appreciate.

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    1. I like the way you think about art. I agree that “imperfections” can often be the very thing that makes art beautiful and meaningful to us. It took me a long time to fully appreciate that. I only started learning to draw five years ago, so of course I thought my art was all “bad art” because it wasn’t “perfect”. Now, I can look at some of the still life paintings Cezanne paid and see “Hey, those are perfect” — yet there are things about them, such as his use of color, that makes them beautiful and eye-catching. Art isn’t about perfection, and it’s not always about “beauty” either. Art can be many things to many people, so there’s never any way to fully understand it or categorize it.


    1. I also meant to say that I am happy to discover your blog. Your insightful articles give a lot of food for thought, like this one about the question of art. It bugs me too, especially when I see pretensions disguised as art. It makes me feel guilty at the same time to judge someone else’s work. Abstract art falls largely into this quagmire with its dots and dashes, squiggles and blobs. For this reason, I had shied away from it, until I picked up my brush to paint again and found a resonance with the abstraction of ideas freed from their predetermined forms. It has given me new liberties so invigorating that could only come from the heart. I don’t know if I make any sense. 🥴

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      1. You’re making perfect sense, and your feelings mirror my own. I’m only now learning to fully appreciate abstract art, and I’ve been doing several abstract acrylic paintings using different techniques. I like some of the results I’ve achieved, yet sometimes I don’t feel that I’m really creating “art” — so there’s a fine line there, I think, between true self-expression and simply “splattering paint” or making random “dots and dashes, squiggles and blobs,” as you so aptly put it. You’ll be seeing some of these abstract experiments in future posts, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts about them.

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      2. Yes, my feelings exactly. Which brings us to another interesting exploration, that is, what exactly is creating art? It will probably lead us down a rabbit hole.
        I look forward to seeing your ‘experiments’ and sharing my responses.

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      3. What is creating art? Now, that’s an interesting question. To me, it’s what I might call “visual exploration with the intent to express personal throughts and feelings.” For me, since I’m not a talented or trained artist, there has to be a sense of “play” in what I’m doing, along with a desire to make something that’s pleasing (to me) in some way.

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  4. I’m no trained artist either. But there has always been a deep-rooted instinct to ‘make art’. I agree the ‘play’ and ‘pleasing’ parts are important to the process and outcome of making art, especially for artists who create for self-expression. I think even for those who make art for functional purposes, the ‘falling in love with what you do’ is a key component.

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    1. Very true, I think. I don’t see how anyone can create “art” without loving the process. If they don’t love what and how they are creating, the results can’t truly be art.

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    1. It’s taken me several years of drawing and painting to really understand the “personal” qualities of art. I’m finally developing a greater sense of freedom. I’m giving myself permission to be who I am as an artist.

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  5. It is mesmerising to see at art through the eyes of philosophy. I really appreciate your work . Looking at “the interior of the wood” is a heavenly experience. I my view practicing tonolism is a way to meditate and it is the journey to find truth about the life and the things surrounding it.

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    1. What a beautiful approach to tonalism! Art has become a form of meditation for me, yet I had not connected it with my study of tonalism. Now I want to spend more time letting myself “get lost” in the lights and shadows and colors of my favorite artists. Your thoughts are very inspiring for me and will definitely influence the art I create. Thank you.


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