If you’ve ever seen the Red, Yellow, and Blue abstract pictures/paintings of Piet Mondrian and didn’t “get it”— I’m with you. This article will share with you what I personally love about his work, and how his artwork has informed my own picture-making, and education as a visual artist.
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Yes, Piet Mondrian can paint
To start, Piet Mondrian actually knows how to paint. Some of his earlier works I like:
And here are some of my own sketches, inspired by him:
The first thing that inspired me: he understood Color Theory. He knew how to contrast the opposing warm colors vs cold colors.
His compositions were also very dynamic. He was a good artist before he did all this abstract stuff. And that’s why I respect his abstract work:
Piet Mondrian was trained classically as a painter, and built up his theory of ‘neo-plasticism’ in art, as a philosophical theory to explain the purpose of art.
He wasn’t a bullshitter, like most modern artists. He runs much deeper.
Why is his work such a big deal?
For me, this is why I love his work:
- He was able to simplify painting and pictures to the bare essentials: the colors Red, Yellow, Blue (black, white, and grey as additional). He made the line and proportion the basis of composition (how to arrange a picture).
- He was very skilled with his oil paints, to make such a perfect straight line and squares. My sister Annette taught me that painting with oil with such perfect strokes is insanely difficult.
- He stayed true to his own artistic vision, and presented his view of beauty and art with the world.
- He was radically different, and had a very unique style. He stood out as a visual artist (to learn more about branding and marketing, read MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER).
- He ‘cross-pollinated’ mathematical principles with art. You can see that his lines, and divisions of boxes was actually quite mathematical in nature.
What Photographers can learn from Piet Mondrian
My sister ANNETTE KIM applied Piet Mondrian principles to my photos. This is the proportions she made:
Therefore, you can see how the principles and proportions of composition can aid us as photographers, to deconstruct our compositions, and add balance and dynamism to our pictures:
Studying shapes and placement for composition
Photography and painting are sister art forms: they both make pictures.
To me, a picture is defined by a pictorial representation of reality, on a two-dimensional plane, rendered inside a frame.
Therefore, if you study painting, or the compositions of Piet Mondrian, you can think of the different colors, proportions of shapes, and placement, the same you would think of a photography composition.
As an assignment, imagine the different colors, shapes, and forms —and imagine them as subjects in a photograph:
Simplify your photographs
For fun, I’ve been making a lot of my color picture into abstract images. The purpose:
Reminding myself to keep my pictures simple, direct, yet dynamic.
Also as a reminder to simplify my color palette. To just choose a few primary colors to work with, to keep it simple:
Lessons From Piet Mondrian
To transition a bit, let us hear directly from Piet Mondrian. Here are practical insights I’ve learned about art from him:
1. Don’t be ashamed finding inspiration from other artists
And finally I must tell you that I was influenced [in Paris, c. 1912/13] by seeing the work of Picasso, whom I ‘greatly’ admire. I am not ashamed to speak of his influence, for I believe that it is better to be receptive to correction than to be satisfied with one’s own imperfection, and to think that one is O so original! Just as so many painters think. And besides, I am surely totally different from Picasso, as one is generally wont to say.
Many artists were inspired by cubism. Find inspiration everywhere, and don’t be afraid or shy to steal inspiration from others. Originality is overrated.
2. Be patient with your growth and evolution as an artist
Forgive me of saying so, but good things just have to grow very slowly. I say this in connection with your plans.. ..for launching a journal. I do not think that the time is favourable for it. More must be achieved in art in that direction. I hardly know anyone who is really creating art in our style, in other words, art which has arrived.. ..(i.e. you will have to include in it [in the planned art- Journal ‘De Stijl’] what is not consistent with our ideas.
Don’t rush your evolution as a photographer or visual artist. Work hard, and make lots of art, but always remind yourself to stay patient.
3. Harmony of rhythm and unchanging proportion
I am searching for the proper harmony of rhythm and unchanging proportion, as I wrote in the article. And I cannot tell you how difficult it is. [Mondrian is reacting on Van Doesburg criticism of the strong domination of the regular grid in Mondrian’s latest paintings]
For me, composition is all about finding dynamism and proportion. Make compositions that feel harmonious — that have balance, yet tension.
4. Perfection is death
[Paris as modern city is] beautiful in its perfection, but perfection means death and decay. Thus interfering with the process of dying is a crime against perfection: it stands in the way of a higher perfection.
Anything too perfect is anti-art, and anti-life. Growth, advancement, and development require destruction and construction.
5. Composition as relationships, not forms
By their position and their dimension as well as by the importance of given to colour, the coloured planes express in a plastic way only relations and not forms.
Everything is expressed through relationships. The tension that happens in art comes from contrasts, juxtapositions, and tension.
Therefore don’t just think of composition as lines and forms, but as relationships of forms with one another.
6. Simple Color
The more basic the color, the more pure.
Don’t seek to add too many colors to your pictures. Keep it simple and pure.
7. Destruction and construction
[Jazz and Neo-Plasticism are] highly revolutionary phenomena: they are destructive constructive. They do not destroy the actual content of form, but rather deepen form only in order to elevate it to a new order. They break the bonds of ‘form as individuality’ in order to make possible a universal unity.
You must destroy in order to create. You must also create in order to destroy.
Now the only problem is to destroy these lines also through mutual opposition. ..[note under his letter]: I think that the destructive element is too much neglected in art.
In practical terms, consider — you must destroy your old work, or forget your old work, in order to create new work.
In photography, you’re creating new relationships of forms in your picture.
To truly innovate in your photography, destroy old notions, customs, and destroy the old culture of photography. Become a MODERN PHOTOGRAPHER.
8. Discover truth through art
I don’t want pictures, I want to find things out.
Art as exploration, and seeking truth.
9. Diagonal Compositions
It may be noted that in Neo-Plastic art the crucial thing is the right angle, that is, the right-angle lines. And not whether the position of the lines is vertical or horizontal.. .So it is possible to make very beautiful things while placing the lines in a diagonal position.
Make more diagonal compositions.
10. Art as pure aesthetic
As pure creation of the human mind, art is expressed as pure aesthetic creation, manifested in abstract form.
Art as aesthetics, made in abstract form.
11. Composition allows for subjectivity in art
Composition leaves the artist the greatest possible freedom to be subjective — as long and insofar as this is necessary. The rhythm of relationship of color and dimension (in determinate proportion and equilibrium) permits the absolute to appear within the relativity of time and space.
As a photographer, seek to make interesting pictures, by re-arranging reality, and making novel compositions. Your compositions will show your own subjective reality.
12. Content is timeless, appearance is transitory
Thus all style has a timeless content and a transitory appearance. The timeless (universal) content we can call the universality of style, and its transitory appearance the characteristic or the individuality of style. The style in which individuality best serves the universal will be the greatest: the style in which universal content appears in the most determinate plastic expression will be the purest.
Your job as an artist is to change the appearance of reality.
As a photographer, your content (subject matter) will be more or less the same (people, nature, landscapes, urban environment, things), but your appearance of how to render your content is up to you.
13. Form and color as means of expression
In the old art, tension of form (line), the intensity and purity of color and natural harmony were accentuated — sometimes exaggerated. In the new art this exaggeration grew to the point where form and color themselves became the means of expression.
Express yourself through forms and colors in your pictures.
14. Color is determined by relationship
Neoplasticism succeeds in universalizing color for it not only seeks the universal in each color-as-color, but unites them mutually through equilibrated relationships. In this way each single colorʼs particularity is destroyed: color is governed by relationship.
You cannot have color without relationship, comparison, or contrast of differing colors.
Truth as seen through opposites:
This enduring truth was given various formulations in ancient times. One of them perfectly defines the true meaning of art: opposites are best known through their opposites. We all know that nothing in the world can be conceived in or by itself; everything is judged by comparison with its opposite (Philo of Alexandria; Bolland, Pure Reason)
15. Seeking beauty as truth (in art)
Thus we see that rational thought is in accord with the actual goal of the new painting — whether rational thought recognizes it or not. Both seek beauty not for the beautiful feelings it may arouse, but for beauty as truth, i.e., as plastic manifestation of pure aesthetic relationship.
See in photography and art: beauty in itself as truth.
Keep cross-pollinating. You’re not just a photographer. You’re a visual artist.
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