Big Beauty and Form Sense in Contemporary Figurative Practice

by Patricia Watwood

Martha Erlebacher, Self Portrait, 2012, Private Collection


"Perhaps it is beauty that will save us in the end."


My mentor Martha Erlebacher (1937–2013) passed away from cancer last year. I studied drawing with her at the New York Academy of Art, and her influence on me has been deep. In a field of few female role models, she was a singular example of a professional woman of talent and intellect, as well as a wife and mother. Her opinions about the role of art and figuration are never far from my mind, and here I want to share a bit about her beliefs and contributions.

Martha yearned to get to the fundamentals of anything. When asked “Why paint?” she replied: “I think we recreate the visual world as a hedge against death. Every time we make a picture of something, we are creating a parallel universe which will outlast us.”1 Now Martha’s paintings speak to me across the bridge of death as testaments to her integrity and to her commitment to “Big Beauty.” The beauty and soul of her works remain on earth, and again she is a lodestone to me of a life well lived in the arts, and a reminder of the briefness of our time for work.

Two questions on the table for figurative artists today are “What is beauty?” and “Do we want to paint it?” There seems to be much prettiness and beauty (with a small “b”) in representational painting today, but I do not believe that Martha would honor much of it with the phrase “Big Beauty.”

Why is there a lot of pretty imagery, and not enough Big Beauty? Two primary reasons are the destruction of the ideal in culture, and the loss of consciousness of form sense in figurative art after the Graphic Revolution. The development of an artist’s form sense, and the mastery of willed form, are key to creating meaningful art.

First, let us define “form sense”—a term I learned from Martha.

This is the artist’s unique formal sensibility, a signature like handwriting. It’s the form sense that marks everything we do as our unique creation. Each person is born with a set of perceptual tendencies, toward high or low closure. One person will prefer all their forms attenuated, another compressed, another bulging, another flattened. When artists draw, they are continuously making decisions about the forms they see: How bulged is this form? Are these forms equidistant from one another? Where does this form merge into another? … And on and on… The form sense then is the sum total of the answers to questions the artist poses to him or herself when transforming an image seen into its tangible equivalent.2

For Martha, training from life was fundamental to developing an artist’s individual style. The development of a personal form sense comes from the artist extracting drawn and painted form from perception, imagination and lived experience. My own experience of the artistic process suggests that the constant balancing of one’s innate form sense against the “needs” of the artwork, and against one’s larger context, forms the essence of one’s style.

Martha believed that all great art is about sex and death. Big Beauty is the great consolation—succor for the human condition. The artist creates Beauty by translating the visual world into “willed form”3 —the basic activity of the artist making (in paint or another medium) a created analogy of visual experience.

Martha believed that creation of a cohesive visual world was very powerful. By ordering that world—through color, line, volume, content, etc.—the artist shares with the viewer that universe, which can communicate a deeply satisfying and beautiful experience. Martha did not teach that the artist’s subject had to be ordered, beautiful in a traditional sense, or inherently meaningful. Instead, she believed that the artist’s activity of ordering the visual universe was the primary power of art. When it was successful, it was, for her, Big Beauty.

This connection between the artist’s creation of form with beauty and meaning has been long considered. Aristotle used the word poiesis to indicate the twin development of the artist and the form the artist creates.4 In their recent book All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly write: “There is… a kind of feedback loop between craftsman and craft: each jointly cultivating the other into a state of mutual understanding and respect.”5 They argue that the artist acts on the form—creating, say, a drawing—and also that the drawing, and the process of drawing, acts on the artist, too. I think that the development of beauty and mastery in form sense is an example of this poetic feedback loop. As the draftsman strives to create willed form, studies nature, and is reverent and intentional before it, so nature and the process shape the draftsman.

This thinking contradicts the notion that all inspiration and creativity come solely from the individual. It implies that something external or larger is participating in the artistic process. The artist does not just create meaning and beauty, but receives, distills and holds it up for others to see and experience. This is a central theme of Dreyfus and Kelly’s terrific book, about which more later.

For now, I see a direct connection between the “problem” of Beauty in figurative painting and our contemporary sense of form. A decade ago, the Irish theologian and philosopher John O’Donohue published Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, in which he writes: “In a sense, all the contemporary crises can be reduced to a crisis about the nature of beauty.”6

This relates to two cultural shifts brought about by the Graphic Revolution—the proliferation of imagery (especially photographs in books, newspapers, magazines and on the Internet) that has created a fully saturated visual world. This dense visual environment is the water in which we swim. The Graphic Revolution has dissolved and conflated the image and the ideal, as well as our cultural understanding of what the world looks like—what is “real” or “true.” In The Image, Daniel Boorstin writes: “Images now displace ideals….Differences between ‘ideal-thinking’ and ‘image-thinking’ are the difference between our thinking before and after the Graphic Revolution. And while images multiplied and became more vivid, ideals dissolved.”7 Ubiquitous images of people are no longer representatives of some abstract “ideal,” but merely a particular example.

With a few exceptions, figurative paintings in the twentieth century represented particular people, and even a painting whose subject is the life-model (e.g., Philip Pearlstein) usually represented that particular model—not some larger ideal. For Boorstin, the image is the antithesis of the ideal:

The Image is a pseudo-ideal….[It] is synthetic, believable, passive, vivid, simplified and ambiguous….When we think of an ideal we think of something already there. It was created by tradition, by history, or by God. It is perfect, but it is not simplified.8

In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” But for twenty-first-century representation, what is the image of Truth? The photograph impresses us with its authority as “real,” as documentary evidence. Any portrait painter will tell you that the photograph is the absolute standard by which his or her clients judge “what they really look like,” and the standard by which the painted portrait is assessed. The photo has the corner of the market on “Truth.” Now that more representational painters are working in styles closer to naturalism and verisimilitude, we are even more tyrannized by the expectation of “truth,” as determined by our visual experience of photography.

In contemporary realism, “beauty” is often conveyed with a pretty model, yet because of the Graphic Revolution, the model no longer projects the higher realm of the ideal. The artist Edward Minoff calls some recent figurative work “post-photo-realism.” Artists are often taking their sense of form and interpretation of “truth” from the photographic image. Our minds see this art as representing an image (in Boorstin’s sense), but not an ideal. These pretty models are not the ideal, only individuals. Thanks to the Graphic Revolution, Keats’s equation now goes more like this:

Truth = photograph = image = pseudo-ideal Beauty

I do not hold that there is no place for photography, or photographic reference, in contemporary representation. Indeed, it would be a vast oversimplification and impoverishment of our practice to reject them. In my own work, I use photo reference, as do most representational painters today. The exploration of the overlapping of photography, composition, technology and multidisciplinary work is a rich vein of current practice.

My argument, instead, is that, in current figuration, contemporary form sense is dictated by the images given to us from photography, and not cultivated enough from the artist’s own sense of form. In other words, we are making form that is like photographs, calling it art, and not even fully conscious we are doing so. This causes even greater problems when the artist seeks to convey non-realistic figures like angels or deities. The close correlation of the form sense to the photograph creates a disjuncture in the viewer’s mind—the same “uncanny valley” that has long perplexed computer graphic designers.


Form Sense in Contemporary Figurative Painting

So what are the dominant types of form sense in contemporary figuration? I will focus on drawing and painting, and on the relatively narrow mode of traditional figuration found primarily in ateliers and larger academies. I believe that artists fall into one of three general categories of figurative art: classical, colorist and conceptual.

Edward Schmidt, Nocturne, 1993 Private collection

Artists like Martha Erlebacher, Edward Schmidt, Anthony Ryder, Daniel Graves and Jacob Collins are classicists. All have worked a lot or exclusively from nature, in a method traceable to the European (especially French) academies. Their process is generally more sculptural, emphasizing pictorial space, three-dimensional relief and an anatomically constructive approach to creating form. Tonal and sculptural qualities are often prioritized over color and optical effects. Their form sense often emphasizes careful measurement in proportion, and typically more closed form.

Burt Silverman, Richard Schmid and Daniel Gerhartz are among the colorists. Many artists working today have trained in both fine art and illustration, which reaches back to the “Golden Age” represented by Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell. Artists and teachers in this category tend to focus on color and value relationships, and on creating volume through tonal shapes. Their lineage comes down more directly from impressionist and alla prima traditions, and it also bears the influence of abstraction in consideration of the picture plane and interrelationship of shapes and colors. Color effects and optical/atmospheric qualities tend to be prioritized over sculptural volume and structure of form. The form sense in this grouping tends toward volumetric unification, with an emphasis on the effects of light, overall unity, open form and graphic elegance.

Finally, the conceptual category includes Vincent Desiderio, John Currin, Kehinde Wiley and other artists working in an old master or traditional style with a representational language that engages in an ongoing dialogue with twentieth-century (“modern”) and conceptual art. This group shares the least programmatic similarities in terms of technical practice and training, often being self-taught. Their paintings are often a visual expression of a conceptual idea, where traditional painting is part of an appropriation that combines old style with new subject matter. Composition, emotion and content tend to be prioritized over naturalistic, perceptual or technical concerns. The form sense in this category is widely varied and individualistic, perhaps even mannerist, with less naturalism than the other categories.

Anyone is welcome to quarrel with these categorizations, which I have linked to specific individuals only as examples that help construct a framework for considering “what contemporary form sense is,” and that provide visual cues for my own terms. To be sure, most artists are hybrids of two or more categories, and artists detest categorization anyway. Nonetheless, it is useful to consider these categories vis-à-vis their varied relationships to the image, and to triangulate a view of what contemporary form sense means for figurative artists today.

All representational artists, regardless of their training, technique and approach, bear the heavy influence of the photographic image in contemporary form sense. When we look back at the Northern Baroque school (e.g., Rubens), its form sense is distinctive and pervasive. When future viewers look back at late twentieth and early twenty-first-century figuration, most will correlate our sense of form with photographic imagery, and our representations of the body with how it appears in today’s media. Many artists, like Bo Bartlett, exploit the tensions inherent in these formal contradictions. Even among artists like Michael Grimaldi, who eschew the use of photo reference in favor of drawing from nature, the sense of form—of what is “real” and “accurate,” of what form should look like—is heavily shaped by images from the media, wittingly or otherwise.

Martha Erlebacher urged students to work from life as much as possible. “The world the artist recreates is not facilitated by copying photographs,” she said. “Artists who copy photographs are tied to a two-dimensional view of reality which eschews the richness of the three-dimensional world. The visual cues perceived in a photo are limited and thin. The choices one makes when making images are complex. Photography is a filter which severely limits these choices.” Martha was a person of strong opinions about the “correct” process for figurative art, although I happen to know that she also used photo references. Importantly, she argued that once an artist has gained mastery of technique, any and all references that serve creation are useful. It is not my position that there is a right or wrong approach regarding the use of photography in realism. My purpose in highlighting this issue is to urge artists to become fully conscious of their personal form sense, and to understand how the imagery gleaned from photography does, or does not, serve their artistry, serve the audience of art and advance the creation of Big Beauty. Much recent figurative realism does not fully grasp the influence and meaning of the photograph and the image in representational art today.

Burton Silverman, Triptych, 2011    Courtesy of the Artist

Furthermore, representation is strongly influenced by dissemination of imagery via the Internet. This necessarily entails the winnowing of imagery through a medium prioritizing that which “reads” most successfully when reduced to a thumbnail glowing on a screen. At its worst, contemporary form sense is not so much influenced by direct experience of nature as by whatever got the greatest number of “likes.”

This problem rests not only with artists, but also with their audiences and the marketplace, where the expectation of viewers regarding visual truth has been thoroughly, albeit unconsciously, shaped by media and photography.


Masters of Willed Form

There are contemporary masters, among them Odd Nerdrum, Martha Erlebacher, Steven Assael, Nelson Shanks, Bo Bartlett and Vincent Desiderio— who have truly mastered form by understanding both how to generate form and how it works on the viewer. It is instructive to see that, in these artists’ works, the issue of what type of reference they may or may not incorporate is entirely irrelevant. Rather, their sense of form contributes to the creation of a unified vision, in which the expression of the form of the body is perfectly linked with the messages they are communicating. They give us massive form, sensitive form, naturalistic or mannerist form—varied but always incontrovertible. They impress the viewer with visual conviction and power.

One challenge for artists today is not to reject the vast stew of imagery around us, pretending that the Graphic Revolution has not happened, but instead to distill its import, use it as fuel and transform it into artistically comprehensible meaning. If we wish to be mix-masters of imagery, including photo reference and any other fragments of visual data available, let us move forward—but only if we are fully conscious of both the source and meaning of our inspirations. We must be masters of willed form, fully conscious of the Graphic Revolution.

I have one side comment on the paradox of beauty. I do not want to completely ignore issues of feminism, objectification and body politics—which are important, and need to be considered with utmost respect. We may need two phrases now—Big Beauty, and beauty with a little “b.” Figurative artists should not pretend that realist painting is disconnected from these issues. Martha, for example, detested paintings of “babes on sheets,” and we are right to be cautious of the double-edged sword of Beauty. Yet we must also stop blaming Beauty for the dual nature of man. The human mind can twist anything to its own purpose: Truth, Beauty, Love, Power—all of these can be weaponized.


Poiesis: Cultivating Beauty in Practice

Finally, I want to return to poiesis. In artistic practice, one can draw a connection between cultivation of spirit and meaning and the development of each artist’s individual form sense. Form sense becomes the expression of that spirit and mental state, and the vehicle for communication with the viewer.

For insights into cultivating beauty, perhaps we should turn to poetry and theology. Thinkers like John O’Donohue see Beauty as an expression of the inherent unity of the world and its governing Spirit. He writes: “The soul that struggles for the emergence of beauty, reaches toward God and labors on that threshold between visible and invisible, time and eternity.”9 O’Donohue also believes that it is the artist’s job to cultivate beauty. He quotes Sister Joan Chittister: “It is beauty that magnetized the contemplative, and it is the duty of the contemplative to give beauty away so that the rest of the world may, in the midst of squalor, ugliness, and pain, remember that beauty is possible.”10 The language of “struggling for the emergence of beauty,” and “beauty that magnetizes the contemplative,” both remind me of the experience of painting.

John Currin, Honeymoon Nude (detail), 1998  Tate Britian, London How did Rembrandt get all that soul and beauty into his paintings? It had nothing to do with his secret medium or his micro-local umbers. It was the love and the heartbreak. Boorstin writes: “Art has often been identified with divinity, precisely because the artist gives his work a unique, inimitable embodiment. Like a man, a work of art has a soul, a life all its own. It used to be taken for granted that every work of art possessed a mysterious individuality.”11 Rembrandt’s enduring power resides in that resonant soul. How might we reconnect with that power? I believe that seeking to answer the one question will help us answer the other—cultivating meaning is integral to cultivating a personal sense of form. Martha always advised that, if you want to make great art, you have to go live life. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “Let everything happen to you: Beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.12

O’Donohue, Rilke and Rembrandt would all agree that Beauty comes from somewhere; there is a source of inspiration outside ourselves, and we artists tap into it and reflect it, particularly if we are patient and attentive. There is no one particular way to think about what that source outside ourselves is: God, Buddha, mythology, science and nature all provide structures of meaning to our lived experience. A broad and diverse philosophy is needed in culture, not a single one-size-fits-all Truth.13

Yet one major aspect of artists’ work is to share our feeling that our lives do have meaning; we use our work as a prism for focusing our search for meaning. The process of wrestling with form—such as cultivating a personal language of line and volume that communicates the human body—is one of the main acts of discernment in which we engage. It is a lengthy process to develop one’s own language of form, but its rich reward is the ability to use the figure as a powerful visual carrier of meaning.

Some of us think of an underlying unity to this realm, others see such searching as superstitious grasping. To me, it does not matter whether we agree there is an external unity, or simply an idea embedded deep in the brain. What matters is the choice we make about responding to the world around us. Beauty exists in part because we are an organizing principle. We create the meaning and unity in the chaos.

Our figurative work should not be solely a reflection of the dominant visuals of our time, but consciously chosen as that which we need—for ourselves, for each other, for future viewers. To develop true beauty in art, one must cultivate a genuine and personal sense of form through practice, reverence, intention and receptivity.

David Foster Wallace pointed toward a “new sincerity” and cautioned against the glib hipness of ironic distance: “The most frightening prospect, for the well-conditioned viewer, becomes leaving oneself open to others’ ridicule by betraying passé expressions of value, emotion or vulnerability.”14 He has challenged us to reconsider those passé emotions in order to chart a course beyond postmodernism.

Much earlier, Keats pointed us toward beauty through Truth. I propose that we detach our visual standard of Truth from the “image,” that protean, pretty, skin-deep tyrant unleashed by the gods of Madison Avenue. By holding the image at a critical distance, in favor of greater exploration of the imagination and neo-Romantic realms of symbolism and emotion, we may well breathe life into realist works too often anchored in the literal. Keats wrote: “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination. What the imagination sees as beauty must be truth.” We have nothing much to be certain of, certainly not Truth or Beauty—but that does not mean they are not present. They are real, just not fixable and immutable. Truth is diverse; Beauty is transitory.

Like practices of yoga and meditation, intention is very important to the work of creating art. Beauty is not a butterfly that can be captured in a net, but a presence that can be evoked through reverence, mindfulness and attention. I conclude with Rumi:


Let the beauty we love be what we do.

There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.


This paper was presented at TRAC2014 (The Representational Art Conference 2014), in Ventura Beach, California, on March 2–5, 2014.



  1. David Jamieson, “A Hedge against Death.” Vitruvian Fine Art June 23, 2013.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Martha Erlebacher, MFA drawing lectures, New York Academy of Art, 1998–99.

  4. Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Durrance Kelly, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics in a Secular Age (New York: Free Press, 2011), p. 211.

  5. Ibid.

  6. John O’Donahue, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace (New York: Harper Collins, 2004), p. 214.

  7. Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), p. 197.

  8. 8. Ibid., pp. 185, 197.

  9. O’Donahue, p. 125.

  10. 10.Joan Chittister, quoted in O’Donahue, p. 215.

  11. 11.Boorstin, p. 119.

  12. Rainer Maria Rilke, “Go to the Limits of Your Longing,” Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, trans., Anita Burrows and Joanna Macy (New York: Riverhead, 2005).

  13. 13.Dreyfus and Kelly, p. 220.

  14. David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Plurum: Television and US Fiction,” Review of Contemporary Fiction (Summer 1993), p. 151.


American Arts Quarterly, Spring 2014, Volume 31, Number 2