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From Ancient Greece To Halo: Art Tradition In Today's Games
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From Ancient Greece To Halo: Art Tradition In Today's Games

September 8, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Brush Painters vs. Paint Throwers

A conflict between tradition and modern art is evident in the words of one artist who helped bring about the latter movement, Henri Mattisse, who in 1925 exclaimed frustration at his students: "Many of my students were disappointed to see that a master with a reputation for being revolutionary could have repeated the words of Courbet to them: 'I have simply wished to assert the reasoned and independent feeling of my own individuality within a total knowledge of tradition...' The saddest part was that they could not conceive that I was depressed to see them 'doing Matisse.'" [v]

Contrasting paintings by two masters of their time illustrates the changes in art culture within the space of 100 years: The Valpinçon Bather (1806) by Jean Auguste Ingres, Paris Louvre, with The Dance (1909) by Henri Matisse, New York's Museum of modern art.

I discussed this conflict of traditional principles in contemporary education with graduates from renowned British institutes such as the Royal Academy of Art and Wimbledon College of Art.

One student described their Communication Art & Design BA as having a strong emphasis on "doing your own thing". A graduate of Fine Art Painting said that the teaching of traditional principles, including the practice of life drawing featured in the first semester, felt like a relic of an older system.

"You'd think that the course could accommodate various styles. Instead, you're taught a trend," proclaimed the graduate of Painting.

The situation seems very dire for organizations such as the Art Renewal Center (ARC), which endorses a meager 60, or so, art academies around the world for their "genuine art instruction."[vi]

With widespread privation of education -- in the UK at least -- universities are forced to cater to popular demand. This means that education leans more towards conceptual forms of art, such as abstraction and expression, as opposed to traditional practice. The dilemma is that even teachers are often not in a position to give comprehensive tuition on traditional art principles, having gone through the very same education system.

As a result, a graduate of art history will likely have a stronger understanding of traditional principles than somebody with a background in applied arts. By and large graduates of applied art courses are simply unaware of what they're missing out on.

Game design courses focusing on art are even more confounded by the fact that they also feature technical elements in the curriculum, leaving students with even less time dedicated to traditional art principles and more time working at the computer. Although some technical knowledge is indeed important, to what extent should art students be taught about programming, considering that the majority will eventually specialize in either a technical or artistic discipline? The education system is clearly not meeting everybody's expectations (although it arguably never does!).

The conflict between traditional and modern schools escalated in 2004 over David Hockney's controversial book, Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.[vii] ARC, being a vehement campaigner for tradition, was outraged by Hockney's misguided attempts to demystify the accomplishments of "realism" in classical painting, with articles featuring terms as severe as "aesthetic genocide." [viii]

Hockney's theory stems from the author's self-confessed incomprehension of how old masters could have created such realistic paintings. As artist Kirk Richards points out, there are many contemporary artists who can openly demonstrate their ability to paint realistically from life.[ix] It appears that Hockney's conclusions are based on the sad fact that he's completely oblivious to the artistic principles which the old masters exercised.

The surrounding controversy illustrates ignorance by both traditional and modern schools. What both parties overlook is that modern art movements such as Abstraction and Expressionism have given artists new visual tools with which to communicate; that modern art doesn't constitute a complete break with tradition but offers an evolution instead.

Before the discussion of Hockney's Secret Knowledge, our thread stopped mid-19th Century with Jean Auguste Ingres, a veritable guardian of artistic tradition. By the time we come to Impressionism around 1900 -- a key turning-point towards modern art in the 20th Century -- tradition is seemingly on its way out.

On the surface it's easy to assume that much of modern art is an outcome of pure expression however there are many links with tradition that we can investigate. We will focus on one particular artist, given the limited scope of this text, who was highly progressive yet valued tradition and the old masters. His name was Edgar Degas.

Missing Links

Whilst Degas idolised Ingres' classical style, he was among the first artists "to see what photography could teach the painter and what the painter must be careful not to learn from it," wrote the French writer, Paul Valéry.

Although Degas is best known for his ballet paintings, it is less known that he copied from photographs, being an accomplished photographer himself. By the 1890's, Degas owned his own camera and developed "characteristic compositional and lighting techniques." [x]

"Visitors to Degas's studio recalled how the master draftsman pinned sheets of tracing paper to cardboard, adding strips of paper as needed to complete his compositions. Here, the female figure, which he may have traced from another picture, occupies the largest sheet of tracing paper, with three separate sheets -- to the left, right, and on top -- extending the format." [xi]

From a traditional drawings and observations from life, Edgar Degas would experiment with compositions using a method akin to Photoshop layers. His finished works share more in common with the modern school of tonal painting, inspired by photography (circa 1875).

What is described here is, in essence, the precursor to Photoshop. Degas cut, copied, flipped, scaled, rotated and combined images with the aid of transparent tracing paper. Such techniques along with Impressionism's emphasis on tonal painting and color, paved the way for a new form of visual communication in the form of increasingly abstracted images. Abstract shapes began to have emotional significance, eventually becoming icons in their own right.

An example of a visual conversation with primary shapes in Wassily Kandinsky's Bauhaus oil painting using circles, squares and triangles (1965).

Iconography isn't just the realm of the Abstract Movement and artists like Wassily Kandinsky. Principles concerning the emotional significance of shapes are regularly incorporated into all art and design disciplines however they're so culturally ingrained that they generally go unnoticed. So where else do we find them? Let's start by looking under our very noses; within the media we consume daily and film.

[v] Mattise, Henri. Mattise on Art. University of California Press 1925, p81.


[vii] Hockney, David. Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. Thames & Hudson Publishers, 2006.


[ix] Richards, Kirk. Knowledge without Substance. Review of David Hockney's 'Secret Knowledge'. Classical Realism Journal: the American Society of Classical Realism, 2006.

[x] Scharf, A. Art and photography. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.

[xi] Art Institute of Chicago: Classroom Resource:

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