Among the aspects of an artwork that evoke response, aid understanding, and contribute meaning will be the material(s) used in its creation. These materials might make it more or less important, more or less valuable, or might bring a variety of associations that are not inherent in the essential form. For example, you might recognize a vase not merely as a vase, but as a Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933, USA) Favrile glass vase. (Figure 3.1) Knowing the creator, material, and special processes involved in the artwork’s creation would add to and might change your perception and appreciation in several important respects. For example, you could link it to an important artist, an innovative artistic technique, a significant period in American décor and manufacturing and marketing, a valuation based on its collectability, and numerous other interesting details about its creation and use.
Figure 3.2 | Annunciation to the Shepherds, illumination from the Book of Pericopes (Lectionary) of Henry II, fol. 8v, 1002-1012 CE. Source: Artstor.orgLicense: Public Domain
The most apparent choices in this regard are for three-dimensional forms such as sculpture and architecture, where it is more likely that costly and precious materials such as gold, silver, gems, marble, or bronze are used in its creation. The distinction among material choices for drawing and paintings will also have certain effects for their meanings. For example, if a painter applied gold leaf, 22K gold pounded into extremely thin sheets, to a painting’s surface, the monetary and cultural value of the work increases. (Figure 3.2) The monetary value refers to the amount a buyer is willing to pay, which in this case includes the cost of the materials the artist factors into the price of the artwork. The cultural value is the perceived quality or merit of the work: what it is worth according to that culture’s standards of artistic importance or excellence. If a work of art has high monetary or cultural value, the owner’s reputation and status are, in turn, elevated.
Without considering each and every possibility in this regard, we should look at a few pointed examples that will help us know what to consider when we examine artworks with a view to the
choices of materials that the artist (or patron) must have made. The techniques for many of these is discussed in greater detail in other parts of the text, so our primary focus here will be on the intrinsic materials, although the ways they are worked, used, and combined are inextricably significant in some of these cases.