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Practical Aesthetics

Knudsens Revised Qualities of ICU

(A Co m panion PDF to Practical Aesthetics: Examining Artwork with a Critical Eye)
by Stephen Knudsen

n 19 years of leading critiques as a painting professor, I have seen the benefits
of having a framework that makes critiques a powerful and vital tool for artis-
tic improvement. Even my most intuitive students benefit from holding up a
set of questions to their work, enabling them to tackle aesthetic issues in a way
that is practical and encourages critical thinking.
In 1958, art philosopher Monroe Beardsley created a practi- lines that squares with both basic human perception and the criti-
cal aesthetic framework with the potential to benefit working cal eye. As such, it has potential as a tool in critical and formal
artists who desire to critically analyze their own work and to bet- analysis that can aid both the student and professional. I have
ter appreciate the work of artists they admire. Beardsleys theory is seen the power of ICU in self-critique in the process of making
a simple, elegant set of objective reasons for aesthetic success in a art that engages that, as Mark Rothko said, is felt even when
work of art. In the treatise, Beardsley proposed that a wide variety you have turned your back on it.
of reasons for aesthetic goodness could be condensed into just In this companion PDF and in my original article, Practical
three categories: intensity, complexity and unity, known as ICU. Aesthetics: Examining Artwork with a Critical Eye, from the October
ICU is a handy reference for those looking for a means to 2010 issue of Art Calendar, I have done substantial surgery on
judge a given work of art beyond intuition a loose set of guide- Beardsleys original ICU theory, altering it so that it will be serv-
iceable for todays artist and to better fit with 21st-century ideas
about art. I overhauled and expanded the possible qualities of
ICU and the new structure is put to the test in specific examples.
This revised version of ICU has received an enthusiastic embrace
both in the university setting and also in work developed by, a Web site dedicated to analysis of Modern Art.
In this essay, I put ICU to practical use in a detailed evalua-
tion of No. 61, Rust and Blue by Mark Rothko. But lets begin first
with a closer look at characteristics of ICU in works of art in a
variety of artistic styles. (For Beardsleys unaltered ICU theory,
consult his text Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, p.

In a work of art, intensity is the vital quality of having great
energy, strength, depth or emotional force. As I mentioned in
Examining Work with a Critical Eye, intensity can be expressed in
both content and in form. Previously discussed traits that have
potential to boost this quality in a work of art include p e rceptual

What Aesthetics Can Teach You.

Looking critically at the art will enable you to assess your
own work. Cultivatie this skill both to learn from artists that
inspire you and to make creative decisions with a greater
understanding of how aesthetics and meaning interact. For
more insights, read Practical Aesthetics: Examining Artwork
with a Critical Eye in the October 2010 issue of Art Calendar.
Figure 1: Snowballs in Summer by Andy Goldwo rt hy.

1 Art Calendar October 2010 (Companion PDF)

shifting and anti-aesthetic/aesthetic shift. As with these and other any
of the intensity qualities (see Knudsens Revised Qualities of
Intensity sidebar for more examples), recontextualization, or the
placement of artistic work in a different context, is no guarantee of
aesthetic goodness. In successful works, ICU qualities intentionally
reinforce an artists vision.
In some works, for example recontextualization is capable of
such great impact that it can be hard to imagine the very existence
of the work without it. Andy Goldsworthys Snowballs in Summer
series is such a case. (See Figure 1.) During the winter in
Scotland, Goldsworthy rolled snowballs the size of Volkswagens
and put them in a deep freezer until the night before June 21,
2000 (Midsummers Day). On a summer evening he placed 13 Figure 2: Zeeschuium 2 Animaris Percipiere, 2005, by Theo Janssen. Kinetic scu l ptu re.
giant snowballs throughout London. In the morning, thousands of
the citys pedestrians were observed reacting to the snowballs,
stunned. On that hot summer day, the simple snowball was given Knudsens Revised Qualities
new vitality by its rather simple, but profound recontextualization.
Indeed, artwork with an element of surprise or wonder can be
of Intensity
especially moving and resonant. Consider another potential inten- The list below is not a complete list and most of the
sity quality: innovation. Its power can extend beyond mere novelty individual qualities are possibilities and not strict pre-
requisites of intensity. One should take liberty to add
and profoundly affect the viewer, especially when innovative
other qualities as needed.
serves content on intellectual and visceral levels.
An example of such strong innovation is found in the work of
Perceptual Shifting: The ability of the work to be
kinetic sculptor Theo Janssen. Janssens Strandbeests are completely
clearly perceived in two distinctly different ways.
wind-powered machines, often the size of a small house, that One of many possible shifts is a painting being an
mimic and amplify nature. (See Figure 2.) To see Janssens work in abstraction of paint up close and a recognizable
motion, visit The man-made machines use picture further away.
simple electrical conduit innovatively in a way that seems biologi- Anti- aesthetic/aesthetic synthesis: ex. Dadaism
cal or living. Recontextualization: Taking something and
Beauty, or finding a work of art to be pleasing to the senses, profoundly changing its meaning or purpose by
can also be intense. In James Joyces 1967 novel, Portrait of the putting it into a new context.
Artist as a Young Man, the author implies that there is a biological Ambiguity: A condition where a work is not fixed
basis for beauty an aesthetic quality. As humans, we link beauty within a singular meaning but rather evokes
with phenomena that are key to our survival, such as the role of different and even contradictory meanings that
symmetry, balance, recognition, memorability, in the very repro- may add intrigue, profundity, humor, etc.
duction of our species. Perhaps light, path or gradient and space Personal mark: An artists unique visceral mark.
For example the way paint was applied to a surface
are beautiful because we need them to exist.
that is as personal as a signature and gets captured
in the work. Other markers of individuality fit here
as well.
Complexity is the tendency toward many parts and/or
Innovation: A new way of working, thinking
qualities in intricate arrangement and contradiction. At a and/or producing.
basic level, complexity involves building variety within and Beauty
among formal elements of a work: line, shape, value, hue, Clarity
saturation, translucency, opacity, textures, etc. Like Joyces Forcefulness: Confrontation, urgency, sensation,
theory about beauty, Charles Darwin theorized a biological eroticism, tradedy vulgarity,technical crudity,.
link between complexity and aesthetic experience. Delicacy: Tenderness, seduction, sensuality, allure.
Complexity taps a viewers intelligence and allows for a cogni- Intellectually Challanging: Mystery, puzzles,
tive appreciation of art. Complex art implicitly tests our questions,information ,story
understanding, defies easy satisfaction and remains dynamic. Viscerally Pleasurable: Emotional and sensory charge
Technical virtuosity
Unity Sublimity
Beardsleys last category, unity, is the combining of part s Paradox: Synthesis of any opposites.
and/or elements into an effective whole. As defined in Examining Hybridization
Artwork with a Critical Eye, this idea of wholeness, or g e s t a l t, is Serving the Visual Artist for 23 Years 2

Knudsens Revised Qualities
of Complexity
Qualities listed below seem to bear on the degree of com-
plexity in a work of art. The list below is not a complete list
and most of the individual qualities are possibilities and
not strict prerequisites. Other qualities should be as

Variety: Multiple changes in one or more formal dimen-

sions (such as hue, value, saturation, and/or translucency).
L a rge diff e rences build more overt complexity while small-
er diff e rences build more subtle complexity.
Loose Compositional Intricacies: A liberated snapshot-
like composition. An example would be a painting with
f i g u res looking in a variety of directions, not looking at the
implied area of focus.
Tight Compositional Intricacies: Such as the complex
parts that make up a perfect pyramidal composition
Figure 3: Ancient Sound, Abst ract on Black by Paul Klee. Oil on boa rd, 15" x 15". Elemental variety: Variation in line, texture, size, and/or
Ku n stsammlung, Ba sel .
important to the human pscyche and thus, often a quality in Over-all contrast level: Hue, value, saturation, or translu-
effective art. The easiest discussion (and application) of unity cency contrast. For example a typical Rembrandt painting ,
involves building repetition within and among the formal ele- as a whole, has high value contrast.
ments (such as line, shape, value, hue, saturation, etc). Variety of contrasts: Such as having both contrasting val-
Examples of unifying qualities discussed previously include ues and contrasting hues
rhythm, tonal merging and pictorial thru s t s. (For more examples of Variety within a single contrast: Such as having high
unity qualities, see Knudsens Revised Qualities of Unity.) value contrast and low value contrasts within different
Each quality can be used to build a relationship among the ele- parts of a work
Hierarchical Structuring: Placing greater importance on
ments of a work.
any of the qualities above, such as making one contrast
Lets revisit one formal quality: gradient. A gradient is sim-
m o re dominant than another. For example value contrast is
ply the path or movement from one quality towards its opposite
m o re dominant than hue contrast in a Rembrandt paint-
that can produce a feeling of gestalt by guiding us from one ing.
point in the work to another. Gradients also evoke visceral Emphasis: Use of structuring to bring extra focus to an
engagement and complexities. As children, gradients got us area.
down a hill on a sled, moved us though the river, and guided us Artwork/ Context Contradiction: Contrast between the
on a path in the woods. Consider Paul Klees painting, A n c i e n t artwork and its contextual framework. For example, an ice
Sound, Abstract on Black, 1925, oil on board. (See F i g u re 3 sculpture has added overt complexity presented in a field
above.) In the painting a gradient moves radially from the cen- of summer grass rather than a field winter snow.
ter of the painting to the periphery, much like radiating sound Form/Content Contradiction: Tension between formal
waves. The over-all movement is from light and bright to dark qualities and the theme of a work.
and dull. Klee, even without recognizable imagery, simply by Progression: Something as it moves changes into distinct
using a calculated gradient, evokes a sense of light. If a land- new entities, such as a value gradient.
scape painter were to bring these background color relation- Contrasting Gradients: A gradual progression mutating
ships into the middle ground and foreground, the pictorial qual- into an abrupt progression.
Contrasting Pictorial Thrusts: For example a horizontal
ities would be greatly subverted but the painting would be
log contrasting with a vertical tree in a landscape painting.
extremely assimilated with a highly unified mystical feel, simi-
lar to a Mark Rothko painting (F i g u re 4).
Dissonant leaning color: Color towards a Double com-
plementary color scheme adds more overt complexity.
Example of ICU Analysis Applied to the Work of Mark Consonant leaning color: Color towards an analogous
Rothko color scheme adds more subtle complexity
To consider how the qualities of ICU chronicled above Etc.
can build from many parts into one whole, let us look at a short
analysis of a Mark Rothko painting using the ICU framework

3 Art Calendar October 2010 (Companion PDF)

Figure 4: No.61, Ru st and Blue by Mark Rot h ko. Oil on canvas, 115" x 91". Los Angeles Museum of Co ntemporary Art. Serving the Visual Artist for 23 Years 4

natures atmospheric perspective in connecting land and
sky at the horizon to express infinity, and how Rothko
repositions distant color similar to this part of the Titian by
bringing it right up to the viewer. Rothko also amplifies
the scale to make the viewer feel encompassed by the col-
In this manner, Rothko attempted to modernize and per-
sonalize classical works. By taking away the storyline of the
painting and capitalizing on the area representing infinity,
Rothko allows the viewer to contemplate their own spiri-
tual and personal thoughts, instead of focusing on specific
rhetoric based on figures.
b. Ambiguity. Since this Rothko painting does not possess
figures that narrate a specific story, his rectangles are much
m o re uncertain than a Titian painting. This ambiguity
allows the viewer to connect to their emotions without the
interference of the intellect rationalizing the literal picture.
Standing in front of this work can have a meditative effect
that sets the mood for mental wandering. Rothko intended
the viewer to enter such a state so one might ponder the
drama of human existence. This interaction is very differ-
ent than looking at a figurative picture that has a fixed
story. The contemplative effect of staring into a Rothko is
not unlike staring into a fire.
c. Perceptual Shift. Rothkos work allows for a shift in per-
ception as the viewer moves in relation to the work.
Standing at a distance of about 10 feet from the painting,
Figure 5: Noli me tangere (Touch Me Not) by by Titian. 1511-12. Oil on canvas, 110cm x 92cm. National
Gallery , London, England. the viewer sees vaporous and merging hues that in nature
are observed usually from a great distance. But, as we
(see Figure 4). For definitions of ICU and possible qualities move close to the canvas, the color vapor is also perceived literal-
under each category, please see the three sidebars throughout this ly as thin and vigorous scrubs of paint and canvas weave. This
essay. shifting of perception back and forth creates a paradox that in
The most famous paintings of Mark Rothko can be appreci- some viewer echos the perceptual mysteries in human existence.
ated for being modern and original while using some of the color
languages and ideas of High Renaissance painting. Rothkos con- Complexity:
nection to Renaissance painting is confirmed by Rothkos son, a. Light/Dark Variety. Notice the contrasting and hazy
Christopher, and by extrapolative analysis of a manuscript by shapes in the Rothko. The lightest abstract shapes surrounded by
Mark Rothko entitled The Artists Reality. Renaissance masters darker colors gives a sense of dim and flickering light. This light is
evoked spiritual intensity not just with literal figures, but also critical to the emotional response that Rothko intended because
with evocative color that added extra subtle meaning in the in a painting such as this, with no recognizable imagery, the light
work. Rothko takes these color subtleties and makes them the potentially evokes tangible memories and even imagery in the
focus of his work. The ICU analysis below includes a comparison minds eye. With light Rothko preserves some of the power of
that illustrates the similarities of Rothkos color to the Titian and representation even though his work may initially seem complete-
Leonardo color languages. To start, well explore aspects of recon- ly abstract.
textualization and ambiguity, two essential Rothko-specific qualities
of intensity. Unity:
a. Lowered Hue and Value Contrast. Rothko uses color
Intensity: m e rging very similarly to Leonardo da Vinci. (In fact, a similar
a. Recontextualization. In Rothkos paintings (known as Rothko/Leonardo connection was made by historian, Marcia
sectionals), recontextualization of merging color supports the Hall, in a 2006 Lecture at the Savannah College of Art and
artists intention to quiet the racing human intellect and engage Design). In Leonardos paintings, there is a smoky (sfumato) qual-
human emotion. For example, Rothkos No. 61, Rust and Blue ity. His painting, The Vi rgin and Child and St. Anne for example,
(Figure 7) zooms in on the most subtle spiritual aspects of uses softened hazy color to create an ethereal quality that empha-
Renaissance painting. Compare how Titian (Figure 8) obeys sizes the individuals in the painting as extraordinary religious fig-

24 Art Calendar October 2010

Knudsens Revised Qualities
of Unity
Listed below are reasons that seem to bear upon the
degree of unity in a work. The list below is not a com-
plete list and most of the individual qualities are possibili-
ties and not strict prerequisites of intensity. One should
take liberty to add other qualities as needed.

Pictorial Thrusts: Horizontal, vertical, diagonal, etc. A

way of getting the eye to move in a particular direction,
for example when a painting is composed mainly of hori-
zontal thrusts, common in landscape paintings.
Lower Contrast: Using hue, value, saturation, translu-
cency, and /or complementary contrast) to build to a
merging type of unity.
M e rging Form s: Implied distinct entities such as the
human form melding into one another.
P a t t e rn: This is a type of unity that can contradict a
merging unity .For example, a high contrast black and
white increases pattern- unity in a checker board design
more than a lower contrast gray and white.
Rhythm: A repeating pattern. In music it is often a
Figure 6: The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and St. John the Baptist, 14991500, by
Leonardo da Vinci. Charcoal, black and white chalk on tinted paper, 141.5cm x 104.6cm. mathematical organization of sounds into accented and
National Gallery, London.
de-accented beats. In the visual realm it is an arrange-
ment within and among formal elements in repeating
ures beyond the normal human dimension. This color also sub-
tly expresses movement, as in this case, the depiction of God patterns. Complicated and/or changing rhythms versus
extending into human form. Rothkos superimposed layers of simple and/or consistent rhythms have an extra dose of
color create a similar smoky quality that retains the universal complexity, which may pull away from unity somewhat
mystical quality even with the narrative figures gone. A com- but can still be unified.
mon reaction to a Rothko painting is the sensation of quiet Repetition: Multiplication within and among the for-
and meditative motion. mal elements (line, shape, value, hue, saturation, translu-
Artistic virtuosity often does not come easily. Sensitively cency, opacity, textures, as well as loudness, pitch, timbre,
considering intended effects of the work in its intended context duration, tempo).
(such as the audience and setting) are important, and creating Enclosure: Orbiting and/or overlapping shapes.
a work with a balance of ICU that best delivers content with Proximity: Shapes in close association.
engagement is worth contemplation. Considering qualities of Joining Threads: Such as a melody in a song.
intensity, complexity, and unity is also a potential way to make Gradients: The change of one step to another while
art criticism more analytical and accessible. The ICU cate- adding complexity, also adds unity because each step is
gories (intensity, complexity and unity) do not disappoint if related to the next.
explored with cause and effect detail that seeks significance. AC Strong Inner Logic: Congruency between formal quali-
ties and content (theme).
Stephen Knudsen has taught painting for the past 19 years at SCAD Golden Mean Spacing: The precise layout of shapes on
and is a painter with an international exhibition re c o rd. He also an armature of a golden mean rectangle.
recently led the development of an image comparison tool that incor- A rtwork / Context Melding: For example an ice sculp-
porates practical aesthetics for The Art s t o ry. To see more of his ture has more unity with its environment in a field of
examples on this topic, visit Knudsen is a frequent winter snow than in a field of summer grass.)
writer for Art Calendar, has published groundbreaking color theory Symmetry
and developed the Knudsen Dual Color Wheel, used in universities Consonant Color: Color towards an analogous or
across the country. He will lecture on his revision of Monroe monochromatic color scheme adds unity.
Beardsleys aesthetics at the 2010 SECAC conference. Etc.
E-mail: Website: Serving the Visual Artist for 23 Years 25