“That’s when the viewer decides if they see beauty in the image, whether it be abstract or not – it’s a flow, a reaction to the colour combinations,” she says.
The eye of the beholder
Beyond the combination of colour and composition lies something far more elusive – meaning. The most immaculately composed, beautifully executed and coloured image will seem vapid and empty without it.
For Sarah, meaning is often in the artist’s perception of their subject, whether it be abstract or figurative. “I find beauty in interpretation, [in] someone’s personal view or reaction – not [in a] re-creation or copy.”
This principle is essential for her own work. Her aim in using gossamer transparent layers is to provide “different focal points, leaving something open to interpretation. What I draw is not real – it’s my interpretation, my perfect version.
“I like to take a leaf from one plant and a flower from another, redraw[ing] things until I make them my own – not because they are not beautiful as they are, but [because] I feel very strongly that what makes it interesting is my interpretation, for me and the viewer.”
Sarah Arnett’s Dahlia [top] was created in homage to Christian Dior illustrator René Gruau, who was celebrated this autumn in an exhibition at Somerset House in London. Both Dior and Gruau were fascinated by flowers and the female form. “I worked with the image of flowers and a woman merging into one,” says Sarah. ”My ideas were inspired by the knowledge that Gruau was so influenced by his own garden.” Girl in the Mirror, another piece Sarah created for the exhibition, can be seen above.
Ana Montiel agrees that a beautiful image is one which coaxes the viewer into some form of response. Her own work tends “towards abstraction”, she says. “It feels more natural: I tell [the viewer] things, but in a subtle way. This way, I give more space to the observer to make up stories about them. My themes and subjects are usually kind of abstract or spiritual, so it’s hard to represent them in a figurative way.”
In contemporary digital illustration, beauty is often closely tied to the feminine: whether in images of often very idealised women, or in motifs such as flowers, birds and butterflies, or in delicate pastel colour schemes.
Murilo Maciel says the demarcation between masculine and feminine aesthetic realms is centuries old. “In classical Greek architecture, Ionic and Corinthian columns were used to represent women, due to their ornaments and delicate details, whereas Doric columns, with their simplified forms and straight lines, represented men. The more curved, detailed shapes attract more attention because they tend to fill the eyes.”
Sarah Arnett agrees that femininity is a constant theme in artwork that qualifies as conventionally beautiful. “We never seem to tire of reinterpreting those themes. Culturally we like to reinvent, reimagine and challenge beauty – but the subject always stays the same.”
“I start with a hazy concept,” says Raphaël Vicenzi. “Then I draw a female figure, filling it out with scanned watercolours and textures until it starts to make sense. “I sometimes have a pretty romantic ideal of things, even though this doesn’t always show through in my work,” he adds. He says beautiful art reminds him that “time on earth is precious and that life is made of opposites”.
That’s not to say that all digital images of beautiful women are in themselves beautiful: the internet is bursting at the seams with crass, over-sexualised images. Subtlety and a certain delicacy are all-important if beauty is to be achieved.
So true beauty lies in a complex mesh of composition, balance, colour, immaculate artistic skills and suggested meanings. It should “fill the eyes”, as Murilo says, and should be exquisitely made, as Mads Berg suggests.
And whatever the subject, art should have a sense of pleasing completeness that invites the viewer to think a little deeper.