What Is Artistic Beauty?

Updated on February 19, 2020
PAINTDRIPS profile image

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.


What Is Beauty, Really?

I’m an artist. I’m presented with the “beauty” issue all the time. What galleries want and don’t want to hang; what people want and don’t want to decorate around; what is and isn’t beautiful. This is a very interesting question because some people find beauty in the strangest things and are repulsed by other benign things.

My very first impulse on "what is beautiful" is to define what it is not... at least to me. Or what is "ugly" to me. That can be very personal and subjective, but as people, we hold common ground on some things. Ugly to me is something that hits me in the pit of my being, things that make my stomach turn, things that pull up negative emotions such as, fear, dread, hate, sorrow, depression. Paintings that are dark and filled with images of blood and guts, to me are negative. Paintings filled with light, hope, joy, life, and love are, to me, beautiful.

“That's always seemed so ridiculous to me, that people want to be around someone because they're pretty. It's like picking your breakfeast cereals based on color instead of taste.”

— John Green, author of Paper Towns

Beauty in a Troubled World

I remember once hearing a story about an art competition where the contestants were asked to paint "serenity." Most artists painted meadows and sunlit trees with pastoral scenes. But the winner of the show painted a torrential waterfall, filled with angry clouds and dark moving water. However in the corner of the painting was a branch, which held a nest of baby birds being fed by a fearless mother bird. So is serenity the absence of any darkness or problems? Or is it the carving out of peace in the midst of trouble?

Statue of Cornelia
Statue of Cornelia

Most Beautiful Women of Ancient Time

Like the seven wonders of the ancient world, there are seven women that were renowned for their beauty. Perhaps it is myth or legend, or perhaps it is true; we may never know for sure. The problem is that we have no reliable portraits of these ancient beauties. Not to mention the fact that beauty is relative. What seems beautiful today may not have been considered the most beautiful a century ago, or melena ago. One belief is that these women had perfectly symmetrical faces; the left side matching the right side, exactly. As you may know, we are not perfectly symmetrical on average. One eye may be a little smaller than the other, one eyebrow was a little higher than the other, one corner of the mouth not matching the other corner, etc. I find this quirkiness to be an asset. Whether it is or isn’t, the belief that the most beautiful of ancient times had no flaws is perhaps reasonable.

Painting of Bathsheba
Painting of Bathsheba | Source
Bust of Nefertiti
Bust of Nefertiti

Seven Most Beautiful Women of Ancient Time

Would Aristotle Approve?
14th Century B.C.
Swan neck and her name, which means “a beautiful woman has come.”
4th Century B.C.
Mistress of the sculptor Praxiteles, thought to have modeled for the statue of Aphrodite.
Helen of Troy
11th Century B.C.
Committed adultery with Paris of Troy and left her husband to run away with him, causing a war. The face that launched a thousand ships.
10th Century B.C.
Forced to commit adultery with king David while husband Uriah the Hittite was away at war. Later Became the mother of King Solomon. 2Samuel 11:2-4
1st Century B.C.
Agreed to dance for Herod in exchange for the head of John the Baptist. Daughter of Herodias. Mark 6:21-29 and Matt 14:6-11
2nd Century B.C.
Mother of Gracchi, model of Roman womanly virtue.
Strictly for physical attractiveness as represented at that time, here is a list of the seven most beautiful women of ancient times.
Painting of Solome
Painting of Solome | Source
Great disasters bring great hope.
Great disasters bring great hope. | Source

Mathematical Harmony

The ancient Greeks in the Pythagorean school saw a strong connection between mathematics and beauty, defining beauty as something with perfect mathematical harmony. In particular, they noted that objects proportioned according to the golden ratio seemed more attractive. This was a formula used in architecture as well as sculpture. During the Renaissance, this golden ratio was rediscovered and came to be known as the “classical ideal.” Is beauty the absence of any diversion from mathematical harmony? Or is it a little harmony and hope and life in the midst of chaos? That probably goes back to the question of what is real. However, I think the most beautiful sunsets come after the rain. The most beautiful flowers grow in the harshest conditions. The most beautiful paintings are not necessarily mathematically perfect.

The Golden Ratio
The Golden Ratio | Source
Golden Ratio
Golden Ratio

“(Art is)… a product of the untalented, sold by the unprincipled to the utterly bewildered.”

— Al Capp, Speaking on Abstract Art

Must It Be Dark to See the Light?

I suspect there is room for an exception because many people find the morbid, sullen, and even macabre imagery to be sincerely beautiful for the artist’s skill in eliciting such emotions. The drama of it all—sorrow, terror, or dread—being among the sweetest moments of such drama. C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, sometimes a controlled amount of pain – such as an aching in your legs after a hard day’s work – can be a great pleasure. I know many people enjoy the agony of running and training for a marathon. Is it beautiful? I don’t know but there are elements of both pleasure and pain in all of life, and it’s the same with beauty.

I feel that beauty often springs up in the darkest of places. Flowers springing up through concrete or even after a devastating fire, or a rainbow after a horrible storm. Even in my own art, I feel that sometimes my best work comes after I have my darkest moments.

Echevaria plant and mathematical harmony
Echevaria plant and mathematical harmony

Beauty Inside and Out

I agree with the Greeks on striving for a beautiful inside as well as out. I'm afraid I see way too much effort these days, on improving the outward appearance and not much work on the inward. I also see a tremendous distortion of the "perfect" form of a woman. When walking in the Mall not long ago, I saw a manikin advertising a pair of jeans for sale. The legs of the manikin were toothpick thin, and the proportions of the manikin were so anorexic that no normal woman could fit into them. Is this supposed to be the new ideal now? I am concerned for the young people trying to fit into that ideal. I think we have moved very far from the Greek ideals of perfect proportions.

“The true function of art is to… edit nature and so make it coherent and lovely. The artist is a sort of impassioned proofreader, blue-penciling the bad spelling of God.”

— H.L. Mencken

I’m not sure I can agree entirely with the above quote, but in fact, we do sort of edit and add what we, as artists, feel would be more lovely, more aesthetically pleasing than what is actually there. So in a sense, it isn’t wrong, but I would not say God misspelled anything. I would say I have the audacity to correct it according to my own definition of beauty.

Zoulvisia the Beautiful, Armenian Folktale

Form, Function and Beauty

I guess we are so used to thinking that when one refers to beauty, they are referring to physical beauty. Is that to say that blind folks can't know beauty? And how about this to throw a wrench in the works- is the only way to experience physical beauty through vision? Is it possible a blind person can know physical beauty just through the sense of touch? Can touch also give one a sense of the beautiful? I'm not talking about touch telling you that this person/object probably meets the standard under the golden mean; I'm saying that a person who perhaps has never had the gift of sight might run their fingers across, for instance, the body of a highly conditioned athlete and could find beauty in the tautness of that body. If that is the case, then, not only do we not need our eyes to experience deeper, intrinsic beauty, but at least in some cases, we don't even need our eyes to experience physical beauty.

Also called the Golden Mean.
Also called the Golden Mean.

Seeing More That Images Captured in Paint

It is unfortunate that as an artist I must freeze a moment, a gesture or posture onto a canvas or sculpture and the viewer can never know the many facets (or fractals) of the true person. A truly great artist captures more than just a moment and implies to the viewer that there is so much more to this person. I'm not sure I am there yet as an artist but working on it.

What do you believe beauty is?

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    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      4 years ago from Fresno CA


      It is so sad to see those young people who are starving themselves. I hate what our society and Madison Avenue can do to the minds of those too young and innocent to think for themselves. I have to hope that someday the pendulum will swing the other way and plumper, rounder women will be considered beautiful again. Thanks for commenting.



    • CorneliaMladenova profile image

      Korneliya Yonkova 

      4 years ago from Cork, Ireland

      Beautiful hub, Denise. Beauty in our world is so relative. For example, I like reptiles, insects and spiders, find them gorgeous and amazing creatures. Love to create them in my photoshop works too. But most people don't accept my views and taste, they find them weird.

      And agree about that that today's fashion business is trying to impose on us the look of those dreadful looking manikins and many young people do their best to follow the trend and start to resemble walking skeletons.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand



    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      4 years ago from Fresno CA

      Lawrence, as usual you said it well. I agree, nature is awesome in it's form and symmetry. And I guess I was studying the ancient Greek definitions of beauty when I got the wild idea to write about it. It is in the eye of the beholder! Indeed! So I figure if I paint what is beautiful to me, somewhere someone will find it beautiful also. Thanks for commenting as always.



    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      4 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand


      To me, beauty is 'in the eye of the beholder'.

      The artist does their best to give something they see as beautiful, but it's the one looking at the piece that decides if it's beautiful!

      Its interesting you looked at ancient Greece and how they saw 'form' and symmetry as beautiful, yet there are no straight lines in nature yet the wonder of nature blows me away!


    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      4 years ago from Fresno CA

      Well, dear MsDora, I have been concerned with that too. I think after a while there is a searing of the mind and conscience so that what is alarming and frightening, ghastly and macabre doesn't seem so ghastly anymore. It makes me wonder what we are do to young people exposing them to too much violence. But I feel the same about adults. Why is it that we can watch things full of blood, guts, profanity and violence (rated R) and we don't want our kids to watch that stuff. Shouldn't it be the same for all of us? I always felt if I didn't want my kids watching it then I shouldn't be either. Just my opinion. Thanks so much for commenting.



    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      4 years ago from The Caribbean

      For a while, I was concerned about the children who were being presented objects which I thought were ugly, and being told they were beautiful, but you rightly said that it is personal. Thanks for sharing these historical insights.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      4 years ago from Fresno CA

      B Brian Hill,

      The thing is not just "ugly" but those things that instill dread, fear, horror, etc as negative. I think everyone has a different definition of what ugly really is. Maybe its like Forrest Gump would have said, "Ugly is as ugly does" or something like that. I'm sure there are perfectly beautiful people who behave ugly and those who are not so handsome who behave like beautiful people. Thanks for commenting.



    • B Brian Hill profile image

      B Brian Hill 

      4 years ago

      Hi Denise,

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on beauty. My first thought was of my two ways of expressing in my writing and that is the dark and the joy. It's interesting to me how you don't like "ugly" which you see as "negative." This is thought provoking and imaginative, and clearly you have great artistic experience and knowledge. It is reflected here!

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      4 years ago from Fresno CA

      You know, Rachel, I agree with that. I went to one gallery and the owner told me she would NEVER put my paintings in her gallery because they wouldn't sell (in her opinion). She said as a business person she wanted to make money, and she wanted me to make money, and the only way for that to happen was if she put paintings in her gallery that she was sure would sell. She said that I used too much COLOR and no one could decorate around that much color, therefore the paintings couldn't sell (again, in her opinion). She said if I altered the way I used color she may reconsider. As I left, I determined I would NEVER put paintings in her gallery because she didn't want art, she wanted decor. But everyone has an opinion and that's just mine. Thanks so much for jumping into the beauty conversation.



    • Rachel L Alba profile image

      Rachel L Alba 

      4 years ago from Every Day Cooking and Baking

      Hi Denise, Again a really interesting hub. I think beauty to one person may be not so beautiful to another person. There is obvious beauty like a baby's face or flowers or different shaped snow flakes, etc. but other then that, I guess it's personal. I can't imagine that you would paint anything ugly, so the galleries should allow you to put in your paintings and let the public decide which ones they like. That's just my opinion. I'm not an artist, just a regular person. Thanks for sharing this subject.

      Blessings to you.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      4 years ago from Fresno CA


      Thank you for that thoughtful comment. It is an interesting subject, isn't it? Since we artists spend our lives and creative juices finding and portraying what pleases us as beautiful, it is worth talking about a little. I got into an argument with a young man who was trying to describe the beauty in the macabre, such as zombies. I just can't agree with him. Being able to make someone's skin crawl and stomach turn by portraying a really awful zombie has some place I suppose, but I will never be able to call it beautiful! I just had to agree to disagree with the young man. Thanks, again for commenting.



    • Dbro profile image


      4 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thanks for this interesting article, Paintdrips! I'm an artist too, and I think about this question a lot. I wonder about whether my art is "serious" because, as a realist, am I just mimicking the obvious? I prefer to think that I am celebrating the beauty of the world around me. I do edit and alter my subjects to please my eye, but is that enough to make it "viable" in the art world? Generally, I try to focus on my work and leave the judgement to others.

      It is interesting to ponder what qualities define "beauty." I'm sure many scientific studies have been performed that seek to quantify this elusive definition. I guess in some ways I'd prefer not to be that clinical - I'd rather define that quality for myself and try to present it to others through my art - which I guess is why we're artists!

      Thanks again for this thought-provoking article.


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