Fine art and inspiration

Inspiration can strike from the most capricious of sources; from an eavesdropped conversation, to an evening news story. We can't control what inspires us - but we can make sure that we expose ourselves to as many inspiring situations as possible.

One such avenue for stimulation is fine art. After all, these are creative endeavours that have shaped the world we live in, stood the test of time, and defined many of the art and design conventions we take for granted. What's more, such cultural treats are almost entirely free to view. In the UK, Europe and much of the rest of the world, works from the likes of da Vinci, Caravaggio, Botticelli, Manet and van Gogh hang for public consumption and artistic inspiration. And if you don't like the artwork on offer, the very space within which it hangs, the reverence in which it is held by others, and the sheer sums of money involved raise heated debate and therefore artistic stimulation.

Importantly, fine art doesn't have to be invoked literally. Viewing a Botticelli is just as likely to inspire an advertising director or web designer as it is a contemporary artist. In fact there are hundreds of examples of advertising campaigns aping fine art. Two of the bestknown are agency TBWA's spin on the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo for adidas for the Germany 2006 World Cup, and Saatchi & Saatchi invoking the Venus de Milo for a classic 1980s ad for Cadbury's Flake.

Mimicking the greats
David Lawrence is an artist and illustrator whose hybrid skills mix Illustrator and Photoshop work with pastiches of the old masters. Lawrence began his career as an anatomical illustrator, a training process that he says refined his skills as much as any study of classical art would have. He maintains that getting out to fine art exhibitions isn't just about searching for inspiration -it's also about finding solid reference material.

"Every city I visit, I make the galleries a priority - I go early when it's quiet with a good digital camera, a zoom lens and a huge memory card," says Lawrence, whose flexible style has won him work for clients as diverse as Saatchi & Saatchi, Penguin and Sheppy's Cider.

"Visits to the Metropolitan in New York and the Louvre in Paris yield fantastic insights - details to be pored over in the quiet of a studio on a winter's night. Years ago, getting enough reference for a job was always the problem. Not so now: high-quality images abound."

Others find the very nature of fine art a more direct form of inspiration. Matt Latchford is a cartoonist and animator who graduated from Kingston University with a degree in Illustration and Animation and has found work for the likes of Honda, Hasbro, the Independent and Ninja Tune.

It would be difficult to draw any direct comparisons between fine art and Latchford's cutting-edge motion graphics, yet he says that fine art is as solid a form of inspiration as any other.

"I'll make a special effort to see the stuff that moves and inspires me. I saw the Arthur Rackham exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and in the same day visited the amazing Aztec exhibition at the Royal Academy," he explains.

"Certain exhibitions come around like Haley's Comet and I've just got to go and be amazed while I have the chance: [artists like] Velazquez, Toulouse- Lautrec and Monet.

"I love the masks and puppets of Africa and Asia. I'm also fascinated by ancient Japanese art and culture and have sat for hours looking at the craftsmanship on samurai armour and swords. Also, as a character designer I am fascinated by netsuke. All these can be seen at the V&A and the British Museum."

However, the inspiration drawn from fine art doesn't have to be found in the rousing stimuli of the finished piece. Many contemporary artists consider fine art a precursor to the camera - a way of recording rather than expressing. But that's not to say that the mechanics of fine art should be ignored. Many of the hard-and-fast rules of creativity can be traced back to the origins of fine art.

"I went to university in Sydney, my home town, and studied for a BA in Fine Art. I've also spent years on life drawings," says illustrator Sarah Howell. "I think that as you develop as an artist you take certain rules with you, but more often than not you come up with your own set of regulations to work by: a Do's List and a Don'ts List."

The value of rules
Even though his work is primarily based in animation and graphic illustration, Latchford agrees that existing rules and systems are great to know about - even if they only give us a set of conventions to experiment within and eventually break.

"I'm much more of an immediate mark-maker, so I find a lot of the 'proportion' concepts outdated and lacking in spontaneity. I've had some techniques and rules drummed into me that I'm happy to hang onto and admit to using - like negative space and a loose, exploratory line. If you have a broad knowledge and understanding of concepts, rules and traditions, then you can have fun playing with them a little."

Rules and conventions aside, many contemporary artists take their fine art inspiration not just from the form of the painting, but from the sheer accomplishment of the finished artefact. Remember, Botticelli's huge canvases were hand-crafted, while today's works need only to be rasterised to be printed out on anything of a similar size.

"There's definitely an influence of the Pre-Raphaelites and art nouveau in my work, more than I perhaps realise," says digital illustrator and artist Chellie Carroll. "When I look for inspiration I do tend to look at past artwork, not so much because it is fine art, but because it contains a detail and craft that you don't usually get in contemporary works."

Technique and inspiration aside, there's another, much more tactile link between the likes of da Vinci and Caravaggio and today's creative community: the commission.

Blurring the line
"In the same way that the people with the money in Renaissance Italy commissioned artists, so the people with the money in the corporate world ask us to paint them and their company in an attention-grabbing way," argues Latchford, who certainly believes that the line between fine art and contemporary art blurs.

"Look at art nouveau and the Bauhaus. It was practical and desirable, and it's still completely influencing illustration, graphic design and animation. In a reversal of this process, Banksy hijacked the fine art world, just as the pop artists did 40 years ago. Most artists and designers I know have a Banksy book on their bookshelves and coffee tables!"

At the last count, the UK alone has over 3,000 museum and gallery spaces, ranging from George Baselitz's huge retrospective at the Royal Academy, to dozens of smaller, more independent collections. Importantly, though, each and every one is accessible to the public for a nominal fee. Art in the UK and Europe is heavily subsidised - as it should be - and even if you believe that fine art is elitist and vacuous, rather than the root of all subsequent creativity, it remains a great source of inspiration ripe for you to plunder.

There are hundreds of places across the globe to draw inspiration from the old masters. Here is Computer Arts' selection of some of the best

The Faringdon Collection, Oxfordshire

The Faringdon Collection of British painting at Buscot Park in Oxfordshire is an extensive holding that features some great examples of Pre-Raphaelite art.

Muse du Louvre, Paris

The muse du Louvre houses 35,000 works of art drawn from eight departments, displayed in more than 60,000 square metres of exhibition space dedicated to the permanent collections. Even if you ignore the quite astounding number of grand masters on show, the exhibition space itself is enough to stir even the most sapped of creative juices.

Metropolitan Museum, NYC

A selection of old master, Impressionist and modern paintings from the Robert Lehman Collection including Lorenzo Monaco, Claude Monet and Renoir.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, UK

Constantine Ionides assembled a fine art collection containing more than 80 paintings, including Renaissance portraits by Botticelli and Tintoretto, and Pre-Raphaelite works by Burne-Jones and Rossetti. Ionides was also an important early collector of French painters from the 1800s, including Degas, Delacroix and Millet. The V&A houses his collection which is open to the public.

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