Ambiguity In Art – How It Can Benefit Your Own Work

Ambiguity in art: art work having several possible interpretations or meanings; of an uncertain nature. And why am I bringing this up?

Think of the Mona Lisa’s smile. It’s ambiguous- we don’t know why she’s smiling and there are so many possible stories we could create. She’s kept us intrigued all through the centuries and still we’re curious and hypnotized by this painting painted by Leonardo da Vinci. This is a great example of ambiguity in art.

And what about the work of René Margritte? You look and then you look again and then you see the ambiguity and strangeness in his art.

So what I’d like to suggest to you is sometimes creating work that is uncertain as to its meaning. This could be done by including something that perhaps doesn’t quite belong but that might be noticible at first look. Or the whole painting can have an ambiguous feel.

I have a pastel painting that came about in a rather strange way. A painting was covered with glassine. When I removed it, I could see a design of pastel on it that spoke to my imagination. Have a look:

Image of pastel in glassine (talk about ambiguous art!)

Not that interesting right? But there was something there that caught my eye. And so I drew up a quick sketch with the idea.

Pencil sketch on paper

I saw three figures. I wasn’t sure How they would turn out but I figured out their placement as well as a value pattern. And then there are those cloud-like forms. I wasn’t sure what to do with those! But next was to draw it up on UART paper:

Vine charcoal on UART 400

And now for the three colours in three values. I wasn’t working from any colour scheme in reality so in part the colours were randomly chosen. Having said that I was vaguely thinking grass and sky.

Three values: light (blue), middle (the orange/red), and dark (green).

I added a second layer. The figures are taking shape – three women who have some sort of relationship. The cloud-like forms look a bit like the start of trees. So with that thought, I added some green over the initial red. 

And you can see the piece in black and white below. You can see how close in value the green and red are in the puff forms. Do you see how in black and white they disappear into each other?

I decided, nope, not trees. Then what? Possibly talk or thought balloons (argh do these things have a name? I’m sure they do)? Or what else? To get away from the idea of trees and thinking about the potential of ambiguity in art, I reintroduced the red, brightening up the greyed red below and covering much of the green.

I also decided I needed to do something with the large flat area behind the figures. I added pinks and yellows to the blue. 

I worked on the figures a bit, tweaking the details. Almost finished. But not quite.

Can you see that I also added some height over the horizon on the left? 

I decided I needed to break up the edges of the floating area on the right. I also felt I needed to ‘attach’ the figures to the background more so I chose to use the colour of the girl on the left’s coat along part of the horizon line behind her. And it’s done but untitled as yet. 

And here it is in black and white. You can see how I stuck to the original value structure

And here are the pastels I used. And in black and white.

Ambiguity in art gives us the chance to add to a painting’s texture. When we view a painting with ambiguous meaning we ask, What does it mean? And from our own life experience, perception, expectation, imagination, and knowledge, in that moment we create an answer. An ambiguous painting has no correct answer about its meaning. It encourages you to look to yourself for a response, no matter what is. The hard part sometimes is to express that answer boldly and without fear. 

So now it’s time for you to respond!! What do your experiences and your imagination tell you about this painting? Go wild. Don’t hold back! Let your creative juices get to work. I’m looking forward to hearing some amazing stories. 

Until next time,

~ Gail

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32 thoughts on “Ambiguity In Art – How It Can Benefit Your Own Work”

  1. Hi Gail,
    I think that is so cool! That’s a very interesting way to make a painting! I think paintings like this are especially for the artist, although others can enjoy them too. I think they’re even more enjoyable when you know how the artist made the work.

    My granddaughters like drawing with my pencil crayons. One winter day the pencil crayons were sitting in their cups – all the ends poking up – in the sun. After a while one of my granddaughters showed me her drawing and I asked her to tell me about it. She told me she had drawn crystals – they did resemble crystals for sure. I asked if she drew that from her imagination. “Well, sort of – I traced the shadows the pencil crayons made on my paper and thought they looked like crystals” she said. I’m not sure I would have thought of drawing pencil crayon shadows and I was so impressed!

    That’s the memory your explanation of your painting brought to my mind. I’m not sure why really, but I find such situations, like yours, and my granddaughters, to be so delightful! It feels a bit like the universe is playing through you.

    I hope that’s not oversharing…Thank you so much for your painting and explanation. I love the delight I’m feeling right now.

    1. Oversharing? Are you kidding?! Not at all! LOVE the story you shared of your granddaughter and that wonderful way she had no judgement around what she was doing or how she came to it. Something for all us adults to strive for I think!
      And I am revelling in the delight I have from your comment!!

  2. Don’t know why…. but I keep thinking that this is in England. And, I also feel that it’s some kind of field trip with a head school mistress (middle) and her two students. They are in a type of boarding home living arrangement. Both of the students have red hair so very Anglo Saxon. Looks like they’re wearing capes which looks like maybe this takes place in the early 1900’s. The clouds appear to be rain clouds so they’re returning home. I’m really enjoying interpreting your painting Gail!! Very fun!

    1. Oh my yes Ruth!! I feel about it in a similar way. (And I have no idea why they appeared the way they do!) Hadn’t got to the rain clouds though and love that interpretation!!!

  3. I read the two “clouds” as anger (red), jealousy (green), or frustration (dark confusion) on the part of the two shorter figures; perhaps toward the central figure who stands taller, slimmer, and appears to be in charge of or leading the others. The background strokes suggest a turbulent aura surrounding them.

    1. Charlotte fantastic reading of the piece!! Love that you have read the cloud forms as emotional representations and attached them to certain individuals. Thanks for playing the game!

  4. This is not as amazing as Mona Lisa but it’s odd anyway so here goes. Once I painted a single apple, framed it and gave it to a friend. Upon seeing it, her husband exclaimed, “It’s the cat!” And he showed me the ear, the tail…To this day I cannot see a cat but he does!
    Thanks for the post Gail!
    Nancy Malard

    1. Oh this so made me smile Nancy!! Its cool that you cannot see the cat cos often it goes the other way, that the image has been changed for you forever!

  5. Loved this. Immediately saw a mother and two daughters burying a beloved pet. The red ‘handbag’ in the mother’s hand I saw as the handle or maybe blade of a spade for digging the hole. The figures are clearly related by having red hair, the mother’s more muted with age. The loose hair of the girls indicates they are young, pubescent, not fully grown. Both the girls are looking down at the same point on the ground (the ‘grave’) and have no facial features which give them a blank sad look. The mother, job done, is looking away. And those floating patches of red and green behind are definitely trees so this is happening outside in nature but not in a tidy cultivated garden. Having had this gut reaction to the painting I’m now too wedded to it to interpret any other way. And no, I haven’t lost a beloved pet recently… though I do have two grown up daughters so the trio of women resonates with me 🙂

    1. Oh my gosh thanks for this full and detailed reading of the piece. I can see what you see as much look at. Thanks so much for looking and seeing all this. And I did think, ‘Has Sylvan recently lost a pet?’ so appreciate you anticipating that question and letting us know that such a sadness hasn’t influenced your narrative.

      1. Yes, Gail – There have been many, many pets over a 55yr marriage but I’m glad to say the current bunch are all healthy. 🙂 I’ve only recently realised how much I love narrative paintings. And am so enjoying reading your other responses to this piece.

  6. The figure on the left is a fox – more obvious to me in the black and white image, the one on the right is little red riding hood and grandma in the middle. 🙂

    1. Elaine I laughed when I read your interpretation!! And looking at the black and white version I can see why you saw this!! Thanks!!!

  7. I think the approach to this painting is both fun and very courageous. Thank you for sharing the process. I think I’ve been haunted by the question of what I’m trying to say with my paintings. Perhaps if I made space for ambiguity, I too could approach a painting with a sense of exploration, discovery and fun. Thank you.

    1. Fun and courageous- I would have to say yes to both!! Sometimes I think we worry too much about our art – what is says, what it should say. We can put a lot of pressure on ourselves (and I speak from experience!). Sometimes the most difficult thing is just to let a painting be. I LOVE that this blog has opened the possibility for you to explore and have fun and see what happens.

  8. This came at the perfect time! I am in the process of a painting for my oldest son, who lives in a different state. He asked for specific items to be included; things from his youth. This post is most helpful because now I can “add” my feelings of the place and time of “rememberence.”

    1. Oh Beth that’s wonderful!! I love that adding things from your son’s youth (and what an interesting request that is!) will also include your own response to remembrance of time past. Look forward to seeing the final result!

  9. Always love your colors! The unusual combination caught and held my attention and while I was looking I tried to “fill in a story” for the figures and background. Because the figures are standing, I got “waiting” and because they are all touching, I got “family”. The two shorter ones both have red hair, taking that literally, I took them for sisters, the taller figure has hints of red in her hair so an older relation? Mom, Aunt, perhaps? Taken alone I would have settled on shopping trip, (what does that say about my assumptions of female gatherings, LOL!) but they are obviously outside, so perhaps waiting for a bus, a friend, directions? To sum up, the painting gives me a feeling of expectation…what is going to happen to the trio, what are they going to do? You held my interest and made me think! We connected over an image, how cool!

    I have come to pastels fairly recently after a career of doing graphics on a computer. I have been concentrating on learning technique, materials and basic art concepts. This is a great reminder for me not to get lost in doing art “correctly” but also to be brave enough to go for the feeling of an image, not just a representation of it. As always you offer us the chance to be fearless with color! Thank you so much for making me think about painting in a different way!

    1. Connie, I LOVED your interpretation and more so, giving us the reasoning behind it. Thanks for going deep into details! I like the idea of Expectation….

      I am so happy too to know that seeing work like this shifts and jiggles the traditional artistic path. Learning about the basics – materials, techniques, art elements – is so very important. Important too is to also follow your intuition and listen to both the voice of the painting and your unique response to it. Let go and see where it takes you! And even if the outcome doesn’t seem like anything much, don’t be too quick to judge. Our inner critic loooooves to jump in with “what rubbish!” before things have settled! You never know if the gem hasn’t been quite polished yet. Time will tell. And there’s always a takeaway no matter what!

  10. This piece makes me feel nervous for the girls . Your strokes and palette put me on edge! The two younger girls are looking down and appear apprehensive. The older woman could be an older aunt or family servant. She is anxious and looking forward expecting something to come. A carriage to take the girls away to another relative? An orphanage? Methinks I have read too many Jane Austen and Bronte sisters books! (No – never can read them too often!)

    1. Sharon that’s so cool!! I LOVE that this painting makes you anxious! Well, I don’t like that you are anxious but I’m happy that the painting elicits this response! And thank you for your reading of this piece and for giving it a tenuous connection to Austen and Bronte 😀 I like!

  11. Gail, this painting is fantastic, and so captivating. I could look at it for hours, there is so much to see! And those vibrant colours! It is always about the colours when I like a painting. I also love the loose mark-making and I admire your ability to know when to stop. It is just right.
    I have found out that I don’t like to make up whole stories though, so all I see is a woman with her two daughters walking in the countryside, with storm clouds in the sky – that’s enough, I don’t need more of a story…
    Thanks for sharing your art, you are an inspiration and a great teacher.
    Kind regards, Gabriela

    1. Gabriela, thank you so much for your enthusiastic response to my painting!! I’m smiling, oh so happy! Happy that you were captivated – isn’t that what we all want as artists, to keep a viewer looking just a bit longer?
      Thanks for sharing your reading of the painting. Although you didn’t offer a whole narrative, you still interpreted what was there and I’m delighted you did. You created storm clouds for instance 🙂

      And thank you so much for your kind words 😀

  12. I must add something. When I dig a little deeper to why I like this painting: I probably see myself in this woman with my own children. It wakes up memories, but I can’t quite grasp them, it’s more of an unconscious thing… But there it is, the connection!

    1. Ahhhhh yes….the emotional connection to a piece as unconscious and slight as it may be. Many thanks Gabriela for adding to what you shared above!

  13. I have really enjoyed reading all of these different narratives. I see foreboding and hesitation in the body language of these figures. Whatever they are about to do, they are not looking forward to it.

    I have a suggestion for a title: given that ambiguity and openness are so important here I thought that a question was appropriate. I think you could call it “Shall we?”

    1. Thanks Janice! I too have revelled in the contributions to this piece. Each interpretation adds to the piece way beyond the physical piece itself. And I like your addition of foreboding and hesitation!!

      I appreciate your offer of a title. However, I find it a bit too expectant in a high spirited way (as in, shall we dance?). It feels as if it contradicts the apprehension and misgiving you describe. Do you see? I like the idea of a question in the title although I had been considering “Expectation” but even that sounds too anticipatory in a positive way. So I think it needs something more ambiguous….yet not negative. I was also thinking “Prospect.”

  14. I love this painting, Gail. The Fauvist colors speak to my heart. When I saw it I went looking for a painting I had seen at the Courtauld in London, but alas their website is down for the duration whilst they undergo a major renovation. The painting is by Kees van Dongen, a young girl unlike his more salacious paintings, but one who has spoken to me since the first time I saw the painting. Your process is inspiring. Play. Play. Play. Thanks for sharing it. I’ll send you a copy of the painting via messenger.

    1. Thanks so much Jean! I love your referencing Kees van Dongen and thanks for sending me the image privately. I did track down the image elsewhere (on the blog of Simon Wallis, Director of the Hepworth Wakefield) as I wanted others to see your connection. Click here to see it!

      And yes – PLAY PLAY PLAY – easy to say, often not easy to do!

  15. How great that you mention that ambiguity in art is important and what it means. My daughter is really interested in art and her birthday is next week. I will find some great online art lessons for her.

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Gail Sibley

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My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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