It’s generally easy to explain why we like certain music or a certain film. But somehow, in the echoing hallways of an art gallery, the quiet formality can make fine art feel unattainable, or even uninspiring. Add to that those who arrogantly scoff at casual observers for not understanding the latest boundary-pushing works, and it’s no wonder that some in our culture feel appreciating art is only a lofty pastime.
But Nashville portrait artist David McLeod has a different perspective on his profession. “Most people have way more ability and taste than they ever give themselves credit for,” he says. “There’s some sort of weird thing that’s happened, and I think a lot of it is because so many artists in the 20th century were seen as freaks or different. The average person feels like they can’t engage in art because they don’t feel like they’re weird enough. But in actuality, when you walk into a museum you have very specific ideas. You do know what you like. You do have an opinion.”
David perfected his craft at Vanderbilt University, and as an apprentice for one of the South’s premier portrait artists, Michael Shane Neal. There, he learned to depict the human figure through constant practice and in-person training. But one of David’s favorite quotes is from Robert Henri, an artist who taught the mentor of his mentor. Henri said artists don’t just need to know how to draw – they need to know why they draw. In other words, artists need more than technical training, they also need to come to the canvas with something to say.
And in the latter half of the 20th century, some artists geared their works to produce a reaction, not to instill emotion. “They do grotesque or sexual or weird stuff, and it all becomes about the shock-value,” David says. “So the art itself becomes insignificant. That, to me, is the saddest thing. It’s the perfect result of a mindset toward art that says it doesn’t have to be excellent. And I want to be as far from that as possible.”
David offers a few suggestions for the next time you stop in a gallery, like the Haynes Gallery, where his current collection is displayed.
First, notice the composition. Is the subject matter off-center? Is it symmetrical? Asymmetrical? There’s no right or wrong way to put images on a canvas, but typically you’ll prefer something that is dynamic, rather than if the focal point is smack-dab in the middle of the piece. David says, “The unbalanced nature creates a layer of tension that’s necessary for you to remain interested.”
Also, take a look at color. Is there a specific hue that draws your eyes immediately? These are the signs artists use to point your attention to what they are trying to communicate.
“Take a fresh perspective on art,” David says. “When you know that your opinion matters, that is empowering.”