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The Importance of Materials in Art and the Creative Process

In the realm of creativity and design, the choice of materials and the production processes are more than just practical considerations—they are fundamental elements that shape the essence of a project. Contemporary artists such as Ellen Gallagher and Wangechi Mutu create rich layered collages from found images in newspapers and magazines, exploring themes including self-image, the representation of women, and history. Throughout art history, the choice of materials has evolved over time, significantly impacting the appearance and meaning of artworks. In contemporary art, the significance of materials is emphasised, highlighting their crucial role in the creation of artworks, their symbolic and aesthetic meanings, and their association with political, economic, and social contexts. The interplay between traditional craftsmanship and modern technology not only broadens the scope of what can be achieved but also pushes the boundaries of innovation and artistic expression. In this post, we will explore why materials and processes are so vital in the creative world and delve into specific examples of how different materials can be used effectively in art, design, and sculpture.

Gold leaf in process stating Lazerian- purveyors of modern craft on a green background
A green mobile studio van from Lazerian being worked on and on a hoist

The Significance of How Artists Choose Materials

1. Material as a Storyteller: Every material carries its own story and characteristics. When artists choose materials based on their particular qualities and symbolic significance, they can convey the narrative and emotional tone of a project. For instance, the warmth and organic nature of wood can evoke a sense of tradition and comfort, while the sleek, transparent quality of acrylic can suggest modernity and innovation. The use of materials like gold leaf on a painting’s surface can increase the monetary and cultural value of an artwork, affecting the perceived quality and merit of the piece and elevating the owner’s reputation and status. The choice of material can profoundly impact the viewer’s experience and interpretation of a piece.

Artists often experiment with art materials to achieve different results and convey symbolic purposes. They utilise unusual materials and challenge traditional norms by using everyday and unexpected materials, contributing to the experimental spirit of contemporary art.

Wireframed sculpture on a beach with coloured glass in red and blues placed across the wire frame art sculpture
Close up side view of a contemporary wooden reception welcome desk. Focuses in on the curvy detailing of the vertical panels. Designed to represent dancers in flight.
Close up of a wooden component from a reception desk. Several different pieces of wood starting with the biggest at the back and stepping down in size until the smaller one . This involves 7 steps.
Close up of wooden designed contemporary reception desk made from curved vertical pieces of wood. Side view

2. Functional and Aesthetic Harmony: The right material not only fulfills functional requirements but also enhances the aesthetic appeal of a creation. In the creative world, finding this balance is crucial. Metals might be chosen for their strength and industrial feel, while paper and cardboard offer versatility and ease for prototyping. Achieving harmony between functionality and aesthetics ensures that the design is both practical and visually engaging.

Inside art gallery and cafe bar Lazerian Space. 2 pods in colour of yellow and green
Art installation in motion- a kinetic moving art piece
Mensa coffee table as part of the Mensa collection by Manchester artist and world renowned designer Liam Hopkins of Lazerian
Extreme close up of a carbon fibre geometric shapes as part of a contemporary art sculpture that was diaplyed in the Manchester Garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. Shown as an example of sustainable design Manchester

3. Expanding Possibilities: Different materials provide different possibilities and limitations. Understanding these properties allows designers to experiment and push the boundaries of what can be achieved. For example, carbon fibre’s high strength-to-weight ratio makes it ideal for projects that demand both durability and lightness. This knowledge empowers artists and designers to innovate and create pieces that challenge traditional norms.

The Role of Mass Production Processes

1. The Fusion of Craftsmanship and Technology: Traditional craftsmanship and modern technology each have their strengths. Combining these approaches can result in unique, innovative outcomes. Handcrafted elements add a personal, tactile quality that machines can’t replicate, while advanced technology offers precision and efficiency that hand tools alone cannot achieve. This fusion allows for the creation of works that are rich in detail and precision.

In the context of the linear economy, raw materials are extracted from nature and quickly discarded, leading to significant ecological impacts. Understanding and reducing the impacts of material processes is crucial within the circular economy framework to minimise the use of global materials and the negative effects of production and consumption choices.

Close up of work in progress as part of a contemporary art installation by Manchester based artist Lazerian. Its the shape of a cotton shuttle made from resin filled with cotton thred and placed in the floor of thetre group 53two. They artwork is showing cotton strands in a larger wooden mould.
Striking patterns that have been laser cut from natural wood

2. Innovation through Experimentation: Experimentation is at the heart of creativity- not only within contemporary art but also throughout art history. By exploring various production processes, designers can discover new techniques and effects that can redefine conventional boundaries. Artists experimenting with unexpected materials and techniques often find that stepping out of their comfort zones and trying new methods leads to unexpected and exciting results. This willingness to experiment is what drives innovation and keeps the creative field dynamic and evolving.

Creating artwork from diverse materials, including waste materials, plays a significant role in contemporary art. The ‘Scrap Art’ or ‘Junk Art’ movement, for instance, emphasises the use of found objects and readymades to beautify the environment and raise awareness about reusing materials. Everyday objects can have an important role when produced as contemporary art.

With artists experimenting with art materials and organic materials they can find out not only their functional needs but different qualities and positive and negative impacts.

Plastic race car made using plastic waste
A recycled community public art project whereas people collected recycled plastic bottles and design studio Lazerian made them into the form of an angel. Showing the sustainable design Manchester aspect
Manchester artist Lazerian creation of a electronic race car made entirely from e-waste for Envision Racing

3. Tailoring to the Project’s Needs: The production process should be tailored to the specific needs and context of each project. Understanding the story behind a project helps in selecting the most appropriate techniques and processes. For example, a large-scale installation may require robust, durable materials and advanced fabrication methods, whereas a delicate, intricate piece might benefit from meticulous handcrafting. This tailored approach ensures that each project is executed to the highest standards. By choosing materials that align with the process it can add cultural values as well as industrial substances and environmental impacts.

Delicate paper being used to create a robust pair of white 3D paper sculpture

Material Highlights in Contemporary Art: Examples and Applications

1. Wood: Wood is a timeless material valued for its versatility and aesthetic appeal. It can be used in a variety of ways, from structural elements to fine details. In art and sculpture, wood’s natural grain and texture can add a unique, organic dimension. For example, artists like Henry Moore have used wood to create flowing, abstract forms that emphasize natural beauty and simplicity. Wood’s ability to be carved, turned, and finished in various ways makes it a favorite among sculptors and designers.

Natural materials, such as different types of wood and lacquer, hold significant cultural and monetary value. They are often chosen for their unique properties and the intricate processes involved in creating art from these materials. Rich materials, such as gold, marble, and precious stones, are also used in art, sculpture, and historical objects to create immersive experiences and are often associated with spirituality, royalty, and imperial power.

Thin wooden sculptures in a variety of colours such as yellows, pinks, blues and browns
Wooden maple tree art installation located in Spinningfields, Manchester. Designed and created by design studio Lazerian
Photo taken as through the prospective of a view through the geometric wooden christmas art design sculptures at Erddig Hall. North Wales' Natural Elegance: Sculptural Trees at Erddig Hall
Large Laws wooden sculpture in a green scenic background in Yorkshire Sculpture Park
A Lazerian art sculpture that is a wooden light piece made using natural wood and laser cut
A famous art installation in a cityscape.

2. Metal: Metal, including steel, aluminum, and bronze, is known for its strength and durability. It’s widely used in sculptures and architectural elements. The reflective surfaces of polished metal can create dynamic visual effects, while its robustness allows for large-scale installations. Anish Kapoor’s mirrored sculptures, for instance, play with perception and space, utilizing metal’s reflective properties. Metal can also be welded, cast, and formed, offering a wide range of creative possibilities.

A stand at the 2023 Manchester Art Fair. You can see a metal sculpture of a tree in the middle of the stand with transparent butterflies attached to the branches. In the background is a wire frame strcuture on the walls with colourful abstract painting in the frames. Focused on the branches and the transparent butterflies on the branches of the metal sculptural tree
The Lazerian mascot Gerald the dog made from a copper material
A close up of a copper art sculpture made using triangular form by Lazerian
An acrylic art sculpture of a tree. More surreal art than anything. The branches are in a squiggle shape and mainly in yellow but some in red.
Art sculpture called lighting bolt hung on a ceiling with long thin parts that light up in different colours
A triangular roof with stained glass windows in various different colours such as pinks, blues, oranges

3. Acrylic and Glass: These materials are favored for their clarity and modern aesthetic. Acrylic is lightweight and easier to work with than glass, making it suitable for intricate designs and installations that require a sleek, contemporary look. Glass, with its ability to transmit and reflect light, is often used in both functional and decorative art pieces. Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures exemplify the use of glass to create vibrant, light-filled artworks. Both materials can be cut, molded, and polished to achieve different effects.

Green glass as part a chandelier. close up of the glass pieces.
Michelin man style artwork- Kaws. Head bent down
Side view of a paper dog model in 3D form that has been designed and created by international graffiti artist Insa. The paper dog is the mascot of creative design studio Lazerian. The project involed asking artist and designers to customise the dogs using their own trademark and signature styles. This dog sculpture has a gradient colouring which starts from a yellow face goes to a red body and fades into a pink then purple rear end. The design also has white stilettos across the body that are drawn in a cartoonish way.

5. Paper and Cardboard: These materials are not only cost-effective but also highly versatile. They are excellent for prototyping and experimental projects due to their ease of manipulation. In art, paper can be transformed into detailed sculptures or used in mixed media. Artists like Richard Sweeney explore the potential of paper to create intricate, geometric forms that defy its seemingly simple nature. Paper can be folded, cut, and glued, allowing for endless creative exploration. The use of everyday objects in contemporary art, such as paper and cardboard, invites viewers to think about the things that surround them in the modern world and creates new meanings.

A public art interior installation (known as Chromatogram) made created using colourful cardboard pods by British designer Liam Hopkins of Lazerian. Taken from a wide angled overhead shot
A paper fish sculpture showing a fish and its skeleton made from coloured paper. The ribs are made from red paper, and other internal organs in yellow and blue. Created by design studio Lazerian for Hull- City of Culture
Artwork- surreal style by Hannah Hoch
Paper art in a symmetrical pattern
Large paper hands as part of a art installation that is set out on King St in Manchester City Centre
Cardboard chair made using a triangular technique by art studio Lazerian
A 3D paper sculpture in the style of origami of a flying elegant bird

6. Ceramics: Clay and ceramic materials offer a unique blend of tradition and versatility. They can be molded, carved, and glazed in countless ways, allowing for a wide range of artistic expressions from functional pottery to abstract sculptures. Ceramicists like Grayson Perry use this medium to create thought-provoking works that blend classical techniques with contemporary themes. The ability to fire ceramics at high temperatures gives them durability and a distinctive finish.

Small art sculpture. Gold face with marks on them
Purple nipple with a silver nipple ring through it. An art piece
Ceramic pot art piece By Grayson Perry with colourful images on the vase
Black cylinder with 9 spokes coming out of it
Art sculpture of 2 people sat on each other with a head on their lap
Fashion model wearing a textile dress with a oriental theme.
Rainbow art installation creating a prism effect by Gabriel Dawe
Plant life textile art piece which is a colourful thread like piece by Ana Teresa Barboza

7. Textiles: Textiles, including fabrics and fibers, are used in various creative disciplines, from fashion design to installation art. They offer flexibility, texture, and color that can be manipulated in numerous ways. Artists like Sheila Hicks use textiles to create large-scale, vibrant installations that explore form and texture. Textiles can be woven, dyed, embroidered, and sewn, providing a rich medium for artistic expression.

A hand crafted rug in a traditional format which then transpires into a multi coloured more modern pattern
A huge textile art sculpture installation- Saffron Sentinel by Sheila Hicks. Lots of colourful round textiles in yellows, oranges, white and reds
A textile art piece which resembles a hanging cloud with different textile textures in colours such as purple, white, blues
Model wearing textured clothing in chiffon, sequins in a beige colour