Why craft is important


Giotto, Head of Christ (detail) from the Last Judgement, Arena chapel Padua

If one looks at this portrayal of Christ, painted by Giotto around 1305 one can clearly see the care with which it was painted. The artist has gone to great trouble to paint every hair on the head, the beard has been painted more finely, and even more time has been spent making smooth graduated tones on the face; so much so, that the brush marks are hardly visible. The halo has been intricately drawn, then carved, before being gilded. The collar has been carefully drawn, gilded, painted over, and then the pattern scraped away. Perhaps, most of all, great effort has been spent in making the expression of Christ, somehow compassionate, gentle, and cross, all at once.

Even though this image was made 700 years ago, the humanity of it shines through, and speaks to us in every one of the thousands of actions that have left their mark on its surface.

When humans do things by hand we are unable to do things perfectly. When we take an action, we have to somehow coordinate our senses, our limbs, and the tools we use all at the same time, and then there is always a point where we say ‘about there – now’, and we make our mark. How carefully we do this, how tired we are, and our mood at the time, as well as our ability and experience, and our own individuality, will all affect where and how the final mark will fall.

Even if we try and copy an action it will never be exactly the same – even if the same person does it immediately after the first one. This lends a distinctly human element to repeated actions.

Before the age of mechanization this organic visual signature was evident in everything humans made. But this was not considered an asset, maybe rather the opposite. The onus was on doing things as perfectly as possible because inaccuracy, caused structural instability, and badly made things would break and so have to be remade. Accuracy and precision became the yardstick by which work was measured. This aspiration towards perfection became deeply embedded in our psychology.

BUT NOW, when machines bring a sort of perfection to much of what we produce, we don’t notice that objects have lost their organic human quality, because by the standards which things have always been judged, the products appear better.

But these subtle and minor imperfections and inconsistencies that show the effort of a human trying to do something well are beautiful. Because it is not easy for us to do something well with our hands.

The following picture of the Virgin Mary from the fresco by Tadeo Gaddi, was painted twenty- five years after Giotto’s. The artist, actually a pupil of Giotto’s, has not taken as much care with it. The expression is beautiful but the execution clumsy, with the lines coarsely drawn. I think most people would say on the basis of these two images ‘Giotto’s picture is better!’ (But it could be that Gaddi was rushed to complete the work.)

Making beautiful things like paintings, by hand, takes time. From the medieval period until the 19th century it was not unusual for altarpieces and paintings to take many years to complete. In the modern period when machines churn out complicated objects, and a photo is a click of a phone away, it is easy to forget the amount of work involved in creating beautiful things like paintings, by hand. The pressure is to speed things up. However, the gap between fine and beautiful handicraft, and clumsy and careless work, is met by patience, attention to detail, and often also years of practice. There are no short cuts.


Taddeo Gaddi. Head of virgin Mary (detail) Baroncelli Chapel. Santa Croce

Hand made objects leave traces which can give a real feeling about the personality of their maker, there for anybody who can read the signs. Just as we might construe that Tadeo Gaddi might have been a bit less careful than Giotto, a cabinet maker will glean something about its creator after a little examination of an old piece of furniture. Artists and craftspeople exist in the objects they create, often long after they have died. The best artworks only increase in value because of the skill and effort of the craftsman who made them. This gives their work an inherent beauty that exists beyond the temporary vagaries that fashion imposes on their marketability.

Some people think that a good paining is defined as an accurate image of reality. In fact more realistic images only really became commonplace in painting during the Renaissance, when humans started to take a more objective view of the world around them.

Most people think of seeing as a mechanical process but actually we see things very subjectively, because seeing is a very complicated process of selective filtering of information. If we aren’t looking for something we might not see it at all!

Primitive art, early art, or so called Naïve art has a distinctly human feel, precisely because things are depicted in an un-analytical way with extra emphasis given to objects of importance. We can all identify with this because we all saw the world like this as children, before we started measuring and analyzing.


Niccolo di Ser Sozzo Tegliacci, Head of the Madonna (detail) Siena Pinacoteca

The Picture above was painted in 1362. It is not a photographic representation of the Madonna but one nevertheless gets the feeling that it is a painting of a real person recreated through the mind of the artist….. And she looks very alive. One can almost imagine her shy smile if she had been told that her image would be looked at by us 700 years later, and one can imagine hearing the excited peals of laughter that would surely have occurred when she told her friends about it. This picture re-creates a life more alive than any photograph can do.

Whoever she was, through the artist’s sensitive depiction of her, she has survived through time. And so through his brush marks has the artist; whilst the powerful people who commissioned the work have faded into the mists of time.



Nowadays so little that we own is made by hand. Mechanization, with its promise of perfection at a knock down price has replaced many human activities. The only mark showing that a human has ever been near a product might be the quality checkers initials.

And what of this quality? Are machine made things much better? They certainly have the potential to be, and of course many of the objects we require in our modern lives could never be made by hand. But unfortunately, more often than not, in our commercial world things are made to a price; and not much is built to last these days- lest we stop buying; so manufactured products are often more expensive in the long run too.

A high-quality factory-made chair is not built to last more than twenty years. A craftsman-built equivalent may cost three times the price but will last a lifetime. The buyer can probably meet the craftsman, and even have input into the design. This connection will enrich both their lives.

On the other hand most people involved in the manufacturing process just assemble things. Their work lives are reduced to long days of mindless repetitive tasks, often in a faraway country from the final destination of the products they produce.

Manufacturing is not kind to these anonymous souls. We seem to be trying to make the poorest people who do these jobs into machines themselves. And in a seemingly completely mad way, at the same time, we are trying to make machines more like people!

But machines will never talk to us on the same human level as the artists above have done through their work. Though their designers are people, who sometimes merit acclaim, machines don’t make Art. Machine-made artefacts are often best evaluated not for their artistry but for their design.

Art is made with skill, hard work, a desire for excellence, and it expresses itself through a universal human language: the marks an artist makes that give an artwork its soul. An artwork’s message is driven by the life struggle of the person who created it. Good art needs sincerity and drive, and often time to carry it to its conclusion.

Giotto lived in a very different world to us, but we can learn a few things from him and the painters of his day. Just as his work speaks to us now, so we can hope the best things we produce now will possibly impress future generations.

When this happens, it will not be because of the latest technological inventions that were used in a work’s creation – these will have long been superseded but may have historical interest. We can marvel at the designs of ancient engineered artefacts, even when they now serve no useful purpose, or their purpose would be achieved in a more elegant or efficient way today. But it will be the human element that makes our descendants say, ‘I feel that person, He was alive like me, he talks to me.’

Personally, as an artist I remind myself of this fact as I create my own work. I try to be true to myself without being self-indulgent, to be sincere and do the best I possibly can. I don’t follow fashion, I don’t chase money. I try to be honest, just as I believe the best painters always have done ­- expressing myself as best I can in the language of paint.

We should all try to learn to value craft skills at least as much as we value technology. We have lost so many skills already. If craft became fashionable, we would make better things. More people would have jobs. More people would lead fulfilled lives. Craft crosses language barriers and links us as people. Maybe the world would even be a little bit more beautiful too.

As a generation, long after we ourselves are gone, future generations will see us through the objects we created. Will our buildings be more impressive than the cathedrals our ancestors built nearly a thousand years ago (that sometimes took a hundred years to build)? We must leave a better legacy for the future – already there are too many dump sites filled with outdated technological fashion accessories, and mass produced rubbish. We have plundered the worlds resources and damaged its climate. We need to change our way of thinking.

It is perhaps only a small step in the right direction, but we should remember that in valuing craft we value humanity, and make the world a richer place.


Brantwood Rose by Piers Williams courtesy of Mrs S Kay. A 100 hour painting