Vision and Design

August 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

Every art student has, at some time or another, had to paint a still-life composed of random stuff utterly lacking in any intrinsic aesthetic, monetary, or any other value: a table top full of old shoes that no one would be caught dead wearing. A collection of empty bottles. Sticks. Bones… Shown a Morandi still-life, the proverbial “Man in the Street” turns away wondering how someone could spend fifty years painting a bunch of bottles and boxes that you couldn’t even sell on e-bay.

Teachers ask students to take it on faith that this is how you learn to paint. The common wisdom is that you first must learn to see before you can learn to paint, or, that learning to paint is actually learning to see in ways that are meaningful and specialized to the process of painting. And so, the useless junk as still-life material…

Painting, in its essence, is quite simple. It’s nothing but applying colored substance to a flat surface. But before that can happen, what exactly is the color of your sensation and how do you mix it; how do you relate it to the other colors so that their mutual tensions convey the experience you have?  The problem with subject matter that outwardly appeals to the mind, the emotions or the imagination – a gold chalice, a historical site, sumptuous flowers, cute children, etc. – is that it is more difficult to see this sort of subject in the detached way that a beginning painter needs to see in order to know what to do on the palette and on the canvas. Ideas about the subject have a way of clouding the vision.

Vision and Design is the title of a book first published in 1920 by British painter and critic, Roger Fry, an early champion of Modernism in his country. Fry was a member of the Bloomsbury Group, a group of artists, writers and philosophers who met in the Bloomsbury area of London from the 1900s to the 30s. Among the better known members of the Bloomsbury Group were writers Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and Vita Sackville West.

Fry died in 1934, but his book is still in print. A copy fell into my hands when I was a graduate student and, as is so often the case with books like that, I stumbled across  something that was so meaningful to me that, decades later, I still hand it out to painting students. That something was Fry’s essay, called “The Artist’s Vision,” an ironic riff on how we see, and the various uses to which we put our sense of sight. Fry describes four kinds of vision of which humans are capable, but it is the last type, which he calls “the creative vision” (“the furthest perversion of the gifts of nature of which man is guilty…”) which I quote here for the light it sheds on the above issues in teaching art.  But mostly I am posting it because it such an apt description of the transformation in vision that occurs when you paint. Anyone who has ever put brush to canvas may be struck to recognize this peculiar state of altered consciousness that painting is, or can be.

From The Artist’s Vision:

“Biologically speaking, art is a blasphemy. We were given our eyes to see things, not look at them. Life takes care that we all learn the lesson thoroughly, so that at a very early age we have acquired a very considerable ignorance of visual appearances. We have learned the meaning-for-life of appearances so well that we understand them, as it were, in shorthand… Children have not learned it fully, and so they look at things with some passion…”

“The artist’s main business in life… is carried on by means of yet a fourth kind of vision, which I will call the creative vision…  It demands the most complete detachment from any of the meanings and implications of appearances. Almost any turn of the kaleidoscope of nature may set up in the artist this detached and impassioned vision, and, as he contemplates the particular field of vision, the chaotic and accidental conjunction of forms and colours begins to crystallize into a harmony; and as this harmony becomes clear to the artist, his actual vision becomes distorted by the emphasis of the rhythm which has been set up within him. Certain relations of directions of line become for him full of meaning; he apprehends them no longer casually or merely curiously, but passionately, and these lines begin to be so stressed and stand out so clearly from the rest that he sees them far more distinctly than he did at first. Similarly colours, which in nature have almost always a certain vagueness and elusiveness, become so definite and clear to him, owing to their now necessary relation to other colours, that if he chooses to paint his vision he can state them positively and definitely. In such a creative vision the objects as such tend to disappear, to lose their separate unities, and to take their places as so mnay bits in the whole mosaic of vision. The texture of the whole field of vision becomes so close that the coherence of the separate patches of tone and colour within each object is no stronger than the coherence with every other tone and colour throughout the field.

In such circumstances the greatest object of art becomes of no more significance than any casual piece of matter; a man’s head is no more and no less important than a pumpkin, or, rather, these things may be so or not according to the ryhythm that obsesses the artist and crystallizes his vision. Since it is the habitual practice of the artist to be on the look-out for these peculiar arrangements of objects that arouse the creative vision, and become material for creative contemplation, he is liable to look at all objects from this point of view. In so far as the artist looks at objects only as part of a whole field of vision which is his own potential picture, he can give no account of their aesthetic value. Every solid object is subject to the play of light and shade, and becomes a mosaic of visual patches, each of which for the artist is related to other visual patches in the surroundings. It is irrelevant to ask him, while he is looking with this generalized and all-embracing vision, about the nature of the objects which compose it… By preference he turns to objects which make no strong aesthetic appeal in themselves. But he may like objects which attract by some oddity or peculiarity of form or colour, and thereby suggest to him new and intriguing rhythms… the artist may always find his satisfaction, the material for his picture, in the most unexpected quarters.

The artist is of all men the most constantly observant of his surroundings, and the least affected by their intrinsic aesthetic value. He is more likely on the whole to paint a slum in Soho than St. Pauls, and more likely to do a lodging-house interior than a room at Hampton Court. He may, of course, do either, but his necessary detachment comes more easily in one case than the other…”

So, students of painting, keep Fry’s words in mind the next time you’re wondering why in hell you have to paint that empty cardboard box when you’d rather be painting the thing that came in it.


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§ One Response to Vision and Design

  • Philip Koch says:

    Frank, I wasn’t aware of this essay at all. And the excerpt you’ve chosen is a darned good verbal approximation of the creative process for artists. We are entering a world of visions instead of ideas, and Fry makes that very clear. I especially like the way he talks about the spots of color configuring into an overall mosaic with a distinctive pattern.

    I have a strong suspicion I know a certain Painting One class at MICA that is going to be hearing your selection. Thanks for posting this.

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