The Beauty of Shapes

September 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

“We look up and see a coloured shape in front of us and we say – there is a chair. But what we have seen is the mere coloured shape. Perhaps an artist might not have jumped to the notion of a chair. He might have stopped at the mere contemplation of a beautiful color and a beautiful shape…”                                        -Alfred North Whitehead

“Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”                          -Maurice Denis (1890)

How often we forget the simple truth of Maurice Denis’ statement as we peer into our three-dimensional world and try to “make” a tree, a face, a figure, or a teacup on our canvas. Annie Dillard’s essay on seeing, from a previous post on this blog, reminds us of just how far we’ve come from the infantile state of innocence when visual sensation was just “color-patches unencumbered by meaning.” The struggle to regain this innocent vision of color and shape is a large part of our “training” as artists. We want to be able to see our sensations, not just the things those sensations add up to, because this kind of seeing is what allows us to form questions that we can take to the palette. What is that hue? What is its tonal value? What is it’s degree of saturation or intensity? These three questions are the Holy Trinity of color mixing. (There’s a fourth, but we’ll save it for another post.)

But mixing color is only one piece of the puzzle. The color has to have a boundary or shape. This is the meeting place of drawing and painting. Stripped of the third dimension, the world’s forms and spaces precipitate two-dimensional shapes. Out of this distilled essence painters compose their paintings. Here are some painters who remind us of the beauty of shapes, all kinds of shapes. That’s what paintings are made of.


Seeing: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

September 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

Working from observation, one quickly realizes that the whole process of seeing is complicated. Most of us take seeing largely for granted, just as we do our ability to speak our native tongue. We navigate space with hardly a thought except when some ambiguity – the lack of a clear overlap, an episode of camouflage in the visual field – interrupts the seamless division of figure and ground that dominates our perceptual process and wakens a higher than usual alertness as we struggle to make out what’s going on.

Seeing is not the automatic result of looking. People assume that everyone sees equally and that artists are those who have a “talent” to do something with what they see. In fact, most of us, artists included, go through our days in a kind of auto-pilot mode, filtering out 95% of the sensation that greets our eyes. Artists, when they are on duty, are different only in the decision to look, to direct the gaze, to spend time attending to the appearances of things. (That is one thing artists have in common with thieves: they both look inappropriately long at things.)

The common utterance, “Ahh, NOW I see!” whenever a new understanding comes washing into our minds is telling. The kind of seeing that allows painting to go forward is a kind of opening, a shift in perspective, in which the relations between things alter, configuring sense and meaning where before all was opacity and obscurity. Everything is as it was before, only we have changed. The texture of our thoughts in those moments seems to change, not unlike the experience of those magic 3-D illusions that come into being when we shift our focus a certain way.

Annie Dillard’s marvelous book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, explores this business of seeing throughout, but especially so in a chapter titled, not inappropriately, “Seeing.” A section in which she talks about those who are newly sighted after being born blind has always struck me as important information for students of painting. For many years I gave this essay to my students. I think I will start doing so again.

From Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard, an excerpt from the chapter, Seeing:

I chanced on a wonderful book by Marius von Senden, called Space and Sight. When Western surgeons discovered how to perform safe cataract operations, they ranged across Europe and America operating on dozens of men and women of all ages who had been blinded by cataracts since birth. Von Senden collected accounts of such cases; the histories are fascinating. Many doctors had tested their patients’ sense perceptions and ideas of space both before and after the operations. The vast majority of patients, of both sexes and all ages, had, in von Senden’s opinion, no idea of space whatsoever. Form, distance, and size were so many meaningless syllables. A patient “had no idea of depth, confusing it with roundness.” Before the operation a doctor would give a blind patient a cube and asphere; the patient would tongue it or feel it with his hands, and name it correctly. After the operation the doctor would show the same objects to the patient without letting him touch them; now he had no clue whatsoever what he was seeing. One patient called lemonade “square” because it pricked on his tongue as a square shape pricked on the touch of his hands. Of another postoperative patient, the doctor writes, “I have found in her no notion of size, for example, not even within the narrow limits which she might have encompassed with the aid of touch. Thus when I asked her to show me how big her mother was, she did not stretch out her hands, but set her two index-fingers a few inches apart.” Other doctors reported their patients’ own statements to similar effect. “The room he was in… he knew to be but part of the house, yet he could not conceive that the whole house could look bigger;” “Those who are blind from birth… have no real conception of height, or distance. A house that is a mile away is thought of as nearby, but requiring the taking of a lot of steps… The elevator that whizzes him up and down gives no more sense of vertical distance than does the train of horizontal.”
For the newly sighted, vision is pure sensation unencumbered by meaning: “The girl went through the experience that we all go through and forget, the moment we are born. She saw, but it did not mean anything but a lot of different kinds of brightness.” Again, “I asked the patient what he could see; he answered that he saw an extensive field of light, in which everything appeared dull, confused, and in motion. He could not distinguish objects.” Another patient saw “nothing but a confusion of forms and colours.” When a newly sighted girl saw photographs and paintings, she asked ” ‘ Why do they put those dark marks all over them?’ ‘Those aren’t dark marks,’ her mother explained, ‘those are shadows. That is one of the ways the eye knows that things have shape. If it were not for shadows many things would look flat.’ ‘Well, that’s how things do look,” Joan answered. ‘Everything looks flat with dark patches.’ “
But it is the patients’ concepts of space that are most revealing. One patient, according to his doctor, “practiced his vision in a strange fashion; thus he takes off one of his boots, throws it some way off in front of him, and then attempts to gauge the distance at which it lies; he takes a few steps towards the boot and tries to grasp it; on failing to reach it, he moves on a step or two and gropes for the boot until he finally gets hold of it.” “But even at this stage, after three weeks’ experience of seeing,” von Senden goes on, ” ‘space,’ as he conceives it, ends with visual space, i.e., with colour-patches that happen to bound his view. He does not yet have the notion that a larger object (a chair) can mask a smaller one (a dog), or that the latter can still be present even though it is not directly seen,”
In general the newly sighted see the world as a dazzle of color-patches. They are pleased by the sensation of color, and learn quickly to name the colors, but the rest of seeing is tormentingly difficult. Soon after his operation a patient “generally bumps into one of these colour-patches and observes them to be substantial, since they resist him as tactual objects do. In walking about it also strikes him – or can if he pays attention – that he is continually passing in between the colours he sees, that he can go past a visual object, that a part of it then steadily disappears from view; and that in spite of this, however, however he twists and turns – whether entering the room from the door, for example, or returning back to it – he always has a visual space in front of him. Thus he gradually comes to realize that there is also a space behind him, which he does not see.”
The mental effort involved in these reasonings proves overwhelming for many patients. It oppresses them to realize, if they ever do at all, the tremendous size of the world, which they had previously conceived of as something touchingly manageable. It oppresses them to realize that they have been visible to people all along, perhaps unattractively so, without their knowledge or consent. A disheartening number of them refuse to use their new vision, continuing to go over objects with their tongues, and lapsing into apathy and despair. “The child can see, but will not make use of his sight. Only when pressed can he with difficulty be brought to look at objects in his neighbourhood; but more than a foot away it is impossible to bestir him to the necessary effort.” Of a twenty-one-year-old girl, the doctor relates, “Her unfortunate father, who had hoped for so much from this operation, wrote that his daughter carefully shuts her eyes whenever she wishes to go about the house, especially when she comes to a staircase, and that she is never happier or more at ease than when, by closing her eyelids, she relapses into her former state of total blindness.” A fifteen year-old boy, who was also in love with a girl at the asylum for the blind, finally blurted out, “No, really, I can’t stand it any more; I want to be sent back to the asylum again. If things aren’t altered, I’ll tear my eyes out.”
Some do learn to see, especially the young ones. But it changes their lives. One doctor comments on “the rapid and complete loss of that striking and wonderful serenity which is characteristic only of those who have never yet seen.” A blind man who learns to see is ashamed of his old habits. He dresses up, grooms himself, and tries to make a good impression. While he was blind he was indifferent to objects unless they were edible; now, “a sifting of values sets in… his thoughts and wishes are mightily stirred and some few of the patients are thereby led to dissimulation, envy, theft and fraud.”
On the other hand, many newly sighted people speak well of the world, and teach us how dull is our own vision. To one patient, a human hand, unrecognized, is “something bright and then holes.” Shown a bunch of grapes, a boy calls out, “It is dark, blue and shiny… It isn’t smooth, it has bumps and hollows.” A little girl visits a garden. “She is greatly astonished, and can scarcely be persuaded to answer, stands speechless in front of the tree, which she only names on taking hold of it, and then as “the tree with the lights in it.” Some delight in their sight and give themselves over to the visual world. Of a patient just after her bandages were removed, her doctor writes, “The first things to attract her attention were her own hands; she looked at them very closely, moved them repeatedly to and fro, bent and stretched the fingers, and seemed greatly astonished at the sight.” One girl was eager to tell her blind friend that “men do not really look like trees at all,” and astounded to discover that her every visitor had an utterly different face. Finally, a twenty-two-year-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but, the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features; she repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Oh God! How beautiful!”
I saw color-patches for weeks after I read this wonderful book. It was summer; the peaches were ripe in the valley orchards. When I woke in the morning, color-patches wrapped round my eyes, intricately, leaving not one unfilled spot. All day long I walked among shifting color-patches that parted before me like the Red Sea and closed again in silence, transfigured, wherever I looked back. Some patches swelled and loomed, while others vanished utterly, and dark marks flitted at random over the whole dazzling sweep. But I couldn’t sustain the illusion of flatness. I’ve been around for too long. Form is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning: I couldn’t unpeach the peaches. Nor can I remember ever having seen without understanding; the color-patches of infancy are lost. My brain then must have been as smooth as any balloon. I’m told I reached for the moon; many babies do. But the color-patches of infancy swelled as meaning filled them; they arrayed themselves in solemn ranks down distances which unrolled and stretched before me like a plain. The moon rocketed away. I live now in a world of shadows that shape and distance color, a world where space makes a kind of terrible sense. What gnosticism is this, and what physics? The fluttering patch I saw in my nursery window – silver and  green and shape-shifting blue – is gone; a row of Lombardy poplars takes its place, mute, across the distant lawn. That humming oblong creature pale as light that stole along the walls of my room at night, stretching exhilaratingly around the corners, is gone, too, gone the night I ate of the bittersweet fruit, put two and two together and puckered forever my brain. Martin Buber tells this tale: “Rabbi Mendel once boasted to his teacher Rabbi Elimelekh that evenings he saw the angel who rolls away the light before the darkness, and mornings the angel who rolls away the darkness before the light. ‘Yes,’ said Rabbie Elimelekh, ‘in my youth I saw that too. Later on you don’t see these things any more.’”
Why didn’t someone hand those newly sighted people paints and brushes from the start, when they still didn’t know what anything was? Then maybe we all could see color-patches too, the world unraveled from reason, Eden before Adam gave names. The scales would drop from my eyes; I’d see trees like men walking; I’d run down the road against all orders, hallooing and leaping.


Read the full chapter, Seeing, from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard.

John Berger

September 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

From Steps Toward a Small Theory of the Visible:

“The history of painting is often presented as a history of succeeding styles. In our time art dealers and promoters have used this battle of styles to make brand-names for the market. Many collectors — and museums — buy names rather than works.

Maybe it’s time to ask a naive question: what has all painting from the paleolithic period until our century have in common? Every painted image announces: I have seen this, or, when the making of the image was incorporated into a tribal ritual: we have seen this. The this refers to the sight represented. Non-figurative art is no exception. A late canvas by Rothko represents an illumination or a coloured glow which derived from the painter’s experience of the visible. When he was working, he judged his canvas according to something else which he saw.

Painting is, first, an affirmation of the visible which surrounds us and which continually appears and disappears. Without the disappearing, there would perhaps be no impulse to paint, for then the visible itself would possess the surety (the permanence) which painting strives to find. More directly than any other art, painting is an affirmation of the existant, of the physical world into which mankind has been thrown.

Animals were the first subject in painting. And right from the beginning and then continuing through Sumerian, Assyrian, Egyptian and early Greek art, the depiction of these animals was extraordinarily true. Many millenia had to pass before an equivalent “life-likeness” was achieved in the depiction of the human body. At the beginning, the existant was what confronted man.

The first painters were hunters whose lives, like everybody else’s in the tribe, depended upon their close knowledge of animals. Yet the act of painting was not the same as the act of hunting; the relation between the two was magical.

In a number of early cave paintings there are stencil representations of the human hand beside the animals. We do not know what precise ritual this served. We do know that painting was used to confirm a magical “companionship” between prey and hunter, or, to put it more abstractly, between the existant and human ingenuity. Painting was the means of making this companionship explicit and therefore (hopefully) permanent.

This may still be worth thinking about, long after painting has lost its herds of animals and its ritual function. I believe it tells us something about the nature of the art.

The impulse to paint comes neither from observation nor from the soul (which is probably blind) but from an encounter: the encounter between painter and model — even if the model is a mountain or a shelf of empty medicine bottles. Mont. St. Victoire as seen from Aix (seen from elsewhere it has a very different shape) was Cézanne’s companion.

When a painting is lifeless it is the result of the painter not having the nerve to get close enough for a collaboration to start. He stays at a copying distance. Or, as in mannerist periods like today, he stays at an art-historical distance, playing stylistic tricks which the model knows nothing about.

To go in close means forgetting convention, reputation, reasoning, hierarchies and self. It also means risking incoherence, even madness. For it can happen that one gets too close and then the collaboration breaks down and the painter dissolves into the model. Or the animal devours or tramples the painter into the ground.

Every authentic painting demonstrates a collaboration. Look at Petrus Christus’ portrait of a young girl in the Staatliche Museum of Berlin, or the stormy seascape in the Louvre by Courbet, or the mouse with an aubergine painted by Tchou-Ta in the 17th century, and it is impossible to deny the participation of the model. Indeed, the paintings are not first and foremost about a young woman, a rough sea or a mouse with a vegetable; they are about this participation. “The brush,” wrote Shitao, the great 17th century Chinese landscape painter, “is for saving things from chaos.”

It is a strange area into which we are wandering and I’m using words strangely. A rough sea on the northern coast of France, one autumn day in 1870, participating in being seen by a man with a beard who, the following year, will be put in prison! Yet there is no other way of getting close to the actual practice of this silent art, which stops everything moving.

The raison d’etre of the visible is the eye; the eye evolved and developed where there was enough light for the visible forms of life to become more and more complex and varied. Wild flowers, for example, are the colours they are in order to be seen. That an empty sky appears blue is due to the structure of our eyes and the nature of the solar system. There is a certain ontological basis for the collaboration between model and painter. Silesius, a 17th century doctor of medicine in Vrocklau, wrote about the inter-dependence of the seen and the seeing in a mystical way:

‘La rose qui contemple ton oeil de chair

A fleuri de la sorte en Dieu dans l’éternel'”

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.

Camouflage & Painting

March 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

WTF? Camouflage and painting?

Read my recent blog post:

Copperhead Snake, watercolor by Abbott Thayer, 1849-1921

Philip Koch on Edward Hopper’s Portrait of Jo

March 9, 2011 § 1 Comment

A brief essay on this great painting by Edward Hopper by Philip Koch, Professor of Art at Maryland Institute of Art, Baltimore, MD:

Philip Koch's blog post, March 9, 2011


View Philip Koch’s work at:

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