I hope you all received my New Year’s Greetings e-card (copy below). A big thank you to all those who sent greetings to me and Sarah. In case you missed it, I am sending it again here along with the two images that go with it, one of the new back facade of the Painting School and the other our New Year’s greetings card. For your pleasure, I have also added four images of paintings by my friend Stefan Stachowicz, including the one features on the card.
You will find the three other images of Stefan’s paintings below.
The January 2019 newsletter for Painting School students
As always in January, I am sending a newsletter to remind you of the dates for the coming season. They are:
Saturday 15 June – Saturday 29 June.
Saturday 20 July – Saturday 3 August.
Other details can be found on the website bookings page.
I am hoping to see as many old faces as possible, particularly since there is some doubt as to whether it will be possible to continue having sessions in 2020. So far, bookings are very encouraging, so please let me know as soon as possible if you want to come.
A big change that will occur in 2019 concerns Helene Ancelet who no longer wants to be tied to making her house available to us in June and July. As a result, after being such an integral part of the story of the Painting School, she will not be available to help us with breakfasts. After consultation with students, it was decided to arrange for them to be provided at the “Salon du Thé” – Le Baladin”, in “Place de la Rose”. They will be taken either on the balcony, with its splendid views or, if the weather is not suitable, in a dedicated room. Students who have come in recent years will understand why it has such high ratings on Trip Advisor.
Another change is that the time came when I could no longer put off the renovation of the back facade. I much regret the loss of how it was, but I think you will like its new look (see attached photo).
Over 2018, I have been continuing to publish chapters of my books and other thoughts on our website’s “Posts Page” (you will find a list of them when you click on the link). Each chapter has an introductory section which both adds to the ideas in it and provide additional images. I am grateful to all the people who have made comments, partly because of their generally enthusiastic nature and partly because I have been given to understand that the more comments the higher our Google ranking. I also welcome comments on the information and images I have contributed on our Facebook page.
Please keep in touch. I always enjoy hearing from you.
The renovated facade
New Year’s greetings e-card
More paintings by Stefan
Other posts under “Painting School News” and “Miscellaneous”
Each year I put a copy of the annual October newsletter our website, so here it is:
Annual Newsletter October 2018
The time has come for my annual newsletter.
This has been a special year for the Painting School of Montmiral, for it is now 30 years since our first season. At the end of the evening meal on the last Friday of both the June and the July/August sessions, we celebrated this with cake and candles. To assist me in blowing out the candles for the June session was Marie-Thérèse, who had first come as a student in 1988.
Marie-Thérèse was with me again at the end of the last meal in August, when we were joined by Hugh Moore, who had first come for the same session as Marie-Thérèse in 1988 and who has since come as a student 30 times), and Hélène, who was living with me at the time. I add some photos taken to commemorate the two occasions.
Both sessions went well. On the second session some students, who had been here several times before, said it was “the best ever”. But I was hesitant to agree since there have been so many sessions that I have perceived as going particularly well. I would prefer to say that it was only “one of the many best”. When I look back over the years and when I look at the “student work” page of the website I feel so lucky in so many of the people who have joined us here in Montmiral. Although, not without its difficult moments (luckily very occasional), it has been a fulfilling experience for me. Thank you all.
As I hope many of you know, I am gradually publishing my four books on the Painting School website. You can find a list of the chapters and extracts that have been made made available so far by clicking on the ”Posts Page” of the website. I would welcome any comments, particularly since it seems that comment activity is one of the best ways to improve the website’s Google ranking.
The dates for 2019 :
Saturday 16 June to Saturday 30 June
Saturday 20 July to Saturday 3 August.
Prices for 2019 (note new information)
As last year, the cost will be €1460, except in certain circumstances. Thus, there will be special rates for:
People who wish to share a bedroom.
Less well off younger people interested in pursuing an artistic career.
Artists and art teachers.
If you, or any one you know that may be interested, are in any of these categories, please contact me about possible reductions.
For more detailed information and the web booking form, please go to the “Bookings Page” of our website.
I do hope some of you can come next summer and, if not, it is always good to hear from you.
A couple of years ago I was introduced to the word “ubuntu”. I was told it came from South Africa* and could be translated as “I am because we are”. I found myself being deeply moved by what seemed to me to be the evident truth and deep implications of this phrase.
I wrote it down on a small piece of paper and stuck it up above my desk, along with other pieces of paper on which I have written down other sayings that strike me as expressing fundamental insights. Two examples are:
“The more you know, the freer you are”, which comes from Daniel Barenboim, world renowned pianist and conductor.
“I do not think that I am cleverer than anyone else. Those who do great mathematics spend night and day and constant attention to it”, which comes from Carl Friedrich Gauss, said by many mathematicians to be the greatest ever of their kind.
Often, when I am out walking or when I am sitting on the balcony, I find thoughts swishing around in my head in seemingly random ways. But this randomness is clearly an illusion for, at these times, experiences and insights that in the past have struck special chords in my feelings have a habit of popping unexpectedly into my mind. One day recently, while enjoying one of these agreeable reveries, I found the word “ubuntu” being unexpectedly linked to the concept of “the selfish gene”. Ever since I read the book by Richard Dawkins** in which he coined the phrase, I have baulked at accepting the bleak manifestation of determinism that its author proposes.
But as I sat contentedly in the warm glow of the sun, I found that the awkward juxtaposition of the notion of the selfish gene with the concept of “ubuntu” was seeding thought processes that suggested a challenge to Richard Dawkins’ idea.
No doubt, the reason it came to me at this particular time had something to do with subjects I have been reading about recently, most notably:
The origins of life from its first microbial manifestations.***
The history of our species from a genetic perspective.****
The necessary and symbiotic functions performed by the multitudes of microbes in out gut.*****
All these subjects are bound to stimulate reflections on nature’s way of sustaining life on our planet. I can only assume that they played a part in forging the idea that popped into my mind. It was that if only Richard Dawkins had looked at the situation in a less blinkered way, he would have found every reason, not only to increase the number of pages in his book but also to change its title to the “The Generous Gene”.
Ubuntu and the generous gene
The idea was so simple. It was that the spirit of “ubuntu” could be extended by adding the words “… and we are because we exist in the living world”. For me it seems obvious that, if it is true that our existence depends on us being members of the group of human beings, it is equally true that our existence depends us being participants in the world we all live in, as created by the “Big bang” and made meaningful to us by the evolution of life on earth.
But what is the nature of this world? Of the many approaches to finding answers to this question, two are relevant to the way my thoughts were leading me:
That our world is characterised by a seemingly unlimited examples of “symbiosis”, the phenomenon of two or more living organisms depending directly on each other for existence – whether they be the most primitive eukaryotes that have inhibited our planet for some two billion years, or more recently evolved plants or animals. Indeed the evidence is clear that it is deeply ingrained in every context where life is found . There can be no doubt that the fact that species provide reciprocal services for each other is a fundamental attribute of the living world as we know it.
That our world relies on what, at first sight at least, seems to be an extremely wasteful way of ensuring the continuation of the species, but which, when looked at from a wider perspective, turns out to be necessary to it. One way of describing this key to the survival of our species is “genetically programmed generosity”.
Think of the number of acorns produced by an oak tree every year. Richard Dawkins would see this as an insurance policy for the continuation of the oak tree species and he would be right. But in the meanwhile (which may last for a matter of hundreds of years) the acorns fall to the ground and are eaten by animals, insects and larvae, or are decomposed by microorganisms. In this way they, not only sustain the life of a multiplicity of living beings but also enrich the soil for future use by plants of any variety whose seeds happen to find themselves lodging in it.
Think also of the salmon that is said to lay thousands of eggs to ensure that a sufficient number of their offspring survive to make certain of the continuation of the species. Nobody knows exactly how many of these extremely vulnerable beings survive long enough to continue the reproductive cycle, but 2 per cent of the original number has been suggested. So what happens to the other 98 per cent? The same as happens to the acorns: they become food for other creatures and organisms and, thereby, play their part in sustaining the life of the oceans and the planet.
Nor are these isolated examples, the strategy of abundance is to be found in all aspects of nature’s way of doing things, and in most, if not all of them, an outcome is the increased wellbeing of a multitude of communities. I find myself forced to the conclusion that, if the absurd anthropomorphism of calling a gene “selfish” is permitted to Richard Dawkins, it surely legitimate to characterise the genes that are responsible for programming this abundance as “generous”.
For these reasons I propose to extend the meaning of the word “ubuntu”. My version is:
“I am because we are, and we are because we exist in the living world”
I feel sure that the wise Zulus who gifted us the wisdom encapsulated in the word “ubuntu” would approve. So, I assume, would ecologists and environmentalists. Surely, all of us, as human being, should be grateful for three gifts that are our birthright?
The gift of being alive.
The gift of being members of our species.
The gift of existing in such a mutually supportive natural environment.
Footnote: Extending Nelson Mandela’s praise of ubuntu
We took advantage of the meal at the end of our June session to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Painting School, which had it first season in 1988. In addition to relishing the usual feast made by my daughter Katherine, several of us made toasts, had a cake with candles and finished with some music. The slide show below shows photos taken, by Sarah and various students, before, during and after the last meal of the June session. It shows:
People finding their places and eating.
Myself, Marie-Therese and Sarah making toasts.
Sarah, my grandson Milo and his friend Khorene, putting candles on the cake.
Appreciating the candlelit cake.
Marie-Thérèse (who came as a student on 1988) and I blowing out the candles.
Sawyer entertaining us with one of his Punk compositions.
Katherine* and Loucine doing vocal improvisations to chords chosen and played by Sawyer.
The purpose of this Post is to provide a link to Chapter 10“Illusory pictorial space and light”, from my book, “Painting with Light and Colour”. This provides a simplified explanation of the science behind the ideas developed in earlier chapters concerning ways of creating and/or enhancing effects of illusory pictorial space by means of using mixtures containing small proportions of complementary colours. In the process it explains why the same method can be used to create harmony in paintings. It also explains why colour repetition has the potential, not only to produce visual discord, but also to generate optical excitements.
Members of the University of Stirling Vision Group
In many places in my books, I acknowledge the importance of the role of colleagues from University of Stirling in the development of the new science-based ideas put forward in them. In particular I mention cooperations with scientists from various departments who later were to join me in the University of Stirling Vision Group. The most important of these were:
Alistair Watson (Physics, psychology and computer imagery).
Lindsay Wilson* (at the time working on aspects of visual perception).
Also, although Peter Brophy* did not join our group, he was an ever-available and important source of information on the biochemistry of the brain.
The founding of the Vision Group.
It was in the Autumn of 1984 that Alistair, Leslie and I took the first steps in the setting up of the University of Stirling Vision Group, which was to have many meetings attended by the above named colleagues and other members of the various interested Departments. Its starting point was a package of ideas developed by Alistair and myself, and two core algorithms based on them, produced by Alistair. These were:
A “colour constancy algorithm“, capable of modelling both spatial and temporal colour constancy, which was inspired by our interpretation of how this phenomenon is achieved by human eye/brain systems. As a preliminary step to achieving this main objective, the algorithm has to pick off the information about surface-reflection. Since it was obvious that the reflected-light contained information, we speculated upon how it might be used by the eye/brain. Due to my interest in picture perception, we focused on its potential for computing surface-form, in front/behind relations, and the wavelength composition of ambient illumination.**
A “classification/recognition algorithm”, based on our interpretation of how human eye/brain systems achieves their primary task of enabling recognition.***
We could not help being excited by the early tests of these algorithms and the speculations concerning their potential. In our enthusiasm to push matters further, Alistair suggested we should seek the help of other researchers, particularly ones with expertise in:
Mathematics and computing.
Visual perception with special reference of visual memory.
It was at this juncture that, having decided on a name for what we were hoping would become a collaborative group, we contacted Leslie Smith for his mathematical and computing skills. But this was only a start. Once Leslie was on board, we approached Bill Phillips, whose long standing interest in visual memory had led him to take the plunge into the recently emerging domain of neural networks and learning algorithms. After many Vision Group meetings, much sharing of ideas, many hours spent working on implementations of algorithms, and the writing of a number of working papers, we decided to submit a suite of five grant applications to the Science and Engineering Research Council, who had let it be known that they were looking for groups of researchers working on the use of computers to model the functional principles of neural system. The stated aim of the SERC was to set up a small number of “Centres of Excellence” in this domain. Not only were two of our grant applications accepted (one submitted by Bill Phillips and one submitted by Leslie Smith), but also our university was encouraged to create a brand new Centre for Cognitive and Computational Neuroscience . This empire absorbed the University of Stirling Vision Group which ceased to have an independent existence. Its coming into existence also coincided with my departure from Stirling on my way to founding my Painting School of Montmiral, where I intended to put theory into practice both in my own work and in my teaching. I also had hopes of confirming and, with any luck, extending the theory. Also after leaving Stirling University, Alistair and I were founder members of a small software development company which used ideas developed within the Vision Group as a basis for creating an image manipulation tool. ****
* The links to Bill, Leslie, Lindsay and Peter relate to their current status. Alistair, Karel and Ranald all retired or died before the Internet became the essential information source it has since become.
** My book is full of examples of how fruitful this speculation proved to be.
What we see is not light, but experiences created by neural networks within the eye and the brain (what I often refer to as “eye/brain systems”). Although it is true that the visual world that we know could not happen in the absence of the patterns of light that enter our eyes, it is only made manifest to us as a result of what is going on inside our heads. This Post provides a link to Chapter 9 of my book “Painting with Light and Colour”, which describes two demonstrations that show just how great can be the difference between an image predicted on the basis of readings from a light meter and the one we actually experience.
Edwin Land’s demonstrations
The demonstrations have a personal importance because they played a key role in the story of my quest to explain the paradox inherent in the dogmas of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko(explained in Chapter 2). They were devised by Edwin Land, the famous inventor, as a part of his investigation of the phenomenon of “colour constancy”.
For another relevant source of information on Land’s demonstration please consult “Land’s colour constancy demonstration”, an edited version of a chapter from my book “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”. You might also want to read the original article in “Scientific American, December 1977”. In this Land explained what he described as his “Retinex theory of colour vision”.
Other chapters from “Painting with Light and Colour”:
The main purpose of this Post is to explain what I mean by “Seurat’s new idea”. Most people would probably leap to the conclusion that I am referring to the “Pointillist method” that he developed, and for which he is justly renowned. But the method was never the main idea, which was to “paint with light” (as opposed to merely “painting light”). No previous artist had attempted to do this.
At least since the Italian Renaissance, the artistic community had been particularly interested in depicting effects of natural or artificial light on the appearance of objects and scenes. They made impressive progress by conceiving matters in terms of whole-field lightness relations (chiaroscuro). Seurat’s new idea opened up the unexplored possibility of introducing the dimension of colour into the mix. In doing so, whether directly or indirectly, he was responsible for opening the way for the possibility of adding a new dimension to the experience provided by representations of the effects of light in paintings.
In itself, this step could justifiably be described as a “quantum leap”, but as it turned out the influence of Seurat’s new idea was to have other far reaching implications. In time it would also lay the foundations for enhancing, not only effects of “illusory pictorial space” but also the sense of both “surface” and “surfacelessness” in paintings.
But even this was not all, for another side-effect of Seurat’s new idea was its contribution to the explosion of colourfulness in paintings. This had been kick started by the discovery by scientists that colour is not a property of surfaces in the external world, but a creation of eye/brain systems. In the wake of this mind blowing reality, earlier Modernist artists were already using brighter colours and juxtaposing complementary pairs, but two requirements of the Pointillist method pushed matters significantly further. These were:
The systematic use of juxtaposed complementary colour pairs, within the optically mixed arrays of tiny dots that characterise Pointillism.
The need to conceive of colour mixing in terms of a colour circle with many more segments than the six segment one (consisting of three primaries and their three complementaries) favoured by the Impressionists. Seurat’s idea meant that he had to represent as many parts of the visible spectrum as possible. To do this he needed to make use of the widest range of the most fully saturated pigment colours available.
Between them these innovations had the effect of hugely increasing the range and subtlety of both colours and colour combinations to be found in paintings produced after 1886, the year that Seurat first exhibited “La Grande Jatte”, his game-changing painting.
For more details click on the link below to Chapter 8 of my book “Painting with Light and Colour”. For those who have not read the previous four chapters, the next section provides a short resume of them (links to the chapters themselves can be found at the bottom of this page).
Short resume of previous chapters
Chapter 4: Describes the Renaissance approach to painting light, which centred on local and whole-field lightness relations with particular reference to finding the darkest and lightest regions in the scene (chiaroscuro) and gradations of lightness across surfaces. In this scheme of things the depiction of shadows was a matter of painting “what you see”, which seemed reasonable enough, but brought with it all sorts of unsuspected problems.
Chapter 5: Focuses on the scientific revolution in the understanding of light and colour that had its origins in the work of Isaac Newton and the insights of the numerous scientists who realised that all sensory experiences including those that relate to colour and effects of light are made in the head. Newton clarified the physical nature of light. The perceptual scientists introduced concepts like the“three primaries”, “induced colour”, “complementary colours” and “colour/lightness contrast effects”.
Chapter 6 : Shows that the Impressionists had an agenda which included the idea of emphasising the reality of the picture surface and playing off the ephemeral and the permanent aspects of appearance.
Chapter 7: Uses photographs to elucidate the meaning of the words “opaque”, “translucent”, “glossy” and “matt”. Particular attention is given to effects on appearances of interreflections and viewing angles.
The diagrammatic origin of Seurat’s new idea
As it does not appear in Chapter 8, but earlier in the book, I am including in this Post the diagram from a physics book that kick started Seurat’s new idea. It was from this that he learnt that the white daylight light that strikes a surface interacts with it in one of two ways:
One part enters the surface and is scattered around inside, before being scattered back out again. While inside, some wavelengths are absorbed. The remainder are scattered-back-out again to produce the limited wavelength combinations that give us “body colour”.
The remainder never enters the surface, but is reflected back directly from it (as from a mirror), such that it leaves it without changing its wavelength composition to produce “reflected light”.
The component that interested Seurat is the “reflected light”. By combining his understanding of this with the discoveries of perceptual scientists mentioned above, Seurat believed that he could represent it in paintings by means of mosaics of tiny dots containing juxtapositions of complementary, or near-complementary, pairs.
When new students at The Painting School of Montmiral are first faced with a live model in a figure drawing class, the majority of them give little time for preparation, even for long poses. Within a matter of seconds, even experienced artists have embarked upon active mark-making. It does not seem to occur to them that, before drawing the first line, it might be useful to spend time familiarizing themselves with the situation that faces them. If this is the case, they will almost certainly be denying themselves an important opportunity.
The feeling-based drawing lesson
At the heart of my book, “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain“, is a feeling-based drawing lesson that is described in three chapters. Chapter 9(link below) is about getting ready for drawing the first line. Chapter 10 (to follow) gives a blow by blow account of the main lesson in which:
Precise instructions are given concerning the preparation and execution of every line and every relationship.
Detailed reasons are offered for each and every one of these instructions. These relate to scientific studies of how artists coordinate their visual-analytic and line-output skills when drawing from observation.
Chapter 11 (to follow) suggests follow up exercises.
Preparation in previous chapters
All the chapters preceding Chapter 9 have been preparing for this lesson. Thus, they have discussed:
The pros and cons of widely used teaching methods.
The importance of scientific findings in the development of artists ideas.
How more recent scientific findings relating to the eye/brain’s analytic-looking and motor-control systems can help with issues of accuracy, line production speed, self-confidence and self expression.
Preparation in Chapter 9
Chapter 9 is likewise getting things ready for the drawing lesson, but in a much more specific sense, starting with practical issues such as setting up the easel/drawing board, establishing a viewpoint, deciding whether to shut an eye, etc. But it also introduces a certain amount of science-based information that will be useful in explaining reasons for the instructions used in the drawing lesson.
As Chapter 9 contains footnotes that refer to diagrams with explanations to be found in the Glossary, I have included three of these:
Figure 1 is the flow diagram representing the main factors that contribute to the analytic-looking cycle.
Figure 2 indicates regions of the neocortex (new brain) involved.
Figure 3 provides a mapping of eye movements showing glides and saccades.
The boxes and arrows in Figure 1 can be related to regions in the neocortex illustrated in Figure 2. Notice that Visual Area 1, which takes input from the retina via the optic nerve, supplies information not only for the preconscious processes that enable recognition, but also for the subsequent consciousness-related ones that accompany analytic-looking (This is why it is labelled “twice used information resource”).
In addition, the diagram indicates the key role of memory stores (whether short-term or long-term) in enabling both recognition and learnt-actions. It also calls attention to the importance of context and feeling in building them up and ofwhole-life experience in determining how they do so. But perhaps the most important lesson that can be drawn from it is that recognition takes place before analysis. Thus it can be asserted that, in an important sense, “we know what we are looking at before we are consciously aware of it”.
Recognition also takes place before the implementation of learnt-actions, such as those that guide artists when drawing contours or making any other kind of mark. Accordingly, we can draw “what we know” about an object-type on the basis of the multi-modal, preconsciously acquired information made available by the very limited number of looks that are required to enable recognition (seldom more than one or two). In other words, the eye/brain acts as if further analysis of the object itself is unnecessary. The diagram also indicates the role of non visual-inputs in enabling recognition. For example, we may recognise something, in whole or in part, by its sound, smell or feel and can in princple complete the process of doing so without confirming what it is visually.
Figure 2 maps a number of the functional divisions in the neocortex (new brain). These can be related to the stages of the analytic-looking cycle as diagrammed in Figure 1. Thus:
The arrow labelled “visual cortex” points to the location of “visual area 1” in Figure 1
The region from there down to “temporal lobe” corresponds to the labels “preconscious multimodal processing” and “recognition” in Figure 1.
The motor cortex mediates “learnt actions” in Figure 1.
The parietal lobe underpins “conscious analytic-looking” and “the constancies of shape, size, and orientation” in Figure 1.
However, the area in Figure 1 labelled “context” and “feeling-based memory reflecting whole life experience” is more difficult to place, but would include:
Parts of the “frontal lobe” with its links to the emotional centres in the old brain. These are thought to be involved in the choice between “good” and “bad” actions and the determination of “similarities” and “differences” between things or events, both of which are essential to developing the skills that underpin drawing from observation (as explained in Chapters 9 – 11).
The frontal lobe, along with old brain regions including the hippocampus, is also thought to play an important part in the creation and retention of long-term memory.
Figure 3 is based on a photographic record of typical eye movements in which slow moving glides (wobbly blue lines) are interspersed with faster moving saccades (straight red lines with arrows to represent speed). The glides provide a constant stream of same/different information, while the saccades enable an intermittent averaging of input that is useful for neural computations that require knowledge of ambient illumination. The average glide/saccades combination lasts approximately one third of a second.
Other Posts that publish chapters from “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”
The word “abstract” is commonly used to refer to a wide variety of paintings. Therefore, there is clearly some confusion as to precisely what it means. This is partly because its usage by artists and critics has evolved over the years and partly because its subtleties have been degraded by an uninformed public. One unresolved issue is where to draw the line between “figurative” and “non-figurative”. Few nowadays would describe Paul Cézanne as an abstract artist (see image below), yet his working philosophy exemplifies the original meaning given to the word.
This Post, like many others, is an illustrated excerpt from “Having fun with creativity”, Chapter 10 of “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”. What is meant by “having fun”, is enjoying a process by which thoughts, however trivial or wrongheaded, lead to a mushrooming of other thoughts and, thereby, to an exploration of issues that otherwise might be passed over. What follows, not only touches on the subjects of abstraction and construction in painting, but also how these relate to the processes by which the eye/brain systems synthesise meaning from visual input. The four sections are headed: 1–ABSTRACTION, 2-CONSTRUCTION, 3-CHANGES IN MEANING and 4-IMAGES OF PAINTINGS (illustrating, “Abstracting the essence” and “Constructing from the basic building blocks of visual perception”).
What is an abstract painting?
So what qualifies as being an abstract painting? An explanation as to why the word “abstract” was chosen in preference to other words offers a start to the answer. Why not “extract” or “subtract”? It is worth asking such questions because doing so can help a process of refining understanding. It enables the use of same/difference judgments within the domain of words as a means of creating and/or nuancing our sense of their meaning. Thus:
The word “extract” means take something out of something.
The word “subtract” means take something away from something.
In either case the original something is diminished. In contrast:
The word “abstract” means distilling the essence of something, with the implication that this can be done without loosing essential meaning.
Accordingly, the word “abstract” seems best of the three because it implies the possibility of finding what is valuable with the least collateral damage. This is why it was chosen.
However, there is still much ambiguity that requires clarification. If we take the example of the “abstract” of a scientific paper, it is easy to see that however well written, something must have been lost, since otherwise there would be no need for the paper itself. In the case of artists’ abstractions from natural scenes, the situation is less clear, particularly since the image of every scene that comes to our consciousness is produced in the first place through the mediation of eye/brain processing systems that arrive at their conclusions by means of a complex blend of selective and constructive processes. We look at a coffee mug differently according to whether our intention is to drink from it or to make a drawing of its outline. When we want to drink from it, we will normally bypass all information about it except that which is necessary for picking it up and putting its brim to our our mouth. When we draw its outline, we need to make judgements of relativities of position, length, orientation, curvature, etc., and we can safely ignore the information needed to drink from it.
Nor, in this context, should we ever forget that what we experience as “seeing” depends heavily on information coming from non-visual sources accessed (a) by other sensory systems and (b) by memory-stores that have been built up and refined during a lifetime. Thus, both the knowledge that it is coffee time and the smell of coffee, provide context that helps our visual systems to home in on the coffee mug. When we are confronted by a landscape, the way we look at it and the information we derive from it are determined by a mixture of current contingencies and our life’s experience. No two people would find the same essence in it. Indeed, it is now clear that in creating conscious visual experience, our eye/brain systems ignore a great deal more of the information coming into our eyes than they make use of. A mathematician might suggest that they ignore an infinite amount of it.
So how do these facts help us to think about looking at paintings? What differences are there between looking at a real world object and an image of it found in a painting? Generally speaking, when we look at a painted image, situated in illusory pictorial space, the information available will be much less than can be accessed from the real world object. For example, no matter how photographically realistic it may be, an image painting onto a flat surface will not provide the eye/brain systems with the kind of spatial-depth information that is created by means of either stereopsis or motion parallax. Likewise, a sketchily produced portrait will contain much less information than an actual face.
But what is the effect of this impoverishment of available sources of information on the efficiency of the eye/brain visual systems? Does it make their task more difficult? Not necessarily so. As indicated above, all correct classifications are achieved without taking a great deal of potentially relevant information into account. It is worth remembering that efficiency can be defined as achieving an objective with the least possible effort. In the case of the impressive efficiency of eye/brain systems, this means overlooking as much visually available information as is feasible. If we take full advantage of contextual information coming both from other sensory systems and from memory, it can mean overlooking practically all of it. Elsewhere, I give the example of a blur of redness being a sufficient cue to identify a familiar dress in a familiar wardrobe in which it is known that no other red dresses have been placed.
This impressive degree of parsimony has interesting implications for artists. For example, does it mean that a blur of red could adequately represent the dress in a painting? The answer to this question depends on what is meant by the phrase “adequately represent”. In the obvious sense, the answer must be “no”. Nobody would expect the woman in question to reach out for the painted image of a red dress in the wardrobe in the expectation of being able to wear it. On the other hand, the red in the painting might trigger either “feelings” or “memories” associated with the history of the dress that the real dress would not. If it does, how could this influence the experience of people looking at paintings? Two questions, bring us nearer to an answer:
Could feelings be stimulated by a particular red as itself. For example, it is perfectly possible for the colour of an individual stick of chalk pastel to access deeply embedded associations that trigger powerful emotions. If so, could these be added to the experience generated by a pastel painting of the red dress? Of course they could: I thought of the example because I know of an artist for whom love of her pastel sticks was integral to her way of making paintings.
If the the act of seeing the patch of red paint triggers “memories”, how much information could be added from memory stores? And, would these additions be more or less authentic than the information that would be accessed by the woman, if confronted by the actual dress? Since, the real object presents a maximum of information about its characteristic, there is no doubt about the theoretical answer to this question: the real dress has every advantage. But the question for the artist is not whether the red dress would provide more information, but how much of it would be used in practice and for what purposes?
Remember that efficiency can be defined as getting the best results by means of the least amount of effort. In the case of locating the real dress in the real wardrobe, this means identifying it with the least amount of looking. As explained above, the eye/brain systems regularly achieve wonders of parsimonious looking by making maximum use of “context” and “memory stores”. It follows that, the very familiarity of both the dress and its location would make it possible to achieve the goal of finding the dress while overlooking the totality of information other than the blur of redness.
However, the question arises as to whether this massive overlooking mean that the pictured dress might have the advantage over the real one when it comes, either to the amount of information about the dress actually acquired or to the potential for providing stimuli for the creative imagination? In both cases, the answer must be in the affirmative, since it could be argued that a pictured dress:
Would provoke the eye/brain systems into extra analysis, on account of its being less familiar than actual dress.
Would leave extra room for flights of the imagination, on account of its lack of interpretation-constraining details.
In other words, there are good reasons for concluding that, in practice, if not in necessarily in theory, an image of a depicted object perceived as being in illusory pictorial space will regularly, if not always:
Provide the eye/brain with more information than the real world object it represents.
Act as a better catalyst for the creativity of the imagination.
Needless to say, this is one of the many advantages that paintings have over nature.
The influence of others
Another possibility is that the dress-owning woman may fail to make a connection between the patch of red in the painting and the dress it was intended to represent, but that a friend does make a connection. If the friend shares her experience with the woman, by doing so she will be adding another level of context and, thereby, in all probability, causing a change in the meaning of the patch of colour for the dress-owning woman. Significantly, the revised significance could be achieved without making any changes to the actual colour.
But this is not all. One thing of which we can be quite certain of is that the representation of the dress in the head of the friend will be very different to that in the head of its owner. There is no possibility that both will have the same associations between the dress and happenings in their very different life stories. The interesting implication for artists is that what applies in the case of the two friends, also applies to them. When they apply a colour to a painting, they can have no way of knowing all the associations it might trigger in any one other person. Speaking generally, all human beings can say or do things that act as catalysts to the experience of others that are inaccessible to themselves. Indeed, it is difficult to see how communication between individuals could take any other but in this essentially catalytic and creative form.
But all this talk about “abstraction” in paintings and by the eye/brain systems has a soft underbelly for, as we all know, for some time now, the word “abstract” has been routinely applied to paintings that have absolutely no reference to nature, let alone to some essence extracted from it.
In the early 20th century, a number of painters and sculptors acknowledged the significance of this flight from representation by calling themselves “Constructivists” . These pioneers of non-figurative art adopted a radically new approach to their work that had much in common with the physicists of the day, who were on the trail of the building blocks of matter and the principles by which they are combined. Thus, the artists sought to identify the “primitives” of visual perception and to find objective principles for assembling them into art works.
By the fact of approaching paintings in this way, these artists saw themselves as challenging the long held assumption that painting should start from nature. Accordingly, it would be inappropriate to describe their work as distillations of it essence. For a growing number of them, including Kupka, Malevitch, Kandinsky and Mondrian, an alternative was needed that would be founded on a combination of the most basic elements they could think of and simple principles of construction. Over the years, this change of emphasis was reflected in the emergence of a host of different words or phrases to describe how different artists approached building on these foundations – “Constructivist”, “Non-objective”, “Concrete”, “Op”, “Systems”, etc., but all could be places under the umbrella of “Constructivism”.
3-CHANGES IN MEANING
As time passed the situation became more and more complicated. On the one hand there were critics trying to provide more precise classification and on the other there were artists exploring an ever expanding range of possibilities. Distinctions got blurred and terms like “Abstract Expressionism” confused the issue. The artists who were known by this name, were no longer abstracting from nature but rather attempting to make manifest their innermost feelings or allow universal forces to become manifest through them. In this situation, while artists were likely to choose and cling to one or other of the cavalcade of different meanings, the generality of people adopted the catch-all, common usage of today. For them the word “abstract” means anything that is not too closely tied to representation.
Students sometimes ask me to explain “abstract art” to them. As this request is almost invariably made by people whose focus has been on representation, I tend to answer in terms of the origins of the word. I point out that artists living in the second half of the 19th century, influenced by recent developments in the science of visual perception, became aware that all paintings could be described as an “assemblage of regions of colour on a picture surface”,*as interpreted by eye/brain processing systems. Once this conceptual step had been taken, it was only to be expected that, for some artists at least, the idea of looking to nature as the fount of all inspiration was bound to be questioned. From then on, it was only a matter of time before many artists either loosened their ties with representation or completely cut themselves off from it.
As for deciding which word we should choose when talking about any particular painting or group of paintings, including ones we have painted ourselves, my answer would be to take your choice in the light of the considerations discussed above. Perhaps, the main objective should be that you yourself understand the issues, at least well enough to be able to explain them to anyone who asks questions about your work. Meanwhile, the general public will continue to think of “abstract” as more or less anything non-figurative and pretty well everyone will have personal opinions about what counts as figurative. The difficulty lies in deciding on which point on the figurative/non-figurative continuum.
Abstracting the essence
Constructing from the basic building blocks of visual perception
* Quotation from the Nabis artist Maurice Denis.
** Quotation from Bonnard.
Other posts from “Having Fun with Creativity”, Chapter 10of“Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”