The integrity of the picture surface

Google says that the “integrity of the picture plane” is a phrase coined by the influential art critic Clement Greenberg in his essay “Modernist Painting”. It concerns the issue as to whether the fact of creating an “illusory pictorial space” interferes with perceptions of the “objectness” of the actual picture surface.  This was a question of primary importance to the “Early Modernists” from the late 1860s onwards. For them, as explained in  Chapter 6 of my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”, the fact of the possibility of being aware of the actual surface of paintings was one of the reasons for what they believed to be their inherent superiority relative to photographs. Their belief was that, since “deception is immoral”, painters must avoid it at all costs. Despite the difficult-to-comprehend nature of this evidently questionable argument, it stuck for about a century. Thus, in the 1960s, it was still a potent aspect of the teaching of my two mentorsProfessor Bohusz Szyszko and Michael Kidner.  The difference between the “Early Modernists” and Clement Greenberg was that the former (and  Professor Bohusz-Szyszko) thought it possible to depict illusory pictorial space without destroying the integrity of the picture surface. In contrast, Clement Greenberg asserted the impossibility of any such thing, as did Piet Mondrian and a number of earlier painters, plus a whole list of later artists, including Michael Kidner and Ellsworth Kelly.

As those who have read “Painting with Light”, the first Book in this Two Book Volume (see contents list), will realise, the early Modernists and Professor Bohusz-Szyszko got it wrong. The use of unmixed repeated colours did not disrupt the picture-surface, but rather the illusory pictorial space. They do so because our eye/brains read them as being on the picture surface and, consequently, as jumping out in front of any illusory pictorial space. It is thus, the integrity of illusory pictorial space that is disrupted.

integrity

Two paintings that illustrate different meanings of the phrase “integrity of the picture suface”

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picture surface
Cézanne: one of the Fôret du chateau noir paintings

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picture surface
Ellsworth Kelly : Shaped painting on gallery wall – an experience of pure red

 

 

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Thin lines

A confluence of issues

This Post introduces Chapter 22 from my book “Painting with Light and colour”. It uses one of my paintings to discuss many issues that relate to viewing conditions.  These all apply to all paintings, but it is difficult to find information about them in other books. Indeed, it was not until I began work on paintings including numbers of thin lines that I became fully aware of many of them. My awakening was a result of the coming together of many strands of the story I have been telling in my series of four books.

  • The dogmas of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko (see Chapter 1),
  • The “systems” ideas of Michael Kidner (see Chapter 8 of my book on “Creativity“),
  • My interest in the debates relating to “illusory pictorial space” (see Chapters 7-10 in “Painting with Light”, the first part of this volume),
  • My interest in the Modernist Painters obsession with what they described the “integrity of the picture surface”* and its dynamic implications in the history of “Modernism in Painting**
  • The use of thin lines as a means of exaggerating and, thereby, exploring “simultaneous colour contrast effects” (see previous chapter).

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Important warning

In general, whenever images of paintings are transferred to the computer screen, many of their qualities are lost. Sometimes this can be an advantage, but never for paintings that follow the dogmas of Professor Bohusz-Szyszko. This is particularly true for the images using thin lines discussed in this chapter and the next. Often, you will just have to take it on trust that the effects discussed are as described.

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An image of a painting with twelve of orange thin lines

Pictorial space

CHAPTER 22 – MORE ON THIN LINES

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Footnotes

* If you ask Google “What is a Modernist painter”, you get the following excellet summary:  Modern art includes artistic work produced during the period extending roughly from the 1860s to the 1970s, and denotes the styles and philosophies of the art produced during that era. The term is usually associated with art in which the traditions of the past have been thrown aside in a spirit of experimentation.” However, if you had asked Manet, Cézanne, Van Gogh,  Matisse, etc., etc., whether traditions of the past had been thrown aside, you would find that it was by no means all of them.

** Google says that the “integrity of the picture plane” is a phrase coined by the influential art critic Clement Greenberg in his essay “Modernist Painting”. It concerns the issue as to whether the fact of creating an “illusory pictorial space” interferes with perceptions of the “objectness” of the actual picture surface.  This was a question of primary importance to the “Early Modernists” from the late 1860s onwards. For them, as explained in  Chapter 6 of my book “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”, the fact of the possibility of being aware of the actual surface of paintings was one of the reasons for what they believed to be their inherent superiority relative to photographs. Their belief was that, since “deception is immoral”, painters must avoid it at all costs. Despite the difficult-to-comprehend this questionable argument, it stuck for about a century. Thus, in the 1960s, it was still a potent aspect of the teaching of my two mentorsProfessor Bohusz Szyszko and Michael Kidner.  The difference between the “Early Modernists” and Clement Greenberg was that the former (and  Professor Bohusz-Szyszko) thought it possible to depict illusory pictorial space without destroying the integrity of the picture surface. In contrast, Clement Greenberg asserted the impossiblilit of any such thing, as did Piet Mondrian and a number of earlier painters, plus a whole list of later artists, including Michael Kidner and Ellsworth Kelly.

As those who have read “Painting with Light”, the first Book in this Two Book Volume will realise, the early Modernists and Professor Bohusz-Szyszko got it wrong. The use of unmixed repeated colours do not disrupt the picture-surface, but rather the illusory pictorial space. They do so because our eye/brains read them as being on the picture surface and, consequently, as jumping out of any illusory pictorial space, which is allways behind it. It is thus, the integrity of illusory pictorial space that is disrupted.

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Earlier chapters from “Painting with Light and Colour”:

“All you need to know about painting”-2

This Post provides a link to chapter 18 of my book, “Painting with Light and Colour”. It is the last of the chapters in the part of the book dedicated to “painting with light”. Its title, “All you need to know about painting-2” is almost the same as the title of Chapter 1, except for the number 2 tagged on at the end. The grandiose claim was made by my  teacher Professor Marian Bohuz-Szyszko, during a brief encounter on the very first day we met. He asserted that “all you need to know” can be summerised in two simple rules.

The purpose of the chapter  is to consider the plausibility of his assertion in the light of the ideas developed in the Chapters 2 to 17. These not only delve into the historical origins of the rules, but also provide scientific evidence of their power as tools for artists.

After the link to Chapter 18, I have added a slightly edited version of  its “Introductory”, as a means of better preparing you for its contents.

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about painting
An oil painting that follows the rules of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, by one his students, my friend Stefan Stachowicz.

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CHAPTER 18-ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PAINTING-2

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Introductory to chapter 18 of  “Painting with Light and Colour”

We have now come to the last chapter and the question as to how to make the best use of the information and ideas presented.

The first chapter introduces the five propositions of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, the ones that according to him constitute, “all you need to know about painting”. The chapters that follow provide an account of their historical and scientific origins and explain why they are so powerful. At the same time they point out some limitations. However, although the avoidance of repetition and the use of complex, complementary-containing colours can transform what artists can achieve, they certainly do not represent “all there is to know about painting”, not even with the modifications and extensions suggested in this book. Most notably, the Professor’s rules give short shrift to two subjects that many artists consider to be of the utmost importance Thus they: 

  • Have no relevance to the kind of “colour dynamics” that can be generated between juxtaposed colours (the subject of the following chapters)
  • Do not address what is perhaps the most important topic of all, namely the role of the feelings.

Although a full discussion of the importance of the feelings as a driving force in all domains of creativity is reserved for “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”, it would not do at all to neglect them entirely in what follows.

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The  earlier chapters from “Painting with Light and Colour

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Pictorial space and Modernist painters

Introduction

This article on “Modernist painters and illusory pictorial space” was written in response to Posts Page comments by Ken Marunowski (see comments section of Chapter 10 : Illusory pictorial space and light)

Clement Greenberg, Jackson Pollock and a space within the picture surface

Clement Greenberg was a high profile mid twentieth century art critic whose thoughts on Modernism in Painting influenced a generation of artists. He had much to say on the paintings of Jackson Pollock to which he accorded  a special importance. One of the reasons why was that he saw in them an unprecedented type of “pictorial space”. This he called  “a space within the picture surface”

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pictorial space
Figure 1 : As predicted by Professor Bohusz-Szyszko’s rules for creating a “harmony that runs parallel to nature”, the many repeated colours in this typical painting by Jackson Pollock can be perceived as jumping out from the picture surface, thereby creating in front/behind relations and what Greenberg described as a”space within the picture surface”.

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A moralistic reaction against photographs

His  claim had a history. In the late 1860s. a number of young artists saw a threat in the degree of realism manifested in images taken by the recently invented camera. The  approach they chose for countering it was purely conceptual. It was based on a two step rationalization. First, they argued that realism of photographic images was such that it deceives the eyes and, second, that deception is “immoral”.

The way these artists, later known as the Impressionists, sought to avoid analogous immorality in their own figurative paintings was to emphasise the reality of the actual picture surface. Their main strategy for doing this was accentuate “surface texture” and “personalised mark-making”. Luckily for the history of painting, one outcome was that they discovered the exciting potential of exploiting the dynamic relationships between the reality of the picture surface and the illusion created by the figurative aspects of their work.

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pictorial space
Figure 1: A main pioneer of the exploration of  personalized mark-making was Berth Morisot, as illustrated in her painting  “Girl on divan”.

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Two new developments

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pictorial space
Fig 3 : Compositions like this are immediately recogniseable as being by Piet Mondrian. As in the vase/faces illusion, we can either see the white, red and yellow rectangles jumping out of the black framework or visa versa. The in front/behind implications provide an example of the kind of space Mondrian  described as a “spiritual space”. This kind of space is analogous to the “space within the picture surface” that Clement Greenberg saw in the much more complicated paintings of Jackson Pollock.

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In the course of time, the successors of these early Modernist painters discovered that figuration is not necessary for creating illusory pictorial space. They found that perceptions of it could be evoked in non figurative paintings, by means of  “cognitive cues”, the most important of these being “overlap” and depth-indicating “diagonals”.

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Diagonals
Fig 4 : According to the rules of linear perspective, the diagonal lines in this painting by Bart Van Der Leck (1876-1958) can be seen as receding and, therefore, indicating the “illusory pictorial space” that was anathema to Mondrian.

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However, despite the exciting possibilities offered by real surface/illusory pictorial space dynamics, Piet Mondrian and other purists could not help concluding that any kind of illusory pictorial space was a “deception” and, accordingly, both “immoral” and to be avoided at all costs. Nor did  they consider this to be a trivial matter. Mondrian permanently  broke off his close, working relationship with Bart van de Leck because he had included a diagonal in one of his paintings.

Poor Mondrian had to soldier on alone. At times he must have felt despairing. However hard he tried, he could not find a way of altogether eliminating perceptions of illusory pictorial space. Eventually, his deeply religious worldview rescued him. It suggested a way of rationalising himself out of  the morality problem, namely, to rename the  “pictorial space” that he was unable to eradicate as “spiritual space”.

An illusory space within the picture surface

Seemingly unaware of Mondrian’s discoveries, Greenberg discerned what he described as “a space withing the picture surface” in the paintings of Jackson Pollock. This he argued was fundamental different from the “illusory pictorial space” found in the work of his Modernist Painter predecessors. However, although influential for a number of years, his claim did not convince number of later artists and theorists. Although these had no difficulty in seeing the space that Greenberg has identified, they insisted that it was illusory and they were right to do so. We now know that they were seeing was the same kind of illusory pictorial space found in the the“vase/face illusion”, in which the vase can be perceived as being either in front of or behind the inward looking faces .

The problem that now arose was that this kind of illusory space provoked an optical disturbance of a kind that some saw as an undesirable (described in the chapter on “negative spaces” in “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”). To remove this in the interests of creating a pure, undisturbed colour experience, artists of the 1950s and 1960s, felt obliged to eliminate all traces of Greenberg’s “space within the picture surface”.

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Three colours
Figure 1 : This was the first painting I saw by Michael Kidner. Each of the three colours are repeated in six different contexts. If  the psychologists of visual perception and Joseph Albers are to be believed, this should mean that none of the three colours looks quite like any of the other eight of its kind. Michael wanted to eliminate pictorial space. Did he succeed? Ellsworth Kelly would have said “No”.

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However, when they tried to do so, they found the task they has set themselves to be more difficult than they had bargained for. Indeed many decided that they were faced with an insoluble problem. They had come to the conclusion that, as long as there is more than one region colour on the picture surface, there is no way of avoiding some degree of visual tension. The reason was no longer necessarily the repeated colours of Mondrian and Pollock, it could also be the figure/field separation that occurs at the earliest stage of perceptual processing, in which the object (figure) is picked out at the expense of its context/background (field). In the view of artists like Ellsworth Kelly, the only remaining way of producing pure colour experience would be by means of single colour paintings. As these could be described as “coloured objects hanging on a wall”, the question that then arose was whether they should be classified as “paintings” or as “sculptures”. Many seem to have plumped for the latter.

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pictorial space
Figure 7 :“Ellsworth Kelly, “Diptych: Green Blue” (2015). In this late painting, the artist wanted to produce two examples of pure colour experience. Did he succeed? Or, is the way we perceive the separate colours influenced by their proximity to one another? Notice the shadows under the colours that show that they are not painted on the same picture-surface, but rather as separate, intentionally isolated objects.

In 1968, the Museum of Modern Art in New York provided the art world with what turned out to be a watershed exhibition. Its title, “The Art of the Real” ,was deeply significant. From the conceptual point of view, it signed the death knell of one of the most influential strands of the broad tapestry of “Modernism in Painting”. For those that believed this to be the only strand, the future of painting had to be in some manifestation of Post Modernism”.

None of this necessarily deterred artists from carrying on regardless with all the different possibilities.  They will always be free to embark on new explorations of:

  • Trompe l’oeil
  • Real surface/illusory pictorial space dynamics
  • Space within the picture surface
  • Explorations of the “art of the real”.

All are to be found in work produced up to the present day.

Footnote 1

As a footnote I think it worth mentioning that the issues discussed above were central to the teaching of both my main mentors.

  • Professor Bohusz-Szyszko felt the main importance of his rules was that they ensured what he described as “the integrity of the picture surface”.
  • Michael Kidner followed Greenberg and Pollock in believing in the importance of eliminating illusory pictorial space, as defined by them. He also made good use of what they described as “the space within the picture  surface”, in other words what I  have been likening to the illusory pictorial space exemplified in the vase/face illusion.

Footnote 2

Incidentally, Professor Bohusz-Szyszko told me that the fact that his rules ensured the “integrity of the picture surface” was one of the main virtues of the dogmas he shared with his students is. According to him repetitions of the same colour in different parts of a panting broke the “integrity of the picture surface, either by jumping out in front of it or by creating the illusion of holes within it. We now know that this theorising was wrong. As explained in many places in my books, what they jump out of is illusory pictorial space. What actually happens is that they are perceived as jumping from surfaces in an illusory world, and integrating with the actual picture surface. From the practical point of view this theoretical distinction does not matter for in both cases the outcome is that the eye and the brain are confronted with incompatible and therefore disturbing perceptual cues.

Delacroix and his mistress

Delacroix and Elizabeth Cavé.

Delacroix
A portrait of Elizabeth Cavé by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

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In an earlier Post I told of the teaching of Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran and its widespread influence. In it I did not mention another important figure who also developed a method for training the memory. Her name was Elizabeth Cavé. Like Lecoq Boisbaudran her method eventually found favour with the establishment and was to some extent introduced into the national curriculum. She was also, over some 30 years, a personal friend and confidant, often described as “mistress”, of Eugène Delacroix, who was something of a Father figure to the young Impressionists, including:

Delacroix
Homage to Eugene Delacroix by Henri Fintin Latour, including fellow students of Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran

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Why I wrote a letter to LRB

With all this information in my head, you can imagine how my interest perked up when I came across a quotation from Delacroix in an article by T.J.Clark, published in the London Review of Books in October 2019. In this Delacroix tells us that he experienced a paradigm shift in his approach to painting, from being “hounded by a love of exactitude” to employing his memory to sift out “what is striking and poetic”. He also states that this transformation occurred as a spinoff from his “African voyage” in 1832.

On reading this endorsement of the virtues of channeling experience through memory, I was immediately reminded of the philosophy of Lecoq Boisbaudran. From there my mind jumped to Elizabeth Cavé and to wondering whether Delacroix’s change of direction had any link to her teaching method. When I discovered that their liaison had started in earnest in 1832, I could not resist the thought that either she had influenced Delacroix or, perhaps more likely, vice versa. If so, there seemed to be quite a lot to add to what T.J.Clark had to say. Below is what I wrote.

The letter

T.J.Clark (LRB 10-10-2019) quotes Eugene Delacroix as dating a change from being hounded by a love of exactitude to making work based on “recalling” what is striking and poetic. He asserted that it came after his “African voyage”, which mean after his return from Morocco in 1832. When I read this I immediately realised that this date roughly coincided with the beginning of his relationship with Elizabeth Cave in 1833. Whether or not her ideas were influenced by Delacroix or visa versa , she published ‘Le dessin sans maître’, which received a laudatory review from her by now long standing friend (in the ‘Revue de deux Mondes’ of September 1850). In it, she explained her method of teaching drawing which, according to her, she had been practicing since 1847. Key to this was training of the memory. Two years earlier, in 1848, Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran published a compilation of two texts, ‘L’Éducation de la mémoire pittoresque’ and ‘la formation de l’artiste’, in which he explained his method, also based on training the memory. His connection with Delacroix can be inferred from the personages in the 1864 painting ‘Homage à Delacroix’ by his pupil Henri Fantin-Latour, in which we see others two students of Lecoq Boisbaudran, Alphonse Legros and Felix Bracquemond. Also in the painting is James MacNeil Whistler who is know to have learnt Lecoq Boisbaudran’s method from Alphonse Legros and who famously demonstrated it to a doubter. He did this, first, by looking at an unfamiliar landscape and, then, turning his back on it and painting it from memory (for more about the influence of Lecoq Boisbaudran and its plausible ramifications see < http://www.painting-school.com/horace-lecoq-boisbaudran-influence/ >).

So how does all this relate to the quotation from Delacroix? The clue lies in his youthful “love of exactitude” being replaced by a more mature approach based on “recalling what was striking and poetic.” What Lecoq Boisbaudran would surely have argued is that the great man’s earlier obsession with ‘accuracy’ prepared him for his later personalised use of memory with all its benefits, for this was exactly what his teaching method (and presumably that of Elizabeth Cave) aimed at achieving. The main differences, he could argue, lay in the shortness of the time in which his students were expected to make their transition and the methodical progression from simple to complicated that characterised the learning exercises that made it possible. Surely, both Delacroix and Lecoq Boisbaudran would have concurred with Edgar Degas, significantly a great friend of Alphonse Legros, when he said, “It is always very well to copy what you see, but much better to draw what only the memory sees. Then you get a transformation, in which imagination works hand in hand with the memory and you reproduce only what has particularly struck you.”

Delacroix
Rodin acknowledged the importance to him of Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran’s memory training

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As well as the personalisation of artistic output, the method had huge advantages in terms of rapidity of information pick up. The famous late watercolours (‘Cambodian dancers’, etc) of Rodin, another student and a lifelong admirer of Lecoq Boisbaudran and his teaching, illustrate both these advantages. Likewise the post-African paintings and drawings of Delacroix. Also, I find it hard to believe that there is not some connection here with Delacroix’s famous assertion that “any artists worth his salt should be able to draw a man that has been thrown out of a sixth floor window before he hits the ground.”

PS. For your interest, I was teaching on much the same principles as Lecoq Boisbaudran for at leat 25 years before I learnt of his existence. These I derived from research done at the University of Stirling in the early 1980s <http://www.painting-school.com/the-course/the-course-director/>.

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January 2019 newsletter

Hello everybody,
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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.
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2019 Newsletter
Oil painting by my friend Stefan Stachowicz, fellow student of Professor Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, made in the late 1960s
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You will find the three other images of Stefan’s paintings below.
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The January 2019 newsletter for Painting School students

Hello everybody,
As always in January, I am sending a newsletter to remind you of the dates for the coming season. They are:
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Saturday 15 June – Saturday 29 June.
Saturday 20 July – Saturday 3 August.
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Other details can be found on the website bookings page.
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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.
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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.
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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).
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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.
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Please keep in touch. I always enjoy hearing from you.
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Warmest regards,
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Francis
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The renovated facade

2019 Newsletter
View of the renovated back facade of the Painting School, showing outside of the main studio and kitchen windows

 

New Year’s greetings e-card

2019 Newsletter
New Year’s greeting card for 2019

More paintings by Stefan

 

2019 Newsletter
Oil painting by Stefan Stachowicz

 

2019 Newsletter
Another oil painting by Stefan

 

2019 Newsletter
The oil painting by Stefan used for the 2019 New Year’s greetings card

 

Other posts under “Painting School News” and “Miscellaneous”

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PAINTING SCHOOL NEWS

MISCELLANEOUS

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Ubuntu and the generosity of genes

Three quotations

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.

Ubuntu

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:

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“I am because we are, and we are because we exist in the living world”

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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.

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Footnote: Extending Nelson Mandela’s praise of ubuntu

 

ubuntu
To this, I am adding that we are also human thanks to the generosity of the genes that are responsible for the awe-inspiring richness of the microbial worlds within us and for the infinite diversity of the natural environment, upon both of which which we depend.
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References:

Vision Group acknowledged

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).
  • Leslie Smith * (computing).
  • Bill Phillips * (visual memory and brain function).
  • Karel Gisbers (neurophysiology).
  • Ranald McDonald (statistics and common sense).
  • 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. ****

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* 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.

*** In 1987 Alistair published:  “a new method of classification” in Pattern Recognition Letters, Volume 6, Issue 1, June 1987, Pages 15-19

****  Fluid Mask: a commercial outcome

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Origins of Castelnau de Montmiral

WHY THE NEED FOR A FORTIFIED TOWN IN THE NORTHERN ALBIGEOIS IN THE YEAR 1222?

What I have written below is the result of my efforts to sort out contradictions in the stories concerning the origins of Castelnau de Montmiral that were going the rounds when I first arrived in the town and started teaching at the Painting School of Montmiral in 1988. I cannot claim it to be a definitive history but it represents the best story I have been able cobble together on the basis of the “facts” that I was able unearth. A condensed version appears in the main website on the history page of the main website.

porte de garrics
Porte de Garrics : the ancient entry to the town of Castelnau de Montmiral

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Preamble

It took the inhabitants of Castelnau de Montmiral more than 20 years to complete the now tree-lined esplanade that today runs along its north-east facing side. It was ready in 1622, just in time to impress King Louis XIII who stayed there and, amongst other things, is said to have eaten plums in the street, now known as ‘rue Gambetta’. He was on his way to deal with a Protestant uprising that had occurred further South caused by the failure of the local Catholics to keep faith with the Edict of Nantes, which had legally guaranteed freedom of worship for the Protestants.

A main reason why the new esplanade took so long to put in place was that previously there had been a steep escarpment, sloping precipitously down from the still massive ramparts that encircled the town. It is difficult to imagine the quantity of earth and rocks that must have been moved to raise the ground level to its present height, the original rampart walls are seldom visible, as they are now largely obscured by houses that have been built in front of long stretches of where they were located. Likewise the formidable slopes are hidden by the raised and levelled surfaces that were created when constructing the esplanade and the various roads below. All these necessitated great works made possible by men using buckets, wheelbarrows and oxen-drawn carts to move what must have seemed to them to be mountains of stone and earth.

Continue reading “Origins of Castelnau de Montmiral”

MY BOOKS ON ART PRACTICE

There are four books covering four subjects:

1.  Drawing    2. Painting    3. Creativity    4. Related Science

* The Posts on the book chapters come first and are followed by Posts on other subjects.

(Please scroll down to the book or to the subject matter that interest you)

* The most recent posts and revisions are highlighted in red

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Why the books are needed

1. DRAWING BOOK

Chapters from “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”

Other Posts on Drawing:

2. PAINTING BOOK

Chapters from “Painting with Light and Colour”:

 

Other Posts on colour and light in painting:

 

3. CREATIVITY BOOK

Chapters from “Fresh  insights into Creativity”

Extracts from Chapter 10: “Having fun with creativity”

4. SCIENCE BOOK

Chapters from “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”

(These deal in greater depth with subjects that feature in the other volumes)

5. EXTRACTS FROM THE ‘GLOSSARY’

6. MISCELLANEOUS

7. PAINTING SCHOOL NEWS

 

Request for comments on the chapters from the books.

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