Abstract & Constructivist-definitions

The word “abstract”

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.

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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: 1ABSTRACTION, 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”).

 

1-ABSTRACTION

 

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.

Eye/brain issues

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.

2-CONSTRUCTION

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.

Conclusions

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.

 

4-IMAGES

Abstracting the essence

 

Abstract
Paul Cézanne sought to represent the permanent, underpinning constancies of natural appearances. He had little interest in depicting the ephemeral surfaces of nature, which, according to him, the Impressionists were doing their best to capture in their paintings. His aim was to tap into what he saw as the essence of nature.

 

Abstract
Like Cézanne, Pierre Bonnard had no desire to paint fleeting effects of natural appearances. Rather, his objective was to capture the experience of coming across a scene for the first time. This explains why his method was to catch the moment by roughing out what he was seeing by means of a quick feelings-based pencil study and then “get away from nature as quickly as possible”.**After that it was a matter of holding onto the memory of the feelings and the colour nuances long enough to guide him through a first stab at a painting. The rest was a matter of allowing the memories and the feelings to mature and guide the progress of the painting. In this way he hoped to recreate something that reflected the essence of his experience.

 

absteact
Pablo Picasso‘s idea was to get closer to the essence of our everyday  experience of visual appearances, which regularly involves integrating information coming from different viewpoints into one perceptual construct.

abstract
Piet Mondrian moved through figuration to abstraction, before turning to construction. In the painting illustrated here, he was seeking to abstract the essence of a tree in terms of the pictorial rhythms it suggested to him.

 

Abstract
Jackson Pollock sought to go beyond personal taste and make manifest aspects of the common ground in human experience. This he believed could be accessed by getting in touch with the collective unconscious posited by Carl Jung. To bypass his personal prejudices, he entered a trance like state that, according to him, allowed an essence of humanity to “come through” into his painting.

 

Constructing from the basic building blocks of visual perception

Abstract
Piet Mondrian abandoned abstraction as a result of his efforts at constructing what he described as a “spiritual space”. According to his philosophy this prioritised the elimination of illusory pictorial space. This is why he determined that his paintings would provide neither object reference nor perceptions of in-front/behind relationships.

 

 

Abstract
Georges Vantongerloo used mathematical procedures as a method of determining the structure of his compositions. In this respect he was a precursor of  the many later artists who were to adopt systematic approaches to the composition of their paintings.

 

Abstract
Bridget Riley sought to create optical excitements using systematic transformations based on the rules of linear perspective.

 

Abstract
Michael Kidner’s project was to use simple systems to take him beyond the control of personal taste into unimaginable worlds. In constructing this massive painting he used a code, based on variations in the vertical dimension of otherwise standardised vertical, rectangular, black elements, to represent regular transformation of the curvatures of a four sided column (see below), as revealed by systematic changes in viewpoint.  Key to the variations produced in the painting was the fact that each of the contours of the the four surfaces of the column were based on different mathematically determined wave forms.  In a very real sense, Michael’s procedure could be described as a much more recent variation on cubism.

Abstract
The above painting with the column in front

 

* Quotation from the Nabis artist Maurice Denis.

** Quotation from Bonnard.

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Michael Kidner

Michael Kidner , the artist, was a teacher at the Bath Academy of Art, when I was a student there. In my view, he was one of the most interesting and important artists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It was my great luck that I was able to form a friendship with him that lasted over forty years, until his death in 2009. In 2007 he had a one man show at the Flowers East Gallery, London, to which he gave the title “No goals in a quicksand”.  I was asked to help with the writing of the catalogue.* One of my contributions was a slightly edited version of a chapter from “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”, a book I was working on at the time and which is now one of the four books I am currently publishing in installments on the Posts Page of this website. My other main contribution to the catalogue was an introductory piece called “Michael Kidner the man”, which you will find repeated, after Figure 1 below. To complete this Post, I have also included a link to the chapter on Michael (“The big bang, chaos and the butterfly”) and an image of Michael’s last finished painting (Figure 2):

Michael Kidner
Figure 1: Michael Kidner : “Three primaries”, a work first exhibited in 1967, at the Arnolfini Gallery (Bristol), during my first year at art school.

Michael Kidner the man

When considering Michael’s work, it is easy to concentrate attention too much on the science-based ideas and too little on the man and his feelings. As I have got to know him well, I have been impressed by a quality which I am tempted to call ‘naivete’, since it reminds me of a quotation from Matisse: “The effort to see without distortion takes something like courage and this courage is essential to the artist, who has to look at everything as though he saw it for the first time.” Michael looks at mathematically-based systems in this spirit and is not daunted by his shortcomings as a mathematician, of which he is only too aware. Thus, though characterising himself as groping towards an understanding of matters beyond his realistic grasp, Michael does not see this as a reason for abandoning his obsession with mathematical propositions. He sees these as relating to the fundamental mysteries of science and he looks at the evolution of systems, generated by a simple logic, in much the same way as Cézanne must have looked at natural objects, with total concentration and never ending wonder at the seemingly endless layers of novelty that open up before him. In other words, though he works with the ideas of science, he responds to them with the sensibility of an artist, experiencing them with innocent and ever inquisitive eyes. It is his personal and, therefore, quintessentially different visual response that reveals and creates, not only the perceptual excitements but also the metaphors for the human condition that are to be found in his work. Michael works slowly and doggedly. Daily he clambers up to his attic studio where he spends untold hours, apparently oblivious of time and human needs, patiently searching for the key that will give meaning to his latest quest. His explanations of what he is doing are delivered in a slightly hesitant and even seemingly self deprecating manner which completely fails to obscure the steadfast determination to go further which imbues his every word. There is no thought of calling it a day, even at the age of ninety years and even despite his physical handicaps. Cézanne wanted to die painting: one feels that Michael has this same level of commitment.

Michael Kidner: systems and creativity

“The big bang, chaos and the butterfly” Chapter  8  of “Fresh Insights into Creativity”

 

Michael Kidner
Figure 2: Michael Kidner’s last painting. I first saw it soon after it was made, when I visited his studio shortly before his death in the Autumn of  2009. In it he introduces a new level of complication that made me feel that he was embarking on yet another crucial step in his ever-evolving voyage of exploration.

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* A version of Michael’s catalogue was later published as: Pratt, Francis. Michael Kidner The Man “No Goals In Quicksand, Flowers East 2007.

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* Pratt Francis. Michael Kidner The Man “No Goals In Quicksand, Exhibition Catalogue (Flowers East 2007)

Questioning the ideas

Introducing Chapter 2

Chapter 1 of my book “Painting with Light and Colour” told of the dogmas of Professor Bohusz-Szyszko and his claim that they were “all you need to know about painting”. It also praised their value as a practical guide.

Chapter 2 is about doubts that arose concerning their theoretical basis. It was the experience of living with these that prepared me for a critical moment in my life. This came several years later while I was reading an article in the Scientific American that had been brought to my attention by one of my colleagues in the Psychology Department at the University of Stirling. The purpose of the article was to present what the author, Edwin Land, fervently believed to be a mould-breaking understanding of the neural computations used by the eye/brain to produce the phenomenon of “colour constancy”. Actually Gaspard Monge, a French mathematician, had beaten him to the post by nearly two hundred years. But this did not stop the contents of Land’s article from being the catalyst to the evaporation of my worries. More importantly, my efforts to better understand the significance of Land’s ideas were eventually to open the way for cooperations with colleagues in the The University of Stirling Vision Group (see below*). Without their help, few of the new insights relating to the use of colour in paintings that can be found in my book would have materialised.

But this is jumping the gun. First click on the link below to access the chapter on the doubts that had haunted me and on the process of questioning they set in motion. Its function is to explain why there is a need for the new ways of thinking and doing that play such an important part in the chapters that follow.

 

CHAPTER 2 : “DOUBTS”

 

questioning
The multicoloured display used for the cover of the “Scientific American”, in which can be found Edwin Land’s  definitive demonstrations of the phenomenon colour constancy.

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* More on the University of Stirling Vision Group

Above and in many places in my books, I acknowledge the importance of the role of colleagues in the development of the new science-based ideas put forward in them. In particular I mention cooperations with various scientists at the University of Stirling. 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.

In the Autumn of  1984, 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.

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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

*** A commercial outcome

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Traditional ideas on trial

Introduction to Chapter 4

It is well known that the Impressionists and their immediate successors (often referred to in my books as the Early Modernists) reacted strongly against what they saw as the straitjacket of the traditional ideas taught in the academies. The purpose of this Post is to publish Chapter 4 of “Painting with Light and Colour”, which provides a short introduction to what these actually were, with comments on the pros and cons of following them uncritically. Normally, I have been writing a separate introduction for my Posts but on this occasion I have used the Introductory from the chapter itself. Accordingly, when you open the link to the chapter below, you may want avoid reading the same thing twice.

Traditional ideas and their limitations

This chapter has four main purposes. These are to:

  • Introduce some traditional ideas about the depiction of space and light.
  • Discuss their limitations.
  • Suggest that these are more comprehensive and satisfactory alternatives.
  • Prepare the way for a better understanding of the significance of Seurat’s science and his colour based innovations.

The first of objectives is met by elaborating on three aspects of painting which, after being explored in some depth by the Renaissance artists, became embedded in the academic tradition. Although satisfactorily serving their purpose for the artists who followed them, it was these that were found wanting by the Impressionists. More importantly in the present context, it was also these that were given a new dimension by Seurat and those who built upon his ideas. The three aspects were detailed in the last chapter:

Significantly, as we shall see, it is only with respect to the first item on the list (atmosphere) that colour of any sort was seen as having a role to play. Even then only blue was required.

In contrast, the academic rules guiding the depiction of the quality of light and shading provided no function to colour. The practice of the Renaissance artists and the teaching of the Academies placed the emphasis exclusively on variations in “lightness” (what the English call “tone” and the Americans term “value”).

 

CHAPTER 4 : “RENAISSANCE IDEAS”

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3 images illustrating traditional ideas of aerial perspective

tradtional ideas
Leonardo da Vinci – Mona Lisa.

 

traditional ideas
Claude of Lorraine – Seaport at sunset.

 

traditional ideas
Turner – Rain, steam and speed.

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New science for Modernist artists

Introduction

The science referred to in the title of this post had a lot to do with the revolution in the understanding that gave birth to what we now know as the science of “visual perception“. The first intimations that an important change was afoot came in the later part of the seventeenth century with Isaac Newton’s work on the composition of light. However, the paradigm shift came in the late eighteenth century when the work of Gaspard Monge and others made it clear that colour is not a property of surfaces but is made in the head. This completely new understanding of the nature of visual perception was to be fleshed out in the next century by a flood of confirmatory studies. A milestone was the publication by Herman van Helmholtz of a three-volume review of the new domain of study. It was a magisterial achievement that showed why, despite his considerable debt to others, he has been described as the “Father of the Psychology of Perception“. The third and last of these volumes was published in 1867, just in time to have a profound influence, first on the young Impressionists and, then, in the remainder of the nineteenth and in the early twentieth centuries, on many of their Modernist Painter successors.

The new science misrepresented

One of the purposes of “Painting with Light and Colour”, my book on the theory and practice painting, is to provide a better account of the hugely important role of the new sciences of vision and visual perception in the history of painting. In this post I am publishing Chapter 5, which continues the process of setting the scene started in the Introduction to the science at the beginning of the book. It does so by revisiting and shedding new light on important aspects of colour theory. It has four objectives:

  • To question the widespread dissemination of half-truths and falsehoods in how-to-do-it books and articles on painting.
  • To sort out misconceptions about colour theory that I have found to be common amongst my students.
  • To show how well-known concepts are given new significance when considered in the context of the realisation that colour is not a property of surfaces but is made in the head.
  • To introduce other more recent ideas that will play a key role in the chapters that follow. These are likely to be unfamiliar to most people, as they are the fruit of little known, late twentieth century experimental clarifications, which enable sense to be made of formerly unsolved mysteries.

CHAPTER 5 – “NEW SCIENCE ON OFFER”

 

new science
Forêt de Chateau Noir, by Cézanne, a reader of articles by Helmholtz

 

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A revolution in painting

Introduction

This post focuses on the revolution in painting that gathered momentum in the latter part of the nineteenth century. A key factor in its genesis was an earlier and still ongoing revolution in the then emerging science of visual perception (more posts on aspects of this to follow)At the core of this was an accumulation of evidence that demonstrated that colour is not a property of surfaces in the external world but a construction by the eye/brain.  In Chapter 6 of my book “Fresh Insights into Creativity“, I have described what occurred as “The Modernist Experiment”.  The word “experiment” is used because the discoveries of science, the threat of the recently invented photograph and the challenge to well-embedded assumptions posed by the Japanese print, led to:

  • A root and branch questioning of just about every aspect of painting.
  • A concerted effort to make paintings that would push forward the search for answers.

More than ever before, the thought-processes and working practice of artists illustrated the earlier groundbreaking contention of John Constable  that “paintings should be regarded as experiments.

A link to the chapter

Please click on the link below to access the chapter in question. In it you will read how the revolution in painting evolved between the 1860s, when the young Impressionists met with now celebrated poets and writers in the Café GuerboisParis, and the 1960s, when an exhibition called The Art of the Real, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, prepared the way for the arrival of so-called “Post Modernism” (to be the subject of a later Post).

CHAPTER 6 – “THE MODERNIST EXPERIMENT”

 

Three products of the revolution in painting

The three paintings below show three late nineteenth century painters experimenting with approaches to picture making which would have been inconceivable before the Modernist revolution in painting:

revolution in painting
Gustav Moreau: “The temptation of St Anthony”, an experimental work painted in the last part of the nineteenth century.
  • Gustav Moreau was an early influence on Degas and the teacher of Matisse,
revolution in painting
Toulouse Lautrec – La Loge: An essay in experimentation
  • For detail on the experimental attitude of Toulouse-Lautrec, see Chapter 7:  Toulouse Lautrec , the questioning of values”.
revolution in painting
Berthe Morisot experimenting with mark making.
  • Berthe Morisot studied under Corot, a precursor of Modernism in painting, before meeting Manet and marrying his brother. Who influenced whom is a moot question.

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Free-will and determinism

Determinism

My Concise Oxford Dictionary defines “free-will” as “the power of acting without necessity or constraints”. A much debated question is whether human beings have this capability. Most answers are based on an easy-going introspection. “Surely, it is evident that we can make up our own mind on any question and in any situation we find ourselves?” However, over past centuries and decades various thinkers, for various reasons, have come to the conclusion that believers in free-will deceive themselves. According to their way of thinking, it can only be an illusion: All is determined by forces outside their control.

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St Augustine and John Calvin believed in predestination, another word for determinism.

 

In essence, there have been two main arguments in support of this determinism. They are:

  • The theoretical impossibility of mental liberty coexisting with an all-powerful deity (see the the doctrine of predestination).
  • A belief that the neural systems that underpin human action and thought operate in a machine-like manner.

For those whose premise is the supremacy of God, free-will could only occur if the Deity were to give up power voluntarily. The argument continues that this is a step it could not take because doing so would mean cancelling out the most basic fact of its existence, namely its all-powerful nature.

For those who see brains as machines, all must be explained in terms of mechanical processes. They ask what they assume to be a rhetorical question: “How could a mere machine be endowed with free-will?” Both of these arguments can be treated as cases of special pleading, leaving fundamental questions unanswered. As might be expected, there have been many attempts to confront these, including the suggestion that follows, which depends on the notion of free-will as a functional reality.

Free-will as a functional reality

This possibility, as outlined below, is attractive not only because it has the advantage of overcoming the objections of those who insist on a mechanistic explanation, but also because it fits with what introspection tells us. Let me explain.

Earlier in this chapter, under the heading “modes of description”, I described my first viewing of the powers of an electron microscope and being amazed to see how unrecognisable the image of the same minute portion of a leaf could be when viewed at the different levels of magnification. There seemed to be absolutely nothing in common between them. However, the specialist doing the demonstration seemed to have no difficulty in describing both their functions and links between them.

But that was many years ago and no matter how seemingly complete the explanations he gave at the time, by now, they would have had to be revised in all sorts of ways. It could hardly be otherwise, for the relatively new and rapidly blooming science of molecular biology, aided by ever more sophisticated technology, has been revealing ever-increasing levels of complexity and creating a mushrooming of questions to ask. Accordingly, it would be surprising to find any serious scientist who currently believes that it will be possible, in anything like a near future, to arrive at a definitive description of the multiplicity of neural processes and interconnections that enable our brains, not only to to classify and recognise but also to learn and use motor and intellectual skills so effectively.

Computers competing with the human brain

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A hugely enlarged photographic glimpse of a small number of the 100 billion neurons in the human brain.

 

For analogous reasons, a similar situation obtains in the field of computer-based brain-modelling. Despite all the astonishing progress that has been made in this field, computer scientists have still far to go before realising the goal of constructing a machine capable of mimicking the full extent of the intellectual and functional capacities of a human brain. Simply put, the problem is the daunting degree of interconnectivity within the brain’s neural networks. To model this, amongst other things, it would be necessary to take account of:

  • The estimated 86 billion neurons in the brain, each with an average 1,750 connections to other neurons, including those belonging to systems that are fed by both sensory and somatosensory inputs.
  • The requirements of neurophysiological plausibility.

No wonder I keep hearing computer scientists saying that the task of competing with the human brain on its own terms will remain well beyond their resources for the foreseeable future.**

A hugely enlarged glimpse of the relative simplicity of  computer circuitry.

Characteristics of hypothetical brain modelling machines

Even if there are some computer scientists who are more optimistic, this would not be of any consequence for my explanation of functional free will, for it does not depend on the existence of actual brain-modelling machines. Rather it involves thought-experiments relating to hypothetical creations whose operational principles are based on known characteristics of the brain. Accordingly the machines will have to use a considerable number of different sensor-types, each responding to a different modality of information (light, sound, scent, taste, various kinds of pressure, etc.), feeding a vast number of extensively interlinked, mini processors (taking on the role of neurons). These would have to be capable of:

  • Separating out and usefully recombine relevant aspects of the sensory information extracted from the environment by means of the multiplicity of sensors with task-specific characteristics, appropriately situated in a wide range of locations (multimodal processing).
  • Providing contextual information derived, not only from relevant parts of long-term memory, as built up through the agency of numbers of interacting subsystems, over a lifetime of experience, but also from the totality of the current environment, as captured and interpreted by sensory-systems, taking information from all parts of the body (temporal and spatial context).
  • Monitoring their own behaviour, using the feedback (provided by relevant sensory systems, memory stores or, much more likely, a combination of the two) that is required by analytic processes for both consciousness and learning.
  • Organising and implement actions (involving the coordination of complex muscle systems) and thought-processes (motor and mind control).
  • Generating feeling-based criteria upon which to make choices (decision making).

Equipped in various ways with these five capacities, the brain-mimicking computers would have to be able:

  • To make useful syntheses of the mass of data that has been extracted from the multiple sources of sensory input, with a view to both making sense and, subsequently, enabling recognition.
  • To do the above in any context, no matter what the domain of description, or how many variables have to be taken into consideration.
  • To learn from both positive and negative feedback (particularly from mistakes, using previously acquired, task specific error-correction skills).

The machine must also be capable of making sense of:

  • Information derived from within the relatively easy (but nevertheless potentially fiendishly complex) domains researched by practitioners of the so-called “hard sciences”, such as mathematicians, physicists and molecular biologists.
  • Much less easily classified material relating to the disciplines traditionally placed under the umbrellas of the social sciences and the arts.

In short, the brain-machine envisaged in the thought expermient would have to be at ease with making use of input pertaining to any realm of ideas whatsoever, however fanciful, simple-minded or far-fetched. It would also need to be capable of self-deception and crises of confidence in its own findings.

But this is far from all. To be like the human brain, every brain machine would have to have an ever-evolving memory-store, based on a ceaseless stream of ongoing inputs and capable of creating a unique internal world (analogous to “personal experience”). Accordingly, each machine would have a ‘personalised’ reaction to each and every contingency. In addition, like Antoni Tàpies and myself, it would have to be capable of having fun with the idea of creativity, however absurd its premise.

In the light of all these requirements (and no doubt many more), it is clear that neither computer hardware designers nor the computer programmers who were responsible for creating them would be able to predict the behaviour of the brain modeling machines envisaged in our thought-experiment. Only beings or groups of beings equipped with capacities comparable with the second of the hypothesised Gods** (the one capable of preplanning everything, from the evolution of species to down to the trajectory of every floating dust particle, for all eternity) would be able to unscramble an omelette of such complexity.

Moreover, even assuming that:

  • The self-monitoring aspect of the brain-modeling machines could be equated with consciousness.
  • The implied awareness of self could be programmed to incorporate both a sense of agency and a means of ranking the levels of both the credibility and the desirability of conclusions reached.

The outcome would be like human brains in the sense that they could only deal with an extremely limited part of the information being provided by the massively complex arrays and sequences of processes involved in determining their current behaviour.

All in all, it is safe to conclude that, even if machines could be made that meet these extremely exacting and, at the present, far from obtainable criteria, they would be unable to perceive the mechanically and contextually determined origins of their actions or thoughts. Accordingly, assuming the self-monitoring capacity of such machines could be equated with introspection, they would have no choice but to consider themselves as being in possession of free-will.

Moreover, if all traces of determinism remain obscure to the machines themselves, how would their output appear to other, similarly constructed and programmed machines? Clearly, from the perspective of any one machine seeing itself as having free-will, all other machines that have been created and evolved in accordance with the same principles would likewise be seen as in possession of their own free wills (or, possibly, dismissed as “just machines“).

Functional free-will and experiential reality

Since all the above arguments apply to any mechanistic way of thinking, whether it is focused on hypothetical computers or biological brains, they must also have relevance to speculations about the nature of free-will in our species. Just as no theory of the solar system or the universe, however indisputably correct, can stop us experiencing the sun as rising in the morning and setting in the evening (see Post on Why I am a flat Earther”), so no mechanistic theory of brain function can deprive us of our sense of possessing free-will. It may be an illusion, but it is with us to stay, along with any of the sense-of-self, personal feelings and motivation it can provide.

Finally, a word on the future of machines that mimic human brains. Since the functional free-will argued for above is predicated upon the idea that all machines, human or electronic, evolve in idiosyncratic ways, their diversity would be ensured. Accordingly, so would be their role in evolutionary processes that favour the survival of the fittest (whether as individuals, as contributing members of groups or as friends of the environment), with their all their possible implications and risks.

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Posts from “Having Fun with Creativity”, Chapter 10 of “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”

Other Posts from “Fresh Insights into Creativity”

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* However, the European Union is currently committing €1,200,000,000 over 10 years toThe Human Brain Project” with the stated objective of finding ways of modeling the human brain.

** A reference to an earlier passage in the chapter from which this post is an extract, namely, “Having Fun with Creativity”, Chapter 10 of “Fresh Perspectives on Creativity” . It consists of a not too serious run through of the hypothetical choices that would have faced an all powerful deity when sitting at his/her desk planning of the Big Bang. It is scheduled to appear in a later Post.

 

Science for artists – old and new

What science can now tell us

Two earlier Posts draw attention to the historical importance of Seurat’s science-based ideas on the practice of painting light and colour. In the one, which is on the “Venetian Colourists” , it is argued that the artists known by this label and those who built upon their ideas were not “colourists” at all. Rather they were “lightists”, whose reputation as “colourists” was based on their mastery of whole-field lightness/darkness relations (“chiaroscuro“). Colour did not enter into the theory of painting light until Seurat introduced his idea of using optically-mixed arrays of separate dots of complementary pigment-colours to give a new kind of luminosity to his paintings. This step proved to be the precursor of a transformative jump from “lightists” to “colourists”. The next steps, which were were taken by such artists as Cézanne, Gauguin and Bonnard, were later to inspire the synthesis of my teacher Marian Bohusz-Szyszko. It is these that provide the main subject matter of the second post mentioned above, namely “The Dogmas, Chapter 1 of my book “Painting with Light and Colour”. There I explain how, as well as having an abiding influence on my own painting and my teaching, they were to:

Continue reading “Science for artists – old and new”

Basic factors in painting

The purpose of this Post is to make available “the nature of painting, “Chapter 3” of my book “Painting with Light and Colour”. It provides a quick run through some basic factors, which are so evident that some of their practical implications are too often overlooked. These are presented under four headings:

  • Real surface/illusory pictorial space ambiguities.
  • Whole-field colour/lightness interactions.
  • What paintings can do that nature cannot.
  • The human element.

All the chapters in my books have an “Introduction”. From now on I will be using these to introduce the Posts that provide links to the .PDF version of them. Accordingly, you can choose to read the one for this Post, either immediately below, or when you click on the capitalised link in brown that follows it. The text of these “Introductions” will be italicised.

Introduction

It is difficult to imagine a more useful first guide to painting than the dogmas of Professor Marian Bohusz-Szyszko. However, they have their limits. Fortunately, as I believe the remainder of this book will make clear, it is both possible and worthwhile to go much more deeply into the reasons for both their strengths and their limitations. One approach to doing this is to trace the roots of the Professor’s assertions by reference to the work and ideas of his artist predecessors. Another, is to focus on the history of science and how it illuminated the subject of picture perception. Whichever our choice, it is inevitable that there will be much overlapping. The reason is that, in the nineteenth century, a particularly high proportion of the ideas influencing the community of progressive artists were rooted in the new ways of thinking about the world we live in that were emerging from science.

To prepare the way for the combination of theory and practice which provides the subject matter of the remainder of this book, this chapter offers a first introduction to basic factors that are necessarily in play when selections of artists’ pigments, mixed with various mediums are arranged on a circumscribed, flat picture-surface in such a way as to excite the feelings of people. The main reason for starting with these fundamentals is because:

  • Taking them into consideration can help artists to achieve a surprising number of widely sought after goals.
  • They provide reference points and context for so much of what follows.
  • Their importance is too often overlooked by practicing artists.

The basic factors in question will be presented under the headings,“real surface/illusory pictorial space ambiguities”, “whole-field colour/lightness interactions”, “what paintings can do that nature cannot” and “the human element”.

CHAPTER 3 : “THE NATURE OF PAINTING”

 

A selection of student work in which all  four of the basic factors listed above have been considered

Notice the range of:

  • Subject matter, on the continuum between abstract and figurative.
  • Depth of illusory pictorial space.
  • Mark-making.
  • Local and whole-field colour relationships.
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Stefan Rauch

 

basic factors
Kathy Davis

 

basic factors
Gordon Frickers

 

basic factors
Donal Bannister

 

basic factors
Ken Marunowski

 

basic factors
Huifong Ng

 

basic factors
Sarah Moore

 

For more Images of student work go to the main website and click onstudent work

 

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Posts relating to other chapters from “Painting with Light and Colour”:

Other Posts on light and colour in painting:

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False confidence

A personal experience

Continuing in the spirit of Tapies’ game-playing approach to creativity, we find ourselves jumping sideways to false confidence and self-deception, two closely interrelated subjects of great pertinence to both artists and scientists. These I will spread over two Posts. Both can be approached via episodes in my personal history.

The first anecdote, which is on the subject of confidence, concerns a flight of fancy that popped into my head at the time I was meditating on the mysteries of recognition, and how on earth the eye/brain systems could enable it.  My reverie took the form of what I came to call the “Abstraction-Hierarchy Model”.  It was a simplistic conception relating to brain-system processing that will be explained in more detail in a later Post.

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