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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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.
basic factors
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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Early Modernists

Defining “Early Modernists”

In later posts, the subject of “Modernism” is discussed with special reference to its place in the history of painting. One conclusion that emerges is that “Modernism in Painting” has a very different history to other “Modernisms”. For example, despite all they have in common, it is significantly different from either Modernism in Literature or Modernism in Architecture. For this reason, in my books, where others might write “Early Modernists”, I use “Early Modernist Painters”.

Early Modernist Painters

The purpose of this Post is to share with you Chapter 6  of my book “Painting with Light and Colour”. In it I outline the social, economic, scientific and artistic context from which the Early Modernist Painters emerged. I also give plenty of reasons why Modernism in Painting is different from Modernism in other disciplines. To access what I have written about all this and more, please click on the link below.

 

CHAPTER 6 – “THE EARLY MODERNISTS”

 

Some examples of Early Modernist paintings

To give some visual context to what I have written, please scroll down to the nine images below of the work of some key Early Modernist Painters. Notice that these include:

  • Eduard Manet, Berthe Morisot, Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne from the first generation, all of whom knew each other well from meetings in the home of Berthe Morisot and/or the Café Guerbois where they were joined by Auguste Renoir, Edgar Degas, Henri Fantin-Latour and Alphonse Legros (both students of the influential teacher Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran).
  • Emile Bernard, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec who, in 1886, met in the studio of Fernand Cormon and remained lifelong friends. Not long afterwards, they were joined by John Peter Russel the Australian artist. A big part of his importance to them and others was that, via the teaching of Alphonse Legros, he provided a link with Horace Lecoq Boisbaudran and his ideas on painting from memory.
  • Paul Gauguin who, with Emile Bernard, was co-founder of the the Pont-Aven School.  Gauguin also had links with Pissaro, Cézanne and Van Gogh, with whom he spent time in Arles.

Something to keep in mind when you scroll down to the images

We all know that reproductions of paintings whether in books or on websites are very different from the originals when we see them in galleries. However, what is less widely appreciated is the degree of difference between the paintings as they are now and the same paintings when first exhibited.  Thus, among the Early Modernists, Van Gogh used fugitive reds when mixing purples, with the result that the many purples he made by mixing reds with blues now appear as blues.

But the paintings that suffer the most are those of Seurat. The main reason for this is his extensive use of chemically unstable zinc yellows that have since turned brown. Because Seurat’s theory meant that most of the colours he used had to be, at least in part, mixtures between adjacent colours on the colour circle, these yellows occur in virtually all the greens, yellows and oranges in many of his paintings. The result has been catastrophic changes in appearances.

No wonder it is often difficult to fully connect what we see in some of Seurat’s pointillist paintings (for example, the one found below) with the contemporary descriptions of the excitements produced by the Pointillist method, such as those we find in the writings of Felix Fénéon, the admiring contemporary critic. For example, he writes:

  • “A pigment-based hue is weak and drab compared to a hue born of optical mixture: the latter, mysteriously vivified by a perpetual process of recombination, shimmers, elastic, opulent, lustrous” .
  • “The multicoloured specks melt into undulant, luminous masses”.
  • “The technique vanishes and the eye is no longer attracted by anything but that which is essentially painting” (incidentally, one of the first descriptions of paintings described in purely abstract terms).

While acknowledging the many admirable qualities of Seurat’s paintings as they appear to us today, these comments would now seem a bit over the top.

For more on Seurat’s mould-breaking ideas, see my POST on the Venetian Colourists  and in future Posts.

The nine images by Early Modernists

Early Modernists - Painting by Manet

An early Modernist painting by Manet, whom many consider to be the Father Figure of the Early Modernist Painters

Early Modernists - painting by Berthe Morisot

Berthe Morisot – woman and child in meadow at Bougival

Early Modernists - painting by Monet

Monet – Woman with Umbrella

Early Modernists - Painitng by Seurat

Georges Seurat – Bridge at Courbevoie

Early Modernists - Painting by Gauguin

Emile Bernard – Breton Women

Early Modernists - Painting by Van Gogh

Vincent van Gogh – Starry Night

Early Modernists - Painting by Toulouse-Lautrec

Toulouse – Lautrec – Portrait of Jane Avril

Early Modernists - Painting by Gauguin

Paul Gauguin – Manao Tupapau

Early Modernists - Painting by Cézanne

Paul Cézanne – Portrait of Hortense his wife

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Colourists : different meanings of the word

Colourists in 20th century art

A colourist can be defined as artists who give priority to the creation of colour-based experiences in their paintings. The problem is that it can be used in significantly different ways. In two Posts I suggest two approaches to the unraveling  the consequent ambiguities. This post contrasts the very different meanings of the word for three particular 20th century painters who have been described as colourists. The second Post will analyse its meaning when used in the phrase “Venetian Colourists”.

First approach: Three distinct types of colourist compared

I had two artist teachers who described themselves as colourists. One was interested in whole-field colour relations and the other in local colour-contrast effects. Both represented widely accepted meanings of the word.

  • Marian Bohusz-Szyszko, the Polish artist, teacher and mathematician, thought in terms of a multiplicity of colours (in principle many hundreds of thousands) and, more precisely, the effect of each and every colour on the picture surface on each and every other colour on it.
  • Michael Kidner, the English “Systems Painter”, thought in terms of a very limited number of colours (for example, two, three or four) and was principally interested either in local interactions between them or in their denotative function in his systems.

A well known American artist, had different ideas:

  • Ellsworth Kelly felt that both of the approaches to colour just described divert attention from the experience of colour as itself. He came to the conclusion that the only way of providing a pure experience of colour was to cover the entire surface of a painting with a single colour.

But these are only three examples and many other possibilities exist. For instance, I have met artists and viewers who seem to think that producing more or less any array of what they consider to be colourful colours qualifies them as colourists, no matter how garish and discordant the results appear to the eyes of others.

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Venetian Colourists

Defining “Venetian Colourists”

In a previous Post, I compared three 20th Century artists who have been described as “colourists”, and who had very different ideas on the place of colour in painting. I also suggested that these were only three among many possibilities.

In this second Post, I comment on the meaning art historians’ give the word “colourist” when writing about two different groups of pioneer artists,  one that flourished in the  the Italian Renaissance and the other that overturned all sorts of preconceptions in the last part of the nineteenth century.  The two groups are:

  • The Venetian Colourists (Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, etc.) and other, later artists, who kept within the same tradition (Vermeer, Turner, etc.).
  • The Modernist Painter Colourists of the late nineteenth century (Cézanne, Gauguin, etc) and early twentieth century (Matisse, Bonnard, etc.).

Continue reading “Venetian Colourists”

Colour in painting

How important is colour?

Below, I attach the first chapter of my book “Painting with Light and Colour“. The title of the PART ONE, in which it is found, is “All you need to know about painting“, which was an assertion made to me, during the first weeks of my life as an artist, by the Polish artist, teacher and mathematician, Professor Marian Bohusz-Szyszko. This fount of knowledge on European art went on to tell me, with equal conviction, that “all good painting is based on colour” and that “the use of colour in painting should be based on colour in nature”. The importance to me of these two dogmatic propositions and the elaborations and explanations he added can hardly be exaggerated, for they provided a basis for my life’s work, not only as an artist and teacher but also as a scientist.

The reason why what I now refer to as the “Dogmas of Marian Bohusz-Szyszko” were to prove to be so fruitful, related to their origins in his personal synthesis of ideas that critically influenced his predecessors.  Particularly important among these were Seurat, Cézanne and Bonnard (one of Bohusz-Szyszko’s mentors). Also important was the fact that these artists and their Modernist Painter contemporaries were so importantly influenced by the revolution in the science of visual perception that took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

 

Figure 1 : Raising of Lazarus by Marian Bohusz-Szyszko

 

This watershed for scientists and artists alike followed upon the realisation that the colour we see in the external world is not a property of surfaces but a creation of the eye and brain, based on inputs from the amazingly complex patterns of the colourless electromagnetic energy that enters the eyes. From this starting point came realisations about “induced colour” in its various fascinating manifestations. As part of the same revolution came the ideas about the three primaries and optical mixing that led to Seurat’s forging of his pointillist methods to fulfill his ambition to “paint with light”. Little can he have known that he was also bringing about a transformation in the meaning of the word “colourist”. From the time of the so called “Venetian Colourists” to the time of Seurat, the meaning of the word “colourist” centred on whole-field lightness relations (popularly referred to as “chiaroscuro”). As we shall see in later Posts, from now on, being a “colourist” meant being a master of  whole-field colour relations.

I am proposing to write more on all these issues in subsequent Posts. For the time being, as promise above, I want to share with you the first chapter of my book “Painting wth Light and Colour”. It contains an account of:

  • how it came to pass that I encountered Marian-Bohusz Szyszko, the Professor of Painting at the Academic Community of the Wilno* University in London.
  • His dogmas.

Painting with Light and Colour, Chapter 1-“The Dogmas”

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*The Polish name for the formerly Polish town that, due to border changes that took place as a result of the Second World War, has now become Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania.

The threat posed by Hitler and Stalin was the reason for the fleeing of large numbers of academics from the historic University of Wilno, then in Poland, and their regrouping in London as the Academic Community of the Wilno University in London.

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Contents Lists for three of my books

The subjects covered are:

1.  Drawing    2. Painting    3. Creativity

These are followed by Posts on other subjects

Preface to all three books

1. DRAWING

Chapters from “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”.

Other Posts on Drawing

2. PAINTING

Chapters from “Painting with Light and Colour”:

Other Posts on colour and light in painting:

3. CREATIVITY

Chapters from “Fresh  insights into Creativity”

Extracts from Chapter 10: “Having fun with creativity”

4. PAINTING SCHOOL NEWS

5. MISCELLANEOUS

Your comments on the Contents List page.

I look forward to your comments in the section provided at the bottom of each Post. When you have made them, please leave your email address and tick the box “Notify me of new posts by email.”

ENJOY

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Caladrius bird for the contents list