During the twelve years I worked among scientists at the University of Stirling in Scotland, a transformation took place in my understanding of just about everything to do with the role of the eye and the brain in the organisation of the the main perceptual and motor skills used in the making of drawings and paintings. PART 2 of my book “What Scientists can Learn from Artists” tells of experiments done by myself, colleagues and other scientists that made especially significant contributions to this exciting development.
Chapter 7, (accessed by clicking on link below) offers an autobiographical introduction the contents of PART 2 that gives a flavour of what I was up to in those years. A theme that runs through its pages is that the transformative learning was a two way process, offering benefits to all concerned. Time revealed many unexpected advantages in my being a combination of an experienced artist/teacher and a naive beginner in all the scientific disciplines in which I was to participate. My new colleagues found themselves faced with a drip feed of questions coming from unfamiliar perspectives that were to prove their value as catalysts capable of stimulating new ideas for a surprising number of highly expert scientists, working in a variety of disciplines. In return, their often participatory responses enabled me to put together the body of ideas that underpin the originality of my books, my teaching and, to an important extent, my work as an artist.
Over the centuries, at least since the Italian Renaissance, artists have sought to represent three dimensional objects and scenes on two dimensional surfaces. By implication, this required them to create an eye-deceiving third dimension (‘trompe-l’œil‘).
To achieve their objective, they and their successors: (a) mastered the laws of ‘linear perspective’, (b) delved deeply into the subject of‘anatomy’, (c) explored the form-making properties of ‘gradation’, (d) recognised the importance of‘overlap’, (e) provided explanations for the phenomenon of ‘aerial perspective’, (f) explored whole-field lightness relations (‘chiaroscuro’) and (g) demonstrated the value of existing knowledge of the form of objects and the layout of scenes in influencing how viewers would perceive them (‘cognitive cues‘). In other words, over the centuries the artists have pioneered our understanding of just about everything that psychologists of perception needs to know about illusory pictorial space.
However, there was one big absence and it is this that dominates the discussion of illusory pictorial space in two of my books. In“Painting with Light and Colour” the subject is approached from the perspective of artistic practice. In “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”, which contains the chapter that can be obtained by clicking on the link below, its treatment has both scientists and artists in mind.
The chapter also touches briefly on the issue of what they saw as the immorality of deceiving the eye, which was to have both a decisive and long lasting effect on the evolution of painting from the Impressionists until the late 1960s at least. More on this in my other books.
In an earlier Post I told of the teaching of Horace Lecoq Boisbaudranand 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:
Edgar Degas who, as a young man, went, with his friend Gustave Moreau (teacher of Matisse), to visit Delacroix in his studio. When they arrived, despite having been warned to expect a testy old cumudgeon, they were given a warm and generous welcome. In contrast they described his intellect “icy”, maybe a reaction to the scientific bent that led him to be an early champion of the ideas of Michel-Eugène Chevreul, the chemist who first enunciated the law of ‘simultaneous colour contrast’
Probably all the other young ‘Impressionists’ for whom it is said that a ‘must see’ experience was the application of Chevreul’s law to be found in the frescoes painted by Delacroix towards his life (between 1857 and 1861), in the L’Eglise St. Sulpice, Paris.
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.
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.”
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/>.
Back in November 2019 I started posting chapters from “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”, the book which presents the research and the science based ideas that that lie behind much of the contents of my three other books: “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”, “Painting with Light and Colour” and ” Fresh Perspectives on Creativity”. I set the ball rolling with with six of the chapters that describe research findings which were in large part responsible for:
Overturning almost all the preconceptions I had about the nature of visual perception.
Providing the building blocks required for replacing them with the coherent picture presented in these books.
When I first came across the material I have summarised in these chapters, their cumulative effect on me was more than just fascinating. It amounted to a paradigm shift. My hope is that reading them will perform the same service for others, particularly when buttressed by the contents of earlier and later chapters.
Below is an extract from the “Preface” to “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”, which summarises its structure. The chapters so far published in my Posts come from PART 2. In the next weeks I will be posting chapters from PART 1 and in the coming months chapters from PART 3. I will wait to see the level of interest before I go on to PART 4, which I have reason to believe will be is considerably more demanding on non scientists.
Also below are links to already published Posts.
The structure of the book
Because the context of the knowledge of scientists and artists is so different, it seems prudent to provide a certain amount of background material which, while likely to be familiar to readers from one side of the arts/science divide, may well not be to those from the other. Thus PART 1 contains a number of general ideas both artistic and scientific many of which may well be familiar to one community and not the other, and PART 3 provides a basic introduction for non scientists to the nature of visual perception that emphasises the variety of visual systems involved in different aspects of visual processing. The function of PART 2 is to describe the main experiments used to underpin the theoretical speculations which lead to the general model of perceptual and cognitive processes that provides the subject matter for PART 4. Throughout the attempt has been made to present ideas in such a way that they will be understood by both groups.
Chapters from my book “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”
These deal with subjects that feature in the other volumes in greater depth.
The purpose this Post is to provide a link to “Constraint in artistic aids and practices “, Chapter 9 in my book “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”. As in several other Posts that publish book chapters, I include a slightly edited reprise of its“introductory”, in the hope it will whet your appetite and encourage you to click on the link below. I am hoping that when you have read all the chapters of all my books, you will realise that the answer to the question posed in the heading to this section is “Yes”. The images below illustrate two methods of constraint favoured by artists in former centuries that foreshadow ones that are widely used today: For example, photographs, slide projections, and computer controlled images. All of these, whether consciously or not, make use of constraints, the possibilities of which have been developed by evolution over the millennia, such as standing still, choosing a viewing distance or closing an eye al of which constrain input to our visual systems and, thereby, enable learning and creativity, its corollary.
If we want to be creative, we will have to free ourselves from the constraints of old ways of doing things in order to go beyond them into new territory.
In this chapter, we take a step towards the goal of a practical understanding of how this might be done. It starts with my telling how I stumbled on the intuition that constraint may be a necessary condition for exploring the unknown, and provides examples of how the community of artists, whether consciously or not, have made much use of this possibility. Eventually I found myself coming to the seemingly paradoxical conclusion that constraint is necessary if we are to achieve either meaningful freedom or creative self expression. I also came to realise that the use of constraint is one of the guiding principles of our evolution as a species.
My approach to going deeper into the creative powers of constraint, starts with account of how I came to realise their central importance. I use the particularities of my own story because of the insights it furnishes relating to the creative process in general: long periods of gathering data, struggles with the confusion that they seem to engender, a sudden intuition that provides a lead on how order might be found and, finally, doing the work necessary to test its validity.
The inspiration for my breakthrough came when reading a book by J.J. Gibson, one of the most controversial yet influential perceptual psychologists of the day.
My two previous the Posts provided links to Chapter 12, “Local colour interactions” and Chapter 13, “Colour constancy”, from my book “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”. ThisPost provides a link to Chapter 15, “The other constancies”. Below the two images you will find an edited version of the “Introduction” to this chapter. As with other Posts, if you find that the subject matter interest you, you can click on the link below to the .PDF version of the chapter as a whole. The images illustrate two of the visual perceptual problems with which artists have had to come to terms.
Introductory to Chapter 15
Colour constancy is by no means the only constancy of visual perception. There are many other constancies and all are fundamental to the ability of the eye-brain to make practical use of visually acquired information. Paradoxically, although their name suggests stability, they are responsible for the veritable “shifting sands of appearance” which, in its various guises, constitutes one of the main problems for artists seeking to obtain accuracy in drawings or paintings from observation. This is because they ensure that, when we look separately at any two similar features of appearances whether they be whole objects, parts of objects, sections of contour or colours, there is a very strong tendency to see them as being more similar to one another than objective measurement would dictate – often a great deal more so. Our visual systems upset the measured parameters of external relationship by relentlessly forcing them towards normative dimensions and values. As a result, the constancies involve enlarging and diminishing, squashing and stretching, revolving, darkening and lightening and modifying colour. Any list of the constancies of particular interest to the artist should certainly include (a) size constancy, (b) shape constancy, (c) orientation constancy (d) lightness constancy and (e) colour constancy.
Introduction to the Post on “local colour interactions”
This Post is the second that offers a link to a .PDF version of a chapter from “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”. The purpose of making this more scientifically oriented information available on this website is to encourage readers to go deeper the ideas presented in my practice-oriented books on drawing, painting and creativity (see “Contents List”on the “Posts Page”). Chapter 11, the chapter featured here, focuses on new and unfamiliar things of potential value to artists that can be said on “local colour interactions”, a subject that has featured widely both in books and in the classroom. Its father figure is Eugene Chevreul, the Chemist at the Goblin tapestry works, who was responsible for the phrase “simultaneous colour contrast”, and the best known publications on the subject are by Johannes Itten and Joseph Albers, both teachers at the Bauhaus. Of more recent books covering the subject, I can recommend “Colour : A workshop for artists and designers”, by David Hornung.
With so many authoritative writings on the subject, it might be supposed that I would have little to add, particularly since, as a general policy throughout my books, I have done my best to avoid wasting time on subjects that have previously been exhaustively covered in convincing ways. It is for this reason that my chapter on “local colour interactions” concentrates on subjects that do not appear in the publications of Chevreul, Itten, Albers, Hornung or, as far as I know, of anyone else. What I have to say is based on research triggered by the excellent teaching I received at my art school and issues arising in my own paintings. Its novelty comes either from original or less well know scientific research that deals with matters of potential interest to artists.
It was unequivocal evidence of “induced colour” and “colour constancy” that triggered the realisation among scientists towards the end of the Eighteenth Century that colour is not a property of surfaces in the external world but phenomenon that is made in the head. Once this idea had been digested, it gained momentum and evidence began to pour in to suggest that all visual experience is a creation of the eye/brain combination. This game-changing paradigm shift was to lead, not only to the birth of the science of “visual perception”, but also to fundamental changes in the practice of artists, either when drawing or painting from observation or when seeking control of pictorial dynamics. This is why the “constancies” and “simultaneous contrast dynamics” play such an important role in my books on the practice of painting and drawing. It is also an important part of the reason why I have written “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”, the last volume of my four volume series that explains the science behind so many of the ideas elaborated upon in the remaining three volumes. In going more deeply into the subjects that play such an important role in these books about artistic practices, it plunges us deep into the astonishing nature of the working principles of visual perception. Apart from the sheer wonder this must surely generate, knowing about the ways these determine how we “look” and how we “see” should have a significant benefits for artists: The deeper understanding and appreciation of the extraordinary things that are happening in our heads should help artists to:
Deal with the many practical problems that invariably face them when drawing or painting from observation
Make more creative use of their physical and conceptual tools.
The next Posts I will be chapters from the science volume.
A life changing event
This Post on “colour constancy” is the first from “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”. Its inspiration derives fromEdwin Land’s irrefutable demonstration of the phenomenon of “colour constancy”, which proved to be a milestone in the search for an understanding of a subject that turned out to be of key importance to the understanding of how we “perceive surface”, “sense space” and are “aware of of lighting conditions”, all subjects of key importance to the ideas presented in “Painting with Light and Colour”.
A photo of the equipment used by Land for his epoch making colour constancy demonstration.
A reprise of the “Introduction” to the chapter and a link to a .PDF version of it (no need to read it twice: if you read it below, you can skip it in the chapter)
Links to Posts from “Painting with Light and Colour”, all of which (particularly chapters 7 to 11) have a debt to research that grew out of the colour constancy demonstration.
As explained earlier, a key event in my life was the encounter with Professor Marian Bohusz-Szyszko. The ideas he shared set me off on a lifelong journey of discovery. My first step was to set about testing his seemingly extravagant assertion that it is only necessary to follow two rules to guarantee a good painting:
There must be no repetition of colour on the same picture surface.
All the colours used must be mixtures containing at least a trace of complementary.
After four years of experimenting, I proved, at least to my own satisfaction, that there is a special quality in all paintings that abide by these two rules. It is difficult to describe, but it involves the creation of a sense of pictorial space and harmony.
Fortunately, a troubling paradox arose that would eventually have a profound effect on the development of the ideas presented in this book. It concerned the Professor’s physics-based proof of the invariable variability of colours in nature. This asserted that no two parts of any surface will reflect exactly the same wavelength combinations into our eyes due to:
The complexity produced by the inter-reflecting surfaces
Variations in viewing angles and distances
The paradox is that, if the light reflecting from two parts of a surface can never be characterised by the same wavlength combination, how could artists repeat colours on a picture surface? Even if two regions were painted with exactly the same pigment-colour, how could these appear as the same?
Other people might already have known how to resolve this mystery, but for many years I had no idea how to do so. My first inkling of a solution came after many years, as a result of reading a paper by Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera. In it was a powerful demonstration of the phenomenon of “colour constancy” and an attempt to explaining it. What the demonstration showed was a region of colour within a multicoloured display (henceforth referred to as the MCD) being perceived as remaining the same, even when the experimenter changed the combination of wavelengths being reflected from it. I was excited because here were two colours being perceived as the same despite reflecting different wavelength combinations into they eyes? For me it was a eureka moment. However a big problem emerged for it was soon clear to me that the explanation of the colour constancy demonstration suggested by Land was not neurophysiologically plausible. An alternative had to be found. I could never have guessed at the treasure trove of discoveries that would come out of my struggles to provide it. This chapter describes Land’s demonstrations in the context of an earlier attempt at explaining colour constancy. The next chapter introduces our neurophysiologically plausible colour constancy algorithm.
This Post provides a link to Chapter 14 from my book“Painting with Light and Colour”, which is the fourth of the five chapters devoted to colour mixing. Its purpose is to show that all the complications of colour theory proposed and explained in the previous chapters, need not be a barrier to our creativity when it comes to their practical application. Quite the reverse. Below is a reprise of the “Introductory” to Chapter 14. If its claims make you want to find out more, click on the link beneath it to obtain a .PDF version of the chapter, which will explain how it can be made easy (a) to mix and (b) to make use of any of the thousands of subtly different, complex colours required for exploring the full extent of colour space.
This Chapter suggests a practical way of getting around the seeming obstacles discussed in the previous chapters. At first sight the method proposed may appear to involve important sacrifices, but upon further investigation it turns out that even its shortcomings can be interpreted as powerful advantages.
This is the second of five posts on colour-mixing. Its purpose is to prepare for the three more practical chapters that follow, by putting straight a number of commonly held misunderstandings relating to the ‘colour circle’. Below is a slightly edited version of the Introductory to the chapter, followed by a link to it the whole text.
At my painting school, I give talks on colour-mixing. The chapter which I am publishing in this Post as well as the next three chapters (all of which I will publish in the near future) are based on these. Between them they both flesh out some of the claims made in the previous chapter and provide a sound and practical approach to colour-mixing. My purpose is to provide help with:
Finding a maximum of colours in any part of the colour sphere (as described in the last chapter).
Creating a sense of light, space and harmony in paintings.
The first of my talks concerns colour-mixing by stirring (as opposed to colour mixing by layering, which I will deal with later). Experience has shown that for many people coming to my Painting School for the first time, it is necessary to start my explanations at the most basic levels. Accordingly, I introduce my talk by apologising in advance for going over ground that may already be familiar to some, but suggest that it is better to be absolutely sure of building on common and solid foundations.