Pictorial space and Modernist painters

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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A moralistic reaction against photographs

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

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

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

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Two new developments

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

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

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

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

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

An illusory space within the picture surface

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnote 1

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

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

Footnote 2

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

An artist among scientists

Mutual benefits

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.

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CHAPTER 7-AN ARTIST AMONG SCIENTISTS

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artist aong scientists
Two stripy paintings, made while the story above was unfolding.

 

Chapters from “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”

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

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More information on my main colleagues

 

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Illusory pictorial space

Illusion in painting

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.

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CHAPTER 6-ILLUSORY PICTORIAL SPACE

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A pictorial history of illusory pictorial space

 

 pictorial depth cues illustrated
Vittore Carpaccio (565-1625) – Lots of depth cues: overlap, shading, linear perspective, etc.

 

 pictorial depth cues illustrated
Claude Loraine (1600-1682) – Using aerial perspective to deceive the eye

 

 pictorial depth cues illustrated
Berth Morisot (1841-1895) – Brush marks made evident to emphasise the picture surface

 

 pictorial depth cues illustrated
Cézanne (1839 – 1906) – Doing his best to hold everything on the picture surface

 

 pictorial depth cues illustrated
Picasso (1882-1973) – Intent on keeping depicted surfaces near the actual picture space

 

 pictorial depth cues illustrated
Peit Mondrian (1872 1944) – Sought to depict a “spiritual space” within the flat picture surface.

 

illusory
Jackson Pollock – The critic Clement Greenberg, described him as creating as “A space within the picture surface”

 

illusory
Ellsworth Kelly (1953-2015) – Failing to eliminate illusory pictorial space

 

illusory
Michael Kidner (1917 – 2009) – Gave priority to keeping colours flat on the picture surface

 

illusory pictorial space illiminated
Ellsworth Kelly (1953-2015): Unambiguous flatness at last. But is it a painting or a sculpture?

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Delacroix and his mistress

Delacroix and Elizabeth Cavé.

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

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

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

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Why I wrote a letter to LRB

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

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

The letter

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

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

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

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

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

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Why read my science book?

A paradigm shift

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.

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A reminder

There are still places vacant for the 2020 sessions of the Painting School of Montmiral. Here a three photos to remind you of our idyllic setting and the seriousness of the teaching

book chapters
Castelnau de Montmiral from the South

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book chapters
View from the breakfast balcony

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book chapters
Out on the esplanade

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Me discussing student work

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Constraint in artistic aids and practices

Is constraint necessary for creativity?

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.

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constraint
figure 1 : Illustrates the lengths of which artists were prepared to go to achieve accuracy

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constraint
Figure 2 : Illustrates a “camera obscura”, a simpler solution to the problem of obtaining accuracy than the one illustrated in Figure 1. However, both imply artist’s mistrust of unaided analytic looking

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Introductory

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.

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CHAPTER 9-CONSTRAINT IN ARTISTIC PRACTICES

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The other constancies

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”. This Post 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.

constancies
Cézanne read Helmholtz and took the view that perceived reality is different from the measured reality that his predecessors sought to depict. When he tipped up landscapes and the tops of pots and vases it was because he believed that he was painting what he saw, even if he had to cheat to do so.

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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.

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CHAPTER 15 – THE OTHER CONSTANCIES

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Related chapters from “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”

Other Posts on colour and light in painting:

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local colour interactions

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.

 

local interactions
Figure 1 : Nine discs contrasted with different coloured backgrounds, based on an Art School project that not only raised many questions but also triggered further investigations in the context of my own painting.

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The link to the .PDF file

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CHAPTER 12-BODY COLOUR AND LOCAL INTERRACTIONS

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colour contrast
Figure 2 : An illustration from a children’s book that led to an interest in colour interactions involving thin lines and over time to a number of surprising discoveries

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Other chapters from “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”

These deal in greater depth with subjects that feature in the volumes on the practice of drawing, painting and creativity.

Published chapters from book 2 of “Painting with Light and Colour”:

That is to say, the one that focuses on issues relating to local colour interactions, as opposed to how reflected-light influences appearances.

Other published Posts on colour and light in painting:

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Colour constancy demonstration

Colour constancy sets the ball rolling

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 from Edwin 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”.   

Below are:

  • 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.

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colour constancy demonstration
Figure 1 : The set up for Edwin Land’s first colour constancy demonstration, comprising a multicoloured “Mondrian”, three light sources, projecting the three light primaries, and a telescopic light meter that could take intensity readings from each patch of colour separately.

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Introduction

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
    • Atmospheric filtering

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.

The colour constancy chapter

 

WHAT SCIENTISTS CAN LEARN FROM ARTISTS – CHAPTER 13-COLOUR CONSTANCY

 

Other chapters from “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”.

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Chapters from “Painting with Light and Colour”

Other Posts on colour and light in painting:

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Colour mixing made easy

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 the image of a student at work, 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.

colour mixing

Introductory

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.

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CHAPTER 14 – COLOUR MIXING MADE EASY

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The other colour mixing chapters

Other chapters from “Painting with Light and Colour”

Other Posts on colour and light in painting:

Chapters from “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”

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

 

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