It’s sometimes said that simply painting what we see is “mindless copying.” I don’t believe this is true, and so I would like to address the issue.
Before addressing the “mindless” issue however, there’s the question of simplicity. I’ve never found painting what I see to be in the least bit simple. I’ve been trying my entire painting career to paint what I see. So far I haven’t succeeded. Frankly, I don’t think it’s possible.
But imagining for the moment that it really is possible to paint what one sees, and simple at that, there’s still the question of it’s being mindless copying. What does “mindless” mean? In this context, it means that one is devoid of conceptual thought and lacking any formulation in the mind of the objects being portrayed. And copying means transferring shapes and colors to the canvas without reference to the corresponding three-dimensionality of the objects of vision. Since it has no mind, mindless copying is what a camera does, and it’s pretty good at it.
But is it possible for a person to be mindless in this way? Again, I think not. In all my years of painting and teaching, I’ve never met anyone who “had no idea” of what he was doing. Every student and painter has had a head full of ideas about the objects they think they’re painting. When artists attempt to paint a hand, they think “hand”, “fingers”, “knuckles”, “skin tones”, “shadows”, etc., and they embody the concepts that these words represent to them in the shapes that they draw and in the colors they apply with the brush. At no point are they mindless; nor do they copy what they see. They’re painting what they think they see.
Consequently, it seems to me the critical issue is not the absence of mind behind the painting process, but appropriateness of the thought process. The use of the phrase “mindless copying” is an instance of just such inappropriate thought. The beginning student shouldn’t be told that he has no mind. This statement directly contradicts his experience of himself. Rather, he should be educated in a more appropriate use of the mind. Lack of awareness would be a better term, or misdirected attention.
On Two-Dimensional And Three-Dimensional Abstraction In Representational Painting
The degree to which a representational painting is beautiful, and the substance of its beauty, is inextricable connected with the strength of its abstract foundation. This is true of any and all paintings, no matter the style, time period, medium or subject. Whether a painting is representational or non-representational, it is always an arrangement of abstract graphic elements. Representational painting is therefore no less abstract than non-representational. In fact, in one sense at least, it is more. Whereas in non-representational painting the only concern is with the two-dimensional surface of the canvas, in representational painting, actual two-dimensional, abstract design is combined with virtual, three-dimensional abstract design. On the surface of the canvas we arrange shape and tonality. Within the imaginary space of the painting we project form and light. This design work, carried out in the imaginary space of the painting is no little thing. The 2D and 3D abstract aspects of a painting, and the representational elements with which they associate, function together in a complex conversation.
What is abstraction? In 20th Century painting, the term 'abstract' refers to all those qualities and aspects of painting other than the representational, such as texture, shape and color. It also refers to the thought associated with the painting. Abstraction, in this latter sense, overlaps the conceptual aspect of painting: the purport of the ideas expressed through the work.
Representational painters have always experimented with abstract aspects of painting. In a sense, just as each individual life form is an experiment through which the principle of life tries out a new, unique manifestation, every painting tests a hypothesis.
The 2-D Aspects of Painting: Shape
The substance of vision is configured light. It is light that has been reflected or transmitted by various objects and which has been patterned by its interaction with them. The eyes receive this configured, image-bearing light, which is focused by the lenses and projected upon the retinas of the eyes like movies on a movie screen. The light sensitive rods and cones translate these movies into streams of data that flow continuously into the brain via the optic nerves. Mediated by the neurological activity of billions of synapses in the brain (which is somehow uplinked to the mind) visual awareness takes place. Thus, by the action of light, we see the forms and colors of the myriad objects, substances and beings that inhabit the universe.
Another way of thinking about this configured light, which we in turn translate into our painted images, is that it has been shaped. And indeed, in so far as we succeed in representing what we see upon our two-dimensional picture surface, we must arrange and configure luminous colors into the foreshortened shapes of the things we see. These two-dimensional shapes that we fill with color are essentially abstract. They share the same abstract nature of the squares, circles and triangles found in so-called abstract paintings.
Here I would like to point out that the shaping of light in the physical world is not limited to simple, line-bound shapes like squares, circles, etc. It includes gradations and edges. We see the light shining on an egg as occurring within the outside, boundary shape of an oval, but inside that oval the gradations of tonal change are shaped as well. The same is true of the shadow cast by the egg on the tabletop and the ‘lost edge’ of the dark accent between the shadows on and under the egg. All the light we see is shaped in this way.
The 2-D Aspects of Painting: Luminosity
The other component of visual experience, besides shape, is luminosity. Visible light is electromagnetic radiation emitted in the visible spectrum, which is in turn part of the electromagnetic spectrum. This latter also includes, besides visible light, invisible frequencies such as x-rays, radio waves, infrared and ultraviolet light.
Color is a property of visible light. The hues of the rainbow correspond to differing rates of vibration of light, or frequencies. These vary from about 400,000,000,000,000 (400 trillion) oscillations per second (red) to nearly 800 trillion oscillations per second (violet).
As painters, we represent the shining experience of the colorful luminosity of the light by the juxtaposition on the surface of the canvas of tonalities. Each tonality is a particular value, hue and intensity. Value is the degree of lightness or darkness of the tonality. Hue is frequency of the color vibration, and corresponds to its place in the rainbow, or its position on the color wheel (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet). Intensity is the degree of the saturation of the hue, its purity or singularity on the one hand, or its neutralization, grayness or admixture with other hues on the other hand.
Every ‘pixel’ of the visual field is a point of light shining with a specific tonality. The visual field is the shaped organization of innumerable such points of light. Our paintings are shaped organizations of tonalities, or as one might say, color fields, and as such, once again, are essentially abstract designs.
Thus, in everything we paint we employ the principles of shape and luminosity, and consequently, no matter how realistically we paint, whether we know it of not, we paint abstractly. It behooves us, therefore, to understand the dynamics of two-dimensional abstract design. And in fact, though it may not be called ‘abstract design’ as such, traditional painting education is full of instruction on this subject. Whether it’s edges or values, warms and cools, brushstrokes and textures, every teacher emphasizes a particular suite of two-dimensional abstract concepts.
But there’s obviously more to representational painting than the dynamics of the two-dimensional picture plane. In creating an illusion of a light-filled space containing recognizable objects, the painter employs his or her senses of form and light. Into the virtual reality of the image the painter projects people and all kinds of other things that possess formal characteristics. And these forms appear to be visible through the action of an illusionistic light. The quality of these forms and of this light is no less a matter of abstract design than are the two-dimensional issues of shape and luminosity.
As in the 2-D design of a painting we concern ourselves with the abstract dynamics of shapes, in the virtual space of our paintings we work with sculptural relationships of 3-D volumes.
The construction of imaginary bodies out of boxes, blocks, eggs and cylinders is one approach to this work. Such basic building blocks are conveniently pictured in the mind. They are self contained and symmetrical, with straight, internal axes. The projection of anatomical concepts, employing these forms, is a further development of this method.
Following the teaching of Ted Seth Jacobs, I work with a different formal system, based on the continuity of open, asymmetrical, tapering volumes that flow into one another along curving axes.
The forms with which we populate the imaginary space of our paintings themselves define that space. Multiple forms do this by appearing to be at various distances from one another, and individual forms do this by appearing to manifest a volumetric presence. The outer boundary of this volume is its surface. The design and realization of this surface is, and has been for centuries, one of the central subjects of artistic research.
Since ancient times, the form of the human body has been the prototypical model for this branch of study.
Just as there inevitably arise in the mind ideas about the formal nature of the things we paint, which ideas become the basis of the way we paint these things, so also with light, we project our concept of it into the virtual space of the painting. A painting is a window into a world designed by the painter; it is filled with a certain kind of light. Well might the painter ask, “Would I like to live in a world with light like that?” Seen from this point of view, light is an element, like shape, color or form, with which we build our paintings.
The light in a given space, coming from a particular source, and influenced by its interaction with all the surfaces, substances and forms in the space, always has a certain key or “poster”, which is its kind and amount. It has a special character, like a flavor. Thus the light in Santa Fe has a different feeling, a different personality, from the light in New York. This is the case not just of natural light, but of artificial light as well, in every studio and every lighting situation.
Also, light is directional, and its distribution in space and on individual forms is precise. The light cutting across a particular form always has a specific shape. This shaped distribution corresponds perfectly to the light direction and the exact, sculptural surface of the form.
In so far as the poster of the light, and its shape and distribution on the forms in a painting are true to the actual behavior of light, there is a feeling of clarity of mind and understanding. This is because the painter must first see and understand the phenomena of vision in order to paint them as such.
The poster and the shaped distribution of the light in the 3-dimensional illusion are both matters of abstract design.
On The Development Of An Integrated Design Strategy
Training the painter to see and think in two and tree dimensions, both abstractly and realistically, at the same time, on the one hand in terms of shape and tonality, and on the other in terms of form and light, is for most of us a long process. To be sure, there have been great geniuses, like Leonardo, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, to name a few, who have excelled at an early age at this kind of work. For the rest of us, I think, it is well to adopt a practice that over time gradually imparts these skills.
At the outset of my studies I met Ted Seth Jacobs and was introduced over the following six years to his teachings. I studied both drawing and painting with him. In drawing class we began with the envelope and the block-in.
Block-In And Envelope
In the practice of these exercises, particular attention is paid to the relationships of points to one another on the picture plane (point-to-point measurement, measurement of distance and direction, triangulation). This is followed by attention to the relationships of the sides of shapes (non-parallelism, asymmetry), and to the curvilinear connection of shapes (inner curve).
The Gestural Curve
The curvilinear connection of shapes describes the way the structures of the body flow into one another in the gestural action.
With the introduction of the concept of fullness, consideration is also given to the shapes of the block-in as incorporating the principle of convexity. This has to do with seeing block-in shapes flow over large, full elements, such as the ribcage, pelvis and skull, and smaller forms, of which there are many in the body, in much the same way that a stream flows in its course around boulders, rocks and pebbles. The development of the contour is a further elaboration of this idea. It is a succession of convex arcs, each having its own length, tilt, amplitude and internal asymmetry. Each convex form in the contour relates to its neighboring convexities along and across the form according to the rules of non-parallelism, asymmetry, and manifestation of the inner curve.
As a bridge from the outside shape of the figure to the interior of the shape, and from the purely linear to the tonal, there is the block-in of the shapes of the shadows. The edges of the shadows comprise a superimposed linear pattern within the contour drawing. The first principle of the shapes of the shadows on the inside is that they are not parallel with any of the sides of the outside shape.
The drawing taken to this stage of development is a complex organic shape defined and described by lines. While implying a three-dimensional body, it is still a product of two-dimensional ‘abstract’ design.
Form and Light
The generation of the tonal effect, within the outside shape, takes the implied three-dimensional illusion to its logical conclusion. Clothing the line drawing with the effect of the light fleshes out the skeleton of the drawing with the appearance of real, tangible forms. These forms are, as mentioned above, just as ‘abstract’ in their three-dimensional design as are the two-dimensional shapes they’re based on. Moving from the linear drawing stages of the painting (block-in and contour) to the tonal stage (application of the paint in continuous tonal progressions, creation of the complex tonal fabric of the painting) is like going from arithmetic to algebra, and then to calculus. It is a logical progression based on simple principles that builds step by step.
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