Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Slow Scrutiny in an Age of Sight Bites

Think of sound bites, those short, simple sentences that sum up complicated issues.  We hear them on the news. Politicians, commentators, advertisers, and athletes speak in them. In this age of Twitter, Facebook, My Space, and text messages we, too, write them.

We want information short, quick, and easy.  Blake Gopnik, the art critic for the Washington Post, clocked the amount of time visitors to a Giacometti exhibit at Museum of Modern Art in New York City spent looking at the pictures. In “Art ought to be in the eye of every beholder,” he recorded: (1) Average time spent reading the education wall text: 50 seconds; (2) Average time spent looking at a work of art: four seconds; (3) Maximum time spent looking at a work of art: eight seconds.

Sight bites: we look at a picture for seconds, if we look at it at all, and we move on.

The process I am describing takes much much longer.  Slow scrutiny means we study the picture, we search it for clues, and we figure out what those clues reveal. 

I learned this the hard way during my apprentice lessons with Wilmington artist Edward L. Loper, Sr.  He taught me to paint, not appreciate works of art, at least, not directly.

He tried to show me to see colors in everyday objects, and it took six months before I did.  He would point to a lemon, for instance, and ask me to tell him the color I saw.  “Yellow,” I said.  “Now, look here,” he would say, moving his finger right next to that spot, “what do you see here?”  “Yellow,” I said.  “Darker or lighter than the first one?” he asked irritably (patience was not his strongest asset).  “The same,” I said.

So it went, for those six long months, once a week, for two hours. He showed me paintings by Cezanne, Monet, and Pissarro.  He showed me the many colors they used to build each color unit.  I argued that the artists did not “see” those colors. They made them up.  He told me I knew nothing about art, about how to see, about anything.

Given this level of "encouragement," I felt frustrated and miserable. One day as I painted outside with a July landscape of grass and trees as my subject, I tried to find more than green, with Loper yelling at me as I applied every brushstroke. "Are you looking for color? That’s not green,” he shouted, “there’s color in that spot.”

The battle between this "color-crazy teacher" and his "color-blind student" finally convinced me to quit.

Driving home, while feeling very sorry for myself, I looked at the trees going by, and suddenly, as though by magic, the green foliage transformed into an oriental carpet of color.  I stopped the car and looked and looked.  Ed Loper’s badgering had educated my vision.

Years later, as an artist in residence in Delaware schools, I taught 5th graders how to paint.  I shared with them the same seeing method Ed Loper taught me.

The children I taught learned more quickly than I did.  When the weeklong session ended, one boy told me, “Before you came here, when I tried to make a picture, I slapped some paint on a canvas and hoped for a miracle.”

I had taught him a method that enabled him to see color in a way he never saw it before. 

When you master this method, you will too.

Let’s review that Hockney picture I asked you to examine:

                                                       David Hockney, Garrowby Hill, 1998

Color: bright, clear, vivid. 
Space: deep, receding space
Light: brightest light in the center (valley); medium lights in foreground and background; light band of light (sky) at top; dark band of light in right center (trees) with smaller triangle of darker light in left foreground.
Line: multiple lines—some stripes of darker brown on deep red-brown in left foreground unit—bright red lines on green in center curve; light white lines on lavender in center curve—vertical red lines (tree trunks) on right—lines dividing mid-ground into geometric and curvilinear shapes.  All repeat in a smaller pattern in the background.

You can see how the colors shapes contrast between curved and rectilinear.  You can deduce from the list above that the vertical lines contrast with the curved ones. 

If you keep looking, you will enjoy the many other varieties on the theme you are beginning to detect.  Rhythms of curvilinear and geometric units build this picture.

Did you enjoy finding the repetitions and the variety?  Rhythm intrigues us.  If you enjoyed discovering the rhythms in this picture, you now have experienced how the aesthetic works. Remember, an artist is a specialist in the aesthetic.  The work of art records the meaning of an aesthetic experience.  We simply enjoy rhythm as we detect it.  

How did you state the idea? 

Did you say something like: the subject was a landscape consisting of a descending, curving road set off by hills and trees and opening into a valley below? 

The picture idea is a dramatic (contrast produces the quality of drama) series of stripes and bands organized into curvilinear and rectilinear vivid, bright, clear color units creating a forceful push into deep space.

Notice the subject was; the picture idea is.

You may have used different words, but compare what you said to what I said.  Did you see what I saw?  Did you see more?  Less?  (I hope more). 

Do you wonder, still, what that picture idea means?  Does it still seem odd to you? 

If your answer is yes to both, do not give up.

We are not half way through these lessons.

In the next post, I will describe an aesthetic experience and review what I have said so far.


  1. this really helped with my homework

  2. Whats your opinion of the painting?