Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Making the Invisible Visible
At the end of the last post, I left you with question: How do the distortions in the picture Truffle Pigs Café “inform” your perception?
Huh, you may be thinking, inform my perception? What’s that about?
That’s the point.
Here’s the picture again:
Before I describe how distortion sharpens perception, I will tell you another story.
As I was working on this picture, a woman stopped and watched what I was doing.
She asked me this question: “I love your painting, but can you tell me why you are making up all those colors in the mountain?”
I told her I was not making up the colors; I saw them.
“No one sees colors like that,” she said.
I showed her the color shapes by pointing to the exact spot in my picture and then guiding her to look at that exact spot on the mountaintop. I waited.
“Oh,” she exclaimed, “they are there. I never would have seen them if you had not showed them to me.”
What is real?
That is the question.
My point here is that we see what we want to see, or we are trained to see, or we know what to look for.
Think of it this way: did anyone know about gravity before Newton described it? No. It was invisible to humankind even though we lived with its effects every day. We no longer think the earth is flat, and we continue to learn about the vastness and intricacies of our solar system because we have perfected the tools and acquired the knowledge that enables us to do so. We, quite literally, see what was once invisible.
I see color shapes because I had a teacher, Edward Loper, Sr., who showed them to me. He taught himself to see color shapes because he studied the work of Cezanne, Renoir, Monet, and Pissarro. I have taught children to see color shapes by insisting they are there; by telling them the colors will hide and stay hidden unless they look for them and uncover them by seeing them; and I show them artists’ work who make them visible. Then they see them.
Each artist shows us new ways to see. This is what informed perception means: new ways of seeing. This is what art teaches. And we miss most of what is in front of us because we don’t know how to see or we don’t take time to see.
In my picture, you can see distortions of scale: the looming, craggy, pyramidal color mass that was a mountain dwarfs the brightly colored grouping of structures below. Those structures “float” on a raised platform that was a street and road. None of this could occur in our real world, and it certainly did not occur in my subject. I made it happen.
I subjected this subject to my interest, and I saw what I wanted to see.
What does the picture give us, then, that our ordinary experience of this scene cannot?
Make a list:
1. Rhythms: short and long stripes, bands, and color lines are repeated in the sidewalk, the rooftops, the mountain, and the trees. Some are vertical, some diagonal, some curvilinear. All are decorative (eye catching) in effect.
2. The color is bold, vivid, and bright. The yellow of the roof contrasts sharply with the dark of the lower mountain, creating a dramatic picture statement.
3. The buoyancy of the lower half of the painting contrasts powerfully with the monumental stability of the upper half of the picture. In fact, that mountain mass sits in space so close to the lower half of the picture, it aids in projecting that entire unit up and forward—creating that “floating” effect.
4. Skewers: like those barbecue tools that hold the meat and vegetables on a stick, they stitch together the color masses with a geometric underpinning. The rectilinear color shapes (in the sky) in the blocks of color shapes defining the buildings and the street, create both a flattening of volume and a profusion of decorative pattern.
In other words, the subject was a street consisting of a café and other buildings with a mountain behind. The picture is a decorative statement expressing monumentality, stability, and heaviness contrasted with buoyancy and lightness. The vivid, rich color, the repeated banded color units, and the pyramidal and geometric underpinnings balance all the contrasts.
As you continue to scrutinize pictures to discover how they mean, you gain the ability to look at anything in your everyday world and transform that ordinary visual experience into an adventure in perception.
You need merely to use the tools you already possess (and a few more I will introduce in the next few posts). As you examine more and more works of art, you will build a relevant background of what other artists have contributed (a k a the traditions of art). I adapted the following traditions in this picture: cubism, Impressionism, the decorative patterning of van Gogh, the color drama of Matisse, among others.
In the next post, I will explain how the expressive, illustrative, and decorative aspects work together to help you understand how the picture means.