Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Sherlock Connection

In the Preface to the First Edition of The Art in Painting, Dr. Barnes says the objective method he pioneered at the Barnes Foundation to understand and appreciate paintings comprises “the observation of facts, reflection upon them, and the testing of the conclusions by their success in application.”

Sherlock Holmes, then, practiced the objective method.

I came upon this seemingly odd connection in a synchronistic way.

A few weeks ago, I prepared to drive to my nephew’s surprise 40th birthday party in Poughkeepsie, NY, a four-hour trip.  I usually go to the library and borrow an audiobook to distract me from the tedium.  The day before, I realized I forgot to do so, so I did the next best thing: I went to iTunes to look for an audiobook I could download to my cell phone.  Instead, I found a free APP containing numerous audiobooks.

Once in the car, I selected the Sherlock Holmes stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  To Poughkeepsie and back, I listened to Sherlock tell Watson how he did what he did and why, and I wished I had a pen and paper so I could record the statements connecting his “method” to Dr. Barnes’s method.

Once home, though, Google saved the day.  I typed into the search box “Sherlock Holmes quotes,” and up came a website that had done the job for me.  I copied and pasted the relevant quotes into a Word document, and I handed them out during the last CSI for Art Detectives classes I taught at both the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute in Wilmington and the Chester County Historical Society in West Chester.  My students found these quotes a “fitting” culmination to their Color Scene Investigations.

Then today I opened my New York Times and read an article in the Opinion section titled “The Power of Concentration,” a discussion of what we can learn from the way Sherlock Holmes trains his mind, by Maria Konnikova, the author of “Mastermind:  How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.” 

What can we learn?

According to Konnikova, the core of mindfulness is the ability to pay attention. That’s exactly what Holmes does when he taps together the tips of his fingers, or exhales a fine cloud of smoke. He is centering his attention on a single element. And somehow, despite the seeming pause in activity, he emerges, time and time again, far ahead of his energetic colleagues. In the time it takes old detective Mac to traipse around all those country towns in search of a missing bicyclist in ‘The Valley of Fear,’ Holmes solves the entire crime without leaving the room where the murder occurred. That’s the thing about mindfulness. It seems to slow you down, but it actually gives you the resources you need to speed up your thinking."
Konnikova goes on to say that "The difference between a Holmes and a Watson is, essentially, one of practice. Attention is finite, it’s true — but it is also trainable. Through modifying our practices of thought toward a more Holmes-like concentration, we can build up neural real estate that is better able to deal with the variegated demands of the endlessly multitasking, infinitely connected modern world.”

What has this to do with the objective method in appreciating the art in painting?  Think about what I have taught you to do in these posts.  I have instructed you to look for picture facts, not subject facts.  You scrutinize the painting to see and describe the relationships among light, line, color, and space.  You look for aesthetic rhythm (repetition with variety).  You look for other aesthetic qualities: balance, symmetry, novelty, suspense, expectancy, surprise.    You look for a theme and its variations (unity and variety).   And you do this yourself, without needing biographical, historical, or any other information outside the picture. 

Many of my classroom students and many of you, my readers, tell me this is very hard work.  Many complain that this method takes a long time to master. 

I agree.

It is hard work, and it takes a long time to master.

When you see it through, you not only understand the art in a painting, you feel the satisfaction, the pleasure, the thrill, that is the result of a complete aesthetic experience.  And nothing touches that delicious experience. 


Sherlock knew this.  We know this.

Now I can add another benefit, a health benefit.  Konnikova also argues that “Mindfulness may have a prophylactic effect: it can strengthen the areas that are most susceptible to cognitive decline. When we learn to unitask, to think more in line with Holmes’s detached approach, we may be doing more than increasing our observational prowess. We may be investing in a sounder mental future — no matter how old we are.”
That’s pretty exciting stuff.  Not only do you, as practitioners of the objective method for appreciating the art in painting increase your aesthetic experiences, you also enhance your mindfulness capabilities.  And increasing mindfulness capabilities has all kinds of benefits from speeding up thought process, to paying attention, to slowing memory decline.

Finally, here it is in the words of the great detective himself, Sherlock Holmes:

1.     “You see, but you do not observe.  The distinction is clear.” (A Scandal in Bohemia)

2.     “There is nothing new under the sun.  It has all been done before.” (A Study in Scarlet)

3.     “What one man can invent another can discover.” (The Adventure of the Dancing Man)

4.     “There is nothing like first-hand evidence.” (A Study in Scarlet)

5.     “Most people, if you describe a train of events to them, will tell you what the result would be. They can put those events together in their minds, and argue from them that something will come to pass. There are few people, however, who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result.  This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backwards, or analytically.” (A Study in Scarlet)

In case you need evidence, look at this chart:

We start from the picture, and we work backwards.  If we pay attention to all the clues in the picture, we arrive at that charmed moment when we, as the artist did, confront the picture’s source, uncover the visual message embedded in it, and feel we understand it. 
You have this power. 













Friday, October 12, 2012

The Swan's Way: Part II

In the previous post, “The Swan’s Way,” we studied Cézanne’s Leda and the Swan. My analysis concluded with this statement: In Cézanne’s Leda, dominating colors, pervasive linear-volumes, steady rhythms of echoed themes, and simple sets of contrasts repeat.  The color motifs lock in and pin the areas of volume and intervals of space, establishing expressive unity.

I asked you to contrast Cézanne’s Leda with Laurencin’s, and I asked you to send me your responses to Laurencin’s picture.

Here is what one of you said:

1.     An obvious parallel of the cocked heads and necks of the major color units.

2.     Use of black color for eyes, Leda’s hair, and on the beak of the swan, moves the eye.

3.     Black again used in railing (parallel straight lines rigid and bold) compared to dreamy overall canvas.

4.     The bent arm cradling Leda's head and the arm resting on the wing of the swan do not evoke strength or vigor, but express gentleness.

5.     A variety of color in what appears to be white in background, flesh, and feathers reveals transparency due to color structure and produces the quality of delicacy.

Here is what another said: “My emotional reaction is so different in regard to the two paintings it is startling given the subject facts are the same. Perhaps social morays affected the expression of the interpretation.”

And another:  “Laurencin’s is lighter—both in weight and in brightness. She looks airy—like you could blow her away. The other is solid, typical Cézanne.”

And another:  “Laurencin’s Leda seems lascivious, as though she is seducing the swan, not the other way around.  She is clothed in a diaphanous cape held in place by a soft, ribbon tied into a flowery ornament on her right shoulder—like something a woman would buy in Victoria’s Secret to prepare for lovemaking.  She caresses the swan as if to entice him.”

In a blog post by Liz Hager, I found this statement: “Marie Laurencin was one of the first modern female artists to tackle Leda. In her 1923 work, she elicits the protective mother through the tender embrace of the woman’s arm around her swan. Note the calming hand upon on the bird’s back. This painting speaks quietly but convincingly of the nurturing female.”

On the Philadelphia Museum of Art website, I found this statement:  Leda caresses the swan's feathered neck and back, yet the black railing that separates them suggests an insurmountable division between the sexes, perhaps reflecting Laurencin's own position as one of the few female artists within the French avant-garde.”

Here is Laurencin’s picture: 

Laurencin, Leda and the Swan, 1923, Oil on canvas, PMA
This is a work of art.  My emphasis is on the word work.

Let’s go to work.

1.     The color is soft, light, and dry, a pastel-like quality.

2.     A series of arcs and soft curves create rhythms: look at the curve of the swan’s neck as it joins and turns with the swan’s wing;  look at the relationship between Leda’s left arm (to our right)and the swan’s neck and the background; look at the repetition of the shapes created by Leda’s “cape” with the subtle recession of the blue/green “background”;  look at the repetition of the shapes in Leda’s hairpiece with the shapes at the right background, the shape of her left hand, and the shape of the swan’s feathers in the lower right;  find all the beak-shapes (don’t miss the green one right under Leda’s breasts);  look for the repetition of the slits that say “eyes” in the blackish mass in the upper right;  find all the small circle variety of those repetitions on the swan’s back, in the green-beak shape, in the tiny rectangle and small triangle at the base of Leda’s cape, and in the projections on her cape (in fact, keep looking, because they occur other places as well); look how the black mass in the upper right hangs in the picture space; examine how the beak shapes created by the intersection of the “foliage” in the lower right with the black mass reasserts the subtle space recession of the left side.

 If turning the picture upside down makes your scrutiny more productive, here it is:


This detail may prove helpful as well.  Ask yourself: is this a swan?  Are those hands?  If not, what are they?


Subtlety, not power and drama, defines Laurencin’s picture.  The ivory/gray central volumes gently intersect and envelope.  The transparent, pastel-like colors overlap and recede gradually in space.  Curvilinear, airy, color volumes create repeated arc-shaped or circular motifs moving the eye through the picture.  Softness, lightness, delicacy, fragility, and haziness invite us to enter this quiet, still color world.

Information abounds about Laurencin’s life.  Some of that information produced the speculation I quoted in the first part of this post.  Laurencin moved in the circle surrounding Picasso and Juan Gris.  Apollinaire praised her work, and he became her lover (not sure in what order).  Her work was included with many artists admired for their originality: Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Juan Gris, Delaunay, and Marcoussis.  She claimed Picasso used her as a model for one of the nude figures in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Her first sale was to Gertrude Stein. She ably resisted the pressure of her surroundings, the abstraction and intellectualism of the Cubists and later the Dadaists.  She maintained and expressed her unique, visual interests, her world as it appeared to her, throughout her career.

That said, as with any picture, if you want to appreciate it, you must look at it.  The tools you have learned will always assist you in uncovering the art in it.  The process of doing so, hard work as it is, allows you to experience the pleasure that accompanies aesthetic understanding.









Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Swan's Way


 William Butler Yeat’s poem, “Leda and the Swan,” sets the theme for this post:

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Long before this poem was written and long after it, artists made pictures based on this myth.  The swan depicted is not one you would see swimming in a pond in a nearby park or entice with breadcrumbs.

In the myth, the god Zeus takes the form of a swan, and he seduces, or rapes, Leda, a mortal. Leda bore Helen and Polydeuces, children of Zeus, while at the same time bearing Castor and Clytemnestra children of her husband Tyndareus, the King of Sparta. According to many versions of the story, Zeus took the form of a swan and raped or seduced Leda on the same night she slept with her husband King Tyndareus. In some versions, she laid two eggs from which the children hatched.  

Here are the two pictures we will study:

Cézanne, Leda and the Swan, c. 1880, Oil on canvas, Barnes

Laurencin, Leda and the Swan, 1923, Oil on canvas, PMA
Let’s first get what the subject was out of the way.

For example, an undergraduate at West Chester University thought that Cézanne’s Leda looked bored and bewildered, as though she was thinking, “why does this silly big bird have my wrist in his beak?”

We are human, after all.  We will react to the subject, especially a subject that depicts an odd relationship between a nude woman and a swan.

Now, get a grip.  We want to discover the art in each picture.

This means we focus on the plastic means (light, line, color, and space), their relationships, and the qualities those relationships express.

First, list what you see in Cézanne’s Leda.  Answer this question: How do the relationships established among the plastic means (aka light, line, color, space) create “oneness,” a unity within the picture?

Barton Church describes Cézanne’s Leda as built “in a framework of regularly measured ‘beats’ of highlighted and shadowed areas, areas which one could call foursquare—broad, plain and uncluttered; so also does this provide a stable setting for Cézanne’s exploration of linear themes, of contrasts, of volumes twisting and curving, all with a dramatic intensity of a magnitude possible only because of the immense control this rhythmic regularity exercises in conjunction with the pervasive color tonality.”  (“A Sonata—A Painting,” The Barnes Foundation Journal of the Art Department, Vol. III, No. 1, Spring, 1972, p. 65).

Here is my list:

1.     The color volume that says figure moves diagonally across the picture and is decentered.

2.     Two color themes dominate:  a slate blue background, foreground, couch, and swan contrasts with the ivory figure.

3.     Within these contrasts, the golden-brown beak, hair, and tassel create a counter rhythm.

4.     The leaden-blue color functions as the key to all the curving, angular and straight line, volume and space in the picture.

5.     This creates dramatic contrast, weighty power, and density of volume.

6.     The fish scale brushstrokes build the volumes (look at how the knee of the bent under leg is constructed).


7.     The arabesque of the swan’s neck, the cloth rippling across the figure, the right arm, the curl of the hair—all the abrupt rhythmic curves and angles in the breasts, the hands, the arms and legs, the curving wings and head of the swan—all are resolved by the larger rhythm of the figure itself as it turns in space across the picture and joins with the swan in a massive, undulating counter curve.

8.     Areas alternate between light and dark, warm and cool, large and small. 

9.     The wrist caught in the grip of the close-pin beak finds rhythmic echoes in: Leda’s right arm pinned between the curl of hair and the cushion and swan’s wing; and Leda’s lower body pinned between the rippling cloth. 

10.  Leda’s left elbow indents a “pocket” of space in the cushion.

11.  One leg pins the other leg.

12.  The swan’s neck creates a “pocket” of space in the softness of the chest.

13.  The curve of the swan’s back wing counterbalances the limp hand.

Keep looking. 

In Cézanne’s Leda, a dominating color, a pervasive linear-volume idea, a stable rhythm of echoed themes and simple sets of contrasts repeat.  These lock in and hold the areas of volume and intervals of space within, establishing a unity of expressive quality.

Now study Laurencin’s picture.

If it helps, look at it upside down:

List what you see.

Send me your discoveries, and I will incorporate them into the next post.

Click here to e-mail them to me: 

























Friday, August 24, 2012

[A] Work [of Art] is Love Made Visible

In The Prophet, Khalil Gibran wrote, “Work is love made visible.”

I added more words to his for the title of this post.

I did so to continue the discussion I began in the last two posts: Making the Invisible Visible: Part II and What Dreams May Come.

In them, I suggested we learn to see by appreciating works of art.

The key to these adventures in perception, as Dr. Barnes called them, provides access to new visual experiences.  This allows us to sidestep the easy path of recognition and enjoy the unfamiliar, the strange, and the astounding.

Here is what John Steinbeck, writing in Newsday said:

            It occurs to me to ask how much I see or am capable of seeing.

Some years ago the U.S. Information Agency paid a famous Italian photographer to take pictures of our country.  The man traveled everywhere in the United States, and do you know what his pictures were?  Italy.  In the portraits, the countryside, in every American city—his eye unconsciously looked for what was familiar to him and found it.  This man did not see the America which is not like Italy, and there is very much that isn’t.

And so I wonder what I have missed in the trip I took down past Beersheba and the Negev to the Red Sea.  I confess I caught myself looking down at the shimmering deserts and saying, “Yes, that’s like the Texas panhandle, that could be Death Valley.”  By identifying them with something I knew, was I not cutting myself off from the things I did not know; not seeing because I did not have the easy bridge of recognition.

This is a serious thing and it extends in many directions.  Because we do not use quarter tones in music, many of us do not hear them in Oriental music.  How many people, seeing a painting, automatically dislike it because it is not familiar?  And, most important of all, how many ideas do we reject without a hearing simply because our experience pattern can bring up no recognition parallel?

The work involved in bypassing recognition is just that: work.  Call it love, commitment, passion, dedication: doing the hard work we do educates our vision.

Let’s look at the painting I made in Crested Butte, Colorado, several weeks ago:


Here is a photograph of the subject I used to make this painting:


What did I change?

Here’s my list:

1.     I changed the format from horizontal to rectilinear

2.     I eliminated much of the sky, bringing the mountain up to the top of the picture plane

3.     I eliminated the crane on the right side (truth be told, I never saw it until I looked at the photograph)

4.     I eliminated a few of the roof tops on the right side (deliberately)

5.     I changed the color, light, line, and space (never noticed I did this until I saw the photograph)


To answer this question, I find it easier to turn the picture upside down:


What do you see? (Remember, this is where you switch to creative seeing, not recognition)

Here is my list:

1.     A soft, split diamond-shaped pocket of space opens like a pita displaying small, vivid, banded color shapes.

2.     The “pita,” stuffed like a gyro with these bits and pieces of sliced color units, pushes back the triangular “mountain” and flattens like a ledge to project the “horses” and “fence posts.” 

That’s the gist of it.

Here are the clues close up:


As you examine the top of the picture, you can see how one of the two pyramidal color units that was the mountain slides behind the other.  You can also see how the “tree line” undulates back in space.  And you can see how, within each color unit, slivers of color-chorded bands ripple and swirl in soft, pastel-like hues. To continue my gyro analogy, skewers of “toothpicks” facet each area creating a kaleidoscopic effect.

Finally, the entire picture shimmers and quivers as if a mass of fireflies were swarming through it.

I suspect you are thinking: “like a gyro?”

Here is a picture of a gyro:


Look at the bottom of the gyro and compare it to the “field” in my picture.  Notice how the back of it is vertical and further back in space.  And notice how all the “stuff” in it (those rectilinear and banded color volumes) overlap and recede in that space.

That’s all I’m saying.

You may have come up with other comparisons.  That’s fine.

That’s the “creative seeing” part of this.

I used a simile to describe the qualities in my picture.  I said the picture is like a gyro. I did not say the picture is a gyro.  Think of Robert Burns’ simile: “O my Luve's like a red, red rose.”  Similes compare one thing to another.  In this case, Burns says his love shares the qualities of a rose: delicacy, softness, sweetness, fragility.  He says it in poetic language.  He stresses the “r’s” in the staccato beats of red, red, rose. 

I say my picture is like a gyro because it expresses qualities of the softness, puffiness, and sponginess of an opened pita along with the spatial recession of small, multi-colorful, units overlapping and moving back in its pocket of space.   

Just the other day, on one of my evening walks, the landscape opened up in just this way.    I am in Delaware now, not Colorado. I was not hallucinating. It’s the visual gift that keeps on giving.  Once I invented this color statement, I now can see that visual idea in our “real” world when I never did before. 

[My] work is love made visible.  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

What Dreams May Come

T.S. Eliot’s poem The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock repeats this phrase:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

The poem paints a portrait of shallow people doing tea-and-coffee talk and uncomprehending art talk.

That’s not us.

What you learn from reading these posts is not the ability to impress your friends with chitchat about art and artists.

I set a much higher goal, as did Dr. Barnes and Violette de Mazia. 

The objective method they pioneered and I continue to teach in class settings and in these posts assists you in learning to see—to see more deeply and richly then you ever have.

When I first developed classes to teach this method, I titled them “Informed Perception,” or “Adventures in Perception.”  I did not title them “Art History” or “Art Appreciation.”

If you review the first posts in the blog, you will remember this. Click here to review the following posts: Learning to See; What to Look for in Art; What to Look for in Art, Cont’d.

Based on a few responses to my previous post, Making the Invisible Visible: Part II, I realized some of you do not believe artists like Horace Pippin, Edward L. Loper, Sr., and me “see” our subject as a new visual experience.  From your comments, you think artists see exactly what you and everyone else sees. 

In other words, you understand artists distort visual reality to record the meaning of an aesthetic visual experience in a picture, but you assume this is some kind of “intellectual” or “conceptual” process rather than a perceptual one. 

I beg to differ.

It’s all about seeing.  And if you learn to read pictures, you will “see” as artists “see.”

As I conducted my little experiment in Crested Butte, I discovered that onlookers of my work did not see what I saw.  I shared their responses in the previous post. 

In this post, I will try to convince you of this: what I see when I encounter a subject and subject it to a new visual idea is nothing short of extraordinary.  I enter the door of perception.

Dr. Barnes argues, “We have mysticism at its height when the harmony between the self and the world is taken as the key to all experience, when everything is felt to be full of life, and at heart one with ourselves.  Then the indifference or lifelessness of most of the world is felt to be no more than illusion, and the mystic feels that he sees beneath appearances to the realities underlying them.” (Art in Painting, p. 47).

I do not call myself or think of myself as a mystic.  However, I have experienced astonishing “visions” when I am painting.  When this happens, I feel at one with the universe, as though I penetrated a blocked existence and, for a brief time, see the “rightness” and “realness” of it.

I agree with Dr. Barnes:  aesthetic value is something “which is moving, which must be experienced, which cannot be finally demonstrated, or completely communicated, to other people of different endowment.  In other words, the esthetic experience is of a mystical character.” (see also Laurence Buermeyer, The Aesthetic Experience, pp. 142-155).

When I start a painting, and I take the first interested look at my subject, what we call our “real world” feels to me like the illusion.  What I “see,” literally, what I “see,” is as real, no, actually more real, then it.

Matisse said much the same thing when he answered a question about how he “saw” a tomato.    He said, “If I am going to eat the tomato, I see it just as you do.  If I am going to paint it, I see it differently.”  Notice the choice of words.  He did not say, “If I am going to paint it, I make it into a picture.”  He said, “I see it differently.” 

This is what we know: an artist encountering a subject creates a new experience—not what the subject was, not just his reaction to it or what he felt about it, but a new experience enriched with new matter imaginatively perceived.

This is why John Dewey titled his book Art as Experience. 

All current research in neuroscience and visual cognition confirms that humans do not “see” what we think we “see.”  In fact, our eyes do not “see” at all.  They transmit light waves to our visual cortex.  We learn to interpret those light waves.  We re-create visual reality.

How do we re-create what we see?  The books, Visual Intelligence, by Donald Hoffman or Cognition and the Visual Arts by Robert L. Solso hold the answer. 

Read these two quotations:

Vision is normally so swift and sure, so dependable and informative, and apparently so effortless that we naturally assume that it is, indeed, effortless.  But the swift ease of vision, like the graceful ease of an Olympic ice skater, is deceptive.  Behind the graceful ease of the skater are years of rigorous training, and behind the swift ease of vision is an intelligence so great that it occupies nearly half of the brain’s cortex.  (Hoffman, Preface, XI-XII)

Perhaps the most surprising insight that has emerged from vision research is this:  Vision is not merely a matter of passive perception, it is an intelligent process of active construction.  What you see is, invariably, what your intelligence constructs.  Just as scientists intelligently construct useful theories based on experimental evidence, so your visual system intelligently constructs useful visual worlds based on images at the eyes.  (XII)

We see what we learn to look for.

Here is one example:

1.     Samuel Scudder, a student of Louis Agassiz (Harvard professor of natural history), writes in an essay “Take This Fish and Look at It” about his training.  He says that the habit of direct observation is nurtured in the sciences, and its lack is considered a serious failing.  He describes his first lesson in ichthyology under Agassiz.  The lesson was simple.  Agassiz gave him a haemulon preserved in alcohol and told him to look at it.  “In a little while I will ask you what you have seen,” he said.

2.     Scudder looked at it for ten minutes and decided he had seen all that could be seen. Then he waited for a few hours for the professor to return.  Finally, bored, he started to draw the fish, and to his surprise, he began to discover new features in the creature.  When Agassiz finally returned, Scudder related his findings.  But Agassiz was disappointed, and told him he had missed one of the most conspicuous features. 

3.     For three long days, Agassiz put that fish in front of him and forbid him to look at anything else.  “Look. Look. Look,” he told him. 

4.     Scudder concluded this was the best lesson he ever had. 

5.   Agassiz accompanied this method of observing facts and their orderly arrangement by a warning.  Agassiz told him, “Facts are stupid things until brought into connection with some general law.”

In other words, direct observation to make discoveries is as valid for scientific investigation as it is for artistic expression:  it is the goal that differs, not the process.

If “facts are stupid things until brought into connection with some general law,” then subject facts are equally stupid things until brought into connection with a picture idea, the expressed meaning of a visual experience.

Here is another example:

Annie Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “seeing is very much a matter of verbalization.  Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it.  It is, as Ruskin says, ‘not merely unnoticed, but in the full, clear sense of the word, unseen.’”
Dillard goes on to say:

I see what I expect.  I once spent a full three minutes looking at a bullfrog that was so unexpectedly large I couldn’t see it even though a dozen enthusiastic campers were shouting directions.  Finally I asked, ‘what color am I looking for?’ and a fellow said, ‘Green.’  When at last I picked out the frog, I saw what painters are up against:  the thing wasn’t green at all, but the color of wet hickory bark.
I just can’t see the artificial obvious that those in the know construct.  The herpetologist asks the native, “Are there snakes in that ravine?” “No sir.”  And the herpetologist comes home with, “yes sir, three bags full. (18)

There is a correlation between what visual artists see and the forms they create to define their seeing.  This translation of a visual experience into color characterizes the interaction of artist with subject.  The result of that encounter, the acting back on the subject by the artist, which means distorting it for the sake of the new idea—the picture idea (the visual meaning that the artist discovered through his experience of that subject)—is recorded in the new entity, the expressive object (aka the picture).

In my previous post, I described Ed Loper’s experience as he observed Horace Pippin working on the painting West Chester, Pennsylvania.

West Chester, Pennsylvania, 1942, Oil on fabric, Wichita Art Museum
Let’s look at the picture.

In the picture, the road pulls up from left to right, and a relatively monochromatic foreground unit sets up the central tree.  The tree creates a pushback (repoussoir) element for the flattened row houses. 

The left side of the building pulls forward to the same plane as the front.   Flattened, this red/brown color unit serves as the background for a stark color drama to unfold.   Light-dark motifs of blue-gray window frames centered with dark gray or black set the theme.  The theme varies with some black windows edged with lighter gray.  White window frames contrast with black or dark gray panes. Black window frames contrast with white panes.  

The dark-light motif carries over into the tree foliage, with the greens set off by black. Black branches are echoed by gray ones. 

The fence, similarly, has fours slats of medium gray.  Then notice how the next two are black.  Then the next five are darker gray.  Then one is taller, one shorter and lighter, two lighter still,  two blue gray, and two almost white.  They beat like the rhythms of a jazz drummer across the picture plane.

These rhythms of light and dark, short and tall, with varied spaces in between, set one decorative theme.  Feathery flowers on the tree become a simple motif repeated in the ends of branches and in the background trees on the far right, like single repeating notes.  There, too, light patterns repeating the linear motif appear light against dark on both the right and left.  The dark black/green shapes of the foliage in the tree echoes in the light clouds in the blue sky.

The angles of the windows and doors, the sliced road, the fence slats and spaces between the fence slats are clean cut and contrast with the graceful flow of the foliage of the tree. A powerful contrast occurs between this and the relatively inactive foreground below. The entire ensemble, united by drama, tonality, space, and a natural kind of logic, speaks its own language and, as Miss de Mazia said, has an “it-ness,” its own reality.

As I described in the last post, Wilmington artist Edward Loper, Sr. watched Pippin paint this picture.  At the time, Loper was working for the Works Progress Administration, and he was being taught to make exact watercolor reproductions of early American antiques for the Index of American Design.  He noticed the road was not black. The asphalt in the sunlight was quite light, almost orange.  He also noticed the distortion in the building.  He did not see all the flowers on the tree.  He saw a typical Catalpa tree. The fence was a single ordinary fence with no breaks or higher and lower and lighter and darker slats.

Loper could not understand why Pippin was, as he saw it, “making a mess.”

Pippin told him he was not “making any of it up.”  He saw it exactly as it was.

This encounter taught Ed Loper a lesson about perception, and it can teach us as well.

Pippin “used” his subject to express the visual meaning he experienced.  The insight is total: at the first interested look, Pippin actually “saw” the scene the way he wanted it to be, not the way it was.  He did not “make it up.” This is what Ralph Waldo Emerson meant when he said that writing should be “blood warm,” meaning that we should be aware that a living, convincing individual with all his uniqueness intact is talking to us, sharing the experience with us, so that we can learn from it.

Notice, again, the choice of words: “sharing an experience with us.”  Not sharing “reality” with us. 

What helps the artist “see” the other “reality”?  What transforms vision into an experience?

In the chapter “Method,” in Art and Education, a collection of essays by John Dewey, Dr. Barnes, Laurence Buermeyer, Mary Mullen, and Violette de Mazia, you will find the following quote:

The traditions of art constitute the working capital of every artist; they are records of what painters have in the past discovered and revealed as significant; and the ultimate test of any painter’s importance is his ability to add contributions of his own, by means of which his successors may carry further the work of discovery.  The intelligence of the painter manifests itself in his use of the traditions to illuminate for him the world which he seeks to depict. . . .

Every tradition may be regarded as a way of seeing and a manner of organizing; by extracting from the whole body of traditions the elements which serve best the purpose of his individual vision, the painter displays his intelligence in creating his individual form. (18)

Individual form, then, is laboriously born from the marriage of adapted tradition and personal perception (aka “seeing”).

That’s the easy part.

The hard part is accepting all of the following:  “seeing” is learned; reality is not what we think it us; what is real is a question currently debated; there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy (thank you Hamlet). 

Aldous Huxley got it right when he wrote in The Doors of Perception:

What the rest of us see only under the influence of mescaline, the artist is congenitally equipped to see all the time.  His perception is not limited to what is biologically or socially useful.  A little of the knowledge belonging to Mind at Large oozes past the reducing valve of brain and ego, into his consciousness.  It is a knowledge of the intrinsic significance of every existent. (p. 33).

Huxley’s Doors in the Wall of Perception open for him when he takes a mind-altering drug.
Most artists transport to another reality by simply seeing what their training, background, and interest makes possible for them to see.

You can learn to “see” as they do by studying and describing what their pictures express.

I hope you walk through the doors of perception at least once, because it is a life-changing experience, and you can do it without drugs.  Once you know it is possible, you will find it easier and easier to do.

Ed Loper showed me how to see what I believed, stubbornly insisted, and angrily argued was not there.  Like a sorcerer, he conjured into being invisible color shapes and made them visible to me.  Violette de Mazia further enhanced my aesthetic and visual education.  I have been showing you how to see by writing these posts.

Try it.

Here is an easy way to begin.

Violette de Mazia showed me “islands of light” in Renoir’s paintings.  Here is one example:

Bois de la Chaise (Noirmoutier), 1892, Barnes


Notice the “islands” of light and color in the tree’s shadow.  Notice the “islands” of light and color on the tree’s trunk and branches and foliage.  They are those small, shimmering, colorful shapes that, inn places, seem to float.

Now look at the photographs I took today:
Islands of Light in tree trunk and grass
 Islands of Light in soil and grass under two tree trunks
 Islands of Light in pavement
Now look at this painting:

Bauman, Islands of Light, 2010

In the photographs, you can see the islands of light I noticed during my morning run because Renoir showed me how to see them.  In my painting, you can see how I used my understanding of Renoir’s islands of light in my picture.

And, yes, in all cases, I “saw” them.

Go for a walk and look for islands of light.  If you want to share them with me, take a photo and send it to me.  Tell me if you saw them for the first time.  You can e-mail your discoveries to me by clicking here:  Marilyn’s e-mail.

That’s a start.

I conclude with a quote from Laurence Buermeyer.  At the end of The Aesthetic Experience, he wrote:

…the objectivity which is the consummation of art is impossible to one whose mind does not feed upon the wider range of things which are a part also of human affairs, morality, science, religion.  The burial of art in itself, and the burial of the artist in himself, are one and the same thing, and that is a burial.  That way lie dilettantism, academicism, sentimentalism, and virtuosity. (p. 184)

This way lies perception of heaven and earth never dreamt of in your philosophy.