How Can Paintings Feel True?

posted in: Painting | 2

We want a paintings that feel true but, evoking credibility is a slippery activity.  From research on how perception works we have begun to identify particular triggers that help us build images in our brain, effects that imply motion, sadness, glee, space.  According to J.J. Gibson we respond to the reflective patterns that touch  nerve cells in our eyes. We search the surrounding optic array for shapes that have utility and a relationship to our memory. We pull these shapes from all the visual noise of the background. We suppress all the other visual information in order to select a particular feature. Our mind outlines that feature and separates it from the visual field.  Portraits are a good example of simplifying how this works. Often the background is blank or dark as in a Rembrandt portrait which allows us to pull a figure out from the darkness. When we look our brain gives us a constant flow of directions that tell us what to look for and where to look. We look (as Gombrich said) with a narrowly focused searchlight not  a multidirectional floodlight.

Paintings offer a tradition of how to look at a flat rectangle with pigment smeared on it.  We begin with an expectation of finding an effect.  Up until 1870 we looked for an effect that imitated an appearance in nature as well as an appearance we knew from other paintings. We looked for a type of imitation of nature.  Example 1 shows a mid 19th century painting by Corot. The painting gives us a collection of suggestions; soft tones, big sky, and a general absence of  much edge information (just the horizon and a few featured shapes). He has simplified the recipe for a landscape and evoked more feeling with less information.

Example 1. Corot.mar14,3, corot, boat

After the close of the 19th century we looked for new effects, new color relationships (we had new colors to paint with), new pattern relationships. We no longer only looked for resemblances to nature but, for the effects of arrangements in paint. Our foundation of  neurological triggers had not changed. We still looked for edge information, for reflectance patterns, for changes across the surface of the painting. We continued to ascribe meaning to wherever we  found changes across a surface. We searched for more and more subtle changes as in color field paintings by Rothko.

Connoisseurship depends upon our sensitivity to subtle changes whether in architecture, photography, poetry, music or painting. In example 2, I begin with a painting whose changes do not effectively sustain the eye’s attention.   I change the painting in example 3 with new triggering stimuli. I knew that stimulating more attention with higher contrast could work as could using more color contrast or layering more another profusion of patterns. The mind’s eye would have more to do or, it could give up and consider the patterns too confused. Here I relied on art historical precedents. The high horizon line, the verticals canting and overlapping, all combine to suggest space and substance, a discernible matrix into which the viewer can throw hypotheses. Those patterns might suggest reeds or marsh grass just as the Dark area suspended above the horizontal plane of yellow might suggest an approaching storm. We have seen similar patterns in paintings before and therefore conclude it must be happening again but, a little differently.

example 1. step one, oil on aluminum.march14,3,Estuary Contrast step 1, 36x36

example 2. step two, same painting after changes.mar14,3,Estuary Contrast, oil on anodized aluminum,36x36_edited-1


Effects  triggered from  brush-work, ragging, squeegees or mittens  all affect perception.. If I use the blade-edge of a flat brush or the tip of a round brush I create a line, a specific edge. This pulls the image away from the background and builds a flat clarity but, devoid of ambiguity as well as  emotion. Instead, I  used squeegees in a variety of overlapping and incomplete patterns. Their cumulative confusion implies space, motion and volume. A  shape with a hard edge gives less volume than one with a blurred edge created by the overlapping matrix of vertical shapes. This matrix creates confused edges and a visual fuzziness. You can see a progressive example of this in  examples 4 and  5 in which I increased both the contrast to trigger more attention as well as  more confused edges to heighten the sense of space, volume and motion .We see the world with fuzzy edges but, perceive it with sharp outlines. The fuzzy edges are the result of our stereo vision.  We have two eyes which see two slightly different pictures of the world (within 20 feet). After that distance the two  pictures merge together. With two images overlapping, the brain gets fuzzy edges but, manufacturers a clear image. When we see a painting with hard edges it lacks a feeling of natural truth.   The later Impressionists would use this principle more than Hudson River painters. This  explains why I smear or stipple with the brush, or use the side or belly of the brush, or use a brush with a dry paint load and scumble…it’s to expand possibilities for perception.

example 4. step one, oil on canvas,44×40.mar14,3,NYC GCS around the clock step 1,44x40

example 5. step two, same canvas after changes.mar14,3,NYC GCS Around the Clock, oil on canvas,44x40_edited-1

The attraction of poetry, novels, films, and music is their use of metaphor. Metaphors infer, imply, suggest, compare. They don’t explicitly tell. The truth of experience is too ambiguous for explicit descriptions. That is the case in painting, in trying to capture the essence, the feeling of a place, the sense of the profusion of textures and varieties of reflectance.  Our ordering impulse wants us to present the mind’s clear image; to get it right. But, there is no right in art or perception. There are just our hypotheses. Being exact removes us from the experience of the truth. As DaVinci said “To pursue detail is to hinder the experience of detail”.  As an artist I must find a way of summing up an experience…  of triggering natural hypotheses. No one has the tools or materials or mechanical skills to render each isolated shape and, if we  did it would not appear real. Summing an experience  depends upon an expressive evocation not on  supplying comprehensive and outlined information.  We want psychological effect not, information. If we wanted lots of specific information we would put blueprints and wiring diagrams on our walls.  Making a Psychological effect lets the viewer guess. You guess; you hypothesize  realities, a truth which is suggested by the arrangement of paint.

The final examples begin with my photo which already has undergone changes in Photoshop (example 6).  Example 7 shows how I have simplified the design, added a greater feeling of deep space, and  heightened complementary color contrasts.

example 6. step one, the photograph.march14,3,estuary sunlight, photo

example 7. The abstracted painting, 24×48.mar14,3,Estuary Sunlight, oil on brushed silver anodized aluminum, 24x48_edited-1


2 Responses

  1. Ann Wilson

    You did it again, David. You made clear what has puzzled me for years…the reasoning behind the effectiveness of including lots of soft edges in paintings. I so much appreciate your in depth explanations of the “why” which I don’t find anywhere else. And your comparison of painting to writing opened up a whole new understanding for me. Art is metaphor, or can be when it communicates best. By the way, love the painting. Thanks for sharing your art and process.

  2. Fredric Neuwirth

    Example #4/#5: The dark foreground brightens the distant space. I am not sure if you brightened the back ground or if it just happened when the foreground darkened.
    Knowing what to and when to do it makes all the difference.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *