Neural Vision

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Because we are born diurnal, edge-detecting, break-spotters whose vision depends upon memory as much as incoming retinal data and, because we are born looking for familiar simple patterns and, because our eyes refocus 4 to 3 times per second building patterns with continuity and similarity…for these reasons artists construct paintings to engage these visual aspects of our biology.  It’s how we look at the world.  Artists exploit these properties of our vision.

When designing an image an artist should consider how powerful is our inborn determination to find light along an edge.  This search for the edge of light correlates to the concept looking for the horizon.  Once the horizon edge is discovered the mind fills the rest of the picture with a hypothesized landscape or whatever the horizon edge suggests.

Example 1 presents a darkened square before the discovering the horizon edge. Example 2 now presents the same square with a horizon edge. Example three presents another light shape angled to form a counterpoint to the horizon edge.  This new light shape further demonstrates how we spot a light anomaly within a darkened area and, how we again prioritize light edges and, how we fortify  our original landscape hypothesis using the information imagined along the new wedge shape of light.

Example 1. Darkened square.

Example 2. Dark Square with Light horizon edge.

Example 3. Dark Square with horizon edge and inserted counter-angled light shape.

Observe how quickly you conjure a landscape out of minimal visual information by relying only on a horizon edge and then, you conjure more with the newly inserted serpentine light shape.

Because edges of high contrast attract us, if we find an edge surrounding a shape or lying within a shape we attribute meaning to it. Here are two examples.  Examples 4 and 4a present a pool of reflected water surrounded by a ragged and incomplete edge (border) of floating leaves.  Incompleteness is of no consequence to us because we always perceive a complete shape from incomplete information.  We cannot help making an inference of continuity.

Examples 5 and 5a demonstrate the opposite condition. Here the water surrounds the leafy mass with a fractured and irregular edge. Our brain simplifies the leafy border to see a circular shape within the water’s square.

Example 4. Undiagrammed reflecting pool within surrounding leaves.

Example 4a. Diagrammed pool and leaves.

Example 5. Un-diagrammed leafy patch bordered by reflecting water.

Example 5a. Diagrammed leafy patch illustrating how we perceive a simpler shape than is present.

We always perceive a shape which is more smoothed and simplified than closer inspection would allow.  Our focus (eyes) jumps about from section to section of the border and our brain sums up the image’s shape without actual acute inch by inch observation. This explains our difficulty in transcribing visual facts. Our brain predicts where the shape should be and, how the shape should continue. Our anticipating brain determines where we will direct our visual attention. We even complete shapes which extend beyond the frame as you see.

Example 7. Presents step one of a marsh painting (48×48) oil on brushed gold aluminum of the design found in example three.

Example 8 presents step two, the image in its present state. I continued to create edges within edges, contours within contours using value contrast and color contrast. We never see (take in) at all the visual data. We scan and conclude the presence of an enormity of detail when really there is little detail, just lots of textured light/dark patterns from which we create the sensation of detail.

Example 8. Step two, Marsh painting in present state, oil on brushed gold enameled aluminum, 48×48.

Besides curves and horizons we project space onto two dimensional surfaces (pictures) especially with the aid of our ability to read foreshortening. This is a skill acquired through culture and practice. It is not native to us. But, we recognize it as a persuasive system for creating a sensation of space.

If we want our pictured space to feel unified within the picture plane (frame) then using a foreshortened shape which engages the left and right side as well as the top and bottom of the picture plane is best.  A serpentine shape does this most effectively because, it interlocks the space as opposed to simpler straight edges. See examples 9 and 10.

Example 10. Diagrammed foreshortened serpentine.

Example 11. Photo of foreshortened serpentine.

We recognize the serpentine form as a familiar part of the history of making pictures. Artists exploit this familiarity by interrupting or distorting the serpentine design.  An picture can offer itself as a subtle game.  The beholder subliminally feels the presence of a familiar design but can’t quite pick it out. The feeling remains that this visual field must somehow be a picture!  Here are a couple of photos with camouflaged and incomplete foreshortened serpentine designs (examples 11 and 12).

Example 11. Floating leaves in a serpentine pattern.

Example 12. Floating leaves in a more subtle serpentine pattern.

I invite you to join me in an upcoming workshop at Artsplace in Cheshire Connecticut at at 203 272 2787. The Workshop is “Natural Elements: Painting with the Masters, Old and New Techniques” January 6 and 7th , 10 am – 4 pm.

I invite you to drop in and say hello on December 7th In Milwaukee for the opening of new works at the Lily Pad West Gallery (215 N Broadway
Milwaukee, WI 53202  |   tel 414-509-5756  |

  1. Gail Ostendorf

    Thanks for the post. Do you ever have examples in video to show how you
    achieved certain techniques?

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