You and I have a brain that tells us where to look and what to look for. It’s selective and predictive. It looks on to the environment’s reflective patterns of light with expectations. It stops when it finds them.
The eye and brain are engineered to pull the expectation from the background. In art we call this recognizing the figure/ground relationship. We separate our target from its background relying on edge contrast, color difference and brightness difference with the background. Nature’s genome has given this ability to help find a mate and to identify prey and predators. In art we harvest these gifts for aesthetic purposes.
When we paint we further exaggerate and simplify the figure/ground contrast. Blurry, misty backgrounds don’t provide edge information they are create a feeling of space, an airy context. They serve as a backdrop for the target or figure element.
In the following examples I demonstrate how we have pulled targets from the ambiguous background to make legible work throughout art history. This journey could take us back tens of thousands of years across time and cultures. To sum up the experience let’s begin in 1880 in Venice with James Whistler (example 1). He worked on muted brown paper applying only a few bright marks to identify a few essential edges of a building on a small canal.
Ten years later Albert LeBourg, a contemporary of Monet (who clearly used the principles of Impressionism) painted a harbor scene. The background is an amalgamated area of fat bands of color. The foreground relies on small sharp bright and dark marks which we gather together into a unified sensation of objects, horses, sails, ship, wagons. They stand in sharp contrast to the background.
These are just two of what could be a limitless set of paintings. Turner does it, Rembrandt does it, Da Vinci does it, Rosa Bonheur does it. Contemporary artists continue to do it like Joan Nelson in her small oil on panel from 1990. You can see the influence of expressionism and minimalism here. Some of Nelson’s floral patterns have sharp edge information. Others are blurred. We separate the sharp edges from the blurrier ones and simultaneously create a sensation of movement and space.
In my own examples I use a foggy background to help present and clarify the target information which is the more sharply defined flora. I use brightness and color contrasts as well. Example 4 begins with step one of the painting, “Coastal Mist and Flora”. In step one there is not yet the clear separation of figures from the ground. In Example 5, step two, you see how sharp edge information pulls away for the blurrier background. Intermediate zones have less pronounced edge information. They are only partly dissolved.
In the next example I illustrate how an area can better contribute to the overall design circuit by selectively situating more figures in a unified pattern (using flora). Example 6 represents step one which contains fewer flowers and more open space. Example 7 represents step two and the current state of the image. Compare the two images and notice where I introduced new flora and how they were situated to extend the arc of the design.
The arc is created by the principle of continuity, a connect-the-dot type of program which we are genetically designed to do.
Initially you may not have noticed the difference between examples 6 and 7. This is due to another genetic inheritance known as “Change Blindness”. This enables us to see and recognize familiar faces as they change over time, or in different lighting, or different positions.
I invite you to my upcoming lecture on “Blind Spots”, how our visual thinking prevents us and enables us to see what’s present. How we have auditory, olfactory, and tactile blind spots and how we can improve our sensory perception. The lecture will be at the Silvermine School of Art in New Canaan, Ct. On Sunday, October 13 at 4:30 PM. See silvermineart.org or call 203 966 6668 ext 2.