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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Part One Drawing:HIstory and Science of Seeing

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Chapter 1 

History and Science of Seeing 

Theoretical: Caravaggio’s breakthrough a new basis for the real and for drawing 

The most radical change that took place in the history of painting following the Renais- sance was Caravaggio’s exploration of chiaroscuro (Italian for light/dark values) in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It was a self-revelation of the inner structure of the ret- ina. To access that structure, it is surmised that he used a camera obscura, which allowed him to stabilize all the objects in his field of vision, illuminated by a single source of light into a coherent whole or visual event. The camera isolates what I like to call a visual event. When a view is fixed and then studied, it is observed that some objects are closer to the light source and therefore lighter; others are further away and therefore lost in obscurity.

 Moreover, some objects reflect light onto adjacent objects. Just as a photo tends to over- expose areas that are brightest with a loss of detail, and underexpose others with an equal loss of detail, a similar thing happens in Caravaggio’s work. The overexposure creates highlights and the underexposure creates shadows. It were almost as though he had studied Ansel Adam’s zone theory of photography.

The retinal processing of light derived from Caravaggio’s insight into seeing became the lingua franca of Western Art for the next four hundred years. Within a hundred years of his breakthrough, one style dominated the western world from Velazquez in Spain to Rembrandt in Holland. According to Michael Baxandall in his book “Shadows and Enlightenment,” both scientists and artists of the 18th century were interested in the nature of perception and particularly the way by which the retina translates patterns of light and dark into form. For Baxandall, the authenticity of an artist such as Chardin lies in great measure in his ability to convey the notion that the observed is an invention of the seer. The painting’s center of gravity is always within the observer. Although the narrative and its social implications are important, the studied expression of the perceptual experience as an event is primary.

 At L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the late ’70s, I took a course in the techniques of Baroque painting; in particular, the mixed oil and tempera technique used by Vermeer. Professor Wacker had us imitate the steps used to achieve a finished Baroque painting (on a small scale). What struck me about the process is that you did not need to show a figure in its entirety in order to represent it convincingly. Drawing was more of a rough sketch to sort out the placement of various zones of light. The highlight with its lack of detail is painted with white tempera, the middle ground again with tempera but with various color is glazed with oil to blend into the shadows, which was often a large part of the picture.

 The artists of the Italian Renaissance artists like Raphael had to draw out every inch of the human figure while an artist like Rembrandt could throw 80 percent into obscurity and still create a believable image since he mimicked the way the eye organizes reality in patterns of light and dark.
#1 Baxandall, Michael. Shadows and Enlightenment,”London and New Haven, Yale University Press, 1995

Artist's Drawing at age 20 with compressed charcoal

20th Century Watershed in Understanding The Eye 

In my peregrinations as a teacher, I have observed many schools do a decent job teaching the value based drawing and painting dominant in Europe from Caravaggio until the end of the 19th century. Many more schools base their more advanced teaching on whatever is the current flavor of the art scene. It is the 20th century that has not been codified into a teaching method and is woefully absent from most curriculums. There is an interesting parallel between the development of the 20th century visual language and the under- standing of perception that can facilitate the teaching of 20th century art.

 One cannot talk about drawing technique without discussing the organizational force of the eye. The organizing of our visual space is very complex, so much so that the language of the eye has succumbed only piecemeal to our understanding. Although they do not make specific claims about the structure of the brain, the artists always precede the scientist in understanding how the eye works. Take for example the development of cubism. It has its roots in the work of Cézanne who focuses on the planar surfaces of objects and starts to separate out the linear boundaries of the forms from the forms themselves.

 This separating out of the lines foreshadows the work of cognitive scientists in the latter half of the 20th century who located the striate cortex of the brain which responds to lines that move in precise directions. Some parts respond to vertical lines, others to diagonals. Grouped together they help create deep space and a sense of our relation to verticality. Of course, these lines are hidden from our experience of seeing but they are implicit in our understanding of the space we move in. This bringing to the surface (and we can say that the surface of the paper or canvas is where this elicitation takes place) of what is hidden in the perceptual process and turning it into an aesthetic defines the evolution of painting in the West. The inspiration for using these ideas as a method of drawing is that we find work that uses these concepts convincing since it reveals the inner structure of the eye. A “good” drawing is grounded in the hidden structures of our perceptual experience.

The relation between the work by neuroscientist David Marr in the 1970s on the structure of object recognition and Mondrian’s early breakthroughs in his language is uncanny. Mondrian’s famous serial study of a church façade is made up of a series of drawings that show a gradual reduction from a value-oriented representation of the subject to a final product of short discontinuous lines all assuming various positions in relationship to the vertical. It is iconic for art historians who wish to represent the move from the 400 years of light/dark-based art to the start of 20th century abstraction. It does to drawing what the late Monet studies of the Rouen cathedral did with color. Both dissolve the object as being there in front of the subject. Everything is now made up of parts, which can be used to construct new realities. Strangely, it becomes emblematic of the new age of mass culture where the present as experienced by the individual (which was always the focus of chiaroscuro) is less important than their function in the whole of society, or more simply a coherent sense of the parts to a whole. The implication of this for a general notion of the evolution of the language of painting is that stylistic change can be achieved not by going beyond the current visual language in a kind of hip one-upmanship, but by going into the underpinnings of that language which are not visually determined. It is not surprising that Cézanne was considered “farouche,” incapable of normal human interaction. Merleau-Ponty thought he was schizophrenic while I would guess he was autistic. #2
Liberated from social conventions he was more attuned to the raw visual experience of what he saw.

#2 Merleau-Ponty, Maurice.“Cézanne’s Doubt,”in“Sense and Nonsense,”Translated by Hubert L. Derives and Patricia Allen Derive 6th Edition (Evanston, Illinois; Northwestern University Press, 1991) 9-25

Starting in the ’50s, scientists Hubel and Wiesel discovered specific locations in the brain dedicated to the perception of lines that assumed vertical, horizontal and oblique directions. What they did not understand was that the derivation of these lines came from value shifts perceived on the object being observed. Crucial to this thinking and of relevance to its relation to drawing is the primacy of light and dark to line. The value shifts perceived by the mind come first and are the raw material out of which line is perceived. Some scientists call this low order vs. high order structure. Dramatic value shifts indicate that three dimensional form is moving in space, away from the light source. It is a phenomenon of crucial importance to the viewer who needs to see the world as real in order to function within it and is therefore reinforced by the imposition of lines. All these lines combined create wedges that perspectively create space. Moreover, the relationship of these lines to each other is one of proportions. They lend themselves to measurement to allow the observer to establish their exact relationship to objects. The outcome of this process is what we call space.

 This understanding of line on my part grew out of an article by Israel Rosenfield titled “Seeing Through the Brain,” in The New York Review of Books (October 11, 1984) on the work of David Marr at MIT. In retrospect, I suspect that my interpretation of the role of these discontinuous lines creating space was my own interpretation of an image that was reproduced in the article. It shows a photo of a teddy bear that is then turned into a more #. pixilated version by a computer. The computer subsequently imposed straight lines on the value shifts and ended up with a third image of the teddy bear looking like something like a cross between a Cézanne and a Giacometti. I recently tracked down the image and bought the book from whence it came; “Seeing,” by John P. Frisby.

Frisby stated that Marr saw these lines as providing insight into the structure of forms but there is no mention of space. The dropping off of value and its role in describing volume seemed essential in putting the object into space. Each object loses its isolation in the cube of theatre/space created in the Renaissance and now participates in a spatial continuum. In the work of Cézanne, it seems to open up objects to the forces of gravity as well. Struc- ture is also the outcome of this and further work by Marr talks about some innate ability to see axes and symmetries. But I still believe in the epiphany that I had reading the article and the correspondence between that image and the role of space in the work of Cézanne, Mondrian and Giacometti. Image on the upper right shows similarities to Mondrian and Giacometti.
Scientific study by David Marr from Frisby’s “Seeing,” p. 110. By permission. (Oxford University Press, 1990)s

1 comment:

  1. Appreciate its readability and continuum of thinking and exploration. Makes me wonder what a life would have been like as a painter. Good work!