It would be easy to continue rambling on about Arnheim's ideas in his book Art and Visual Perception, but it's time to make a final comment and move on. Appropriately, his final chapter is entitled Expression. The previous five hundred pages dealt with the intricacies of visual perception concerning balance, shape, form, space, light, color, movement, and dynamics. In the final chapter, Arnheim writes: From the beginning it was evident that one could not do justice to what we see by describing it only with the measurements of size, shape, wavelength, or speed... As long as one talks about the mere measurements or practical earmarks of visual objects, it is possible to ignore their direct expression.
As an artist, it is my aim to express my viewpoint through paintings. I can't do that very well if I limit myself to draftsmanship or copying exactly what I see. My eggshell paintings are a good example of that. While it's true that we marvel at the skill it takes for an artist to precisely replicate in two dimensions what she sees in three, it's good to remember that more is required for a painting to be deemed a "work of art." That more is meaning, and meaning is revealed through expression. Most of us have a tendency to look at great works by the ancient masters as precise replications of reality. Often, this wasn't the case because expression was the desired effect. Let's look at a couple of examples:
Pieta by Michelangelo is arguably one of the most expressive sculptures in existence. It's almost impossible not to have an emotional reaction when viewing it. Because it looks so realistic, we might be tempted to think that all the proportions are accurate. Look again. There's no way that Mary is the correct proportion for holding an adult male (her son) of that size. Additionally, her face is that of a woman who is much too young to have a son of that age. Michelangelo needed to exaggerate her size, proportions, and youthful beauty in order to express a point. Here's another example:
This silverpoint drawing is attributed to Leondardo DaVinci. She looks very realistic. Again, we might be tempted to think that Leonardo realistically rendered the proportions and features of this young woman's face. In fact, Leonardo believed that most portrait artists naturally tend to make their subjects look like themselves in some way, and he may have, to some degree, altered the appearance of many of his subjects to his own proportions. Again, expression was more important to this master than precise replication.
This brings me to a practice that I perceive as a problem. Artists are becoming more and more reliant on reference photographs when they draw and paint. In an earlier post I mentioned that I attended a watercolor workshop ten years ago where another student was painting from a reference photo of a harbor scene. He took great pains to paint boats, pilings, moorings, landmasses, piers, buildings, seagulls exactly as they appeared in the photograph. His only motivation seemed to be that of precisely replicating the photograph. What's the point of that? Just frame the photo and be done with it. What did this student have to say about his own relationship with this harbor scene? What was his personal viewpoint? As I see it, expression means that you transform what you physically perceive to what you emotionally perceive. It's a translation from what I see to how I think about what I see.
To sum this up: I truly appreciate Arnheim's ideas. They help artists understand the effects of the various elements that go into making a work of art upon the perception of the viewer. I think that's important, because I'm always looking for ways to improve my ability to effectively express my ideas in two dimensions. But, even if I forget some of the principles in this book, I won't forget his summary: expression.