The Laws of Nature

Thursday, November 26, 2009


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.


Margaret Ryall said...

An excellent post Kathy. I'm with you on this topic. Why bother to create if you don't want to say something? Your writing brought me back to the early stages of my career when I was warmly welcomed by a group of artists interested in botanical work. Even then when I didn't know much about painting, I knew I wasn't painting flowers to be scientifically correct. That phase of my career didn't last long. I kept interpreting and exaggerating. I was a failure as a botanical artist. Flowers are intriguing in every way and a likely metaphor for all sorts of ideas.

Hope your holiday was great.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy,
Speaking of expression, I like the movement in the painting you chose to illustrate your point!

You write interesting, thoughtful blog posts; I enjoy reading your posts and then going off and thinking awhile!

Kathy said...

Thanks, Margaret. You made a good career choice!
Thanks, Peggy. I like thinking about what you and other bloggers post as well. There's so much!

hwfarber said...

Thanks, Kathy. Expression is a great was to end this series of blogs (and you never rambled). You helped us think and made us look. In the end, we paint what's in our heads--not what can be photographed.

-Don said...

I'd say that expression is nine-tenths of my law. That's where the fun is...

What a great post. Your examples were excellent. It sounds like that tome you read ended with a bang, not a whimper. That's a good book for you - all of the drama building to a satisfying climax. Thank you for engaging us in these discussions as you read and digested Arnheim's ideas.

The expressive beauty of yours included in this post is a joy to behold. I just wish I could click on it to see it a little larger.


Ann Buckner said...

"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."

Very well said Katharine. Excellent reading all the way through.

Kathy said...

Hi Don and Ann, Thanks again for your generous comments! I'll be posting about another book I've picked up pretty soon. Too many books, so little time :)

Kathy said...

Thanks so much, HW! It's great reading your insights and looking at your work as well. All your blogs really inform me!!

The Artist Within Us said...

There are some very interesting replies to your thoughtful post. I somewhat disagree with HWFARBER's response, for painting what is in our head controls our rational thinking and links us to the photograph, painting from the heart overrides the rational, allowing the emotions to control our thought processes and ultimately creating a very expressive work of art.

When I first read your post later last night, the first thought that crossed my mind is that an artists wears many hats, like that of a small business person.

What I am trying to express is that we as artist must consciously decide upon which path we take or which hat we wear when starting a painting or art work.

We need to decide if our training , our technical knowledge is going to be the path, if we are going to change the reality to suit our purpose or if we are going with what is in our heart.

Of course I should add that all this is an over simplified response with many holes in the argument, but in the end your post has given much thought and for this I am grateful.

Have a wonderful weekend,

Dan Kent said...

I have been spending a lot of time lately looking at the drawings and painting of Helga by Andrew Wyeth. A massive collection of pictures of the same model, and you might think that he was simply trying to paint her correctly - to properly set forth what he saw. But instead he said, "I have such a strong romantic fantasy about things - and that's what I paint, but come to it through realism," and, "In finding this one object, I find a world. I think a great painting is a painting that funnels itself in and then funnels out, spreads out. I enter in a very focused way and then I go through it and way beyond it." I think he was saying the same thing.

Dan Kent said...

One more thing - I've been too busy to peruse the blogs for the past two weeks so missed all of your recent posts. I have much catching up to do on everyone else, but very little time, because I spent an hour reading yours complete with drawing a 3" square box, etc.! So interesting and so valuable, and the comments you receive are of such quality and are often educational too (for example, I then found myself researching "fractals". Thank you. Your blog is unique and so worthwhile.

Kathy said...

HI Egmont, You provide us with a very thought-provoking response. Thank you! I agree that we artists must deliberately select a path, but I find that my path usually melds together both my technical and emotional knowledge. I believe that evenutally, our technical knowledge can become automatic as we paint - at least, that's usually the case for me. But also, there's a time and proportion element. Usually I spend more time wearing the technician's hat in the early stages when I'm actually designing the painting (subject, layout, values, hues) and then as I begin to paint the emotional hat becomes more dominant. So, the proportion of technical/emotion shifts during the process. Does that make sense?

Kathy said...

Thanks so much, Dan! Fractals ... neat :) I appreciate that you've gained something from my little "book reports" and musings. I've gained a great deal from all of you who discuss your ideas. The amount of knowledge that's collectively "out there" is mind-boggling! I look forward to your comments in the future.

layers said...

great post on expression.. and very true-- I have been painting30 years and I started off painting the pretty stuff-- landscapes and flowers- for sales-- and fell into what I call the trap of success-- painting the same stuff over and over again because they sold well. 15 years ago I crashed and burned when it hit me how soul-less I had become and I began to read and write and search and experiment-- looking for more personal meaning in my work. I quit the landscapes cold turkey (I don't recommend that) and have been searching and experimenting and reading ever since. Though there are a lot less sales - I don't try very hard-- I am much happier as an artist.

Kathy said...

Donna- thank you for sharing your personal journey as an artist. It must have been difficult to switch gears so drastically, but I can understand the necessity. There's a lot of wisdom in what you wrote!