The Laws of Nature

Monday, November 16, 2009


It's Monday morning, and I'll return to Rudolf Arnheim's book, Art and Visual Perception: A Psychology of the Creative Eye. Before I do, however, I must place this in perspective. The reason I've dedicated this blog to a more scholarly analysis of art is because I need to improve my ability to plan, execute, and critique my own work. By explaining what I learn to you, and receiving your ideas in return, I gain greater understanding. However, this academic approach must be balanced by the artist's intuition in order for the work to become meaningful and unique. There must be an infusion of the heart and soul of the artist in the painting as well. In a much earlier blog I mentioned that Ben Shahn encourages the artist to draw from the totality of experiences, culture, and nature of who he/she is when creating a work of art. That being said, I'll venture back over to the academic side.

Chapter 1 was all about balance. In it, Arnheim identified the perceptual forces, why an artist should strive for balance in a painting, the effects of weight and direction, and many other things that I discussed in earlier blogs. Chapter 2 is all about shape. I'll share only a couple of thoughts about this chapter (you'll be pleased to know that I won't include his lengthy discussion on physiology and psychology!).

What is shape? According to Arnehim, the physical shape of an object is determined by its boundaries. That's a fine definition if you're just looking at an isolated object. But, he adds, there's also perceptual shape, where one perceives an object within the context of a given space, or in relation to other objects, or in a specific orientation. When the shape isn't isolated, we perceive it differently as it relates to its surroundings. As artists, we consider perceptual shape all the time as we compose. We arrange objects or forms to create an effect that we want the viewer to perceive. We are illusionists. For instance, I realize that I can paint an eggshell by itself, but if I break it and place those fragments within a large number of other fragments, the individual fragment is lost and becomes part of a larger whole. The perceived shape of that individual fragment is completely changed. The two images I attached to this blog illustrate that. The fragments on the right appear in the larger painting on the left. Our perception of the shape of those fragments is altered when they're placed in a larger arrangement of fragments.
This seems like a simple point to make, but it can become very complex. I'll write about that next time :)


Margaret Ryall said...

I'm so excited the next topic is shape. Saturday I began to put together a post on shape for my compose series. I'm glad I had most of it completed before I read yours. I have a feeling yours will add to the basics I've included in mine and I can reference it for more in depth reading. May have more comments as you get responses. Love these conversations.

Anonymous said...

Hi Katharine,
I like your discussions about composition and painting. You give me something to think about. It's amazing the depth of thought that goes into a wonderful painting! Thanks.

Margaret Ryall said...

Perceptual shape is a new term for me, but it is something that I understand at an instinctual level and obviously make decisions about it as I compose. We are always courting the viewer. Your eggshell example makes the idea of perceptual shape very clear. Looking forward to the rest of the discussion.

The Artist Within Us said...

I look forward to following your discussion and so withhold for the time being my thoughts on the subject of shapes.

Chris Beck said...

Your posts are making for very thought-provoking reading. Thanks for sharing your explorations and insights!!

Kathy said...

Hi Margaret - your latest post is fascinating, and I can't wait to see how you resolve your painting. Yes, I think our "conversations" dovetail very nicely.

Hi Peggy - thanks so much. I've been trying to get "deeper" in my analyses because every now and then I hit a wall and need to figure it out. Or, I guess I could quit altogether, but that will never happen!

Hi "The Artist w/in Us" - I look forward to your comments! Please add your perspective when you have the time.

Chris - you're welcome! I'm learning a lot from this process. Who'd of thought that this old gal (me) would ever blog????

-Don said...

I usually compose on a more intuitive level in that I include physical shapes where they "feel right" to me. Now the perceptual shape (new term, but a concept I've always used) is a different story. Once I compose my pieces to tell a story, I then start looking at the shapes of the dark areas and the light areas. That is how I try to determine where I want the viewers eye to go. The shape of a shadow pattern can guide our eyes thru the maze of physical shapes we have included in the composition. Your Fragility series illustrates this perfectly. It's not about the individual shapes at all, it's about the shapes and juxtapositions of value and chrominance.

With that said, I find the example you used interesting. First of all, I noticed that you have used this same composition in two of your paintings, All Cracked Up XXIII and XXV. In XXIII, the example you provided, the first time I saw it I noticed that you were driving my eye to those two pieces through value, placement, shape and color. The flatness of the larger piece, the intensity of the shadows, the brightness of the larger piece in context to its surroundings all drew my eye to it. In fact, it stopped my eye right there. In XXV you have taken the same composition with a very similar pair of shapes in the exact same position and yet my eye is not as readily drawn to them. The shadow is less pronounced, the value is very similar to its immediate surroundings and the shadow pattern of the whole piece keeps my eye moving past those two shapes. Very interesting how lighting, value, chroma and shadow pattern can so differently affect these two variations of basically the same composition.

Oops, I just realized I got sidetracked from the original discussion of "shape". Or, did I???


Kathy said...

Hi Don,
Great comments!! Yes, value contrasts can be an effective way of leading the eye and is probably one of the most eye-catching attributes that we artists use. When I was a student, we were once challenged to use only one value (or as close to it as we could get) and to lead the eye with color alone. At first, it seemed impossible and it was very hard to complete the first couple of paintings.
You have a very keen eye - indeed, ACU XXIII and XXV were intentionally similar but also different because I was experimenting with the subtle changes you mentioned. Nothing gets past you! :-)

Deb Schmit said...

Thanks for popping by my journal.
Your work is just stunning.
Realism combined with abstraction.
I like like that.

Kathy said...

Hi Deb, Thanks for looking at my blog! I appreciate your generous comments and hope you join our discussions.