The Laws of Nature

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Shape and simplification

OK ... no more math! I'll get back to more of Arnheim's ideas about shape and perception. Apparently, it's the natural tendency of humans to simplify complex shapes when they see them. As Arnheim puts it: "According to the basic law of visual perception, any stimulus pattern tends to be seen in such a way that the resulting structure is as simple as the given conditions permit." That's a fancy way of saying that our minds try to organize what we see in order to simplify it so we can recognize, or make sense, of it. I'll extend beyond Arheim's concept and apply this to painting. When I first look at a stack of eggshells I see chaos. I know they're eggshells, but the jumble of edges and randomness doesn't make much sense to me. At first glance I couldn't tell you how many eggshells are in the stack, how many are right-side up or upside down, or any other number of details that might reveal order or pattern. I realize that if I painted the eggshells just as I see them, I would cause the same type of confusion in the viewer of my painting. So, I look for a way to impose simple order on the eggshell shapes. This is where artistry comes in! We artists must find creative ways to alter what we see so it has meaning and makes sense. The painting I've attached to this blog is called "All Cracked Up VIII." Can you see why I called it that??

But, let's move beyond my work to that of a true genius: Jackson Pollock. At first glance, it's hard to make sense of his drip paintings. But, when I stand before one so that it fully engulfs my entire field of vision, there's a powerful rhythm - a symmetry that you can see and feel. It makes sense!

Or, we can look at a bunch of dots on a Seurat painting and see them as parts of larger shapes. Our brains fuse the dots together in order to simplify the painting so we can understand it. We're always looking for something recognizable and in order to do that, our minds must simplify.

Does this mean that we have to create simple paintings? Not at all. Complexity can be just as effective as simplicity. BUT, complexity must be managed so it can make sense at some level.

I guess this ties in with what I mentioned in my last post. The Renaissance artists wanted to continue the elaborate style of their predecessors, the medieval artists, but they needed to simplify. To do that, they had to impose order. So, I guess I've come full circle back to mathematics! Once a nerd, always a nerd :)


layers said...

Hi Katherine-- I see you are quite active in the watercolor world. I used to be more active- as I have signature memberships in AWS, NWS Nortwest w/c and so on.. but I have started moving into acrylic, collage and assemblage so much now, but I still teach workshops for watercolor societies. I have seen your work before in catalogs or magazines. congrats on all your success.

M said...

Your post is very timely for me. I've been rereading my notes on the importance of shape in painting and getting ready to write a post on the topic. Yours will lead right into mine. I think learning about how to visually manipulate shape was the most important lesson I learned as a painter. I could see a huge change in my work once I got this understanding under my belt.

Unknown said...

Hi Donna (layers) - I've been following and admiring your work for years! I have a number of catalogues with your terrific paintings in them. Thanks for visiting my blog and I hope you'll feel free to share your insights on the various topics I post.

Margaret - I look forward to reading your blog. Seems like we're traveling on parallel paths!

-Don said...

Is this the only one you put the shape of a number into? I must admit I missed it in my first "read" of the painting. My eyes had followed the shape of the brighter eggshells thru the composition and had noted the wonderful oranges and yellows glowing from below, but I had not noticed the 8 until you prompted me to figure our the title.

Using Pollock and Seurat to underscore your point today was perfect. Especially in the case of Pollock, where too often people do not understand his visual language because they get so caught up in the complexity of the "chaos" created by his drips and squiggles that they miss how those elements create a symmetry and rhythm.

Your closing paragraph simplified something that took my Art History instructor years to get hammered into my head (well, not really years, but it seemed like it at the time). Thanks, oh Nerdy One!


Unknown said...

HI Don,
Yes this is the only painting in which the central design was a number. It was also the eighth painting in the entire series (which now numbers over fifty) - so I couldn't help myself :)
As always, your comments are right on target (even the "oh, Nerdy One" which fits to a tee). As I keep writing these blogs, which reveal the learning process I'm going through at the moment, I keep thinking --- hey, didn't I learn that thirty years ago?? Why does it seem new to me now? Why do I have to keep reminding myself of these principles? Am I really that dense? I think I'll write about that in my next blog because there's a good reason for the episodic regurgitation of ideas. Thanks, Don!

M said...

It's all in the squinting! You never know what lies hidden.

The Artist Within Us said...

I read this post first, only to realize I had missed the previous one, but now having read it I see that you are aware of the wonderful Yale University publication "The Diagonal" by Jay Hambidge, which Dover reproduced in 1967 under the new title "The Elements of Dynamic Symmetry".

I purchased this book the year it was released, while I was a junior in high school and fell in love with the mathematical division of space, considering it was also the year i was first introduced to Mondrian's art.

Though there have been other books, although very few and not about art but graphic design, there has only been one that I have found that discusses design proportion. It is "The Divine Proportion" by H. E. Huntley, 1970; also by Dover Books that discusses mathematical beauty in art, music and architecture.

I knew I went off in a different direction, but your posts on critical thinking I feel is not something that is being taught in college art classes, especially mathematical equations and their application in art.

I find it surprising that a large number of people do not see that in random abstract brush work as with Joan Mitchell's canvases or as you pointed out Pollack's drip painting, that their apparent random chaos is actually order, in mathematical terms that is, and that these are fractals.

As for your painting, I guess I missed the eight but did get the oval shape at first glance. I also should point out that I have dusted off my 35 year anniversary copy of Arnheim's "Visual Thinking" and having another refresher look.

I admire your efforts with this blog and wish you all the success possible.

Warmest regards

Unknown said...

Hi Egmont,
Thank you very much for your substantive remarks. It's good to know a "kindrid spirit" in mathematics! I appreciate the reference to Huntley's book and will have to browse my bookshelves to see if I have it. If not ... I'll definitely purchase a copy. Perhaps you can help me explain Arnheim's book on this blog. I understand what I'm reading, but there's too much information to convey on a blog so I must distill the point that "grab" me most. And ... thank you for pointing out "fractals." I was trying to avoid too much math terminology but you're entirely accurate.
It's wonderful to have your input!!

hw (hallie) farber said...

I spent a large part of my day putting imaginary "armatures of the rectangle" on all the paintings in "The Art Book and "Collins Big Book of Art," etc.--lifting those books is a workout.

When our house was remodeled several years ago, I tried to incorporate the golden rectangle--the contractors thought I was nuts! I can still see their handwritten figures through the paint.

I did not see the "8" in your beautiful painting. It's good to look at paintings and see something more each time.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, Your blog posts are thoughtful and stimulating. You present complex subjects clearly! And, the comments are quite a read too! Thanks.

Unknown said...

Hi HW - wow, you're ambitious! All those armatures. Will you post them on your blog? I'd be interested in your analysis. Hey, I think using a root rectangle for your home is a great idea! That's what the classical architects used. Too bad they gave you a hard time.

Hi Peggy - Thanks so much. Yes, I LOVE the contributions of all my blogger friends. You've all enriched this blog! Keep 'em coming.

hw (hallie) farber said...

Hi Kathy--Interestingly, one of my favorite Picaso paintings, BUSTE, 1970, from his Musqueteros came very close. I had cut it from my Art in America magazine and posted a small copy of it on my Oct. 13 blog--it captivates me and I don't really know why.

Unknown said...

Thanks for letting me know, HW. I'll take a look!