Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Pictures before words?

I shall take you on a journey. It is a journey of comprehension, taking us to the edge of space, time and understanding. On it I shall argue that there is nothing that cannot be understood, that there is nothing that cannot be explained, and that everything is extraordinarily simple… A great deal of the universe does not need any explanation. Elephants, for instance. Once molecules have learnt to compete and to create other molecules in their own image, elephants and things resembling elephants will in due course be found roaming through the countryside. Peter Atkins ‘The Creation’

Art and survival
There is no doubt that life is carried forward because molecules of DNA, which constitute the genes, embody a coded history of life’s genealogical past. In this respect, we are part of nature in everything we do, from stepping on a bus to painting a house. Like all other living things our behaviour is governed by a chemical coding of our genes, which is a record of successful long-term interactions with the environments of our ancestors, near and in the distant past. It is a biochemical memory that remembers the body’s responses of growth reproduction and behaviour that have been responsible for survival. In this respect, the body of a plant, animal or microbe represents a kind of prediction that its future environmental experiences will, to a general extent, resemble those of its ancestors. Animals, especially those with brains, are particularly good survivors because the nervous system also has a remarkable picturing ability for remembering what is the most useful way of responding to short-term variations in the environment. As a computer model, the brain (hardware) and its networks of memory cells (the software) have evolved to continuously scan the environment, and use memories of good and bad responses to keep short-term survival strategies up to date. The genes model the basic aspects of the environment that change very slowly over generations. The brain produces models of survival as day-to-day interactions between perception via the senses and a mental representation of environment that triggers the correct response. This interplay between changes in the environment and their representation as virtual images in the central nervous system allows us to move through a mental world of our brain’s making, and produce neuromuscular responses that aid survival. Since brains are also products of natural selection, ancestors, near and in the distant past, also carried virtual worlds of their contemporary environments in their heads. Brains are a particular expression of DNA, tasked with the role of recording lifespan-events as pictures to help predict the immediate future.

We describe these virtual worlds as ‘patterns of thought’ and the process of perception that generates them as ‘reading the environment’. This faculty of ‘graphicity’ is a vital process of comprehension. We become interested in shapes and colours that do not fit into the known. In this we prefer intriguing suggestions to actual representation. For example, a trail of footprints occurring together with disturbed vegetation and dung deposits, is read intently by a hunter as the pattern of his prey. It is comprehended as a detailed mental map of events over a wide area, that points to the course of action necessary if the hunt is to be successful. According to Steven Dawkins it seems plausible that the ability to perceive the signs and generate such pictures might have arisen in our ancestors before the origin of speech in words. If the thought-picture could be represented as an arrangement of shapes and signs, constructing an environmental model in the head is a helpful way to communicate, and coordinate what has to be done in a social group. Such mental imagery could be an educational resource to help group cohesion and promote social evolution. This seems the likely origin of art, which depends on noticing that something can be made to stand for something else in order to assist comprehension and communication. Dawkins suggests that it could have been the drawing of mind-maps in the sand that drove the expansion of human evolution beyond the critical threshold of communication that other apes just failed to cross. It may be pertinent that ceremonial sand-pictures of native Australians function as maps. They are patterns created by an individual ‘dreamer’ through the two-dimensional spacing of symbols, standing for people and local topographical detail.

The fact that these patterns are closely associated with ‘dreaming’ is significant. Dreams are set up by our simulation software using the same modelling techniques used by the brain when it presents its updated editions of reality. These aboriginal maps of the dreamtime were community properties. Their role was to codify the neighbourhood and its use by the community in the form of a locally accepted non-representational pattern of relationships. The collection of pictographs reinforced the existence of a tribal territory and its natural resources by incorporating stories about its occupation by the group’s ancestors. The pictures, now being made permanent works of art on cloth and hardboard, once had a social function to maintain a subculture of understanding by reinforcing comprehension of group identity and space. Rock art of North America, which consists of pictographs constructed from circles, spirals and lines, also seems to have its origins in dreams, and a significance in carrying messages about origins and group identity across generations. Reaching from the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego there is tremendous variety in all aspects of indigenous art from prehistory to the arrival of Europeans, differing region by region, era by era, and often tribe by tribe. There are representations of flora and fauna, men and gods, earth and sky; symbols of clan and tribe, religion and magic; formal designs from the primal to the highly intricate. They appear in examples of basketry, weaving, pottery, sculpture, painting, lapidary work, masks, drum-heads, weapons, apparel, beadwork, goldwork, blankets, ponchos, and may other forms.

In the cave art of the European Palaeaolithic we may contemplate on the existence of the bovine quality in art which is 35,000 years old, and may conclude that since then there has really been no fundamental development in our imaginative and technical abilities to represent natural forms that are close to us practically, emotionally, and spiritually. Sometimes the whole body of an animal is contained in the shape of the rock. It was the rock that revealed its animal 'spirit'. Their common mental ground is specific material features, such as cracks and smooth, rounded surfaces, which are used to enhance animal features in the mind of the artist. Most of the paintings consist of collections of symbols arranged haphazardly on the surface, indicating that they were contributed at different times by several individuals. Occasionally they occur as if welded by one person into an overall composition. For example, the Chumash, who once inhabited the coast of southern California from Malibu to Morrow Bay, created painted compositions in which dozens of interrelated shapes were confined within a limited space. At Arrow Head Springs two rounded boulders with painted panels mark a Chumash sacred site on a steep slope overlooking Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands.

(001) 1,000-2000 BC Motif from a shelter cave in the Devil’s River drainage of Texas

(002) Arrow Head Springs Santa Barbara California Chumash Native American

Although the animal forms of Palaeolithic art have a high aesthetic profile, they are usually found together with abstract shapes, such as circles, spirals, and grids. These shapes emerge in the trances of modern spiritualists, and people with certain sight defects, where they are generated from particular regions of the brain. These findings have led to the belief that the rock faces played a spiritual role in the social life of prehistoric peoples. Beyond the rock face was their spirit world; the rock wall is a spiritual place where shamans sought power in a personal interaction at an important boundary between the living and material worlds. Trances have a practical purpose- healing people who are sick. In other words, in making art against stone, a spiritual healer was trying to understand what the brain makes us feel. We are essentially human when we use graphic ways of portraying other realities, and the Palaeolithic artist deep in a cave, or balancing on a rocky mountain-side, was expressing a mind identical to our own in order to serve his community.

An equally powerful biological imperative is to promote ‘self’. In the sense of the ‘selfish gene’ scenario, any behavioural characteristic that gives one’s own genetic endowment an advantage in passing to the next generation is subject to natural selection. From this aspect, art is also one of many behavioural expressions that allows an individual to be distinguished from the crowd. Piet Mondrian put it this way:

“Although art is fundamentally everywhere and always the same, nevertheless two main human inclinations, diametrically opposed to each other, appear in its many and varied expressions. One aims at the direct creation of universal beauty, the other at the aesthetic expression of oneself, in other words, of that which one thinks and experiences. The first aims at representing reality objectively, the second subjectively”.

The advantages of contributing to group identity by reinforcing the contemporary norms of representation (subscribing to locally agreed icons of beauty and meaning), and the cultivation of an individual output are not opposing principles of artistic creativity. They represent primeval skills of being able to help highlight group identity through mapping one’s social unit, and having the ability to produce new ideas about the environment which improve one’s own survival.

Words with pictures
Illustration is an art of visual communication. The combination of great artwork and wisely chosen ideas is the formula for an illustrator's success in communicating with pictures.Pictures play a very important part in our everyday life. Sight is our most widely used sense and as a consequence of this, pictures play a significant role in communication. A picture is neither subtle nor universal enough to take the place of words in the strictest sense of the meaning, but that does not mean that pictures do not have a biological role in communication, because many pictures do a superior job to words under certain conditions. The underlying problem is that to fulfil this condition, the pictures rely on the diversity of language and words to secure their meaning.

Gombrich, in his book Art and Illusion highlighted the biggest problem of communicating with pictures, and that is their inaccuracy. His claim is that the artist is psychologically susceptible to her own interpretation of the object she depicts. She sees where the lines are to be drawn and she makes the object conform to her own imagined stereotype. An artist learns a group schemata and a set of socially determined patterns when she learns to draw, and these will always, in the first instance, direct her to draw to those particular patterns and classifications. As Gombrich says, the `will-to- form' is rather a `will-to-conform', and ensure that the assimilation of any new shape conforms to the schemata and patterns an artist has learned to handle. The truth is twisted to fit the stereotype and the outcome is not always the accurate representation of the object.

With this being the case, it is hard to argue that pictures can accurately replace words. Words are specifically designed to convey accurate descriptions and meanings, whereas pictures are subjective and their accuracy is at the mercy of the interpreter. Pictures are only useful as a reminder of a frozen moment in time. A photograph of someone, is very quickly out of date, whereas language changes to suit time. A name can quite easily flash a better and more accurate image of the subject in the recipients mind, whereas a picture does no such thing. The importance of language is that it is communicable. Naming someone provokes a better image than an old photograph does and is just as instantaneous. The key to language lies in its wonderful subtlety and diversity. Picture communication can never say as much. Language is designed specifically with the purpose of communicating, whereas pictures are not. It is only because of spoken and written words, that humankind has progressed. Speech can be wonderfully diverse, but at the same time, its effectiveness lies in its economical use. Through language we can form relationships and communicate in other forms. According to this argument, pictures came after language because they needed vocabulary to find a purpose in communication.

Thoughts without a language are not truly thoughts, because they need language to define themselves. Helen Keller in her autobiography, remarked upon this, when she first realised the significance of language. When one day the word `water' was spelt out in her hand, while at the same time a cool stream was gushing over her other hand, the world of language was opened up to her. "...Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten -a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me...That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!...Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought."

It is easy to forget the significance of language. Real thinking, is only possible when we have the language there to convey it. `Water' for Helen Keller was no longer just an object of sense perception, it had a name that could be mentioned, conceived, remembered. Pictures only offer confusion unless they are qualified by language. To be able to communicate effectively the meaning of the picture, you have to place it in context. Whether this be a phrase on the picture saying; `danger', `vote Labour', or `support Manchester United' or just putting the picture in the place or the time, or next to the article that makes it relevant. We have passport photos and not composed paragraphs because it is a better form of communication under the circumstances of immigration control. Pictures add sparkle and colour to our life, but their use is entirely dependent on language.

The joy and necessity of language was wonderfully captured by Helen Keller, and just as the world would be a more insipid place without pictures it would be even more so without language. The creativity of words in poetry, novels and public speaking is sometimes harder, and less exciting, to reflect in pictures. Pictures have their place, they can convey messages quicker and make life easier and more exciting, but they are ultimately dependent on the social conditions created through language.

Cave paintings and representational carvings define the beginnings of "external long- term storage" of information. External storage has several qualities of interest.

It can be used by the individual as an extension of "working memory" for immediate use in thinking.
It provides long term storage, for retrieval at a later date.
It can be used to communicate to other individuals.

Before children learn to read and write, they do not know the difference between a line drawing and a letter. When an adult writes an 'A,' to a child it is simply another drawing. It is a picture, different than a face or a house, but it is still just another image drawn with a coloured pencil on white paper. Soon children learn that combinations of these letter-pictures mean more complicated things. When the drawings 'A-P-P-L- E' are combined, they form another picture, which we learn stands for the name of the fruit. Now the letter-pictures become word-pictures that can spark other images in our minds of the thing they stand for. We further learn that these word-pictures can be combined with other word-pictures to form sentence-pictures. To a child, there is no difference between words and pictures -- they are one and the same.

It is not clear how much thinking skills are helped by early drawing, or how much knowledge is conveyed. Communicating via pictures is potentially powerful, but would have been laborious with early materials, and not very portable. However, it seems likely that early drawing, combined with the communications abilities refined through use of speech, must have played a role in the development of early pictorial written languages.

When you carefully analyze a visual message, you consciously study each visual symbol within that picture's frame. The act of concentration is a verbal exercise. Without verbal translations of the signs within an image, there is little chance of it being recalled in the future. The picture is lost from your memory because you have learned nothing from it. Images become real property of the mind and remembered only when language expresses them. Linguistic experts do not need to argue that images have no alphabet or syntax because such assertions are true. The alphabet and the syntax of images reside in the mind, not in the picture itself. They are often placed there by the professional art critic. Consider, for example the exhibition of one of Damien Hirst's works 'A Thousand Years'. It is a glass and steel box in which live maggots feasted on a rotting cow's head, while flies, fed on sugar water, meet a violent end through their random encounters with the 'insect-o-cuter'. It is accompanied by the words "an examination of the processes of life and death; the ironies, falsehoods and desires that we mobilise to negitiate our own alienation and mortality"

On a more mundane level. there are strong indications that the status of images in mass communication is increasing. We live in a mediated blitz of images. They fill our newspapers, magazines, books, clothing, billboards, computer monitors and television screens as never before in the history of mass communications. We are becoming a visually mediated society. For many, understanding of the world is being accomplished, not through reading words, but by reading images. Philosopher Hanno Hardt warns that the television culture is replacing words as the important factor in social communication. Maybe shortly, words will be reserved for only bureaucratic transactions through business forms and in books that will only be read by a few individuals. On the human law of 'minimum effort', reading is losing ground to watching because viewing requires little mental processing.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Painting and planting flowers

Flowers must have been our most intense source of the experience of colour for most of human history. Through the Middle Ages, cloth and buildings were drab. Stained-glass windows were intense visions. And then there were flowers. The richness of Dutch flower painting burst out from a delight in the depiction of impossibly sumptuous explosions of colour - vases piled high with paradisal flower presences, all seasons impossibly together, many of the flowers worth more in the market than the masterpieces that depicted them. Dutch and Flemish artists recorded in their still life paintings more than just a pleasing arrangement of objects for viewing. These works combined the tradition of the symbolic use of plants and animals, together with an interest in the sciences and the acquisition and display of rare and luxurious goods.

Albrecht Dürer's paintings of growing plants - specimens of grasses, cowslips, heartsease - give an intense visionary pleasure, simply because of the accuracy with which he recorded the crowding shape of the leaves, the exact yellowing stain of incipient decay. He saw the accidents of a particular plant and managed to make them into the essence of beauty as a process.

Shakespeare, contemplating the onrush of mortality and destruction, asked:

"How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea/ Whose action is no stronger than a flower?"

Flowers are tough, as well as fragile, and humans care about the relations between humans and flowers. Plants remind us of who we are, and what we have to lose. Like many people, I first met the idea of this kind of inner eye in Wordsworth's Daffodils, where he summoned up the golden brightness upon "that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude". Blake said: "I can look at a knot in a piece of wood until I am frightened at it". A reminder of DH Lawrence's "big and dark" Bavarian gentians, "burning dark blue,/ giving off darkness, blue darkness", blue torches leading into the dark.

Observation and creativity are cornerstones of advancement in science but these often pass unnoticed when students hurry past, obsessed with the two other cornerstones-control and measurement. We have only to look at Japanese prints of flowers, to see something of the attentive creative care with which the Japanese artists isolated the essential forms of a peony, or an iris. What we contemplate is the brilliance of the relation of the work of the hand to what the eye sees. Manet's white peonies are swirls of gleaming white, and grey shadows and gold stains, and are delightful almost as abstract paintings. This is a thought about what light does to paint, with the surfaces of the flowers represented primarily as the impulse to paint.

A study of flower paintings must always bring one up against Georgia O'Keeffe, with her infolded sexual flower-flesh, her enveloping petals, and her quivering stamens. Art is always a reflection of the hidden design of universe. It by nature is a reflection of light, order, beauty, mystery, meaning, cohesiveness, oneness, and organic, joyful wonder. To the extent that we have the inner Eye of wisdom to see, art becomes a lens through which we know ever more clearly, aspects of spirituality, within and without.

The origins of 17th century still life can be found in European miniature painting of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, in which artists made intricate illustrations for prayer books and took great care to make the images appropriate in quality to these religious books. Increasingly, the artists paid attention to decorative details of flowers and animals used as symbols of spiritual ideas. Emblem books are another tradition of illustration where animals and plants were used symbolically. These contained poems dealing with moral and philosophical issues, often rooted in medieval spiritualism. The imagery found in the paintings on display can be interpreted using traditional medieval symbolic meanings. The caterpillar and butterfly represented life and rebirth; the bee, a social animal, indicated diligence and hard work.

Based upon ancient Greek ideas of the four elements, the salamander, popular in medieval bestiaries, represented the element Fire; the frog represented Water; flying insects such as dragonflies and butterflies represented Air; the fruit and flowers represented Earth. Usually, the artists used a mix of flowers from the different seasons, and other objects to evoke the five senses, in order to convey the idea of the passage of time, and eventual decay. The four distinct stages in the life cycle of insects-egg, larva, pupa and adult-symbolized inevitable change and the passage of time.

Flowers point to the briefness of beauty and are the essence of spirituality, which is a distinctly human trait whereby we yearn to belong to something greater than the self. We desire to inquire the source/nature of life and death, address humanity's most profound needs and concerns, acknowledge intangible forces in universe. Botany is in an excellent position to reflect on all this. How can we structure such a joint on-going reflection of the two-way interaction between the making of gardens and the painting of them?

Charles H. Smith's note entitled: 'An aggressive book review of Grant Allen's The Colour Sense: Its Origin and Development, printed in the Nature issue of 3 April 1879 provided the following condensed formula for this interaction.

"Insects produce flowers. Flowers produce the colour-sense in insects. The colour-sense produces a taste for colour. The taste for colour produces butterflies and brilliant beetles. Birds and mammals produce fruits. Fruits produce a taste for colour in birds and mammals. The taste for colour produces the external hues of humming-birds, parrots, and monkeys. Man's frugivorous ancestry produces in him a similar taste; and that taste produces the final result of human chromatic arts."

Interpreting ourselves through colour and carrying that into the garden takes some management and a few simple strategies. Judith Evans' first piece of advice is: forget the colour wheel and traditional theories of hue compatibility. Most colours and all their shades fall into three groups-warm, cool and neutral. So let's start with the neutral tones, which, despite their calm demeanour, are key players in all colour expression.

The idea of a painterly approach to gardening was the colour-controlled border, which was first developed in the 1890s by Gertrude Jekyll. Her idea was to use cool colours on the ends of the border and rise to a crescendo of hotter ones at the centre. Although she planted many single-hue gardens, Gertrude Jekyll understood this.

"It is a curious thing," she said, "that people will sometimes spoil some garden project for the sake of a word.... A blue garden may be hungering for a group of white lilies, but is not allowed to have it because there must be no flowers in it but blue flowers. I can see no sense in this; it seems to me like fetters foolishly self-imposed."

At the Central School of Design in Kensington, where she enrolled in 1861, as one of the first female students, to study painting, Gertrude Jekyll attended lectures by John Ruskin (Slade Professor of Art at Oxford), Ruskin's pupil William Morris (who also founded his firm of Morris Marshall and Faulkner in Bloomsbury in 1861), and Richard Dresser (a Fellow of the Linnaean Society and an authority on decorative arts). Jekyll also had lectures from the Principal of the School, Richard Redgrave, on the scientific principles underlying harmony in the composition of colours developed by Michel-Eugene Chevreuil (head of the dyeing department at the Royal Gobelins tapestry works in Paris).

Ruskin was a great advocate of the paintings of JMW Turner, whom he considered to be the greatest English painter, so Gertrude Jekyll was encouraged to study Turner's paintings. The drama of his subject material and, in particular, his use of colour to highlight that drama, had a profound influence on Miss Jekyll's art in general and on her garden design in particular, focusing her attention especially on the use of flower colour in planting design.

Through a mutual friend Gertrude Jekyll met Claude Monet in the early days of his garden at Giverny. Their passions for gardening and painting and their concerns about light and colour were similar. Monet's were recorded for posterity in his paintings and are visible in the restored garden at Giverny. There beginning in 1890, the painter created a garden in which colour was as carefully controlled as it was in those of Gertrude Jekyll. Monet, who like Jekyll was nearly blind in his old age, was an avid gardener. His flower borders consisted of loose rhythmic bands of colour that became the subjects of his remarkable late paintings directly recorded the gardens as he saw them, painting in the open air. The painter declared that he was "striving to render his impressions in the face of the most fugitive effects." Thus, he painted what he observed: objects which transformed light into colour as it resulted from the play of light.

Jekyll also developed the concept of garden rooms and the one-colour garden, but it was Beatrix Farrand in the United States (Dumbarton Oaks) and Vita Sackville-West in England (Sissinghurst)who made them famous.

Ferrand was the niece of renowned American novelist and garden historian Edith Wharton. Through the creation of the gardens at Dumbarton Oaks, Beatrix Farrand exhibited a distinctive American adaptation of a Mediterranean garden form. Farrand was closely aligned with the English Gardening Movement and Gertrude Jekyll's planting designs. Furthermore, one of the key points of Farrand's originality was in her use of plants. In part by their providing colour, texture, and depth, she specified the actual plants to be strong design elements in and of themselves, taking the view that in setting a garden she was painting a picture?

Sissinghurst's garden was created by Harold Nicholson and his wife Vita Sackville-West in the 1930s. Although the Sissinghurst property was derelict, they purchased the ruins and the farm around it and began constructing the garden we know today. The layout by Nicholson and planting by his wife were both strongly influenced by the gardens of Gertrude Jekyll. Vita Sackville-West's passion for plants was shaped by her love of old Dutch flower paintings and by the choice of species she saw on her travels in Europe and the Middle East. The romantic associations of flowers with the past, painters and faraway countries were to influence her choice of planting as Sissinghurst developed. The influence of the floral arrangements of the Dutch masters is evident in the abundance and romance of an unstructured tumble of flowers, relying little on form and foliage. Structure was given to the garden by the arrangement of a series of 'garden rooms' created as spaces for the painterly arrays of bedded flowers contained by walls and hedges. There are actually 10 gardens, separated by hedges, arches, and moss-covered walls draped with climbing roses. Each one is unique and secluded.

Sissinghurst has been a major influence on late 20th and early 21st century garden design. It is a model of the use of plants to create living canvases of colour, which are abstract arrangements not far removed from the creation of the abstract expressionists such as the American Hans Hoffman. Abstract painting and the colour controlled bed of flowering plants both deal with the problem of the synchronised development of both form and colour. In its final state the colour development over the whole canvas or bed leads to the creation of colour, or light, complexes. The aim of their makers is to create a total pictorial totality with no fragmentation of colour or texture.

Sissinghurst planting plan of the White Garden

Photograph of Sissinghurst White Garden

Water colour of Sissinghurst Cottage Garden

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Bridging seeing and knowing

In the early 1970s John Berger and his colleagues reopened discussion about the relationship between what we see and what we know as being central to an understanding of the role of art in culture. In particular, the way we express our feelings pictorially is determined by what we believe. In the European Middle Ages the possibility of eternal damnation was a widely held belief, and Hell was depicted realistically. A picture of Hell formed in the mind of a medieval painter was reconstituted as a set of marks on a canvas or a church wall where it was composed of a well-defined arrangement of conventional elements. Although a highly personal figment of the artist's imagination, it would have been recognised by everyone as representing a tangible place. From this point of view there is no doubt that a picture can encapsulate the mindset of people in the past. Berger and his colleagues argued that no other kind of relic or text could offer such a direct testimony of belief across the ages. We can now see Hell as an irrational concept, which was communicated in examples of tonal painting, where colour is graded from the highest light to the deepest shades to depict material objects. Tonal painting is often described as 'true' painting. It is what the majority of the public demands as being familiar and comprehensible.

The opposite of tonal painting is 'abstract' or 'pure' painting. The choice of colours and their application to a two-dimensional surface with respect to position and texture, serves simultaneously a plastic and psychological purpose. Abstract Art does not try to imitate or express any external reality and is non-objective. Abstraction was introduced into serious art sometime in the early Eighteenth Century. It really got underway with Impressionism, which produced art devoid of any realistic, defined images. Impressionism aimed to depict nature in its truest form. The Impressionists were mostly interested in capturing changes in light throughout the day, from one season to another.

Abstract painting as an intellectual process was first defined by Kandinsky in his 1910 essay 'Concerning the spiritual in art'. He took the view that when an artist is turning an abstract idea into a picture in which material objects are more or less superfluous, real objects can be more or less omitted and replaced either by purely abstract forms or by 'objects' that have been completely abstracted from real forms. Always behind abstraction is the idea that abstract artists actually create forms that exist somewhere in the universe but on different scales. However, to an uninformed viewer an abstract work has to be taken and evaluated on its own merit as an arrangement of lines colours and textures. In the same year that he wrote 'Concerning the spiritual in art' Kandinsky, did his first abstract painting. Like many abstract artists, he saw himself as a spiritual as well as an aesthetic pioneer, feeling that abstraction was the best means available to artists for depicting an unseen realm of the mind. Without qualification he announced that the type of painting he envisioned would advance the new "spiritual epoch." In his book he describes the spiritual realm as a triangle in upward motion. At its apex stands a man whose vision points the way; within are artists, who are "prophets," providing "spiritual food."

In order to understand true painting, there are two points of reference. One is the dominant "realistic" reference. That is to say the painting is understood by relating it to the real world in some way. Its correspondence to a general standard of the nature of the material world allows a viewer to clearly identify the subject of the painting. The second point of reference is the internal design elements of the painting itself: lines, colours, mass, and so on. This second point of reference, however, is almost totally subsumed by the first. In contrast, in an abstract work of art there is no reference to the real phenomenal world; the standard of phenomenal reality has been abandoned. All that is left for a viewer to visually understand the painting is the second point of reference: the internal design elements of the painting itself that is, line, colour, shapes etc.

The majority view is that architecture and music are naturally admitted to be abstract arts, not required to 'represent' something, and subject to their own laws, whereas poetry, painting and sculpture are considered arts of representation. Ought this traditional distinction to be maintained or, aesthetics being universal, can all arts claim the same inherent autonomy as music and architecture? It does seem that abstract art was born from the very desire to emulate music and architecture, with a freedom and discipline of its own. Abstractors like Kandinsky, with his suggestions of music, and Mondrian, with his ideal of architecture, demonstrate the limitations and, at the same time, the achievement of abstract art.

It is useful to compare abstract art to music. Just as a tune is an arrangement of sounds in time, with no material meaning, so an abstract picture is an arrangement of shapes and colours in a flat plane. These pictures can be formal explorations of the principles of composition, where the artist is trying to get selected components to look 'right', just as one might when furnishing a room or arranging a spray of flowers. Abstract art can also express deep emotion. Often this is communicated by 'mark making' - rough or energetic strokes that reveal the physical energy used in their making; faint traces of colour evoke an ethereal mood.

In terms of the mindset of their makers, abstract pictures are sophisticated doodles. In their creation we have to distinguish between form in a physical sense and form in an aesthetical sense. The latter is the form of the work as a thoughtful creation of an attentive mind. Colour and form develop one through the other into a reciprocal compensatory relationship comparable to harmony and counterpoint in music, or direct brain-to-brain improvisation in jazz. Sound energy of music leaves player to enter the ear of the receiver. The energy put into a painting enters the mind as a clutch of different wavelengths of light. In the real world nature reflects ever changing patterns of light, and in a picture the artist creates streaks of light in fields and patches. A painter composes by manipulating light reflected from the picture surface.

Painting is always intuitively conditioned by the intellectual feedback from the flow of light from canvas to eye, and from the eye, via a sensitive, discerning and critical mind to an image in brain cells. The whole process has been described by the abstract teacher/artist Hans Hofmann as " a process of metabolism whereby colour transubstantiates into vital forces that become the real sources of painterly life". An abstract work of art provides a material microcosm that can please the viewer in terms of its novel arrangements of lines, colours and textures. These same arrangements can also provide doors and windows for the mind to add a personal meaning to the picture, which then becomes a storyboard for human communication. In this context we come pretty close to Leonardo Da Vinci's advice to painters that they should contemplate an old wall, firing their imagination on the basis of a shapeless surface. He said: "When you look at patches of colour on walls or walls made out of different sorts of stones, and you have to imagine a scene in front of you, you will see different landscapes with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, great valleys and groups of hills. You will also detect battles and rapidly moving figures, strange faces and looks, exotic costumes and an infinite variety of things to which you will be able to assign distinct and well-formed shapes" Discovering shapes in the glowing coals of a domestic fire exemplify the same response to abstract arrangements of materials and the energy the emit.

It has actually been discovered scientifically that famous works of abstract art achieve popularity, by using shapes that resonate with neural mechanisms in the brain that are linked to visual information. Humans make aesthetic judgements about shapes and forms quickly and easily, preferring certain shapes to others, even in the absence of any narrative. Dr Richard Latto from Liverpool University's Psychology department has discovered that these shapes resonate with the processing properties of the human visual system, which is responsible for analysing what we have seen. Humans inherit a basic visual system through the natural selection of an eye-to-brain system that provides very selective information about the world around us. It has evolved to provide only the information that we need to survive - for example, we cannot see most electromagnetic radiation or follow the leg movement of a galloping horse. In this way, evolution had given the viewer of an abstract work some genetically determined physiological mechanisms enabling responses to be made to certain shapes, colours and forms arranged in a way that is aesthetically pleasing. The viewer uses their own brain to monitor the effect. Certain arrangements of horizontal and vertical lines are popular because they resonate with our visual systems, which have been tuned by evolution and experience to respond particularly to these biologically and socially important visual stimuli in landscapes. As with other adaptive behaviours, we have evolved a mechanism to encourage us to concentrate on these features by rewarding ourselves with good feelings.

In Latto's view: "Artists were experimenting with abstract shapes long before scientists began analysing our nature of perception. Through observation or trial-and-error, artists have been identifying these aesthetic primitives - critical shapes and arrangements - and have indirectly defined the nature of our visual processes. In purely abstract painting, as with much music, form is all we have. Popular works have shown that essentially we like looking at what we are good at seeing."

Functional specialization in biology refers to the fit between form and function that is characteristic of biological adaptations to environment. For morphological adaptations like fins or wings, the meaning of "form" is clear. In the case of cognitive mechanisms, form refers to information-processing features of the mechanism. These can be thought of as the mechanism's design features (where "design" refers not to design by an intelligent agent, but by evolutionary processes). Typically, a list of a mechanism's design features would include a specification of the kinds of inputs the mechanism accepts, and the operations that it performs on those inputs. Of necessity, all mechanisms will operate on information only of a particular format. In this respect there are two aspects to viewing art: nativistic perception which is the synchronicity of eye and brain that transforms electromagnetic energy emanating from the picture's surface into neuro-chemical codes. This is hard-wired into the brain/eye sensory-cognitive system. The second aspect is directed perception, which incorporates personal history and knowledge of the entire set of our expectations and past experiences. Both forms of perception are part of the appreciation of abstract art, and both are products of the evolution of the conscious brain over hundreds of thousands of years.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The spaces in between

An exhibition of new abstract work by Susi Bellamy entitled 'The Spaces In Between' was held in the Castello di Gabbiano, Florence, from 8th May to 31st October 2009. The following is a description of how these works fell into five categories according to what motivated her inventiveness and the visual outcome. The aim is to span the always present gap between seeing a painting and then using words to describe what we know.

On a visit to the Natural History Museum in New York, Susi was attracted and inspired by the arrangements of rocks and crystals displayed on the museum walls. In her Classification paintings, she arranges areas of colour like rows of displayed geodes or pebbles that seem to hover in space against the almost transparent smoothness of the background. In the Resin Classification series (the smaller works in the study) Susi recycles old paintings into ovals and constructs them into layers cemented down with a thick resin. Gazing through the smooth, shiny surface, it is like looking through water into a deep bed of stones, a grouping of cells, or a mosaic, a pietra dura, made up of pieces of coloured marble.

In this exploration of chaos versus order, amorphic, kinetic areas of surface are set against backgrounds which are again, limpid and smooth. Sometimes the dense areas in these paintings break into swirls or rivulets of colour that spin away for mere millimeters from the central sphere, like the trail of light or gas from a comet. With this work, as in the Classification series, there is a startling trompe l’oeil effect, in which the coloured areas appear to be heavy concentrated masses floating in space. The edges of colour create a tension between the areas of bonded, centrifugal mass and the surrounding open space.

In this series, stratas of landscape are conveyed by a ‘fossil’ approach in which parts of an earlier painting on the same canvas are embedded and revealed in the paint. At times Susi paints in the negative spaces, the holes and streaks left by the rough surface of her trowel with a contrasting colour. At other times the introduction of gold leaf adds an extra dimension to the work – inspired by the Italian Renaissance. The sense of place arises from her travels in the USA and Italy, and from her British home in Northumberland, combined into mysterious evocations of familiar places blended in her imagination and memory. The interplay between looseness and control, one of the veins of investigation she mines in all of these works, gives these paintings a rich and organic texture.

Pool Series
Drawn to contrast and colour, Susi’s attention was caught one evening by a contemporary swimming pool, artificially lit to a brilliant turquoise against the natural darkness of an Arezzo night sky. In her subsequent painting she was inspired to explore the contrast between the artificiality of hard lines and the beautiful fluidity of the natural landscape.

In her series of smaller abstract works Susi uses acrylic to simultaneously convey both infinite space and the most microscopic of cells, or the smallest of evolutions in a Petri dish. These paintings suggest dreamed versions of natural structures and events. Patterns can mimic the folds and jagged edges of crystallization, the millennially slow process of fossilization, the sliding cross sections of tectonic plates, all suspended in a moment. Although these images sometimes have the weight and solidity of marble and stone, there is incredible movement here as well, as if they were changing at the speed of light at the exact second in which Susi imagined them. The colours are brilliant, vivid and alive with intense temperature, icy blues and lava hot reds. Sometimes grids of black uneven lines are honeycombed over the surface, like a membrane stretched thin on a microscope slide. The negative spaces and shape, brief areas of flat colour, create glimpses of sky, air or distance. In these beautiful works Susi continues to play with spatiality, with what is inside, between and beyond the spaces she observes and creates.

In her introduction to the catalogue for the exhibition Mary Murfin Bayley writes

The exploration of order versus chaos, the influence of Florentine artisan skills, and the opposition of the practical and pragmatic against the precious and the ornate, are all themes that re-occur in Susi Bellamy's work. With her rich, exuberant colours, her use of gold leaf, the layering and marbling of paint, and landscapes that bring to mind the rough texture of stone walls, Susi conveys the Florentine influence, catching a city encrusted with the antique surface achievements of the Renaissance reflected through a contemporary aesthetic.

Her atmospheric landscape paintings suggest both the geometries of ancient cities and stratas of stone and cliff. Susi paints in the negative spaces, the holes and streaks left by the rough surface of her trowel, giving order to something that has appeared at random. This interplay between looseness and control, one of the veins of investigation she mines in all of her work, creates a texture that appears to have grown naturally, a surface with spaces that seem to contain their own layers of distance and perspective. In other paintings Susi sets areas of pulsing swirling colour against backgrounds that are limpid and smooth. Whether arranged as rows of displayed rocks or geodes, or exploding from the centre of the canvas, spinning rivulets of paint like the trail of light from a comet, these concentrated areas of mass and colour seem to float, gravity free in open space. It is a startling and beautiful trompe l'oeil effect.

The spectacular images in this show - landscapes that suggest both constructed and organic vistas, floating pebbles and plasmas that appear solid and at the same time full of movement, the play of surfaces and distance - make up an exhilarating and beautiful body of work, charged with intensity. The paintings in "The Spaces in Between" transform the spaces around them, creating a glimpse of a world lit up with colour, life, and energy.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Intent and process in creativity

The human soul has still greater need of the ideal than of the real. It is by the real that we exist; it is by the ideal that we live Victor Hugo

Art is not a study of positive reality, but a seeking after ideal truth. George Sand

Art has always been a part of culture. It is the way humans express themselves, whether it is in the form of a painting, a piece of music, or literature. Art has always been the greatest outlet for expression and the easiest way to get an idea across to a large group of people.


Roberto Mari collected smoothed pebbles from the beaches and river beds of Tuscany and turned them into works of art by using the fracture lines as a guide to divide his colours into zones or fields. The Italian for smoothed pebble is ciottoli (pronounced chottoly). He made a pun on the name by referring to this inorganic universe of pebbles as Giottolandia. Giotto is the name of the painter who kick-started the move towards realism in Renaissance art.

These are some of the phrases translated from a brochure describing these objects.

"If human beings weren't able to note the passing of time (i.e. the geological events that produced the pebbles) they wouldn't be capable of feeling the sensible world and its objects in space"

"Ciottoli are stones that trigger new experiences, sensual feelings and scenes"

"They become the object and the subject of photographs that reveal them as high quality icons like natural paintings. Their hidden secret becomes decoded by the artist through his microphotos which have a strong, aesthetic impact"

“Giottolandia brings a reflection of the relationship between man and nature to the centre of our consciousness”.

You can see photographs of some of the stones he chose to paint in Mari’s gallery at:

These ciottoli indicate how the use of randomness as a generative principle could present an artist with a creative design environment where uncertainty or unpredictability is an intricate part of the process. The use of randomness can be dated to eighth century China where the teaching of Taoism led some Chinese artists to believe that chance images could be better explained as symbols of the artist's harmony with the cosmos. Wang Mo often got drunk before he splashed paint on a silk scroll, which he then kicked, smeared, scuffed, and sat on to achieve the desired effects. He finally used a brush at the end of the process, foreshadowing 20th century Dada's characteristic of adding conscious ``finishing touches" to random designs.


In an exhibition at the New Art Gallery Walsall in 2007 some works focused on randomness in nature. Works by Richard Long were created by dipping black and white card into the mud in the River Avon, while Alice Maher encouraged snails to trail across her etchings, leaving traces of the vegetable dye that she applied to their tails. Tim Knowles allowed different trees to participate in his drawings, by attaching pens to the outer branches and allowing the movement of the wind to create a drawing on paper that is placed beneath them, resulting in enigmatic, obsessive strokes. Krokatsis held fireproof stencils over burning rags allowing the ensuing carbon deposits to collect on the paper above, creating ghostly apparitions.

Currently the most successful artist whose work begins with randomness is Wayne Riggs. He began as a photographer taking closeups of weathered metallic surfaces such as portions of trash cans, cars, walls and the like to produce abstract images of the urban environment directly onto photographic paper. He then painted directly onto the photographs. He explained his interest in the random-start in 'Observations on a Early Photograph (

"The first thing I'll do is start writing my thoughts on how I have done my work up until this point. I started working in photography some forty odd years ago. What first comes to mind is actually a very early black and white photograph, that was taken, developed and printed when I was around 16. I remember it was a view of an old shed on the farm, the summer kitchen. It was a close-up of a window with no glass in it. The frame of the window had little or no paint on it and the white of the walls had been washed out long ago. Through the window was a double sink resting on the bottom sill, tipping downwards out toward the ground. The sink itself was old, but modern in the sense that it wasn't thick enamel but steel, so the bottom being black and the top being white cast a certain shadow onto the window. The faucets were still on it and were turned every which direction. In the sink that was outside the window, was a potted plant that drooped down over the edge going down and out of the picture frame. At the top of the window and the top of the picture frame was a piece of ivy coming from inside the shed; like a snake it wound its way downward towards the sink. This was not, of course, my first picture ever, but one that I do remember. As I look back on it now, I guess why I remember it is because of the randomness of it. The idea of a window with no glass, the idea of a sink in the window, the idea of a pot in a sink. Those random placements of these things - my father throwing the sink on the windowsill because it was in the way, my mother putting a pot in the sink because it looked like a good place for a plant, I don't know. I took a picture of it because it was interesting, although at the time I only guessed it was interesting. It was only after I saw the picture did I know it was, and then it is only now that I write about it. I write about it because I remember it, not the image per se but the randomness of the image".

From this point of view all art starts from randomness; the randomness of history, the randomness of nature and the randomness of becoming and artist. Randomness also enters into a work as it is being produced that can change the direction of intent. This is illustrated by Francis Bacon’s description of ‘accidents’ that occurred in his creative process.

“…. Of all the pictures I did in 1946, the one like a butcher’s shop, came to me by accident. I was attempting to make a bird alighting on a field. And it may have been bound up in some way with the three forms that had gone before (a previous painting), but suddenly the lines that I’d drawn suggested something totally different, and out of this suggestion arose this picture. I had no intention to do this picture; I never thought of it in that way. It was like one continuous accident mounting on top of another.

It suddenly suggested an opening-up into another area of feeling altogether”.

Talk about process brings up thoughts about the two elements behind the production of a work of art. Process is one of them and 'intent' is the other. With regard to intent, is it making money, becoming famous, realising an ideal or simply resolving something that puzzles you, like pure science?.

There is no universal form instantly understood by anybody just looking at it. Even the simplest of marks has a density of meanings and references. Even your way of looking is loaded with complexities of attitudes, ideas, experiences, and meanings that shape the image in front of you. To be unaware is to be blind. If the viewer does not ask questions about why it looks the way it does there is no way of really ‘seeing’ the world. For example, what is it about this particular combination of forms, lines, and colours that makes me think of certain things and feel a certain way?

To assume that it is possible to understand a work of art solely by understanding the intent of the artist is to also to make a leap of faith that the artist is being completely honest about his intent. Should one trust the stated intent of an artist more than a used car salesman? Are they not both, ultimately, in the business of selling their wares?

Some statements are are really meaningless in terms of intent. Consider the following:

“My intent as an artist is to create beauty. I try to express the beauty I see through my eyes and represent it either on silk or in oil paintings. The feeling of the art is all important to me. I try to create a mood and enhance it by the use of colour. I consider color to be my strongest point. I desire to share what I see with the world and as a result, create happiness....” Elizabeth Crowder


The following section is a development of the model of creativity set out by Brett Battey

Brett Battey

Most people imagine that the creative process flows from idea to realization. That is to say someone gets a creative idea, executes it, and the process is finished. Battey illustrates this as:-

However there is rarely a single idea involved in a creative work. Creativity is a feedback process consisting of a series of oscillating steps of action and assessment of the outcome.

Innovation occurs between ‘idea’ and ‘realization’. Between the idea and its realization there is action designed to realise the idea. If the idea is not realised a new attempt is made at a new realisation. Action and observation oscillate and the idea and realization are adjusted and changed repeatedly until the idea and the realization are brought into alignment.

In this process, the original idea and original realization can be transformed or discarded but the gap between an idea its realisation has been narrowed:

Battey placed a magnifying glass in the above diagram as a reminder that where the gap between idea and realization is narrow, high value is placed on fine details in the realization.
Where the gap between idea and realisation remains large there has to be an emphasis on injecting new ideas and sticking with the need to resolve the difference by repeated oscillations of action and observation.:

Creativity feeds upon itself and the innovator strings together a number of creative acts which spawn a larger creative process. Cyberneticists and system theorists refer to this as a ‘meta-change’, that is, change that causes a innovative thinking about new realisations.

For those innovators free from external goals each individual act of creation serves a larger act of personal creativity rather than being an end in itself. Innovation can become an agent of personal, and thereby societal change.

In summary, creativity as a process can be visualised as a spiral, where the first step is the vision of a model, either a tangible object or a mental picture of something. This generates an idea that this can be bettered. The novel idea is the start of an action pathway by which new versions of the model are created as prototypes on the way to an ideal end point. Prototypes are compared with the new ideal and ideas for changing them provide feedback into the action pathway. From time to time prototypes may be compared with other models, and this feedback is also used to change the prototype. Eventually the ideal is reached which is not capable of further changes in the mind of its creator. At this point, the creative pathway reaches a dead end. However, the final model may, on reflection generate a new idea in the mind of its creator, or become the start of a new action pathway in the mind of another creator.

The tile model

The following photograph was taken of a tiled wall in an Italian kitchen which was taken as the starting point for the production of a prototype which separated a flowery image from the hypnotic simple mass produced repeat pattern.

Tile prototype 1

This prototype stimulated thoughts about fruits, particularly the central seed producing structure of an apple revealed in cross section. This in turn triggered thoughts about the structure of a root

The apple idea

The root idea

These ideas resulted in the production of a second prototype which emphasised the foldings around a central ‘seed’.

Prototype 2

This lead in two directions to produce the following end points where creativity dried up.

The end 1

The end 2

Lichen model

This began with a photo of lichens on wall of Glastonbury Abbey (to be continued)