I’m currently reading Noah Gordon’s The Physician, the story of a Christian masquerading as a Jew so he can study in the ancient medical school in Persia during the Middle Ages. Authors have to describe their characters and the world they inhabit in order for the reader to imagine a realistic place, even if the location could only exist in the imagination. I find this book a great escape from the histrionics of the recent news cycles.
An artist who wants to render a three dimensional scene on a two dimensional surface has the extra challenge of learning a new visual language to describe the scene. Drawing in perspective is a brand new way of seeing and rendering a multidimensional world on a flat surface so the appearance of depth and solidity is realized. In some paintings, the artist’s style of painting depicts objects with photographically realistic detail. These works can “fool the eye” of the viewer.
The realism of Gerrit Dou’s “The Doctor” allows us to see the portrait of the physician through a window niche. The bas relief sculptural rendering on the wall is partly covered by a luxurious rug, on which a burnished copper dish rests. The window behind the Doctor adds a back light, but he uses the primary light from the niche opening to observe the liquid in the specimen container. His assistant is in the dimmer light of the background. We are looking through this window and watching him pursue his calling.
In other art works, the “realism” isn’t so much concerned with photographic accuracy, but with the emotional experience of the space rendered. The Scream, painted in 1893 by Edvard Munch, uses classical one point perspective to introduce the sensation of depth with the bridge. The two people walking away balance the one facing forward, who screams from the gut. The colors and shapes of the landscape are emotional reflections of the interior, psychic experiences of the screamer.
In art class last year, we had several lessons on perspective. Most students, no matter what their age, dislike these basic lessons. They want to jump right in and learn to paint a still life, figure, landscape, or a building. Unfortunately, if they jump over these basic instructions in drawing, they struggle to set a form in space or have difficulty getting the proportions of the objects correct in relation to eschew other. Art school students usually have have an entire semester class devoted to the multiple forms of perspective. I remember drawing the overhead pipes, book shelves, the corners of rooms, and anything else that had a vanishing point.
Perspective teaches us how to see by eliminating the extraneous and unnecessary information and concentrating instead on only the simplest and essential forms and lines. We can hold our paint brush handle up to the objects to measure them. This helps us know if the cone is twice the height of the cube, or 2.5 times. When we lay in our first sketch in a pale yellow wash, we don’t worry if it isn’t exact, we can adjust it with the paint. Why don’t we draw it in pencil? This tool tends to confine our creativity, since we’re used to small movements for writing and filling in correct answers from our school days. It has an eraser, so we struggle to get it “right.” Then we don’t paint with our hearts, but mechanically fill in the lines of a paint by number design.
Last week I was sick, and when I came back from the dead, others were down for the count, working the polls, or working in the salt mines. Gail and I were the only ones in attendance. She’d had the benefit of doing this lesson before, so I suggested we take the setup as a springboard for our imagination. We looked at some modern architecture, which depend on geometric forms for their design interest. One that caught our eye was a simple stacked design of rectangular blocks in a smoky atmosphere: Charles Willard Moore’s “Late Entry to the Tribune Tower Competition, Perspective,” 1980.
When we got busy painting, I put on Dvorak’s New World Symphony, since we were creating a new world for our new buildings to inhabit (the link below is to you tube, if you want to listen along). I also ate a few Girl Scout Samoas, since I bought several cookie boxes from Gail. They reside in the freezer now so I don’t eat them all before Easter. I’m sure Gail can supply you if you want cookies.
While painting, I often lose track of time, perhaps because I enter into this “other world” of my creation. I focus on the image I see and the image I paint on the canvas. My problems fade away, for all I can think about are how to bring the form closer to the foreground: do I need a lighter, brighter color or do I need to change the direction of my brush stroke too? I may need to darken the shape behind or the shadow below it to best evoke the depth of space. Sometimes just a line across the back is enough to set the objects in space, but if we’re trying to build a new world, we might have to indicate some form of landscape.
We talked about the science fiction movies which invent an entire language complete with syntax and vocabulary for the various peoples and architecture suitable for their worlds. If we lived on a planet of crystalline structures, we’d always see the individual parts of white light. Then we’d be people who analyzed the world about us and looked for multiple meanings in the simplest of sayings. If we lived on a hot desert world, we might yearn for cool, dark places, so caves would be our preferred dwelling places. There’s a home for each person, for as Jesus reminded his disciples in John 14:2—
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.
If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
What is real, you ask, and what is true? What comes from the heart and mind of the artist is real and true. It may not be of high quality, but proficiency comes from putting your true self into your work, without holding back. As the hand gains competence, the heart and mind have to struggle to remain true to the unique person who creates the work. The great danger is we become proficient at pleasing others for the sake of fame or fortune. Then we make pretty pictures, which will decorate walls and match furniture, but we may not reach the depths of the human heart and emotion required to produce lasting works of art.
None of us in our art class are here for fame and glory, yet we are progressing as the weeks go by. I like the rich texture of Gail’s Martian landscape and the red dust filled atmosphere of her painting. The odd geometric shapes look right at home on the extra planetary body. My landscape has a spring fondant look of a non-Lenten pilgrimage hostel or BNB. If anyone wants to journey elsewhere, the road is open before us, and is limited only by our imagination. Art class is where we let our minds stretch to consider the impossible and then create a structure to take us there. This is why VISION, HOPE, and OPTIMISM are also part of the artist’s toolbox.
Gerrit Dou, The Doctor, 1653, oil on panel, 49.3 x 37 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, inv. no. GG 592. Photo credit: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY (artwork in the public domain)
Edward Munch: The Scream
Dvorak: New World Symphony