Saturday, October 31, 2009

Optical Black: Part 2

So what does all this mean in terms of art itself?

If you hang out with painters for any length of time, you'll find that they tend to categorize painters as "form painters" and "color painters." A story for which I sadly have no pictures: in art high school, we were assigned a drapery painting. My classmate Sveta chose a colorful piece of cloth and immediately started defining it in her painting by means of modulations of the colors. I chose a piece of dark blue satin and lit it brightly from above. I laid in a simple layer of blue, and then when that was dry I built up the highlights with pure white, and the darks with "black" (you remember - french ultramarine plus burnt umber). I couldn't figure out how Sveta was doing it! At the same time, I was able to achieve marvelous subtlety of form, but I felt that this was too easy, that it couldn't be a legitimate technique. It turns out it was legitimate, and it's exactly how Tintoretto did it.

Sveta was a color painter, and I was a form painter.

I haven't got Livingstone's fantastic book with me right now. I want to get back to this idea of two different visual processing systems. Humans are trichromats - our color receptors are specialized to three different light wavelength ranges, and our brains compare the data from each specialized type to assemble the colors that we perceive in the visual spectrum. That's how we have color vision.

But until fairly recently, we were dichromats: two specialized color receptors produced a much less colorful world. If I'm remembering correctly, it was during this period that we developed our primary visual processing system, which perceives in black and white. Livingstone calls this the What system. Once we became trichromats, we developed a second, relatively independent system, which perceives color. Livingstone calls this the Where system.

My suspicion is that What-oriented painters are form painters, and Where-oriented painters are color painters.

Now we return to Harold Speed. Speed classifies the history of Western art into three periods:

1. Naive color, characterized by linework and blocks of color:

2. the Brown period, characterized by monochromatic formfulness:

3. Impressionism, characterized by panchromatic naturalism:

Speed claims that each period excels the one before in terms of its dexterity at representing material nature - and yet each one declines in terms of the scope of ideas it is able to convey. They are inversely related for Speed. The more sensual the art, the less need it has to appeal to the reason, and, in fact, the less capable it is of doing so.

He points out the poignant example of Botticelli, a man outside of time. Botticelli has lots of ideas he needs to convey, but he is already living in the Brown age, the age of chiaroscuro. So he simply rejects the innovations of the world around him, preferring to work in a flatter, more primitive style. In refining this to an ever-greater simplicity, he eventually abandons even color, and reaches the celestial majesty of his illustrations for Dante's Paradiso:

This extremity was accomplished when people already knew how to shade things! But this was not what interested Botticelli, this shading. He was trying to capture the struggle of the naked soul toward the divine. Every physical thing was a distraction from this struggle, and the evolution of painting since the Renaissance, in a technical sense, was an evolution toward the physical. So Botticelli cast himself backward, toward the Medieval period.

Now, as I said, I'm a form painter. I don't see color intuitively in the same sense that Monet and Seurat see color. In a later post, I'll explain how I produce paintings with believable color while working in a monochromatic paradigm. But for now, I'd like to explain: I think Speed has a point about the decline in thematic range and profundity with the switch from monochromatic to panchromatic painting:

...and yes, I know that's not a fair comparison, but still.

The point is that when you have all these vivid and fervent colors available, what can you paint but gardens and weather and light on buildings? The part of the brain that understands all these colors is young - it takes everything we've got to really appreciate those colors. It is only in the comparatively ascetic atmosphere of the dulled color that the mind has the breathing room to observe the perambulations of the soul as it goes where it is going.

The filmmaker Tarkovsky understood this distinction as well, working on various ingenious techniques to mute the color in his films (before the age of digital processing). Black and white, to him, was insufficient, but full color was too distracting:

From one perspective, I'm building up a fairly good argument for cognitively monochromatic painting. But even this argument, restricted as it is to complexity of theme, is suspect. Because, remember - I'm a form painter. I have a lot to gain from form painting being the most excellent form of painting.

Worse still, by basing my argument on looking at actual paintings, I'm invoking a host of uncontrolled variables. Monet's technique may well be applicable to the sufferings of John the Baptist. Maybe the reason he didn't paint John the Baptist is not technical limitation - but because Monet no longer lives in the age of religious devotion. Maybe Monet is responding to his market as Caravaggio responded to his.

So how are we supposed to control for these variables? It is not possible. But it is possible to control for some of them - by changing the actual paintings we're looking at. In the next part, we'll take a look at the other gang of painters who figured out panchromatic painting around the same time as the Impressionists did: the Academics.

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