Saturday, December 12, 2009

Figure and Ground

Chris asks:

Do you normally think of the background at the same time as your subject? Do you consider the background to be the same thing as your subject? I would gather it is a pretty important part of the Mona Lisa, but I wonder if any of it came as an afterthought.

He's talking about Emma Twice. This is an interesting question, and it varies by artist, and even within an artist's work. I started out not considering the background when I started, but it led to too many compositional problems over time, so now I'm pretty careful to have a good idea of how the figure fits into a complete composition before I begin. Let's compare a painting with a similar background that I did before I adopted this approach, with Emma Twice. Here's the very old painting - I did the figure part in early 2006, and the background in late 2006:

I chose this one, On the Stairs, as an example of a "good save." I had a general idea about light and color, but not anything specific. So I had to cook something up after I had completed the figure. It's a lousy approach, I think, because you are likely going to sacrifice overall unity in your drive to just go ahead and start painting a figure you're excited about. Now let's look at Emma Twice again:
To me, this reads as much more coherent as a complete painting. You never anticipate everything, but you can anticipate a lot. For instance, here's how this painting came about: I thought of doing a painting of Emma, who is a delightful model to work with. Then I thought of the color. Then I thought of doing two of her. I initially had two different poses in mind, but they turned out to have no emotional connotation, and to be very difficult to hold. So then I came up with these poses and this mood. And then I had the idea for the stone she's sitting on and the flat wall with the value gradient across it. After that, I thought of the texturing on the wall by means of opaque and transparent paint interacting.

All of that was before I put paint to canvas.

The only part of the background that I came up with after the figures were complete, was those lines and corroded spots. That was a response to the Georgia O'Keefe show.

I hope that helps answer your question. My backgrounds tend to be somewhat detached from the figures because I'm not one of those guys that either: a) paints the figure in his studio, and puts the studio in, or b) comes up with a scene in a literal space, within which the figures are relatively less important parts.

I think of the "scenes" I paint as occurring in something I call Zero Space. That is, the figure is isolated from the world as we know the world, and rather, is lit in the final light, when everything else has been stripped away and weathered to dust. This is one of the main reasons for the nudity as well - I think of it in terms of an imaginary dictum, "It is only naked you will enter into the house of the truth."

That said, I'm not painting figures on figure-shaped canvases. I have to do something with the background. So I try to make it work with the composition overall, and at this point, I force myself to conceptualize it pretty completely before I start.

To tackle the problem from a different angle, we have here an opportunity to examine once again the weaknesses of scientism as an approach to art. First, let's clarify "scientism" a little. It turns out F.A. "Road to Serfdom" Hayek has a very good description of what I'm getting at. This is from The Counter-Revolution of Science:

It need scarcely be emphasized that nothing we shall have to say is aimed against the methods of Science in their proper sphere or is intended to throw the slightest doubt on their value. But to preclude any misunderstanding on this point we shall, wherever we are concerned not with the general spirit of disinterested inquiry but with slavish imitation of the method and language of Science, speak of “scientism” or the “scientistic” prejudice. Although these terms are not completely unknown in English, they are actually borrowed from the French, where in recent years they have come to be generally used in very much the same sense in which they will be used here. It should be noted that, in the sense in which we shall use these terms, they describe, of course, an attitude which is decidedly unscientific in the true sense of the word, since it involves a mechanical and uncritical application of habits of thought to fields different from those in which they have been formed. The scientistic as distinguished from the scientific view is not an unprejudiced but a very prejudiced approach which, before it has considered its subject, claims to know what is the most appropriate way of investigating it.

I haven't read the book myself. I'm guessing he's talking about economics and the social sciences. But this problem infects the arts in the modern period as well. The example I wanted to give was that of the Impressionists in relation to the figure/ground distinction:

Seurat, in case you're wondering.

Now to my understanding, the Impressionists made a big fuss about how Modern Science had demonstrated that there is no distinction between figure and ground (background) when light strikes the retina - it's all just light. And since they were going to be very modern and truthful, they were not going to indulge in any of the classical figure/ground separation tricks in their paintings.

What they failed to recognize is that the story is never finished with science. As Livingstone and her colleagues have more recently demonstrated, this claim about a lack of figure/ground distinction may be true about the raw light, but as soon as the light strikes the retina, it is subjected to increasingly complex and powerful neurological processing mechanisms which absolutely do seek figure/ground distinctions (starting with color and value contrasts and autonomously building up to lines and shapes) so that by the time the image is consciously understood by the mind, it has fundamental and irrevocable figure/ground properties.

So what did the Impressionists accomplish with their scientistic approach to image construction? Well, hell, they made some pretty good paintings. And you could even argue that their totemistic scientism enabled them to go off on a very interesting path that would not otherwise have occurred to anybody, in regard to the figure/ground phenomenon. They also happen to have produced some real crap based on this false unification:

Ooh! Blurry edges! You'll have to forgive me, I have it in for late-period Renoir. So look - he'd have been making crappy softcore porn even without this figure/ground stuff. But the point is that the figure/ground work they did was not any kind of scientific innovation the way they thought it was. As science-following, it was not faithful to the mechanism of sight, because the mechanism of sight was poorly understood then. Hell, it's probably poorly understood now, and anyone who thinks "I'll apply science to my art" would do well to consider that current science is also not definitive.

So as science, the figure/ground formulation they applied was meaningless. They weren't scientists. Of course it made for interesting art, but it wasn't science.

Worse, this particular historical tic does not respect the actual functional relationship between science and art. Which is to say, in the best instances, the intuition of artists leads scientists to discover new things. You remember how Shakespeare's characterization of Ophelia was eventually found to be a surprisingly accurate description of some pathological state later identified specifically by psychology? The same is true with regard to art and optical neurology, although of course, optical neurology, unlike modern psychology, is a real science.

Margaret Livingstone was good enough to forward Patrick Cavanagh's The Artist as Neuroscientist (that links to a google search, the first result of which is a PDF of the article), a fascinating and easy-to-read article on contributions of art to the modern understanding of how the brain processes visual stimuli to construct coherent spaces and objects. In this article, the proper relationship prevails: artists certainly learn from science, but before they slavishly try to perform cargo-cultish "scientific investigations," they depict things based on their insight and experience of how things look. And the way they do this, absent scientism, provides fascinating material for scientists to learn what "looks real" to the brain.

But hell - the Impressionists themselves, for all their scientism, made similar contributions, which you can read about in Livingstone's book. These contributions provide strong evidence that art overcomes even the stupid ideas of artists.

Anyhow, when Chris raised the topic of figure and ground, it reminded me of this particular art historical anecdote.

1 comment:

  1. there's always room for improvement.