Wednesday, December 21, 2011


I don't know how you blog, but how I blog is, I keep a list of topics for future posts, and then I pretty much ignore the list and write up whatever is on my mind. So I'm going to follow this procedure right now, and skip a bunch of stuff I've been meaning to tell you about. Instead, let me tell you about one of my projects for next year (there are a few, but I'll tell you about some of the others later).

One of my many methods for cooking things up is to let partial concepts swirl in my mind, until they link up with other partials, and eventually there is a whole thing - a makable thing.

Let me lead you on a path through some partials, and we will see what it summed up to:

Partial 1: Hypercolor

This is a painting I did late in 2010. It currently lives at Hilliard Gallery in Missouri, whither I encourage you to run and buy it:

La Mémoire, 2010, oil on canvas, 18"x14"

"Sangre de dios, Maidman, this is not your usual style at all!" quoth you. True. Let me explain. Ordinarily, the way I paint something is I draw a fussy underdrawing, as you can see here, because I hate to try to put things in the right place at the same time that I'm dealing with color and value. Then, I choose an undercoat color which I spread over the canvas by means of some turpenoid and a cloth. Then I paint into this undercoat while it is wet.

In this instance, I did the underdrawing and the undercoat, then took a step back and said, "You know what, I like this a lot. I think I'll leave it like it is."

This idiom gnawed at me; I wanted to do more paintings in the same mode. In fact, I tried it twice, with distinctly mixed results:

The Prayer, 2010-11, oil on canvas, 14"x18"

Nursing, 2010, oil on canvas, 24"x18"

These are OK, I think, but what's missing from them is the accidental quality of the first one. I meant to do these as they are.

After the third one, I decided to leave it alone for a while, because clearly I had no idea what to do or how to do it. But something important about it struck me: it is the first idiom I've discovered in which I could consider doing a narrative painting, with a story and characters and everything. You can see this emerging in the third painting.

If you've been following my work, you may have noticed that I have been moving toward greater simplicity, and farther from narrative. I cannot support narrative, with sincerity, in my work - except in this idiom. In this one idiom, I can easily picture it.

Call the idiom hypercolor.

Partial 2: Frankenthaler

With hypercolor running in my mental background, my mind eventually drifted to one of the abstract expressionists I hate least, color field painter Helen Frankenthaler.

Helen Frankenthaler, Mountain Pool, 1963, acrylic on canvas, 48"x78"

It's not even so much that I dig Frankenthaler's work. I dig it in flashes, but mostly, I dig the idea of her work - the large, irregular zones of color, placed with an eye to the elements of design such that, somehow, they work.

(As an aside, I think this mode of appreciation of the work shades into what the conceptual artists get at, that the work itself is detritus, vanishable, a codec of an idea: the artist compresses the idea, and the viewer decompresses it, so that the true art exists in the mind on either side, and the quality of the work as a disposable transmission medium is foregrounded. I find the idea of Frankenthaler delicious, but the fact of Frankenthaler somewhat tedious. I cannot bind strongly to this mechanism, so in my own work, I will continue pursuing the painting in and of itself as the incarnation of a sensual phenomenon.)

Doing a little research now, I find that Frankenthaler's method of application is frequently the same as the one I stumbled on with the hypercolor partial - non-brush application of oil paint, heavily thinned with turpentine. Of course, she didn't prime her canvases, so they have a grossly finite lifespan. But still, I know where she's coming from in terms of the physical question of moving paint to surface.

What I learn from Frankenthaler is the possibility of integrating a large canvas area into a single composition using the general category of color shapes I ran into with the hypercolor paintings. Do you see why this is important? Consider Rauschenberg:

Robert Rauschenberg, Charlene, 1953-4 (4 panels, multiple materials, 89" x 112")

Rauschenberg also demonstrates that a large picture space can be compositionally unified, but he uses so many elements that the fact that he's not actually making a representational image reflects more that he's a prick than any formal consideration.

not a Rauschenberg, but not fundamentally different from a Rauschenberg either

Now consider Frankenthaler again:

Helen Frankenthaler, Flood, 1967, synthetic polymer on canvas, 124" x 140"

This painting is enormous, nor is it busy, but it holds together, and it holds together using an array of elements more in line with what I'm interested in.

So I added Frankenthalerian composition to hypercolor technique in the swirl of elements building toward a project in my mind.

Partial 3: Cassandra

I always try to match the project to the model, and the model to the project. And as this project germinated, it occurred to me that it suited Cassandra, an absolutely stellar model whom I've been drawing for a little more than ten years now. I used to draw her in Los Angeles, and we moved to New York around the same time, and I've drawn and painted her here. This is a painting of Cassandra:

Merops Iphikrates, 2009, oil on canvas, 60"x36"

This is another:

The Sister of the Storm, 2010, oil on canvas, 60"x36"

Something you would only vaguely figure out from looking at this work is that Cassandra is a dancer with a flair for costume...

...and a taste for the alchemical:

Cassandra's performances are riotously fun to attend, and painting her is one of the great pleasures of my life as an artist.

When I hit on making large paintings of Cassandra, using the hypercolor combination of refined underdrawings and washy color fields, and the Frankenthalerian integration of the picture space, I thought I had completed assembly of partials into a project, and I was excited to start...

But no ideas came to me. I doodled a couple possibilities, but "random naked chick + color" wasn't cutting it for me. Grumbling, I had to move the project from "active" back to "pending," and wait for further inspiration to strike.

Partial 4: Inanna

I'm not sure how this idea emerged. It's probably just a synthesis of a few things - that Cassandra casts a mythogenic field around her, that I'm interested in the harrowing in hell to begin with - but I eventually thought again about the Sumerian goddess Inanna, and from there came to the strange story of her descent into the underworld.

Inanna is a goddess of war and unlawful carnal knowledge. Also a virgin goddess. And one time she pulled a Prometheus and proliferated technology to the people of Uruk. Nobody's going to accuse the Sumerians of theological consistency.

Be that as it may, Inanna, for reasons not entirely explicit, decided to go down into the underworld and have it out with her older sister Ereshkigal, who ruled there.

It turned out hell had seven gates, at each of which a gatekeeper demanded one of Inanna's garments, which also functioned as instruments of her powers. You could call this part of the story The Deadliest Striptease. Inanna entered the underworld naked, which comports with my motto, "It is only naked you will enter into the house of the truth," as well as with Cassandra's talent for burlesque.

When Inanna met up with Ereshkigal, she died, and Ereshkigal hanged her on a hook. She hanged dead for three days before Father Enki's minions showed up, applied the life-giving plant and the life-giving water, and busted her on outta there.

Maybe she gained the power of life and death. It's not clear. Sumerians.

Now, this story motivates some nudes (you may have noticed I'm not averse to nudes). It provides a character Cassandra can play to a T, a narrative to match the hypercolor idiom, and a mythological context complimentary to the Frankenthaler landscape. But more than that, it is a story I find personally moving.

I do believe that we must all be harrowed in hell - that we are all Dante, and we will never leave our dark forest except if we go downward. I do believe that we must die and be born again. I believe we must stake our souls, going naked into the house of the truth, if we are to be saved. I believe we must abandon every hope, even the hope of salvation, before salvation will come down to us, and we will emerge glorious from our wretchedness. I believe we must do this again and again; that we will be weary, and will believe that we have done with it - and then the dilemma will re-emerge, and again, we will be forced either to become directionless grey ghosts, or to go down to the dark room, and the hook, and the hopelessness, before the life-giving plant and the life-giving water are bestowed.

This is a story I believe; it is a story I can tell.

So this was the final partial - now the project is ready to begin, telling this story, this way, in twelve or fifteen paintings. It will be one of my main pursuits in 2012.

I hope you all will find yourselves renewed in the new year.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Aesthetics of Information

So, my job involves a very strange set of science-related skills: I need to know a fair amount about every branch of science, I need to be able to communicate this knowledge in an easily-understood way, and, very importantly, I need to never (or almost never) make a mistake - I need a hair-trigger alarm for what I don't know.

What, you thought I made a living from art?


Ha ha ha.


No, my friends, I most certainly do not make a living from art.

Be that as it may, my per se job provides an excellent opportunity for refining an understanding of the aesthetics of information. I don't literally know most of what I functionally know about science. Rather, I have a pretty good understanding of what scientific knowledge looks like. Each branch of science has its own texture. For instance, biology is the science equivalent of the English language - delightfully large in vocabulary and full of irregular verbs. It is a field composed as much of examples as of principles. Unless you are certain of some biology fact, you cannot assume it is true; the molecule that carries oxygen in humans is not the same as the one that carries it in horseshoe crabs.

Hemoglobin versus hemocyanin. Who knew, right?

In classical physics, on the other hand, you can re-derive a fact given a surprisingly limited number of principles. The kinetic energy of a falling brick is not noticeably different from the kinetic energy of a helium atom.

One wants a sense of the aesthetics of information, both to maximally extend what one knows, and to have a sharp sense of the boundaries of one's knowledge.

Now, how do you extend what you know to make almost completely reliable guesses about what you don't know? You take advantage of a grasp of the aesthetics of the body of information - and then you form an analogy. A does X, and B is like A with regard to the relevant factors, so B probably does something very like X in the same situation. Identifying the correct relevant factors is the key - that's a matter of aesthetics. One gains a sense of aesthetics by tasting a huge amount of information, even if much of it is eventually forgotten.

A basic example to illustrate the point: fluorine bonds with one atom of hydrogen. Bromine is in the same column on the periodic table as fluorine. Elements in the same column have similar properties, and columns toward the edges of the table (like that of fluorine and bromine on one side, and hydrogen on the other) don't have multiple bonding ratios. So probably bromine bonds with one atom of hydrogen as well.

Spoiler: it does.

This is analogical thought, and it is very powerful for extending your functional knowledge, as long as you keep in mind the difference between what you actually know and the considerable volume of smack you're claiming to know.

I personally suspect that it is also a characteristically Jewish way of thinking. There's a reason for this. Judaism, among its bewildering variety of definitions, is a system for living. This system for living is defined by an extensive written body of law. The law, however, cannot possibly be as detailed as the universe. In referring a potentially infinite variety of real-world situations to a finite body of law, it is necessary to extend what is known (the law) to what is unknown (how to behave in a given situation). This scaling-up of the law to match unanticipated situations occupies a great deal of classical Jewish scholarship, with extensive recorded disputes about the applicability of various points of given law to new situations.

Rabbis disputing until morning

Case in point: it is possible to derive the implicit anti-abortion position of Jewish law despite a lack (so far as I know) of a specific prohibition on abortion. How? Because the laws regarding murder specify that the murderer of a pregnant woman shall be tried for the murders of two people. This is analogical reasoning at work:

A (murderer of pregnant woman) does X (goes on trial for murdering two people).

B (abortion) is similar to A with regard to the relevant factors (termination of a fetus).

Therefore B does something like X (abortion constitutes murder of a human being).

Most contemporary Jews do not sit around arguing points of Talmud with one another. But I run across this kind of thinking disproportionately among Jews, and have therefore concluded that the pattern of thought persists in the culture even though the instigating practices have long since receded into the background.

It is interesting to note, as long as we're discussing the topic, that there are two other major modes of reasoning (that I've mused on, anyway). There is also:

Syllogistic reasoning, which derives new knowledge from the premise "All A are B," a much more demanding and rigorous approach than "A is like B."

Revelatory reasoning, which derives new knowledge from the premise, "Aha! A and B are the same!"

I can reason syllogistically when I can be bothered to put in the effort, and when I'm on fire, I can reason revelatorily. But I am primarily an analogical reasoner. My friend Chris is a syllogistic thinker, which means that winning an argument with him is a bitch, because of his tendency to point out that you're talking a considerable volume of smack. My wife Charlotte is also a syllogistic thinker. Chris's ancestors were Italians, and Charlotte's were Scots. So they gave us the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, and therefore we'll let them off the hook for being such fussbudgets about strict proof.

Leah, subject of the Blue Leah paintings, is a typically well-educated secular Jew, whose ancestors no doubt came from the next ghetto over from mine in Ukraine. Leah reasons analogically.

Blue Leah #1, oil on canvas, 24"x36", 2011

Alley, subject of Her, is of Swedish descent, and reasons revelatorily.

Her, oil on canvas, 36"x36", 2010

I don't know if that has to do with her being Swedish or not. I don't know anything about Sweden except for that Liv Ullmann is a babe.

Liv Ullmann

Believe it or not, all of this has something to do with art. It has to do with the old problem confronted by everyone serious about figure drawing:

Should I draw what I see or should I draw what I know?

Arguments about this topic go all over the goddamn map, and frankly they're not very interesting, because the map isn't very big. But I think I can lay claim to a diverting wrinkle in it, so here we are.

As you possibly know by now, my own history with figure drawing divides roughly into an early craptastic period:

life drawing, 2001

And a later shockingly-awesome period:

life drawing, 2011

The border between these periods is 2001-3, during which time I was involved in cadaver dissection at Santa Monica College, under the guidance of Dr. Margarita Dell. It was a period of two years during which I spent as much as 40 hours a week drawing my own personal anatomical atlas:

you don't even want to know what that is

So you'd think that I would bloody well be on the side of the draw-what-you-know camp. But you'd be thinking wrong.

Here's an interesting twist: because I'm lazy as all hell, I didn't ever memorize the names of any structures. Not one muscle, not one bone. I see artists going around saying, "Yeah, and there's the iliac crest," and I'm like, "If you say so, dude."

We fix this kind of explicit detail in our minds with words. So if you asked me to draw you a diagram of the muscles of the body, I would have large regions known as "getting it wrong." Same deal with bones. No way could I draw you that mess of bones in the center of the foot, even though I picked them apart and drew them more than once:

So what did I learn from two years of formaldehyde headaches? I learned the aesthetics of anatomical information. The body is a chaotic grab-bag of things. There are two fundamental modes of making sense of it: explicitly learning all its structures, or looking at it long enough that you get it. I did neither. I retained the aesthetics of its structures, and I applied that knowledge to looking at it.

What does this buy me? I can't tell you where a muscle starts and stops. But I know the insertion of a muscle when I see it. I can't tell you the standard distribution of fat depths beneath the skin, but I can see the difference between muscle and fat. And I can't tell you all the points where bone typically stretches skin, but I know its shine when it's there, so I see its shape as well.

What I know is so partial that it is flexible. I don't have a systematic approach to the body - I am constantly thrown back on direct perception, as ignorant as a child. But I also have a sense of the aesthetics of the body. This helps structure my perceptions just enough to lead them to anatomical accuracy. Consider Leah's left shoulder in Blue Leah #5:

Now consider the same phenomenon from the perspective of explicit knowledge:

That bulge just to the right of Leah's armpit, catching a bit of light, is her teres major, overlaid with an adorable shot of yellow adipose tissue (fat). The region between the left dink and the right dink is her infraspinatus. We're not seeing the edge of her trapezius because it's relaxed and not as well developed as one expects in, say, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The next bright line we see, moving right, is the medial border of her scapula.

I didn't think of any of that stuff while I was painting it. I thought, "bright spot, dink 1, dink 2, shoulderblade."

I think it's very, very difficult to draw the body accurately on the basis of looking alone. On the other hand, I think it's next to impossible to draw the body realistically in the context of medical-grade anatomical knowledge. Why? Let me deploy another analogy.

Early in the history of Assyriology...

Assyriology is the one with the cuneiform tablets

...scholars drawing copies of tablets tended to draw what they saw very accurately. Why? They weren't so sure as they are now what was meaningful and what wasn't, so they instinctively took down everything so as not to miss something that might turn out to be important.

W. M. Flinders Petrie, published 1894

Try copying something in Chinese sometime, and you'll see what I mean.

Later, once cuneiform was better understood, typical renderings of tablets became more idealized:

Possibly Hans Güterbock, after 1960

By this point, scholars were drawing symbols, not things. They knew what was essential, and they threw away the non-meaningful idiosyncrasies of the tablets in front of them.

This is the danger of total anatomical knowledge. Once you learn what is "meaningful" anatomically, you automatically subtract what is accidental to the person actually in front of you. The living model becomes a story written in physiological letters, in the inflexible syntax of anatomy. Just ask Prud'hon:

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, Study for La Source
c. 1801, Black and white chalk, 21 3/4 x 15 1/4 inches

And this is something I oppose (although I like Prud'hon quite a lot). My work looks much clumsier than the paintings of many of my classically-figurative contemporaries. The anatomy is accurate, but it is not a given. I want the sweat to show. When I build up to a figure, I don't want that figure to fall into place as if it were always so. I am not - just now - painting the Human who lives in the sky. I am painting the particular people in front of me.

I learned the aesthetics of information in this field by learning its knowledge and then forgetting much of it. This allowed the course I prefer - depending on the aesthetics of information to help me organize what I see. I didn't want pure empiricism to make me incapable, and I don't want knowledge to make me blind.


As always, take this with a grain of salt. I am describing here the exact method I am using right now. And I have a tendency to think that every little thing I do is not only right, but inevitable. When I change methods tomorrow, I'm sure I'll have a clever reason for my new method being ever so perfect. So please, please remember that this is an advocacy for one of many valid procedures.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Heat of Battle

Last time, we plunged headlong into a complicated discussion of subtle properties of Ingres drawings, and the subtle mechanisms they answer to in the brain.

Since then, I've had a chance to actually see a bunch of these drawings in person. I forgot, I live in New York. It turns out New York is the kind of place where you can drop by the Morgan Library and see a show of a dozen or so of their own Ingres drawings and a second show of drawings from the Louvre, including a bunch of other Ingres drawings, including this one:

It turns out the two figures are wedged together like that because each one was cut out from a larger piece of paper and then they were matted and framed together. By, I suppose, a goddamned idiot.

But I did not come here today to scoff at French curators with you. Non. Rather, I would like to discuss something else which this show brought vividly to mind. I think Stanislavski says it better than I can - in this scene, the drama student narrator of An Actor Prepares finally reaches the point of real acting:

My hand ceased wrapping the string around my fingers and I became inert.

'This is the very depth of the ocean,' explained Tortsov.

I do not know what happened from then on.


Tortsov explained: 'The coming of inspiration was only an accident. You cannot count on it. But you can rely on what actually did occur. The point is, inspiration did not come to you of its own accord. You called for it, by preparing the way for it. ... The satisfying conclusion that we can draw from today's lesson is that you now have the power to create favorable conditions for the birth of inspiration. Therefore put your thought on what arouses your inner motive forces, what makes for your inner creative mood. Think of your super-objective and the through line of action that leads to it. In short, have in your mind everything that can be consciously controlled and that will lead you to the subconscious. That is the best possible preparation for inspiration. But never try for a direct approach to inspiration for its own sake. It will result in physical contortion and the opposite of everything you desire.'

Konstantin Stanislavski, An Actor Prepares, pp. 291-2

Stanislavski is describing a transmogrification I have treated before: that the act of art-making cannot be perceived - the narrator "does not know what happened." It can be prepared for, yet when it arrives, consciousness as we normally think of it zeroes out. Skills deploy of their own accord if they have been acquired in advance. Talent stretches itself to its limit. But the will and the understanding are curiously absent.

What Stanislavski describes relates pretty closely to every single description of pitched battle I have ever encountered. (Let me clear up any confusion: I have acted. I have not been in battle. I am a bad actor. I imagine I would be a fairly bad soldier.)

As I understand it, and I am very open to correction here, there are three fundamental types of battle:

• the seige
• guerilla skirmishes
• the pitched battle

Pitched battles are the ones we generally think of when we think of war: symmetric set-piece encounters where enemy forces meet, on a field if one is available, and try to kill each other. The force left standing wins. Bloodshed is worst when neither side will yield. Both sides will go on butchering one another, from the tribal warfare of ancient Greece to the trenches of World War I (for more on this, see Victor Davis Hanson's marvelous The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece)

Descriptions of pitched battle consistently invoke a condition in which the immediacy and dynamic multipolarity of incoming lethal force produce a constriction of the soldier's universe. Strategy and tactics erode, thinking erodes, all that remains is the exertion of countering force and a terrifying struggle to survive. The condition is similar to that of Stanislavski's actor - he is thrown back on training and character, and if he is to prevail, he had best hope these qualities, and luck, serve him well.

This strikes me as one reason that generals often sit on hills; so that they can think. The shape of pitched battle, and the guidance of its course, are overwhelmed in the midst of the fight.

This model of pitched battle is, oddly, rarely portrayed well in war movies. On the other hand, it is portrayed exceptionally well in virtually every zombie film - Field Marshal Moltke's comment that no plan survives contact with the enemy is faithfully rendered time and again when the walking dead are involved.

the enemy
(not pictured: the plan)

I, and most of you, have never experienced pitched battle, so essentially we don't know what we're talking about. But we have experienced a similarly universe-constricting condition, and that is illness. Do you remember, when you were sick, how your long-term plans, your overriding concerns, and your complex thoughts shimmered and dissolved, and you were reduced to - what is this smell - this heat - this dampness? What can I do to make this pain less?

There is an idea behind illness, but it is not apparent to the sick person. There is an idea behind pitched battle, but it is invisible to the soldier. The idea can be discovered, in the calm of cleanliness and quiet, and light and time, in the laboratory and the strategy tent. In the field, they are lost.

To bring this back around to Ingres, we have been studying him in the laboratory and the strategy tent. We have described his efforts and their effects from the perspective of utter premeditation and calculation. But picture-making, like acting, and battle, and disease, is a state not of thought, but of confrontation with force. It is categorically similar to battle: order emerges out of chaos, as a function of preparation and good fortune.

So what I learned - or, rather, remembered - confronting Ingres face-to-face, was that all these theoretical concerns are apart from the direct act of creation. Looking at Ingres drawings directly, you can see before you the struggle of their making: the curves traced out multiple times, uncertainly, as he gropes toward the shape he seeks; the abrupt dark checkmarks, overlying existing lines, where he decides a note of emphasis is required; the zigs and zags of a changing evaluation of how to confront the problem at hand.

Only in the faces does perfection annihilate all traces of its evolution. There are no errors in the faces, no dropped lines, no hesitations. Nor are there erasures. In person, you can duck to catch a raking light on the paper and study its texture. Erasure leaves alteration in the texture of the fibers of the paper. There are no erasures in the faces.

Even so, the experienced artist will recognize what he is seeing: a combination of profound talent, immense skill, and the forbearance to think through the placement of the preliminary marks, pencil hovering over the paper like a dowser's rod, before the fatal commitment proceeds. It is nearly superhuman - nearly, but not quite. I've done it. You've probably done it too. It is one of many tools; a tool on which Ingres relies heavily in his faces. The darkest lines in the faces occur near the end of the drawing process, once he is dead certain he's gotten their placement right. He builds up from light to dark, on a tightrope, avoiding error at each step, and finally gets his 100 in the class.

The moral of the story is that much of this blog approaches art from what might be called the wrong angle - we go into analysis quite a lot, teasing out the subtleties, the mechanisms, and the counterintuitive impacts of the mechanisms of picture-making. But this is not how I make work. Work is not made in the laboratory and the strategy tent. It is guided and understood from the hill, but it is made in the mud and the chaos and the heat of battle. This is important to remember.

Friday, November 25, 2011


You will perhaps remember that when we left off talking about Ingres, we were discussing the implication of form and volume in drawings of his like this one:

To continue, a little bit of neuroscience, courtesy of Dr. Margaret Livingstone.

In her marvelous book, Livingstone describes two evolutionarily distinct systems of visual processing in humans, which she calls Where and What. Where is a primitive system, shared with many mammals and tuned to movement and location. The younger What is a sophisticated system shared only with primates. It is responsible for object recognition and detail analysis.

What itself is subdivided into Form and Color (her casual names, it should be noted, do describe anatomically and functionally distinct structures).

Form is a high-resolution part of the system, using color differences and brightness differences to determine the shapes of objects. Color identifies the colors of objects, and it is surprisingly low-resolution.

As a matter of information processing efficiency, our brain basically produces a colorless high-resolution image, then smears some colors onto it, much like a painter proceeding from a well-defined grisaille underpainting to a hastily-completed color painting. This resolution difference has been exploited in video technology with the use of 4:1:1 color space. 4:1:1 is a data-compression system in which the brightness of each pixel of a frame is defined individually, but color is defined in blocks of four pixels:

4:1:1 saves a lot of space in a video signal, and interfaces perfectly satisfactorily with the lopsided resolutions of our Form and Color systems.

This simple general description unfolds, of course, to reveal all kinds of fascinating quirks. When we were talking about Ingres a few weeks ago, I made vague reference to how the heavy dependence on line makes unusually extensive use of "the information-completion procedures of the visual brain." By now, you should know that I don't especially like vague references. So I've been thinking about which exact procedures I'm alluding to, and this led me to re-consider one of the quirks of Form/Color integration in the evolved What system of the human brain.

In chapter 11 of her book, Livingstone gets into the nitty-gritty of how the separate information feeds from Form and Color are re-integrated to produce a coherent image in the mind. One of the topics that arises is color and edges. It turns out that part of the edge-detection machinery we discussed a while back results in our being strongly sensitive to colors at the boundaries between regions of unlike color, and weakly sensitive to colors in homogeneous color fields.

(As an aside, this gives us some insight into the sense of suggestion in Rothko paintings:

Mark Rothko, No. 14, 1960, oil on canvas, 114 1/2 in. x 105 5/8 in.

By producing nearly, but not quite, homogeneous color fields, he is producing the visual equivalent of a sound one cannot quite make out. He causes us to strain at the limits of our sensitivities, becoming awake to subtleties which we ordinarily fail to perceive. His fields begin to shimmer with suggestion, with the evolving interaction between true presence and phantoms.)

But back to the point - we are sensitive to colors at the edges, not the centers, because of the edge-detection machinery of our visual systems. Our brain compensates for this physiological deficiency with a truly ridiculous trick: Autofill (my own sarcastic term, not Livingtone's). We see, for instance, a red apple as totally colored in part because our brain, receiving a "red edge" signal, fills the interior with red:

You see how you kind of see the interior of the bottom apple as reddish? I don't mean full-on red. But it doesn't look like the same white as the background. And yet, it is. That's "the information-completion procedures of the visual brain" I was talking about last time. Wild, huh?

Livingstone, wise in the ways not only of neurons but of paintings, illustrates her point with this Cezanne painting, The Lime Kiln (1890-94):

Cezanne, it would appear, was the man at exploiting this particular visual system quirk. All artists hack the human visual system at one or more points of weakness. Cezanne enjoyed using Autofill. Consider his apples as well:

Cezanne, Still Life with Apples, 1890-94, oil on canvas, 18 1/8 x 21 5/8 in

Observe how he darkens the edges, and makes the colors more rich at the edges. This is not an outcome of the frontal lighting alone. It also answers to visual integration in the brain, producing a startlingly vivid sense of presence by reinforcing the mechanisms of the Form and Color systems.

The presence overwhelms that of more realistic depictions of fruit - Hockney points out the relative lack of vividity of Caravaggio's fruit:

Caravaggio, Basket of Fruit, 1597

Why? In part because Cezanne has amped up color and contrast. But also, because he is depicting not only what we see, but how we see it. We are observing not the external world, but the partly-garbled outcome of our means of perceiving the external world. The painting, in a sense, is already inside of us: what was inward has been made outward. He speaks to us, mind to mind, soul to soul. These apples are icons not only of matter, but of consciousness. I have discussed this concept with you before - a painting which is not biologically alive, but is in a metaphysical sense at the boundary of being a living thing. It is excavated from the depths of the mind, and shaped as it is by the processes of the brain, correlates with no thing in the physical world.

Now, I'd like to extend Livingstone's claim with a little experiment. Let's look at the same apple comparison with the color removed:

Huh, that worked. I just did this in Photoshop myself - you and I, my friends, are the laboratory for this experiment. You see how the interior of the bottom apple looks faintly darker than the background? Autofill is still working. If it's the same Autofill Livingstone describes, what this means is that the Color system doesn't depend on actual per se color to signal the mind to see a continuation of edge color. It just needs a value difference delineated by a sharp boundary on one side and a soft boundary on the other.

Now let's see what happens when I try this:

Yes! It works! OK, notice how the white region of the right half of the apple looks a little darker than that the of the left half? Almost as if a slice had been taken out of the left half, so that you were still seeing the apple's skin on the right, but the flesh of the apple on the left? Of course, all of that interior is exactly the same shade of white.

What we've done here is evoked a complex response on the part of Autofill. On the left, there is an edge, but no interior gradient shading to instruct the system to autofill the interior of the apple. On the right, the gradient shading does deliver the autofill-interior-of-apple instruction. Overall, we know the apple is one closed form. But our brains are treating it as having two different color regions, resulting in perception of two different interior brightnesses; even if we can't quite tell where the boundary lies, there is a distinction.

Forgive me if you've already deduced where I'm going with this. We are treating a simple example here, but an example with the markers I wanted to explore: a figure depicted on a white field by means of outlines of diverse qualities. Having demonstrated the principles involved in a simple system, we can extend the conclusion back up to the real system of interest:

Like Cezanne, Ingres has hacked Autofill. His variation of line is delivering a series of instructions to the Color system to observe value differences which are, for the most part, not actually depicted in the drawing. These value differences are interpreted by the mind as depictions of form. Ingres is using his mastery of line to trick the brain into seeing imaginary forms.

And that, my friends, is what makes Ingres a master and you and me a couple of shmucks with an art supply store discount card.

Let me add one more thing before signing off: I am not immune, as perhaps you are not immune, to the persistent worry that one can strip the mystery and beauty out of art by looking at some facet of it and finding out what it is and how it works. Reflecting on the matter, I have reached this formulation: that to know what it is and how it works is not the same as to know what it means, or why. We can - indeed, as working artists, to some extent we must - find out how to achieve the effects we intend. But to learn these things, even in the painfully analytic manner of this blog, has never breached, nor can ever breach, the muscular bond between the image in the eye and the sensation in the soul. Ingres, Cezanne, Rothko, and Caravaggio come through this examination intact, because when we look at them, we are not seeing with our analytic understanding alone. Indeed, for me, this additional element of knowing serves only to reinforce the impression - "How miraculous is their work, and how miraculous are we, to see things as we see them."

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Claudia Does It Again

I'm working on a typically over-ambitious bit of discussion of Cezanne in relation to the topics raised by Ingres in the last post. In the meantime, here's how Longfellow translates the opening of Dante's Inferno:

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

One time, that happened to Claudia. When she got out of the forest, she was an artist's model. As you might imagine, she did not art model with the idle fecklessness of somebody marginally supplementing their income, nor even with the cool professionalism of somebody taking pride in doing a job well. Claudia models with the zeal of somebody who has discovered what they are meant to do. She models like she means it.

Portrait of Claudia, graphite and white pencil on paper, 15"x11", 2010
This doesn't look exactly like her, but to me, it feels like her.

Being linguistically and analytically gifted as well, Claudia has a lot to say about the constellations of artists, models, and art she encounters in her charmed life. She writes the irresistibly charismatic Museworthy blog. Let me refer you there now, because she has done a typically generous and delightful thing: a virtual show of art by readers of her blog, including me. As ever, thank you for everything, Claudia...

Here's the post.

More soon.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

How did he *do* that?

Like me, you've probably stood in front of a drawing by Ingres, and thought, "How did he do that?"

How, Jean-Auguste-Dominique? How?

By "that," of course, I mean, "accomplish that strange graphical flatness without sacrificing a sense of volume and verisimilitude." This is what that trixy sonofabitch Ingres did that is so mystifying.

Consider his 1836 study of the rather anemic Madame Victor Baltard and her daughter Paule:

Look carefully at the face. There are few darks, very few. She is lit entirely; there are few halftones, and the only full shadows are cast shadows at the lower eyelid on the right, the bottom of the nose, and the lips. In short, she is the next thing to being a line drawing only, like the architectural detail on the left. Yet we have no trouble interpreting her as three-dimensional, fully formed.

This reads naturally, but in my experience it is a deeply unnatural way to draw, and never arises by accident. So how did Ingres pull it off?

The effect is even more pronounced in the bottom figure in his 1814 study for La Grand Odalisque:

Consider how much of the figure is blank paper! Ingres has somehow completely indicated the mass and form of a figure without drawing anything at all!

Well, perhaps you are lazy like me, and you have admired this effect in Ingres drawings and never gotten around to analyzing it enough to replicate the technique. That's a safe short-cut, until the day arrives when you suddenly wish to use the technique and don't have recourse to a book of Ingres. That fateful day arrived for me last Monday.

I was at Spring St., where the beautiful Claudia was modeling. Having been out of town or otherwise occupied quite a lot recently, my drawing was rusty, and I was not particularly pleased with most of what I was doing. For the final 40-minute pose of the evening, Claudia took a reclining pose. And I thought to myself, "Holy shit, it's Ingres lighting! I can do an Ingres drawing!" And a second later I mentally wailed, "But I never figured out how!" So I was in one of those delightful high-wire situations where you have to solve a complex problem on the fly to meet an opportunity which will never come around, in quite the form presented, ever again.

Re-deriving Ingres' pictorial principles as I drew, I came up with this:

Claudia, graphite and white pencil on paper, 15"x11", 2011

Let's leave aside for a moment any questions of quality and discuss this from a purely formal perspective, because I think I pretty much sorted out how Ingres was pulling it off. The system depends on a set of internal and external variables being set to values which complement each other - external variables being those pertaining to the subject, and internal those that pertain to the drawing technique itself.


1. The lighting must be frontal, so that the brightest planes are those perpendicular to the line from viewer to object. Planes advancing toward the viewer or receding from the viewer turn away from the light as well, resulting in darkening, as can be seen in the central foot in this drawing:

Study of Hands and Feet for "The Golden Age" (1862)

The front of the big toe, and the bottom of the gap between the big toe and the second toe are bright, but the facing sides of the big toe and second toe are dark, because they are turning away from the light. Similarly, the edges of the foot darken more than its frontal plane, as they too dip away from the viewer, and the source of light.

In fact, this lighting scenario produces something rarely seen in reality: an actual outline. Because views of rounded objects always terminate in edges turning away from the viewer, the dimming of turning planes results in a distinctly dark edge. Here reality merges with line drawing, and a scenario occurs in which an object can be drawn largely with contour lines and still retain realism.

2. However, the light must not be on exactly the same axis as the viewer - the viewer should not be sitting beside a spotlight. There must be an offset, producing mild shadowing on one side of the figure. The result of this effect is well-pronounced in this drawing:

Study of Seated Female Nude (1830)

In this instance, Ingres has placed the lighting to his left, producing halftones of recession on the left, but true cast shadows begin to emerge on the right.

This offset is not important pictorially, but rather cognitively. The eye is attracted to even lighting, but it slides off of pure even lighting: equal dimming on the left and right sides of the object makes the object unfocused. A weighting of the dimming to one side anchors the object, producing a greater impression of form. You will see this offset again and again in Ingres, and in the case of the Claudia drawing, the offset was as much as 50 degrees - but it still didn't read as true lighting from the side.

3. The primary object must be pale in color. This is lighting for marble, alabaster, and white people. Why? Because the technique depends on high contrast between the local color of the object and the half-tones, cast shadows, and edges.

Claudia's Armenian, with a kind of bronze skin tone and olive undertone, but for the purposes of making an Ingres drawing, she is of sufficient honkitude to work. Especially if you're drawing on tan paper, as I was. You can see in my drawing that much of the variation between brightest-brights and moderate brights results from variation in local color, not in lighting. Which is to say, her breasts and pubic bone are brighter than her belly, not because the light there was brighter, but because the skin there is lighter (Claudia, perhaps, spent a great deal of time gallavanting around Cape Cod in a bikini this summer). Accurate reflection of variations in local color is insanely difficult in monochromatic drawings of chiaroscuro lighting situations, but relatively simple to do when using Ingres lighting.

4. Soft light. It is important that the light softly model the object. Hard edges to shadowed areas are apart from the purpose here, as well as spotting of light around dimmer regions. The light should be broad and diffuse because, as will be explained below, the drawing technique itself heightens contrast.


Constructing a situation in which it is possible to draw an Ingres-type drawing is insufficient to actually draw an Ingres-type drawing. You and I, walking into the studio at Spring St., would certainly have looked at Claudia in that pose and immediately thought, "Ingres." But an innocent bystander might well have missed the resemblance, and this would have been a valid interpretation of the scene. In fact, Claudia looked nothing like an Ingres drawing. As much as Ingres' drawing technique is grounded in a certain configuration of externals, it is also a wildly stylized technique. It only looks realistic. Let's consider some of the distortions involved in translating even a well-suited scene into an Ingres drawing:

1. Nonlinear gamma

Gamma, as used in visual technologies, is the name for a particular mathematical formulation of the relationship between original object brightness and representation of object brightness in the reproducing medium (computer monitor, movie screen, inkjet print, paper and pencil drawing). Here's a recent photograph of me in front of some building somewhere:

This image's gamma, represented here by Photoshop's CURVES tool, is linear - input brightness is strictly proportional with output brightness, producing an ordinary tonal range with lots of intermediates (greys, half-tones).

Now here's the same picture with a little gamma modification:

In this case, the gamma has been altered so that output brightness remains at zero for a few degrees of input brightness up from pure black. Likewise, output brightness goes to pure white before input brightness reaches there. So a lot of darkish regions have gone to black, and a lot of brightish regions have gone to white. Also, the graph curves, so that there is a rapid transition from black to white, with fewer intermediate values. But notice that the curve is not an even curve - it has a bulge in the top half of the graph. This bulge drags halftones toward lightness, and clusters them in the bright range.

You will notice that this image looks much more similar to an Ingres drawing than does the first version: it is composed of flat bright regions, falling off abruptly toward darkness, with little in the way of middle values.

It doesn't take Photoshop to accomplish this gamma distortion. All it takes is knowing what you're trying to accomplish (or, in my case, figuring it out quickly while sweating bullets at Spring St.). Consider the Claudia drawing again:

You think those shadows under her butt were that light in person? Fuck no. They were pretty dark. But the halftones were dragged toward brightness by the nonlinear gamma of the representation, and they wound up pretty light. On the other hand, the shadow beneath her neck was just a little darker - so it started to fall off the cliff of that steep curve toward really dark.

2. Finicky line

This technique lives and dies by line - choice of line, and quality of line. It is a simplifying technique, and the line must be consistent with that. Extraneous lines must be eliminated, and remaining lines must be traced out beautifully. Whether or not you think I hit any beautiful lines in this drawing, the principle stands: that because line is so important to the paradigm, the character of the line must be clear, specific, and well-executed for a drawing inside the paradigm to succeed. Of the 40 minutes I had for this pose, I spent about 12 on the lines alone, an unusually high proportion for me (I'm a partisan of the let's-wing-it faction of art).

3. Precision of form

Line must be executed brilliantly because it is so explicit in the Ingres drawing. Form must be executed brilliantly, paradoxically, because it is not. What I mean is, the tonal compression of this technique eliminates much of the information about form available to the eye through halftone rendition. This means that the Ingres drawing depends unusually heavily on the information-completion procedures of the visual brain. Therefore, the half-destroyed traces of form found in the drawing must correspond unusually precisely with those information-completion procedures in order to invoke them correctly. Practically speaking, it means that if you want to use the Ingres model to depict a figure, you have to really know the jesus out of your anatomy.

A failure to know the jesus out of anatomy is amply demonstrated by a different, and enormous, body of work. The Ingres technique is closely related to a second technique: pencil drawings by not-very-talented beginning artists copied from pictures in Playboy magazine. I'm not going to provide any examples here, because I'm not in the business of trashing innocent dilettantes, but Hef long ago figured out the same thing Ingres did: diffuse frontal lighting looks great on the figure. So when people who are clearly never going to be functional artists take it into their heads that they're going to draw nudes, and go to the obvious source for the non-serious art student, they stumble immediately on Ingres lighting. And invariably, they soon figure out to blend their tones by smearing their pencil marks with their thumbs. Also invariably, they incorrectly invoke the form-completion software of the brain, because they don't understand a thing about anatomy.

4. The well-placed dark point

Here we begin to depart from the representational altogether and enter into the purely compositional elements of the technique. Look at Ingres's 1815 drawing Lady Harriet Mary and Catherine Caroline Montagu:

This time around, consider the darkest points in the picture: the curves where the hats meet the (caucasian) girls' heads. A couple spots where the taller (blindingly white) girl's shawl meets her shoulders, the bow under the shorter (pigmentally challenged) girl's chin. And a few other points.

The function of these points is to organize and focus the composition, and round out its range of values from full white to full black. While these are necessary functions, it was not necessary that these particular points be chosen for the purpose. Any number of points could have served. Ingres chose these points for a reason described by art teachers as "wanting to lead the eye in a particular way, or emphasize certain structural features of the figures or narrative properties of the scene." I personally have never believed this kind of thing is so explicit for an artist, and prefer to phrase it that he chose these points because they felt right. Anyway, he had a lot of leeway with his choices. There is always a lot of leeway in this mode when choosing the needed points of maximum dark.

In the Claudia drawing, I placed my darkest darks where her raised near arm meets her side, at the deepest incurve of her waist, where her butt separates from a fold in the cloth underneath her - and on the lower curves of her farther breast and rib cage. Why up there? Who knows, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

5. Good sense

All this exposition has hopefully made a couple of things clear - a. that successful use of the Ingres technique depends on a higher skill level than most other branches of realist drawing, and b. that within the realm of realist drawing, it is perhaps the most subtly but radically expressionist of modes. Because it fools the eye into considering it realist, while partaking of such extreme stylization, it affords a very broad field for interpretation. Beyond all of the mechanical considerations covered above, and even beyond the semi-abstract consideration of the well-placed dark point, the technique depends on inspiration, on a well-formulated vision, on taste and style - on all the things that go to make up good sense. Consider again Ingres's more fully-rendered study for La Grande Odalisque:

It remains mostly white. But look at the majesty of curve, where he has found the outlines. Consider the eroticism of the selected shadows - her armpit, the lower curve of her breast, her butt, her thigh, the shadow of her arm, and the bases of her toes. Where Ingres's eye has snagged, your eye snags. Where he has adored a form, you will adore a form. What he craves, you too must crave. This image is not a representation of a thing that exists in the world. It is a conversation between Ingres and his model, and Ingres is doing most of the talking.

Now, I'd like to offer the usual caveat. I've talked up the skill involved in making an Ingres drawing, and I've talked some smack about people who do it wrong. I've offered a drawing of my own as an example of the technique. And the caveat is - I'm not making any claims of success. That's not for me to decide, and trust me, my judgment is harsher than yours anyway. I offered my drawing because this subject was on my mind while I drew it, and I learned as I drew, and I felt like I could illustrate many of the principles I'm discussing by reference to it. It is very possible for a picture to demonstrate a principle without also demonstrating it well. I'm still learning.