Knowledge or experience

Coffee house muses (c) Samantha Groenestyn

Malcolm Budd (2012: 205) is not restrained in his admiration for Richard Wollheim’s (1987) influential book Painting as an Art, but he finds Wollheim’s appeal to a distinctive phenomenology by which we encounter paintings to be rather extravagant. Wollheim’s (1987: 22; 181) account of pictorial representation notoriously avoids language-driven accounts of representation, and turns squarely toward our experience of what it is like to look at a painting. Crucially, finds Wollheim, we exercise a remarkable ability (not exclusive to looking at paintings) to be aware of both the painted surface and of something depicted in it–at the same time. He calls this phenomenologically distinct feat ‘seeing-in.’ Budd (2012: 194) finds seeing-in to be inadequately described and unsupportable. What Wollheim cannot escape, he argues, is that our ability to grasp what a picture represents is inevitably grounded in knowledge. Proposing added visual experiences is a superfluous move when we inevitably need to secure representation by means of knowledge.

Wollheim introduces seeing-in between the perceptual experiences of ordinary seeing and illusion. Seeing, on its own, is a wonderfully complex process, but what has been traditionally difficult to account for is that a painting presents us with two very different objects of attention in the one object. The same marks may be seen as marks on a surface or as the scene or person they represent. This adds a layer of complexity to seeing that has proved difficult to reconcile. Ernst Gombrich (1959: 5) champions illusion as the solution, arguing that we do not see both surface and image at the same time, but that we are able to flick between the two visual experiences. When we attend to the image we submit to the illusion. Budd (2012: 187) clarifies that this by no means demands that we hold a false belief; rather, we are able to hover between two different perceptual experiences that have the same representational content. But what he finds unsatisfying about Gombrich’s solution is that it excludes the possibility that we can experience both at the same time.

Wohnzimmer (c) Carl Moll (1903)

If we reflect on the experience of looking at paintings (the kind of thing a phenomenologist would do), it would indeed seem that we can attend to both surface and image at once. Gombrich’s insistence that one cannot seems stubbornly at odds with the experience of looking at a painting. Certainly, sometimes we are so caught up in the picture that we concentrate more on its content, but (aside from plausibly-located trompe l’oeils) we are not prone to mistake paintings for the thing that they depict, nor to really forget that they are paintings. Sometimes we are so enamoured of the paint that we neglect the content, but it is difficult to block out the content entirely. Perhaps the best counterargument to Gombrich is the kind of painting that proudly brandishes its physicality, of which countless fine examples abound. Let’s limit our examples to the Viennese painter Carl Moll. His naturalistic portrayals of Viennese interiors and parks and hills are recognisable scenes of breakfast settings and villages among forests. But their dappled marks of all manner of inflection, their tight design and their honest but somehow augmented colours are inescapable reminders that the object of our vision is a painting. The distortion is always just enough that the paint must always be present in our experience, even when contemplating a Wiener Frühstück.

Mutter und Kind am Tisch. (c) Carl Moll (1903)

Wollheim (1987: 46) begins to describe such experiences, echoing Leonardo da Vinci’s (2008: 173) example of the battles and landscapes to be found in textured walls by the daydreaming eye, but his appeal to phenomenology goes little further, argues Budd (2012: 194). By Budd’s estimation, the phenomenon remains under-described, and in any case, it is not clear that the step is at all necessary. At least one feature of the experience must be established: Budd (2012: 193) argues that seeing-in must involve distributed attention, a specifically non-focused attention that roams the picture as we take in the picture as a whole, or an attention rather meditatively shared among the many properties of a picture (a theme Bence Nanay (2016: 13; 21, 22) takes up with great enthusiasm). Without distributed attention, the perceptual experience simply lapses back into seeing (in which we see only paint) or gives way to illusion (in which we see only the image).

Rather than pursue the necessity of distributed attention, Budd recasts Wollheim’s earlier and later accounts of representation in terms of his own favoured emphasis on depiction. The choice is significant: depiction frames representation explicitly in terms of a referential relationship. It says that a picture refers to something else in the world which it depicts, for which it is in some way a substitute, without being equivalent, for the thing in the world does not ever depict the picture. This explanation insists that pictures are dependent on the world. Moreover, it operates in a very linguistic way, treating pictures (or their parts) rather like propositions that refer to objects or ideas. I am not too sympathetic to this attitude and neither is Wollheim. His explicit rejection of language-driven explanations makes his unconventional appeal to phenomenology unsurprising. It is clear that Budd persists in the propositional tradition of representation, but we shall examine his criticism nonetheless.

(c) Carl Moll

Depiction, he begins, demands an awareness of two things: both the marked surface and what is depicted (Budd, 2012: 186). When we are aware of both, we can correctly determine what a painting depicts. Were we not aware of the surface, we would think we were looking at the real thing. Were we not aware of what is depicted, representation would break down and we would be left with an incomprehensible arrangement of paint. Traditionally, work on representation tries to relate these two kinds of awareness, but the real problem, explains Budd (2012: 186), was always a knowledge-based one. The awareness of what is depicted is comprised of two parts: that we can see that x is depicted, and that we know what an x is in order to recognise it. Representation, when it succeeds, hangs on this knowing what before any concern about perceptual experiences. For a spectator to see a representation of snow, he must first know what snow is, then see that there is snow in the picture, and finally see that the picture is on a surface and is hence a picture and not actually snow.

Winter in Preibach (c) Carl Moll (1904)

Wollheim describes his special perceptual capacity, on which seeing-in is based, in two different ways as his theory develops. The early version describes it as two simultaneous experiences; the later version describes it as a single experience with two aspects. Budd treats each version in turn. The early stance states that seeing-in is based on a special perceptual capacity that involves simultaneously seeing two things: one that is present before the eyes and one that is not. The paint (or the rough texture of the wall) is what is directly visually perceived; the snow is also visually perceived but it is not there. Seeing what is not there, by Wollheim’s account, is a ‘cultivated experience,’ and here, argues Budd (2012: 196) lies the gap that Wollheim cannot fill perceptually. Wollheim can see that there is snow, but must bring his knowledge of what snow is to the picture. The what is hidden beneath the that.

Wollheim’s later account simply buries the problem even deeper, Budd (2012: 199) continues. In merging the two experiences into a single perceptual experience, twofoldness, with two aspects, a configurational and a recognitional aspect, Wollheim neglects to explain from whence this recognition arises, if not from some prior knowledge. The gap, the epistemic blank, reemerges in this subordinate part of the unified perceptual experience.

Let us examine this knowledge gap. For Wollheim (1987: 44; 89), it is crucial that all the resources that a spectator needs to engage with a painting are contained within that painting. This is because he wants to locate the meaning of a painting within itself, rather than use the painting as a tool for getting at the meaning of the world. The latter kind of position, held by proponents of symbol-driven theories like Nelson Goodman (1977: 241; 260; 265), see the painting and its elements as substitutions for concepts or objects in the world, as something that must always be interpreted in relation to the world. To ascribe a painting this kind of placeholder-status is to treat it propositionally: like language. Wollheim knows that we bring our own preconceptions to a painting, and he does not utterly discredit this type of meaning. But, he argues, it is not the most illuminating nor the primary type of meaning that paintings can have (Wollheim, 1987: 22). Indeed, we can engage meaningfully with a painting in spite of a lack in our knowledge.

At the sideboard (c) Carl Moll 1903

Consider a painter, perhaps from Australia, who has never seen snow. She has, however, seen paintings of snow, and has heard a few things about it. Everything she knows about snow has been gained from second-hand sources. Nevertheless, she may go on to convincingly paint a snowy picture that conveys the unmistakable airy softness of thick, freshly-fallen snow, its icy sparkle in the sun, its mellow blueness in the shade. This knowledge of what snow is seems very mysterious for it was gained through knowledge that certain pictures represent snow. Budd’s knowledge requirement is not as primary as he claims. The same might be argued for mythical creatures, of which we become acquainted through fabricated pictures. Importantly, it seems that this knowledge stems from perception in one way or another: sometimes perception of the world, of snow itself; sometimes perception of other pictures.

Nanay (2016: 51) directs us back to perception for an explanation of this knowledge gap. He adds some nuance to Wollheim’s twofoldness by extending it into ‘threefoldness’ (Nanay, 2016: 48). Not unlike Budd, he distinguishes between three aspects, with the crucial difference that he considers each of them to be accessed by a perceptual experience. He lists them thus:

A: the two-dimensional picture surface
B: the three-dimensional object the picture surface visually encodes
C: the three-dimensional depicted object

Like Budd, Nanay distinguishes between the that and the what: B is the painted snow, and C is snow in the world, or the village of Nußdorf itself, to return to Carl Moll. For representation to succeed, by Nanay’s (2016: 58) account, we only need to perceive A and B, not A and C. The unfortunate Australian painter who has never seen snow, and those unfamiliar with Vienna’s delightful circle of wine-producing hills, can still successfully identify these in pictures. But more than this: without any idea where Nußdorf is or what it looks like, a spectator can still see a well-defined if anonymous village replete with church spire in the picture. The picture is not wholly without meaning simply because the spectator cannot put a name to it or connect it to a referent in the world. Similarly, a picture of a person can be recognised as such and even quite arresting even if that person remains anonymous to us.

Blick über Nußdorf und Heiligenstadt (c) Carl Moll

Nanay (2016: 55) describes this knowledge-deficiency in terms of perception. To the spectator uninitiated in the wine- and wandering-oriented recreation offered by the Viennese hills, C (Nußdorf itself) remains both unperceived and unrepresented. For the Viennese who does recognise those particular hills, Nußdorf is represented, though not immediately before his eyes. The final step, explains Nanay (2016: 55) is this: while gazing upon the hushed horizon of the painting, Nußdorf itself is ‘quasi-perceptually represented.’ The two experiences of seeing (one of what is there: the paint; one of what is not there: Nußdorf) comprise two simultaneous perceptual states and their overlap, says Nanay (2016: 57), is what the distinct phenomenology of recognising what a picture represents amounts to. Recognition is not necessary for representation to succeed, but when it does occur Nanay argues that it is possible to account for it perceptually.

Not so for Budd (2012: 204), who insists that ‘whatever a picture depicts, you would not see it as a depiction of that thing if you were unaware of what that thing looks like from the point of view from which it has been depicted.’ Representation completely falls apart for him when the unlucky spectator has a particular gap in his knowledge. And yet, the hazy scene through Nußdorf and Heiligenstadt and on to the hills retains its representational charm, not dissolving entirely into a completely impenetrable textured abstraction. Representation proves more robust than this.

View on the Nussberg toward Heiligenstadt (c) Carl Moll (1905)

Indeed, should the uninitiated spectator succumb to the lure of the hills that Moll irresistibly conveys and travel to Vienna, he might gaze out at the real thing and note with some amazement that the hills do in fact possess certain qualities that he gathered from the paintings. That sometimes they are a deep, violet-blue with crisp edges, and other times they dissolve, pale and silvery, into a husky purple sky. Something of the sleepy wine-drenched atmosphere soaks the pictures in a way that is more honest than the real thing, and not entirely absent from the real thing.

Budd considers it an unjustifiable extravagance to turn to phenomenology and posit a new species of seeing. As we have considered, his account of representation remains rooted in language, and reexamining the experience of looking at a painting is an attractive alternative if one finds this kind of substitution-based interpretive meaning inadequate when it comes to painting. I would suggest that Wollheim’s move is far from extravagant, and could be extended further. Looking at a painting, at its variegated surface and its carefully conceived relationships, is very different from looking at whatever it ‘depicts,’ and not only because of the mysteriousness of seeing the three-dimensional in the two-dimensional. It is as though one is granted access to the perceptual experience of another, the artist. The artist is able to show far more about her perceptual experience by her deliberate selection, construction, augmentation and handling of the what. She is able to show something of how she experiences the hills, tinged with memory and longing, spiked with intense heat or blistering cold, as a solitary thinker or basking in delightful company. Painting, by its very nature, offers us perceptual experiences far beyond our ordinary visual encounters, specifically by merging it with the horizonal structures encountered by others: painters.



Budd, Malcolm. 2012. Aesthetic Essays. Oxford University: Oxford.

Gombrich, Ernst. 1959. Art and Illusion: A study in the psychology of pictorial representation. Phaidon: London.

Goodman, Nelson. 1976. Languages of Art: An approach to a theory of symbols. Hackett: Indianapolis.

Nanay, Bence. 2016. Aesthetics as Philosophy of Perception. Oxford University: Oxford.

Wollheim, Richard. 1987. Painting as an art. Thames and Hudson: London.

Da Vinci, Leonardo. 2008 [1952]. Notebooks. Oxford: Oxford.


Geometry & painting

Adèle (c) Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Importing mathematics into painting has some potentially grand implications. The idea makes me flush with uncontainable excitement; it smacks of Descartes (2006 [1637]: 9) and his methodical approach to knowledge, and I would echo his rationalist sentiment: ‘I was most keen on mathematics, because of its certainty and the incontrovertibility of its proofs.’ This unlikely marriage between mathematics and painting is especially dear to me because it offers something steady and dependable in terms of colour and not merely in terms of drawing; it promises to embrace the entirety of painting with its sober orderliness. This systematisation hardly destroys the poetry of painting. Rather, it allows us to sharpen our technical methods, which equips the genius (of the Kantian flavour) to paint something deeply insightful and moving. And it promises a double elegance: the sight of the painting itself, just like the sounds in music, may please us, and at the same time be grounded in delightfully crisp mathematical relationships, just like the improbable mathematical elegance of harmony in music.

These longings for order and systematisation sound rather like seventeenth-century aspirations to elevate painting to a science, or at least to a liberal art, which has much to do with shedding its humble craft status, as a trade practiced by illiterates. Painting has certainly made many efforts in this direction; it may boast of its academic status now that it is so commonly taught in universities rather than in ateliers, now that it defends itself verbally and indeed often consists more in its verbal conception and explanation than in its visual execution. But perhaps these victories are no victories at all: they strip painting of the very things that distinguish it as painting. Painting might have done better to have sought an intellectual ally in mathematics rather than in language, for there it would have found ways to describe its visual concepts succinctly and precisely.

Copy after Rodin, Burgher of Calais

This camaraderie is most apparent when it comes to colour. Colour is the rogue that has been seized by painters who want to defy philosophical discourse, and it is the uncontainable element that philosophy has used to subordinate painting. It seems to defy principles, thus it eludes philosophers, and it seems to operate largely by inspiration, superstition and magic, which seems to be attractive to painters. Across both disciplines, there is general agreement that colour is definitively not rule-amenable, while drawing is. Jacqueline Lichtenstein (1993 [1989]: 4; 62-3), in The Eloquence of Colour, traces this long-standing tension back to Plato and Aristotle, observing that ‘being material, colour has always been seen as belonging to the ontologically deficient categories of the ephemeral and the random.’ Philosophy has, she writes, thus favoured the more conceptually manageable element of painting: drawing (Lichtenstein, 1989 [1993]: 4).

If colour does not lend itself to principles, this has another, more practical, result. Philosophy aside, it means that colour cannot be taught. This lends itself to all varieties of unwelcome mysticism, that I personally would like to see chased out of the discipline of painting. It suggests that painters are ‘gifted,’ that they are conduits for ‘inspiration,’ or that they must operate by chance–all of which deny that painting is a disciplined skill that can be developed and improved and harnessed for aesthetic purposes. This is an unhappy state for painting to be in, for it grants artists license to all sorts of nonsense and self-indulgence, and abuses the viewer with all manner of ineptly executed work. In short, it encourages carelessness and invites decadence. Painting is visibly decaying before our eyes.

Copy after Rodin, Burgher of Calais

In the face of these two apparent deficiencies, I want to argue that the emphasis on drawing–both as philosophically acceptable and as practically teachable–is misplaced. Drawing certainly does lend itself to principles which can indeed be taught, and perhaps this fact is even overplayed. There are elements to drawing that cannot be taught, because each draughtswoman will adapt the learned principles to her own sensibility; she will interpret them, introducing a quality of line that no one else has. And, more broadly, the principles that are discussed and taught are not incontestable facts of existence. This is very clearly described by Panofsky’s (1991 [1927]: 37) contrast of spherical and linear perspective. Lastly, I want to raise a surprisingly little-grasped fact, one that is also popularly rejected by painters: colour is indeed amenable to principles, and there are painters who work with these principles and succeed in teaching them. Colour is very acutely described by geometry. In our infatuation with language, this straightforward ordering of colour has persisted largely unnoticed for at least two hundred years.

Lichtenstein (1993 [1989]: 142) notes that ‘ever since society has set a hierarchy among human activities, their relation to language has been the ultimate criterion for the establishment of a division, both social and philosophical, between the noble arts and the servile trades.’ Because of this, she explains, painting has sought to prove itself by ‘literary credentials;’ in order to do this, it has been expected to ‘satisfy both theoretical and pedagogical objectives,’ as we have already considered (Lichtenstein 1993 [1989]: 142; 151). Since she accepts that colour defies principles, she looks to rhetoric to redeem the intellectual status of painting, a fascinating move that demands more attention elsewhere, but we may here respond with our geometry of colour.

Copy after Rodin, Burgher of Calais

A fascinating little tract by Philipp Otto Runge appeared in the early 1800s. His Farbenkugel, or ‘colour sphere,’ is a mathematically pure way of conceptualising colour. It conceives of the relations between all colours three-dimensionally. He begins with a flat triangle that represents the three unmixed colours of red, yellow and blue. Each line is bisected to indicate that, mathematically, the secondary colours are the halfway points between each of these: orange, green and purple. These six points are extended out to the edges of a circle, which is then pierced by a perpendicular axis at whose poles stand white and black. The mid-point of this pole is, mathematically, a mid-tone grey. As colours move directly across the horizontal axis, they are neutralised by their mathematical opposite, entirely cancelling each other out as grey at the mid-point–yellow becomes, not more purplish, but more grey, as it moves towards purple, its opposite. Green and red exist in the same relation, and orange and blue. The knowledge of these relationships means a painter in fact need not use a black paint to recreate these relationships in paint: grey is not the absence of colour, but the annihilation of one colour in its mathematical opposite–‘alle einander auf derselben Gerade gegenüberliegenden Farben [sind] als Kräfte anzunehmen, welche einander entgegenstehen und sich durch ihre Vermischung zerstören in Grau’ (‘all colours that lay across from each other on the same line are to be assumed opposing forces that, upon mixing, annihilate each other in grey’) (Runge, 1810: 28). The rest of the sphere is filled out by every conceivable mixed colour and in every level of lightness and darkness, vividness and neutrality. The whole thing is most easily grasped visually, and this is the advantage of geometry.

(After Philipp Otto Runge)

It is a very beautiful model, one developed concomitantly with discussions with Goethe, and a living idea still used and taught by artists who appreciate the more rugged borders of three-dimensional colour-space. But more than this, the emphasis on relationships allows a shift in thinking: rather than considering colours as absolutes, bound to precise recipes of two-parts cadmium yellow to one-part prussian blue, they may instead be managed and manipulated as a complex but entirely rational web of relationships. This means, in fact, an emancipation from the types of dogmas that more mystically-inclined painters tend to bark at other painters: it means a shift from objectively defining colours to subjectively experiencing them. It allows a painter to recreate her perceptual experience of seeing colours; it allows for the fact that a certain mixture can appear pink or green, depending on the context it is set in. It marks a dramatic difference between painters who ask ‘what colour this really is,’ and those who ask how they perceive it. The second mindset affords far greater flexibility and dexterity with colour. And it can be taught.

(From Philipp Otto Runge, Farbenkugel)

This kind of dexterity is important because ultimately, while we might define our concept of colour in a pure mathematical way, paint itself does not respond to such precise geometrical divisions, and does not correspond so precisely to light. The painter must cope with two additional overlays to her mathematical concept of colour: the chemistry of paint and how the mixtures are achieved by actual pigments of vastly different physical properties, and the physics of light and the fact that her eyes take in a much broader gamut of colours than her paint is capable of mixing. A swift and nimble understanding of the relationships as geometric proportions is a solid conceptual ground that can be modified empirically as the painter’s experience with using paint and approximating it to what she sees grows. Runge (1810: 62) notes this as an aside to Goethe in one of his letters: ‘Ich kann mich hier nicht über die Praktik ausbreiten, weil es erstlich zu weitläufig wäre,’ (‘I cannot expand upon the practice here, firstly because it would ramble on too long,’) but he mentions that the artist requires ‘den nötigen chemischen wie mathematischen Kenntnissen’ (‘the necessary chemical alongside the mathematical knowledge.’)

Such systems equip us with knowledge, and thus confidence, and in the case of colour, adequately describe and organise the material reality of paint and at the same time accommodate our subjective, perceptual experience of it. Runge (1810: 42; 61) hopes that these pure insights will permit more definite expression; he thinks that being secure in the mental connections of the elements is the only means of setting a painter’s mind at ease, in the face of such superstition and chance. It would be well at this point to remind ourselves not to take the implications of these principles too far, and thus to return to Panofsky.

Copy after Claudel, Vertumne et Pomone

For the principles of vanishing-point perspective, the mainstay of principled drawing, are, indeed, a construction devised during the Renaissance, as Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 27) notes early on. It provides us with a mathematical space that is actually at odds with our perceptual experience of space, but that does not undermine its usefulness to us. Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 29-30) contrasts the visibly rigid ‘structure of an infinite, unchanging and homogenous space–in short, a purely mathematical space’ with ‘the structure of psychophysiological space.’ Our working concept of perspective demands that space conforms entirely to reason, that it is ‘infinite, unchanging and homogeneous’ (Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 28-9); but that demands certain assumptions that deny our experience of it: firstly, ‘that we see with a single and immobile eye,’ and secondly, that a flat plane adequately reproduces our curved optical image–two ‘rather bold abstractions’ from our perceptual experience.

‘In a sense,’ write Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 31), ‘perspective transforms psychophysiological space into mathematical space.’ And there is indeed nothing wrong with that if we recognise it as such, and do not take our theoretical underpinnings too far, thus over-emphasising the theoretical validity of drawing over colour.

Copy after Claudel, Vertumne et Pomone

Beginning with (helpfully visual) geometric principles, we can thus devise rigorous and teachable theoretical systems for both of the equally important parts of painting, for drawing and for colour, describing them in pure, abstracted, mathematical terms, whose constancy is beautiful in and of itself. We can reclaim the liberal art of painting, award it some intellectual prestige, and even ground it in scientific principles that draw on chemistry and physics as well. Descartes’ project might not prove so alien in the murky and superstitious realm of painting.

Copy after Rodin, The sculptor and his muse

Lichtenstein, Jacqueline. 1993 [1989]. The Eloquence of Colour: Rhetoric and Painting in the French Classical Age. Translated by Emily McVarish. Berkeley: University of California.

Panofsky, Erwin. 1991 [1927]. Perspective as Symbolic Form. Translated by Christopher S. Wood. New York: Zone.

Runge, Philipp Otto. 1810. Farbenkugel: Konstruktion Des Verhältnisses Aller Mischungen Der Farben Zueinander Und Ihrer Vollständigen Affinität. Köln: Tropen.


Habit and curiosity

Steffi (2.5 hour oil sketch)

Steffi (2.5 hour oil sketch)

There is an inherent tension between a painter’s sensory encounters with the world and her own habits. As I push myself to paint and draw with increasing intensity, I am driven by conflicting impulses to improve and to investigate. Improvement requires repetition and practice, but investigation tends to tear down all this dedicated work. My understanding and my repertoire broaden and deepen with investigation, but my improvement stagnates, or worse, everything I was so anxiously holding together comes completely undone.

Steffi drawing

In moments of doubt, I return to trusty Robert Nelson (2010: 121), who reassures me, ‘We all have habits.’ In his judicious way, he writes that habits have their advantages and disadvantages. Hard-earned habits through which we have assimilated knowledge ‘are at the root of our fluency, our readiness, our comfort in tackling the lofty task of representation by the senses and the hand’ (2010: 121). Without such dependable tools, we would face each new picture completely disarmed, unprepared and overwhelmed at the formidable task before us. And these tools, once acquired, need maintenance, and permit refinement, and generally positively benefit from regular and sustained attention.

Copy after Rubens, Selbstbildnis

Copy after Rubens, Selbstbildnis

My attention has turned rather feverishly toward copying: with religious zeal I am flooding pages and pages of my sketchbook with wholly unoriginal drawings; copies of old master paintings, copies of anatomy drawings. It can be a very passive way to draw: the burden of having an original idea or making an original investigation is gently taken away from me. It could yet be investigative—with due concentration, I could, through such copies, begin to unpack the decisions of the artists who produced the originals. And sometimes I do. But sometimes I just copy, pleasantly pulling my pencil across the page, enjoying the motion, and daydreaming a bit. This pleasure drawing has its advantages: the habit of going to the gallery, of plunging into the anatomy book, means I give time to some form of drawing with dedicated regularity. And each time I start, there is the possibility that my brain will actively engage. The act itself, begun unthinkingly, can trigger thought.

Copies after Gottfried Bammes

Copies after Gottfried Bammes

But as I practice and practice, investing in my favoured media, becoming more accustomed to their limitations (and my own), I fall into patterns of working, and the patterns lead to ruts and their accompanying frustration. What looks like fluency and adeptness and confidence to outsiders actually feels like being stuck. Showmanship can get in the way of honest engagement with the physical world, and instead of turning afresh to sensory experience we rely on mechanistic motions. ‘By and large,’ writes Nelson (2010: 130), ‘a mechanical application of directional gestures is about superficially looking flash or stylistically sophisticated, or emotionally confident, or artistically full of panache and bravura rather than serving exploration and curiosity.’

Pregnant lady (oil sketch, 2 hours)

Pregnant lady (oil sketch, 2 hours)

And so despite the benefits and even necessity of forming (hopefully good) habits, Nelson cautions the painter against a ‘mechanistic’ approach, a mindless, formula-driven mode of working that crowds out the possibility of active picture-making. ‘Making art from habit,’ he writes (2010: 121), ‘has questionable consequences.’ For we are not simply producing polished products, little one-man factories. We are constructing pictures by means of a certain kind of logic: an organic, integrative logic that brings together all of the knowledge we have collected about tone and colour and gesture and space and texture and so on (2010: 117; 124). Though we can separate out each element and map out distinct stages of a painting through time, the most thoughtful pictures are those that weave everything together, and this unity, argues Nelson, has its origin in the sensory experience, and not in well-oiled mechanistic habits. ‘All of the painting is about building, constructing forms, constructing spatial relationships and constructing rapports in colour; and these are integral to looking, seeing, remembering and imagining’ (2010: 124).

‘The painting conceived in this way replicates, on a somewhat clumsy and grandiose scale, the process of perception itself, constantly gauging relationships and skipping all over the field in order to assess the spatial calibre of what is observed.’ (2010: 122-3)

Such alertness means we have to sacrifice some of our hard-won ability. Confronted with a real subject, with differing light conditions, with the air shimmering at the horizons of the forms, with compositionally compelling shapes that compete with descriptive and meaty forms, we find our assortment of tools to be lacking. What served us well in countless previous situations is not up to the task at hand. The world is ever lavishing new sensory experiences upon us, and the genuinely curious painter responds to the experience, indulges his senses, rather than repeating his well-rehearsed performance.

American girl

And this is the tightrope we walk: trying to furnish ourselves with tuned and ready instruments that are fit for the sensory experiences we are constantly greeted by, but remaining open to those experiences, adaptive, and seriously investigating them. It’s no good to throw away what we’ve learned and start from zero every time, but we must also open our eyes and engage our brains. Nelson (2010: 129), ever eloquent, describes the clash of habits entrenched in the body and the inquisitive encounter with the world thus:

‘The brush is constantly invoking the seen: it requires a certain nerve, a zeal for finding out what is perceived or imaginatively solicited and then for correcting what is conjectured. Unless somehow designed with a Platonic conceptual remove, it is all chop and change at a sensory and intellectual level. Add to that the co-ordination of the hand by impulses, the way that the process draws upon the muscles and uses the body: it demands a stance before the canvas and a rhythm of subliminal choreographic vibrations.’

It would be foolish to be dogmatic about either emphasis, for both are crucial. Each destroys the other, but only to rebuild it more firmly, and more enmeshed with the other.

American girl (2.5 hour oil sketch)

American girl (2.5 hour oil sketch)

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.


Heightened vitality

Museumsinsel, Berlin

Museumsinsel, Berlin

I was so smiled upon by fortune that I lived, for the month of November, in Berlin, with someone very dear to me. Our life was a flurry of activity, of love and painting, chilled grey days and toasty croissant breakfasts, U-Bahn trips populated by the most curious characters, endless halls of incredible paintings, evenings of Aktzeichnen and steaming blueberry wine and hot cherry beer out of terracotta mugs. We were quickly absorbed into this energetic city.


We gladly sought out labyrinthine artist studio complexes during open studio and exhibition evenings. These were odd experiences, as I generally found myself at a loss when trying to speak with other artists. While physicists might be expected to find some common language with other physicists, artists seem to lack much overlap in either practice or ideas: each is trying to do something in an entirely unconventional way, and each is an artist and –. An artist and a faux-physicist. An artist and a nutritionist. An artist and a geographer. Being an artist who works with paint, not with stale cheese, torn up posters, or contour maps, and lacking a sound understanding of quantum physics (though I suspect, so too was my new artist acquaintance), I was able to have neither intellectual nor practice-based conversation with my apparent colleagues. We are a confused constellation of makers with no true common field. ‘Art’ truly has no meaning; it is not a discipline.

Milchhof, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Milchhof, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

The ever-thoughtful Gombrich (1972: 4) once wrote, ‘There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.’ And a similar impulse drives me to investigate just what makes one an artist, for perhaps by coming at it this way we can better appreciate what good art consists in. Since in these volatile times anything may be branded art, it becomes harder and harder to engage with art, much less appreciate it or gain anything by it. I want to contend that artists need to take a long, hard look at what their job is. My own intuition is that the artist is not an activist, contrary to common opinion. Yet I am certain that artists could strip back all the pseudo-philosophy, tenuous threads with string-theory and shameless narcissism and establish just what makes art a distinct discipline rather than an embarrassing parasite in the bowels of society. I would like to propose a place to start.

Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Kreuzberg, Berlin

Distinct from musicians, distinct from writers, visual artists are presumably offering something visual to the world. Before we can produce something to be gazed upon, we must ourselves partake in a vast amount of looking. We live in a highly literate society, yet nonetheless one that increasingly relies on visual cues and shortcuts. The artist, in my view, is a person with a distinct ability with the visual: they notice sights that slip under the very noses of those who have important reports to contend with or a head constantly interpreting the world through calculations. Rather than being inward-looking, the artist turns her eyes upon the physical world, appreciating fortuitous arrangements of shape, of space, of colour. Appreciating individuality in appearance, noting cloud formations, watching shadows fade and flicker. Being amazed by the contrast in hue from one plane of a building to another; being absorbed in the mood a hushed evening light casts over a park. Artists are physical creatures, living thoroughly in their bodies, alive to every spark of sensation. This somewhat eccentric revelling in the sheer delight of having a body, of physically intersecting with the world, is what gives artists insights that others often miss. The same sensations are available to all of us, but some of us need more help to notice them. This is where the attentive artist finds herself needed.

Fernsehturm, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

Fernsehturm, Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

The artist is, as John Dewey would phrase it, grounded in experience. The artist’s engagement with the world is not, he argues, qualitatively different from that of the scientist’s; rather, ‘the difference between the esthetic and the intellectual is … one of the place where emphasis falls in the constant rhythm that marks the interaction of the live creature with his surroundings’ (1934: 15). Dewey considers the artistic and scientific modes of thought to differ merely in tempo: the scientist does not have a monopoly on thought, and the artist does not hold exclusive rights to meaning and elusive poetic insights. ‘The artist has his problems and thinks as he works. But his thought is more immediately embodied in the object. Because of the comparative remoteness of his end, the scientific worker operates with symbols, words and mathematical signs’ (1934: 16).


Rainbow of thoughts


Not only are artists equipped with a particular penchant for observation, for a certain ability to be drenched in the present, but their very thoughts are often visual rather than linguistic or even symbolic. The language of an artist is composed of forms, colours, volumes, shapes, tones, textures. The language itself is very physical, can be moulded with one’s hands in a way that other languages cannot. ‘The artist,’ as Dewey (1934: 16) describes it, ‘does his thinking in the very qualitative media he works in.’

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

The significance of the physicality of art, of its grounding in perception and experience, is extremely non-trivial. This is an understanding that undermines much contemporary art and its preoccupation with self-expression, shameless self-adoration and cults of personality. For the ‘heightened vitality’ of experience is anything but autobiographical: ‘Instead of signifying being shut up within one’s own private feelings and sensations, [experience] signifies active and alert commerce with the world; at its height it signifies complete interpenetration of self and the world of objects and events’ (1934: 19).

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

Französischer Friedhof, Berlin Mitte

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art. Twelfth ed. Phaidon: Oxford.


Adventures in colour space

Praha © Samantha Groenestyn

A huge motivation for my recent sojourn to Sydney was the opportunity to take a five day workshop with David Briggs, a teacher at the Julian Ashton Art School. David kindly ran the workshop at his studio by the beach, meaning I ate my lunch gazing into refreshing seascapes each day, and gorged myself on cakes from the Hungarian bakery below his apartment every afternoon.

David’s workshop, Colour, Light and Vision, is so vast and deep that it is difficult to summarise. I took it because colour has always been of extreme significance to me, since I received my prized 64-box of Crayolas as a tiny person (all carefully arranged according to my own system, and all the names voraciously memorised, from periwinkle to brick red). I also took it because it promised that art could be a scientific, measurable task—rigorous and systematic, not confined to vague feelings and crazy aunts. Pigments have chemical reactions, some paints have higher tinting power than others, some are opaque to varying effect. We perceive colours differently under different lights; and in shadow, absolute change in brightness is greater in light colours. Optical illusions interfere with our perception of colours creating ‘simultaneous contrast,’ a failure of colour constancy that causes the same colour to look darker or lighter depending on the shade bordering it.

David’s studio is lined with books on colour. The man is well read, and his course thoroughly researched, and a continuing project. New books were delivered by post while I was there—old American high school art education books, old German pigment sample books. Books on Newton and Goethe, books by Munsell and Rood—these were spread across the table for our perusal, indicating the knowledge that has been tossed aside if not outright denied the modern artist. David’s mission in life seems to be to reclaim that knowledge, sort the true from the false, and to stuff any willing student full of it, in the most affable manner possible.

We began with Munsell and his A Colour Notation, a no-nonsense book from 1905 that set about giving children of all ages a thorough grasp on colour. Replacing the old red, yellow and blue primaries, Munsell began with five main colours: red, yellow, green blue and purple, shunning colours that drew their names from objects like oranges and violets. Arranging them in a type of tree diagram, some colours branched higher than others, some spanned wider, and, importantly, all branched from the solid trunk—dark at the root and light at the top, by the sun—representing tone, or value. While a tree may be drawn flat, it is really three dimensional, and it is this three-dimensionality of colour which Munsell sought to represent.

David thus demonstrates a way to map colour three-dimensionally—not as an organic tree, nor as a perfect globe, but digitally, with different and irregular gamuts for various media. Paint can only ever mix certain colours, and light can mix others. Vertically, in the centre of the colour space, we are looking at the absence of hue, and simply at the tonal scale of black through white. Hues move off in different directions, and their complements are opposite them and draw them through that greyed centre—purple will neutralise yellow, blue will neutralise red, before coming out the other side and becoming blue again. Each hue reaches its maximum chroma in a different place—yellow is at its most ‘yellow’ at a far lighter tone than blue, which fades with very little white added, and red is somewhere in between. Red under extremely bright light will look pink where yellow will still appear yellow, because of where its maximum chroma is mapped in colour space.

Yellow sphere by me

The course wasn’t entirely mind-bending theory (much as I enjoy that sort of thing!), but also a happy amount of paint mixing. We matched paint chips by approaching colour mixing in a systematic way: picking the two nearest colours to the one in question, getting them to the right tone and then mixing them in the right ratios, and neutralising them with the same-toned grey if necessary. We darkened difficult colours like yellow with black, bringing them back to the appropriate chroma by adding in a corrective colour like red. This is done purely by sight, learning to see when a yellow has turned green, but after the exercises we photographed our scales and mapped them in a lovely French colour program to test our judgements. With our colours duly mixed, we painted things: spheres demonstrating the areas of light (diffuse light, highlight, halftones and full light) and shadow. We painted still life thumbnails, correcting for the limitations of our paints: where yellow had to be the brightest, other colours had perhaps to be darkened.

(Did I mention we ate a lot of cakes? And looked at the ocean?)

Yes, a pretty intense week, but an immensely valuable one. I’d recommend David’s course in a heartbeat, and I’d take it again—not having a fixed curriculum, the course adapts to your own knowledge and experience, and if you’ve already painted the sphere, you get to try out the application of the theory on a human model ripe for painting. You can get hold of course dates and information through his website and through Julian Ashton’s. I’m still quietly mulling over the influx of information, and ready to start bringing it to my painting.

Outrageously beautiful cemetery, in which I took long, meditative afternoon walks.