The effect

The drawing class (c) 2017 Samantha Groenestyn

Images seep into language, and in so doing they add colour and liveliness. The metaphor chases after the potency of the image, abandoning the bald precision of description for a surprising visual equivalence painted in words. But Lichtenstein (1993: 204) is eager to persuade us that the image itself is something autonomous and specific. Though it can be imported into language, it does not consist in language. Nor is it simply the flipside of verbal description, an illustration of words. Our encounter with the image should reach beyond the boundaries of language.

Lichtenstein’s (1993 [1989]: 4, 63) incredible book, The Eloquence of Colour, champions the unruly and indispensable element of painting that is colour, the rogue party in painting’s troubled relationship with philosophy. She sees in colour–stubbornly material, emotional and seductive–the very thing that makes painting both distinct and effective. It is the part that Plato could not subdue, when he rightly recognised the seductive and deceptive threat of the image. Plato’s move, Lichtenstein (1993: 142) explains, was swift and decisive: he derailed the theoretical hopes of the image by framing the debate on the territory of language. The image must defend itself by the standards of discourse, and so too must painting if it wishes to emerge from the mechanical arts and prove itself a ‘legitimate form of knowledge’ (Lichtenstein, 1993: 204).

Even Aristotle’s defence of the visual does not challenge this founding assumption, which has plagued the visual and performative arts ever since (Lichtenstein, 1993: 62). He resigns himself to the ontologically deficient status of materiality, to the inferiority of appearances and the Spectacle (Aristotle. Rhet. III.1, 1404a1-4, trans. Roberts; Poet. B.6, 1450b17-19, trans. Bywater; Lichtenstein, 1993: 63). Colour suffers from this prejudice more than drawing–for drawing is crisp and measurable, and able to describe a story, and thus more readily tamed for discursive purposes. Yet in defining the image as something linear and illustrative–as the metaphor–philosophical discourse frames the question for its own advantage, constructing a straw man which it then proceeds to dominate (Lichtenstein, 1993: 44; 82). Painting, resplendent with colour, defies discourse because it does not consist entirely in drawing. The image ought to defend itself precisely on its own non-discursive grounds.

This discursive attack that puts the image on the defensive is precisely the fate suffered by rhetoric, and Lichtenstein thus finds in rhetoric an unexpected ally for painting (Lichtenstein, 1993: 205). Discourse seeks to distance itself from rhetoric, demanding logical rigour in arguments above persuasive delivery of them. The visible, theatrical aspects of speech open the door to all manner of deception. The charge of sophistry is levelled at both rhetoric and painting, Lichtenstein (1993: 68) argues, not simply because they are visual, but because of how persuasive the visual is. Their very charm, their incontestable effectiveness, is exactly what sparks this mistrust.

Discourse may colour itself with metaphors, but rhetoric strides to the edge of logical argument, sets its words aside and simply shows us. We hear the image in discourse; we simply see it in rhetoric (Lichtenstein, 1993: 129). Action is no metaphor. A forceful gesture is forceful; a proud bearing is proud; a wavering voice does waver; a heavy silence bears down on us heavily. ‘Persuasion is clearly a sort of demonstration,’ says Aristotle (Rhet. I.1, 1355a4-5). These actual, active demonstrations threaten language–they suggest a deficiency in language, and they hint at their own independence from language, their escape from the carefully defined terms of language (Lichtenstein, 1993: 92, 111). The hierarchy of language above the image might be overturned, the image might prove stronger.

But neither Lichtenstein nor Aristotle attempt to invert the traditional hierarchy. Lichtenstein (1993: 75, 111) would rather abandon hierarchies altogether, and clarify instead how the visible and the discursive complement one another. Aristotle (Rhet. I.1, 1355a20-25, 1356a20-25) still requires that the orator ‘be able to reason logically,’ and thus considers rhetoric ‘an offshoot of dialectic’ rather than a rival; the orator cannot afford to let truth itself go unnoticed merely because his audience pays too little heed to his intricate arguments. Platonism urges us to look for hierarchies and homogeneity in theories of representation, Lichtenstein (1993: 55) suggests; Aristotelianism tends to permit more heterogeneous theories of representation, the kinds that embrace logically elusive concepts like desire and pleasure.

The sign itself represents the attempt to ‘master the image logically’ (Lichtenstein, 1993: 51). The sign models representation on language: it assumes that representation, too, must be discursive. It implies that every visual, like a word, stands in for what it represents, and that this is how it acquires meaning. There is a referential relationship between the sign and what it signifies (Lichtenstein, 1993: 179). Lichtenstein counters that meaning exists in the image as a unity, it permeates its materiality; even without precise contours a painting can persuade us through a haze of convincing colours–the part that Descartes (2008 [1641]: 15) says remains true when all else is fictitious. Wherever we try to interpret, we seek a referent for a sign; whenever we speak of resemblance, we are making a comparison between two disconnected things, we are approaching the painting with a discursive attitude (Lichtenstein, 1993: 51). Representation is much simpler if we take rhetoric as our model: the painting, like the orator, simply re-presents the very object or emotion before our eyes (Lichtenstein, 1993: 123). It does not tell, it shows.

The most pressing thing, then, is not how much a painting resembles its referent, how accurately it embodies this information, but rather how captivating it is. The painting must, like the orator, hold our attention, capture our fancy, and move us. Lichtenstein (1993: 180) argues that ‘truth in painting lies in the effect of the representation on those who see it’–that representation consists in perception, which takes place in the viewer, not reference, a relation between the painting and its referent.

Insisting on the effect rather than the internal cohesiveness of the painting itself, and on what the artist intended to embed in it, seems problematic at first glance. But this emphasis on perception has less to do with private, subjective interpretations of a painting by scattered viewers, and more to do with an immediate sensory encounter with it. For interpretations, you will recall, are discursive decodings of images. In placing perception at the centre of our theory of representation, we are exchanging the cerebral encounter with the painting for a sensory one: we are approaching it on material grounds, responding to its material presence with our bodily awareness. We let our eyes apprehend the painting, we let them roam where it urges them, we let its mood wash over us, we trust its silent proddings rather than searching for intellectual substitutions we might make.

Unlike the discordant diversity of subjective interpretations, I would argue that this immediate sensory apprehension brings us much nearer to the intention of the artist. It is the way a painting seems to ‘come across directly onto the nervous system,’ as Bacon (1975: 18) strives after; it reflects Wollheim’s (1987: 43) observation that the artist assumes the dual role of artist and spectator in one, constantly testing and retesting the painting’s effect on herself, in order to know whether it will have the same effect on other spectators. ‘The painter’s pleasure is also that of the viewer’ (Lichtenstein, 1993: 182). The spectator comes nearer the painter’s intention if he simply perceives the painting and lets its silent visual elements work on him.

Yet even the path of perception is fraught with philosophical difficulties. Descartes has long since challenged the ontological status of sensory perceptions, finding a way to convert them into intellectual ideas independent of the body. For if we experience sensations in our dreams, they must, reasons Descartes (2008 [1641]: 14; 20-1), have very little to do with physical experience. Scoring points on the side of discourse, he (2008 [1641]: 23) concludes that ‘perception … is an inspection by the mind alone.’ Kant (2009 [1783]: §1; §10) is clear to point out that we are dealing with metaphysics, not physics; whatever a physical thing is, he argues, all we can measure is our own idea of it. Materiality has suffered heavily under our discursive tradition of metaphysics. Arguing for the significance of the material and our perception of it is no small task within this enduring theoretical domain.

Perhaps the best route out is that suggested by Lichtenstein (1993: 182): to prove that illusion is no deception, for the simple reason that it shows itself. The illusion never asks us to believe in its truth, it never attempts to stand in for reality. It shows us something of the world, all the while admitting its own artifice, and we indulge ourselves momentarily in the illusion because it is pleasurable (Lichtenstein, 1993: 179). Painting is comparable to cosmetics: it seeks to delight us, to captivate us, to seduce us, but not to trick us into believing in a false reality. This playful artifice does not deserve the accusation of sophistry, argues Lichtenstein (1993: 187); rather, the kind of persuasion that promises truth by airtight feats of logic but quietly leads us astray is sophistry. ‘What makes a man a ‘sophist’ is not his faculty, but his moral purpose,’ retorts Aristotle (Rhet. I.1, 1355b15-20). The key, Lichtenstein (1993: 181) insists, lies in realising that truth in painting, like in rhetoric, is measured by its effectiveness in the spectator, not by its relation to reality or our idea of it.

To establish painting’s theoretical validity, then, on the grounds of its rhetorical persuasiveness rather than on discursive grounds, we need to show how this effectiveness can be deliberately achieved. Generally, a discipline has had to prove itself on both theoretical and pedagogical grounds to be recognised as a liberal art: Lichtenstein (1993: 139) describes the rocky emergence of the Royal French Academy in 1635 and painting’s troubles in both domains, particularly the reluctance of the newfound professors to verbalise their practice. Lichtenstein (1993: 152) surmises that ‘drawing is the only thing in painting that can really be subjected to rules’–and thus the only part of painting which can truly be taught, and systematically theorised about. Here we will raise a resounding objection: colour can indeed be taught, and thus we can put forward an alternate way of theorising about painting, one that suits colour and drawing equally, and that accommodates a perceptual theory of representation.

First we need to be clear what we mean by ‘rules.’ I am not endorsing binding, homogeneous laws of painting. Rather, I am arguing for systematic, orderly but adaptive principles that approximate our perception and work in conjunction with it. They explicitly avoid the strict recipes and dogmas of the studio; they permit great but knowledgeable flexibility in technique. They require each artist to develop her own sensibility, to order her perceptions according to her own aesthetic preferences–they demand great facility and understanding but also offer the greatest liberation from rules and haphazard fortuitousness alike. They are not rules at all.

They are the kinds of systems described by Panofsky (1991 [1927]: 28-30) in his book on perspective, which emphasises the difference between the rigid mathematical space that our linear perspective imposes upon space as we actually perceive it through two spherical eyes, but which we adapt to our aesthetic purposes nonetheless, and the kind of systems described by Runge (1810) and more lately by David Briggs (2017) which describe colour space three dimensionally, either strictly geometrically like Runge, or in conjunction with light indices like Briggs. These systems deny absolutes; they acknowledge that what we perceive is difficult to describe, but they find relational ways to do so that encourage the active participation of the artist.

And, being able to be taught, these systems meet both the theoretical and the pedagogical requirements of a liberal art (Lichtenstein, 1993: 151). They achieve all this far from the narrow demands of language and discourse, holding fast to a rhetorical conception of representation, embracing what is explicitly visual in painting, preserving and promoting its characteristic and autonomous effectiveness.

Aristotle. 1984. The Rhetoric and the Poetics. Edited by Edward P. J. Corbett. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts and Ingram Bywater. New York: The Modern Library.

Briggs, David. 2017. The Dimensions of Colour.

Descartes, René. 2008 [1641]. Meditations on First Philosophy: With Selections from the Objections and Replies. Translated by Michael Moriarty. Oxford: Oxford University.

Kant, Immanuel. 2009 [1783] Prolegomena zu einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik, die als Wissenschaft wird auftreten können. Edited by Rudolf Malter. Reclams Universal-Bibliothek, Nr. 2468. Stuttgart: Reclam.

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.

Sylvester, David, and Francis Bacon. 1975. Francis Bacon. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon.

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


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.