Friday, January 9, 2015

Why naming the "thing" can be a problem



Look at one or the other of these two well-known optical illusions and notice how quickly you can change the image by saying either duck-rabbit or face-vase.


The duck/rabbit and face/vase illusions are well-known examples of ambiguous information. Seeing is a "best guess" based on the information at hand. In these examples the visual information presents alternative interpretations so we see first one image, and then the other. We don't see the shape apart from the interpretation. The “naming of the thing” simplifies the process of trying to decipher the visual information.

Visual ambiguity is not just confined to optical illusions. Vision is a process, not a picture. We see what is most different and usually group together what is most similar. We see the obvious changes and make assumptions about what we see based on what we know and what we expect to see. ("Vision and Art" by Margaret Livingstone) It is important to understand how seeing can be compromised by knowledge, expectations, and also language.

When we "name the thing" we are more likely to see what we think we know about the object. We are less likely to see its specific and accurate attributes, such as shape variation, color, value and edges. There are varying levels of visual accuracy and artists need to be able to combine the knowing and the seeing. At times it is important to be able to see without the preconceived information of the "knowing." That is why some artists may view reference material upside down. It takes the information out of context and makes it easier to see the relationship of shapes, colors and values.
Realist painters paint “things” – ordinary (and maybe not so ordinary) objects, people and places. Realist painting has certain parameters and an obligation to reflect some aspect of a universally accepted reality. It may be easier to see “things” than it is to see structure, order and how visual information is related. But these are just two different ways of seeing.
Realism can also be about possibility – the possibility of vision and personal expression - the possibilities inherent in using value and color and making marks. Never underestimate how "naming the thing" can compromise the integrity of the visual information.
Do you really want to paint what you already know? Or do you want to know and see something in a different way?

“I don't paint things. I only paint the difference between things.” Henri Matisse