How does an audience that is fully immersed in the digital age look at images?
Interestingly, the direction we read (e.g. Westerners read from the left side of a line of text to the right side) has a big impact upon the way we look at images and, in turn, how artists arrange the lighting on their portrayed subject. For instance, artists wishing to cater for a left-to-right reading direction of a Western audience portray their subjects with a top-left lighting angle as the Western eye is attuned to perceive a subject’s form when it is lit from this direction. In Jean-Jacques de Boissieu’s (1736 –1810)
below, for example, Western eyes see the body of the saint as far more
three-dimensional when he is lit from the left than if his body were lit from
the right as shown further below when the print is “flipped” horizontally. For
academic artists the arrangement of light is more exacting: a top-front-left angle convention as can be seen in John Samuel Agar’s
(1773–1858) stipple engraving of antique heads (also shown below). Saint Jerome
|Jean-Jacques de Boissieu, (detail) St Jerome, 1797|
(right) horizontally flipped image of
(click the image to enlarge)
John Samuel Agar, (detail) Plate V1I, 1809
John Samuel Agar, (detail) Plate XLII, 1809
This lighting arrangement has become so much a part of the Occidental way of looking at images that even digital buttons in computer programs (i.e. “pop-up” display keys shown on the monitor rather than physical buttons we can touch) have a top-front-left lighting arrangement enabling the viewer to see if a displayed button is raised or lowered. By contrast, artists wishing to cater for a right-to-left reading direction of an Arabic or Jewish audience will light their portrayed subject in the reverse direction so that light is cast on a subject from the top-front-right. The importance of this seemingly simple principle became apparent to me after contemplating advertisements in an Israeli newspaper and intuitively knowing that the compositions were aesthetically awkward (i.e. “wrong”) for my Western eyes.
My awakening to the importance of the angle of lighting in these newspaper advertisements impacted also on my understanding of images in general that I knew deep down were unsettling. One of these is another of de Boisseau’s rich and moody prints, The Fathers of the Desert (shown below). I had originally acquired this print as I had (and still have) a fascination with hermits and this particular image is truly haunting. For me, a lot of its attraction rests with the standing figure’s facial expression of transcendent rapture (see the same facial expression in Zurbaran’s painting, St Francis, upon which this figure is modelled). There is also the hint of the unknown conjured by the landscape setting outside the dark void of the open cave. But to my eyes the really riveting attraction is the dramatic lighting (termed chiaroscuro) that is cast on the figure like a spotlight from the right. I suspect that if the lighting had been from the left, the figures and landscape features may have appeared more three-dimensional as is the case with
, but the peculiarly otherworldly mood of the image would not have been the same. St Jerome
Jean-Jacques de Boisseau, (detail) The Fathers of the Desert, 1797
Of perhaps surprising importance to the following discussion is how artists arranged the lighting for early Oriental eyes where text is read vertically. The convention for Eastern artists was not to impose a sideways lighting on their subject at all but rather to portray spatial depth in terms of disposing each featured subject in its own spatial zone from foreground to distance. Often these zones are differentiated from each other with white space (or to use the term I have applied to Western art, noetic space; see post Jacque: Sheep and Shadows) and the suggestion of mist separating each zone but, or course, each subject demands its own requirements for spatial placement.
How this Oriental approach of vertical reading has relevance to the digital age is again by being linked to reading habits. In the past, the direction of reading also applied to how books and other collections of text were negotiated in terms of turning the pages. First, the reader would view the top page (in the West this is signified by the bound edge of the book being on the left whereas in the East it is on the right) and then would turn the page over following the culture’s reading direction to see the next page or, alternatively, move the eye to the adjacent page. In short, there is a convention of where the next page is to be found. In the digital world things are beginning to change. For screen-based text the “top” of the page is to be found with the document scrolled upward and the pages that follow are to be found by scrolling the document downward. At first such an arrangement is sensible and unproblematic. But there is a subtle shift in the way the digital audience is now beginning to view images and it is different to the ways of the past.
This subtle shift in reading only occurred to me after hearing about the conundrum encountered by advertisers concerned with making money from the social networking site, Facebook. The concern is that the viewers tend to not look at information placed on the sides of the screen as they have become conditioned to see this area as being for advertisements (as is the case with many blog sites). To express this differently, unlike readers holding a book or newspaper where the viewing field is the whole page, for viewers looking at Internet pages (as opposed to digitalised pages on eReaders like Kindle) the viewing field has arguably become more localised to the centre of the screen. In essence, the culture of digital reading is morphing our gaze to a vertical stream of reading from zenith to nadir. The interesting question that this poses is whether this focus impacts on the way digital artists compose their images and there is evidence that this may be the case.
I posed this question to a former Honours student, Gareth Wild, for insights into his artistic practice and the following response highlights a change in attitude to the conventions of composition for at least one of the rising digital stars. Regarding Gareth’s first digital image, Zoombified Pirate (shown below), Gareth advises me that the image is top lit but he does not believe that the lighting is “an integral component to the overall impact of the image.” Although Gareth’s view of his image may be interpreted as negating the importance of the vertical lighting arrangement his following comment is very revealing: “The composition is vertically linear—not unlike the design of a webpage, and the ominous background smog creates a subtle vignette effect—again reinforcing the centralised composition reflected in our reading of a webpage. In Gareth’s digitally created image, Large Crustacean (shown further below) his insight is that this print is “less vertically linear than the former image, but again is top/back lit.” Going further, he points out that the “important information is central and a subtle vignette effect is also apparent.”
Gareth Wild, Zoombified Pirate, 2011, digital image
Gareth Wild, Large Crustacean, 2011, digital image
From a personal standpoint there seem to be three ways that digital artists have morphed conventional principles of image making. The first is that the notion of a light source illuminating the portrayed subject from the top-front-left is changing to a system of immersive lighting where the effects of light are not so much “on” the surface of the subject but is within the portrayed subject. An example of this phenomenon is a painting by one of my first-year students, Sue Foster, who began her painting of a still life (shown below) as a watercolour and then “worked” on it digitally to refine the principles addressed in the class. Beyond the scattering of light, note also how Sue’s compositional arrangement echoes Gareth’s reflections on his approach discussed above.
Sue Foster, Watercolour—Fruit, 2012
digitally manipulated watercolour
The second way is to do with colour. In analogue paintings (i.e. paintings made using traditional materials) artists have the resources to make subtle adjustments to colour by applying a layering of glazes to produce an amalgam of tone, chroma, opacity, sheen and surface facture that—arguably—cannot be duplicated with screen colours (RGB) or with the colours of the print industry (Pentone spot colours and CMYK). This in itself is not a problem as a very close approximation of colour can be achieved but this screen colour approximation may lead to a fresh way of seeing imagery. By this I mean that there is a conceptual leap from Arthur C Danto’s notion of an audience’s engagement with the imagery of Giotto, Leonardo and Raphael “like a disembodied eye” (1990, p. 186) to the potential of viewer’s interactive and immersive presence in digital imagery.
The third way is best described as the male vision of the hunter and gatherer where focus is literally targeted on the central area of the image. This pattern of where a viewer’s gaze rests returns us to the conundrum faced by the Facebook advertisers: digital viewers are not looking at the periphery of their field of view.
Danto, Arthur C 1990, Encounters and Reflections.
& Collins Toronto