What are some of the historical approaches used by artists to represent what they see?
This is the second instalment of four posts exploring different principles used by artists to represent their vision. The last post discussed a principle employed by many Renaissance artists in which all the portrayed features of an image are rendered with the same degree of focal resolution: a type of vision that I termed for expedience, “consecutive vision,” because each portrayed feature can be examined consecutively. The following discussion examines the principle of binocular vision popularised by the Impressionists wherein the convergent focus of two eyes on a single point of interest is perceived in sharp focus while features lying away from this point in 360 degrees are seen progressively as out-of-focus. This phenomenon of optical convergence on a single point is illustrated in my drawing, The Common (shown below). By design, The Common portrays an observation during a moment of fixated gazing through a screen of trees in Townsville’s Common (a nature reserve not far from where I live) to a tree in the distance. To recreate this momentary observation, the drawing features the point of fixation of my gaze rendered in pictorial detail. The tunnel-like arcade of trees surrounding this point of fixation is depicted with an increasingly broader handling of marks signifying degenerating focal clarity.
Details of The Common
There are many ways that artists employ the principle of binocular vision. For instance, whereas I used a hierarchy of mark attributes ranging from fine pen lines at the centre-of-interest to wide strokes with a brush towards the peripheral edge of the drawing, some artists rely entirely on showing variation in the quantity of detail depicted; namely, an abundance of detail at the point of focus and a lessening in the quantity of detail shown away from this point. For example, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot’s (1796–1875) cliché-verre [a print made photographically on treated paper in the manner of a photogram using a glass plate coated with an opaque ground through which the design is scratched so as to make a transparent negative], The Woods of the Hermit (shown below), exemplifies an entire image drawn with the same thickness of line. In short, the detailing and tonal contrast of the diminutive, but distinctive, silhouette shape of a figure on a hillside makes the figure the key point of focus whereas the representation of the rest of the scene is treated with far less detailing.
Details of Corot’s The Woods of the Hermit
A key feature of most artworks featuring binocular vision is that they are formatted as a vignette (i.e. an image that pictorially dissolves towards the edges of the format). For instance, in James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s (1834–1903) etching, The Little Putney, No. 1 (shown below), the eye is invited to contemplate the right side of the featured bridge by virtue of the strong line work in this area before resting on the finely rendered tower beyond it. By design, Whistler uses the vignette treatment to gradually decrease the amount of portrayed detail away from the point of focus so that the outer edge of the image is light in tone.
Details of Whistler’s The Little Putney, No. 1
A similar vignette treatment from dark details at the image centre to lightly denoted forms at the peripheral edge of the image may also be seen in Auguste Brouet’s (1872–1941) etching, Marchand des Légumes [Vegetable Seller] (shown below). Here, the transition from velvety rich black lines depicting the artist’s focus on the market sellers to the palest hint of fine lines at the outer edge of the image is an excellent example of binocular vision.
|Details of Brouet’s Marchand des Légumes|
The concept of using a vignette treatment for representing binocular vision does not mean that the portrayed subject must fade to the colour of the paper. For instance, Edouard Vuillard’s (1868–1940) etching, Interieur au Canape ou Soir (1930) (shown below) and Adolphe Appian’s (1818–98) Village de Villeneuve (1869) (shown further below) demonstrate how artists can fade their portrayed subject into darkness at the periphery of the format.
Details of Vuillard’s Interieur au Canape ou Soir
Details of Appian’s Avant La Pluie, Village de Villeneuve
From a very different perspective, the idea of directing an audience’s attention to a specific point of interest is not limited to visual representation. I mention this as I recently attended a chamber music performance and I was struck by how the orchestration of the music focussed my attention on a particular instrument and musical line. Arguably, the principle employed in capturing my attention is the same as used by artists to draw attention to the centre-of-interest in an image: namely, contrast between the treatment of the centre-of-interest and the treatment of its immediate surroundings. In terms of music, this contrast may be between a clear and captivating melody line played on a clarinet and ambient sounds of massed violins. But, of course, this type of contrast in music and the visual arts is seldom simple and usually involves a network of relationships to sustain interest and project meaning. This is because the focus of two eyes or two ears on a point of interest undergoes constant shifting and revaluation for meaning to be negotiated. To explain the complexities involved, I wish to rely on Tolstoy’s famous description of a collapsing tree from Three Deaths, as his account guides the reader through shifts of visual and auditory focus and subtle comparisons in creating a word-picture of the tree’s demise—a sequence of contemplating a point of fixation before moving to the next:
The sound of the axe at the bottom grew duller and duller. Sappy white chips flew onto the dewy grass and a slight creaking could be heard above the sound of the blows. The tree, shuddering from top to toe, bent over and quickly straightened up, shaking with fear on its roots. For an instant all was still, but then the tree bent again, another crack sound came from its trunk, and with its branches breaking and its bough hanging down it fell crown-first onto the damp earth. (Tolstoy, Leo [trans. Louise & Aylmer Maude] 1933, Nine Stories by Leo Tolstoy [Tolstoy Centenary Edition], London, p. 307)