The Chakras Series of paintings was inspired by visits to the Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle.Read More
As a topic, how we experience time in visual images might be an art history essay or a small book. But my aim here is modest. I am ignoring time as a theme in works of art. Videos are beyond the scope of this short article. I am interested in understanding why time, which seems to be an intrinsic element in a photograph or a painting, is perceived differently in the two disciplines.
Images in photography and painting could be placed on an imaginary spectrum, which ranges from a particular moment - a millisecond of time - to an expanded moment, which may stretch toward eternity. At one end of the spectrum are images so precisely rooted in the moment that they almost stop time. At the other end of the spectrum are images which seem nearly timeless. Let’s consider a couple examples of images at the extreme ends of the spectrum.
When I look at an icon, I experience an otherworldly timelessness. Iconography is incredibly time-intensive. Painting an icon with multiple layers of pure, hand-prepared pigments, and gilding it with 24-carat gold, require many exacting hours of labor. Iconographers use a symbolic language of color and form to represent Christ, the mother of Jesus (Theotokos), or the saints - all of whom have transcended time. Minimal shadows are cast from the halo around the figures and from an inner light, but not from the sun of this world. Strong lines define the image, further emphasizing its existence in another dimension. The priest's consecration of the image, and the veneration of the faithful seal the image’s timelessness. With the passage of centuries, the paint will certainly fade and crumble, but for the faithful, the image exists in eternity.
On the opposite end of my imaginary spectrum are photographic images. One of the strengths of photography is the ability of the camera to capture a precise moment in time. You’re probably familiar with photographs showing a lightbulb at the moment of impact by a pellet. It's unforgettable because our brain doesn't freeze the instant of impact for us.
The shattered lightbulb is an extreme example. It may not qualify as “art”, but photography is celebrated for capturing the defining moments of our lives - as in French street-photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment". Sometimes painters and sculptors share an interest with photography in capturing that defining moment. This shared interest seems to be the subject of Cartier-Bresson's famous photograph of sculptor, Alberto Giacometti.
On our imaginary spectrum, a photograph that captures the stop-action in a basketball game would be placed closer to the photo of the shattered light bulb than would a photograph of a still life.
When compared to photography’s "Kodak moment" (a clever advertising phrase that once promoted Kodachrome film) paintings seem to have an expanded moment of time that is intrinsic to how we perceive the artwork. Consider two examples of expanded time in a painting. In some of Edward Hopper’s paintings, people in hotel rooms and restaurants look like they will not move for hours. Walls, windows, and shadows form broad, intersecting planes of stillness. Time stretches in these Hopper paintings. We know that drowned Ophelia, in John Everett Millais’ painting of a character in Hamlet, will never rise again. How we experience time in "Ophelia" is similar to the two Hopper paintings. The stillness of the figures is partly responsible for our perception of an expanded period of time, but what we know about painting may have a greater influence.
If the paintings of Hopper and Millais were photographs instead of paintings, our sense of intrinsic time in the images would be different. I think the difference is based on our experiences in taking photographs and being photographed. Although photographs are not necessarily more “real” than paintings, our experiences with photography tell us that a photographic image (even one that is excessively photoshopped) captures an real instant in time. We know from experience that - however long it takes the photographer to set up equipment or to wait patiently for the right moment - the camera can complete its work in the blink of an eye. When we view the resulting image, our experience with cameras shapes how we perceive time in the photograph.
When we look at paintings, our experience of time is not the same as with a photograph, as long as we see evidence of human touch. A Dutch painter of the 17th Century, Johannes Vermeer, may have used a camera obscura to make his paintings; however, his brushwork is evident when viewing the original oils. Knowing that the "Milkmaid" is painted by hand influences our perception of the moment of time depicted in the painting. "Milkmaid" looks photographic, but its intrinsic moment of time lingers longer.
The importance of the human touch in our perception of time in an image is demonstrated by photorealistic paintings. Our experience of intrinsic time in photorealistic paintings is similar to a photograph because the artists are careful not to show any sign of human touch.
Photographs of some realistic paintings, intended for display online, are so reduced in size that the hand of the artist is less evident, and the missing element of human touch alters our perception of the image. Looking at reduced images of paintings which are more or less realistic is a far different experience than standing in front of the original paintings. (I encourage people interesting in owning a reproduction to order one closer to the original size so they experience the painting the way the artist experienced it.)
An art movement of the previous century altered our sense of time in a painting by combining separate moments of time into one image. Cubism, one of the painting revolutions of the twentieth century, provided us with painterly wrinkles in time, which are perhaps truer to our psychological experience of an object, but startling to see on canvas. Our knowledge and memory of a friend’s face, for example, is constructed in our mind’s eye from views at several angles over time. Cubist painters abandoned Renaissance perspective in favor of multiple perspectives. In the relatively flat, two-dimensional space of a cubist painting, our eyes take in almost at once several combined views of objects. We see from above, below and around. Multiple view points suggest movement in space, and that movement implies time.
Cubist paintings altered our experience of time in an image, but they were still fixed in time. Another painting revolution of the previous century placed paintings nearly outside of time, similar to how we experience time in icons. The paintings of the famous abstract artists of the early 20th Century feel almost eternally present. Like the Byzantine iconographers of the Middle Ages, the paintings of the early abstract artists were concerned with the form and color of a spiritual dimension. Hilma af Klint, the earliest pioneer of abstraction, produced visionary paintings, which (for her) came from a metaphysical world where forms exist without beginning or end.
Hilma af Klint's marvelous paintings were intentionally otherworldly. In general, the closer a painting is to abstraction, the less bound in time it seems. For example, I’m fascinated by refraction of light in water. I’ve spent many hours on beaches staring at rocks under moving water, nearly hypnotized, trying to get a fix on the distorted patterns. Photography helps; nevertheless, the information in a photograph always requires many adjustments for a painting. I’ve taken multiple photographs of refracted rocks, and I’ve used a few of them to make paintings. My experience is that the closer the distorted images are to abstract patterns, the greater is the sense of expanded time in the painting, in spite of the fact that the image may show a moment of watery refraction.
The visibility of human touch in a painting tells us it took time. So does the knowledge that a painting is constructed over a longer period of time relative to most photographic images. Whatever the sources for a painting - reference photos, sketches, studio props, memory and imagination, or working en plein air - the creative process of painting is labor intensive. Anyone who has drawn something, even a doodle, understands that it takes time. When I look at a painting, I am aware that a painting is made by hand, and I am aware of the hours involved in constructing a painting. That awareness expands my sense of intrinsic time in the painting.
In contrast to painting, our photographic experiences tend to bind photographs to a moment in time. We point our cell phone cameras at a subject, press a button...and we can instantly share the resulting image over the Internet. Professional photographers take more time to process their photographs using computer software, such as Lightroom or Photoshop, but their results usually preserve a specific moment in time because our experience with photography tells us that a photographic image is time bound.
However, technological advances in computer software and printing enable some photographers - the digital artists - to create images that, more often than not, also expand the sense of intrinsic time. At the beginning of this article, I imagined a two-dimensional spectrum which ranged from a particular moment to an expanded moment. With digital art, the imaginary spectrum curves in space, like a strip of paper wrapped around a sphere. Digital art and painting meet at the extremes.
Some artists mingle photography and/or digital art with painting, creating an unusual, hybrid art. The relationships between the photographic elements and painted elements in the hybrid art play with how we experience photography - which feels more time specific and "real" - compared to how we experience painting - which is not as fixed in a specific moment and which feels less real. The tension between the photographic and painted elements in Charles Villiers' painting is unsettling, a mirror of contemporary, urban society.
Intuitively, most of us are aware that our sense of time in a photograph compared to a painting is different. There is nothing profound in that observation. In thinking about it, I've concluded that our perception of intrinsic time in a photograph or a painting is mostly determined by what we know about the two disciplines. At the beginning of this article I wrote that my aim was modest. If your appreciation of photographs, paintings, and digital art has been slightly enriched by this article, I have achieved my aim.
2016 copyright by Nick Payne
This short article offers a few hints about how to SEE paintings more deeply. Although I have a life-long passion for art, I'm not a critic or a famous artist, so the best I can do is to share a few comments about what I have learned over the years in looking more deeply at art. If my comments are helpful to you, this article has served its purpose.
Am I willing to make the effort?
Answering this question is the first step in truly seeing a painting. Without a desire to know a painting more deeply, there is no path forward. However, just as appreciating and understanding a novel or film is intrinsically rewarding, so is seeing deeply into a work of art.
Seeing requires looking long.
Most visitors to an exhibit or gallery glance at a painting for a few seconds, and then move on to the next one. This is a good practice for getting an overview of an art exhibit. A walk-through is like a survey of a book in which a reader skims the table of contents and chapter headings. And then, after a walk-through, I return to paintings of interest and look long. Looking long is like reading a chapter in a novel. To really see any painting demands an investment of time. When my initial reaction to an exhibit or to a specific painting is uncertainty, I try to suspend prejudices and judgments and look longer.
I cannot see well when I am in the dark.
Our biases often prevent us from seeing or understanding better. We might take extreme positions, loving abstract art and hating realistic art. We might enjoy secular art but despise religious art. Or we might think only the works of celebrated artists are worth our attention. If my likes and dislikes are based mostly on prejudices, I cannot see beyond them. Instead of growing, I stagnate. Sometimes, the more informed have the greater prejudices. For example, a few critics, gallery curators, and artists so distain art that doesn’t challenge their perception of the status quo that they dismiss more traditional art with a contemptuous glance. In their view, only “cutting-edge” art is worth their time. When we hold onto our prejudices too strongly, our vision narrows and darkens. To see beyond our biases, we need to rise above them. Of course, it’s far easier to put this in words than it is to suspend or eliminate our biases.
I approach a painting as if a friend were communicating directly with me.
Most artists don’t paint solely for themselves; they paint for an audience: you and me. Approach a painting as though a friend were talking or writing to you, and sharing a highly personal experience. Instead of words, however, a painting uses visual language. I try to look at a painting similarly to how I would want to hear a friend - with openness and acceptance.
I look for the inner life of a painting.
Matisse believed that the inner life of a painting depended on whether artists were in touch with the inner life of the natural world. "That is the sense, so it seems to me, in which art may be said to imitate nature, namely, by the life that
the creative worker infuses into the work of art. The work will then appear as fertile and as possessed
of the same power to thrill, the same resplendent beauty as we find in works of nature." (Jack D. Flam, Matisse on Art. (New York, 1978), pp. 148-149.)
Matisse's view is sound. A good abstract or realistic painting has an inner life, or what I call presence. An artist who can discern the inner life of nature will eventually translate that life into the form and color of a painting. In addition, whether an artwork is infused with an inner life depends on the intensity and quality of the artist’s thought. Thoughts exist. They have energy. Thoughts are things. If this is a new idea, think about how a building is constructed. A skyscraper begins in the mind. Our lives and our world are built thought-by-thought. In making a painting, I believe the thoughts of the artist are part of the physical painting somewhat like the soul is connected to a body but independent of it.
Some paintings don’t have much presence because the artist had nothing much to communicate. The paintings seem nearly lifeless. Some paintings have a strong presence, but it's the quality of presence that matters to me. Presence in a painting might awe me like a miracle, or feel like the flu. Our response to presence in a painting depends on our own inner consciousness. Some artists, whose thoughts are overly negative and dark, may produce paintings I would find repellant, but which for others would feel irresistible. In art as in friendships, like attracts like.
Many gifted artists have an innate capacity to infuse their art with a powerful presence. Van Gogh’s paintings, for example, have an undeniable inner life. Other artists take years to develop their capacity through training and personal transformation. Iconographers make images with a powerful spiritual presence. It’s partly learning the canon, but it’s mostly developing a spiritual integrity that matches the purpose of their art. Iconographers learn to “write” each icon with deeply-felt prayers, layer-by-layer and line-by-line.
Learn more about the art you like, and more about the art you don’t like.
Usually, the better we know our friends, the more dear they become to us. It’s an easy task to learn more about the art we like, but it’s more challenging to tackle art we don’t know or don't like. Yet, in learning more about the art we don’t initially like or know well, we will learn something new, and perhaps our new knowledge will change our minds. For instance, if you don’t like abstract art, consider reading short pieces on the Internet about the pioneer abstract artists of the twentieth century. Why did they abandon realism in painting? What did they hope to achieve? Conversely, if you think only amateurs or hopelessly out-of-fashion artists paint realistic images, try to figure out why skilled professionals might persist in using the traditional visual language of realism. This isn’t to say you need to become as knowledgeable about painting as an art historian, but being receptive and friendly to a painting, and learning a little about its style and its medium, may open your eyes to it. The reward is growth in knowledge and in seeing.
- Copyright 2016 by Nick Payne
I love the fact that pastels are more permanent than other paint mediums. Paintings made with pastels belong in any collection of art where longevity is especially valued. Unlike other paint mediums, the pigments of pastels are not saturated with a binder, which means pastels will not yellow, darken, or craze with age like other paint media. Once properly framed with archival materials under UV-resistant glass, a pastel painting will last for centuries with minimal care. Pastel paintings in museums from the 18th century, for instance, are as bright and fresh today as when they were painted.
Ars longa, vita brevis means that art will last longer than life. That's true only if proven, quality materials are used to make art. In past centuries, artists took care to ensure that buyers who purchased their work had an heirloom that could be passed on through generations. That kind of workmanship seems less valued today. One of the prevailing post-60s attitudes, which still influences artists and galleries, is that the creative process of making art matters more than its permanence. Process Art, a 60s movement emphasizing the creative act over the end-product, showcased the transience and impermanence of non-traditional materials such as cardboard, felt, and tar. The ephemeral nature and insubstantiality of many non-traditional materials was thought to reflect the impermanence of our life and times. Unfortunately for the collector, art which uses impermanent materials poses a risk to their investment.
Writing about the famous German artist Anselm Kiefer, art critic Robert Hughes in his acclaimed book, Nothing if Not Critical, mentions Kiefer’s use of diverse materials to express his vision:
Kiefer’s work is made of tar, paper, staples, canvas, a rough foil formed by throwing a bucket of molten lead on the canvas and letting it cool there, sand epoxy, gold leaf, copper wire, wood cuts and lumps of busted ceramic. It is highly unlikely that more than a few of these paintings will survive for another fifty, or even twenty-five years - Kiefer carries a disregard for the permanence of his materials to such an extreme that the lead will not stay in place and the straw on some canvases is rotting already, although this does not seem to discourage buyers.
Does longevity of a work of art matter? Many artists say no; it’s the creative and expressive process that matters. Longevity and permanence matter to me. Sure, I value my creative process, but I also want the people who collect my work to have paintings that endure. From my perspective, permanence - to the extent possible - is part of the value of art.
In addition to the permanence of pastels, I love the versatility, immediacy, purity and brilliancy of pastels. Whether sketching outdoors - en plein air - or painting in the studio, effects are immediate. Pastels register every gesture of the artist’s arm and fingers without having to pause to allow water or oil to dry. With pastels the work goes quickly; however, there is a difference between a sketch and a painting. My complicated larger pastels may take weeks of steady work to finish.
Painting with professional pastels is as close as an artist can get to painting with pure pigment. Some artists, recalling their early school experience with cheap pastels and limited instruction in their use, shy away from the medium. They remember dust, fragility, and frustration. Other than name “pastel”, the school product and the professional product have little in common. All objections to pastel are removed with a little instruction and the use of professional materials.
To preserve the purity of the pastels, I don’t “fix” my pastel paintings with sprays to hold the pigment in place. Instead the ground I paint upon, PastelMat, serves that purpose. Sprays are toxic. Research shows they affect the longevity of pastels.
Finished pastel paintings have an airiness and surface light unduplicated by other painting media because the tiny particles of pigment reflect from many facets like rough-cut gems.
Although initially a pastel painting is fragile, properly framed with Museum Glass® or Conservation Glass® and archival mat and mounting board, an original pastel painting is an heirloom that can be passed on through many generations.
No art using pigments should be hung in direct sunlight because all pigments fade with the passage of decades. Although the reproductions offered by Birdseye Art Studio won't last as long as an original painting, they have excellent longevity because they are produced with the best and latest technology, PLUS they are sprayed with a special varnish that resists the fading effects of ultraviolet rays. If you can't buy an original pastel painting, a high quality giclée from the Birdseye Art Studio is next best.