DRAWING LIFE by fred hatt



Three Worlds, 1955, lithograph by M. C. Escher

Recently, a cluster of unrelated events have turned my thoughts to the visual perception of space.  To be honest, it’s always been a preoccupation.  For several months I’ve been using the Escher print pictured above as my computer desktop image.  It’s an elegant depiction of the world of the surface, a higher world that is seen mirrored in the surface, and a third world that is glimpsed in the depths.  This can be taken as a simple image of the beauty of transparency and reflection, or it can be related to the cosmology that is common to shamanic cultures worldwide, where the world of our everyday experience exists between and influenced by both an upper realm of celestial patterns and an underworld of earthly spirits.  Our prehistoric and ancient ancestors have left us evidence of their engagement with the upper world through their sophisticated models of the movements of heavenly bodies, and of their journeying in the lower world through caves populated with powerfully rendered animal spirits.

I’ve always been fascinated by paleolithic art, and have posted about it previously, so of course when I heard that Werner Herzog had made a documentary film about the Chauvet Cave, the oldest painted cave yet discovered, I knew this was a film I had to see.  Here’s a publicity still of the director posing with an archaeologist who appears in the film dressed in an ice age fur suit and plays a reconstruction of a 35,000 year-old vulture-bone flute (sound file at the link).

Film director Werner Herzog, cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, and archaeologist Wulf Hein on location for the 2011 documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams

You’ll notice that Herzog’s cinematographer, in the background, is holding a camera that has two side-by-side lenses.  That’s a 3D or stereoscopic camera.  We perceive depth partly through the way our brains process the input from two eyes offset from each other by a few inches, and 3D photography, which has been around nearly since the invention of photography, simulates depth perception by showing each of our eyes a slightly different view of the scene.

(I’ve also had a long interest in stereoscopic photography, and have posted some of my own 3D images in the posts “Shapes of Things” and “Depth Perception“, and even a 3D video in “3D or not 3D“.)

I’m not particularly fond of the current 3D digital projection processes –  there are several variants, all of which I find rob the cinematic image of much of its brightness and color, and are generally distracting and tiring to the eyes.  (Not to mention that a lot of films these days are shot normally, and then turned into fake, simulated 3D, which can look really terrible.)  But in Herzog’s film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the technique is effective in giving us the feeling of what it’s like to be inside the cave, and of how the artwork is integrated into the organic bulges and hollows of the limestone walls.  It’s the closest most of us will get to being able to be inside a real paleolithic painted cave.

One effect of seeing a 3D film is that it can make you more conscious of depth perception in everyday life.  But here’s something different and odd.  I went with a friend to take a look at this new sculpture, Echo, by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, that’s been installed through August 14, 2011, in Madison Square Park in Manhattan.  It’s a 44-foot (13.4 meter) tall head of a child, with eyes closed and a tranquil expression.  My friend said she couldn’t escape the illusion, when seeing the statue from a distance, that it was flat, like a cutout, and I had the same experience.  Seen from up close, it’s clearly three-dimensional, but from a distance it has an eerie, unreal quality.  It is surely an uncanny object.

Echo, 2011 sculpture by Jaume Plensa, Madison Square Park, New York City, 2011 photo by Fred Hatt

It appears that the scale of the vertical dimension is approximately double the scale of the horizontal dimensions.  Plensa uses 3D computer modeling to create his works, and here he has started from a realistic form, elongating it and softening the edges of the features.  The surface of the sculpture is cast in polyester resin and coated with white marble dust.  The reflective, almost translucent-looking whiteness, the simplicity of the forms and the serene blankness of the expression, the monumental size, and the lack of a pedestal all help to make Echo look like an eerie vision.  I believe the illusion of flatness is caused by the elongated scale.  We’re used to seeing huge flat pictures on billboards, and often from angles that distort the images in ways similar to the distortion of Echo.  When we see a huge face distorted, our minds assume that we are seeing a flat image from an oblique angle.  We are so habituated to seeing things that way that it is difficult to overcome the illusion even when we know what we are looking at.

Another eerie white object that appears flat even though we know it is round is the moon.  I came across this photo recently on the fantastic Nasa Astronomy Picture of the Day site, a bottomless fountain of beauty on the web.  If you look at this picture with cheap red-cyan 3D glasses (available free here), the moon looms out at you like the sphere it is.  Of course the moon is far too distant for the normal parallax separation of our eyes to reveal its shape through stereoscopic vision.  The picture here is constructed from shots of the moon taken two months apart.  The natural wobble, or “libration” of the moon provides two angles of view, producing a 3D image that could never be seen in reality.

3D Full Moon, 2007, red/cyan anaglyph by Laurent Laveder

Yet another recent stimulus to my thinking about the visual perception of space and depth was Daniel Maidman’s recent post about approaches to pictorial space in painting.  I urge you to click the link and go through the well-chosen example images – click on the small pictures to embiggen them.  You’ll learn a lot about the subject by reading through Daniel’s entertaining overview, and if you’re a visual artist of any kind yourself, you’ll probably also find it highly stimulative of creative ideas.  Daniel’s blog is really worth following.  He’s as good a writer as he is a painter, easy to read, funny, and thought-provoking.

Model with Unfinished Self-Portrait, date unknown, by David Hockney (featured in Daniel Maidman’s blog post “Egyptian Space”

A lot of what I learned about pictorial space I learned by studying photography.  In photography one of the biggest factors affecting the way space is presented is the choice of lens – a shorter focal length, or wide-angle lens, gives a very different effect than a longer focal length, or telephoto, lens.  Here’s a street sign photographed with a wide-angle lens.  A wide angle lens literally takes in a very broad cone of vision.  For an object to appear large in the frame, it needs to be seen from very close, while the wide field of view includes a generous swath of background.  Perspectival angling of lines is emphasized, and the apparent distance between background and foreground is exaggerated.

Sign Back, 2006, photo by Fred Hatt

A slightly longer focal length lens allows us to fill the frame with a similar-sized object from a greater distance.  Here the cone of vision is narrower, and thus the amount of background we see is limited and the perspective appears compressed, with the background seemingly right behind the subject.  Many professional photographers tend to favor long lenses, because they isolate the subject from all the distracting stuff around it.  Long lenses also make it easier to throw the background out of focus, which enhances the isolating effect.

Angled Planes, 2010, photo by Fred Hatt

A wide lens lets you see a whole tall building from right across the street, or to get a feeling of space within a tight interior.  Any angle that’s not straight-on will show perspectival diminution.  Translating the view below to a drawing would require three-point perspective, with vanishing points to the left, right and above the frame.

Church and Tower, 2009, photo by Fred Hatt

A long lens keeps straight lines straight, but tends to flatten the space of objects seen from a distance, as in this view looking towards the Manhattan Municipal Building from Canal Street.

Downtown Cluster, 2005, photo by Fred Hatt

Finally we get to some figure drawing.  Aside from perspective effects, which you can sometimes observe in seeing the body from a foreshortened angle, there are several ways to convey three-dimensionality in a drawing.  I generally try to make my shading and coloring lines follow the surface contours of the subject.  These lines are called cross-contours, and they’re a very effective way to create the illusion of solidity.

Rounded Back, 2011, by Fred Hatt

Lighting effects also help to show the spatial form of a subject.  Just as the differing angles of the two eyes create the stereoscopic effect, different colors or qualities of light coming from more than one angle can give solidity to a two-dimensional depiction.

Night Back, 2011, by Fred Hatt

In the drawing below, perspective, cross-contours, lighting, and negative space are all combined to give a sense of the model as a solid presence occupying space.

Smoke, 2010, by Fred Hatt

This is probably one of the most wide-ranging posts I’ve ever done, but I hope it hangs together around the concept of spatial perception.

All the images that are not my own link back to their sources on the web if you click on the pictures.


Womb of Art: Paleolithic Masterpieces

Detail of the Lion Panel of Chauvet Cave, France, fig. 84 from "Dawn of Art: The Chauvet Cave" by Chauvet, Deschamps & Hillaire

These lions look so full of life they might at any moment pounce on their prey.  This is a small detail from the “Lion Panel”, an expansive composition featuring dozens of animals, discovered in 1994 in a cave in southeastern France.  Across a huge cave wall with a niche in the center, the lions appear to be stalking herds of rhinos, mammoths and bulls.  The realism is classical, the scale and energy modern, yet radiocarbon dating has proven this magnificent work is approximately thirty thousand years old!  The mastery displayed here makes a mockery of the concept of “primitive” art.

It has been barely a hundred years since scientists have agreed that the paintings in certain caves are the work of artists of the paleolithic or old stone age, the end of the last glacial period, when homo sapiens coexisted with Neanderthal people and the kind of herds we associate with the African veldt roamed Europe.  In 1879 the nine year old daughter of amateur Spanish archaeologist Sautuola discovered the magnificent murals of Altamira cave, but it took over twenty years before the scholarly establishment accepted the prehistoric origin of the paintings.

Since then, academics have disputed about the meaning and motivation of these works.  In The Mind in the Cave:  Consciousness and the Origins of Art, David Lewis-Williams, a scholar specializing in ancient rock art, argues that the paintings in the paleolithic caves are the product of shamanic vision quests.  These are not the kind of caves some people lived in, but deep caverns requiring significant effort to penetrate.  Inside these spaces there is no external light or sound.  The paintings may record visions arising from ordeal and sensory deprivation.  Ancient footprints found in the caves show that children accompanied adults into the caves, so the exhibition of the artwork by dim and flickering lamplight may have been a kind of initiation.

Most visual art associated with present-day hunting and gathering cultures is highly stylized, relying on abstract conventions that represent things conceptually rather than accurately following their appearance.  In contrast, the paleolithic art is remarkable for its realism.  Obviously those animals were not posing for the artists inside the caves, but the confident rendering of lifelike animal contours convinces me that these artists were well practiced in observational drawing.  The caves may be significant not as the place of origin of art, but as the place of its preservation, as there must have been an abundance of art outside the caves that did not survive.

I’ll refrain from engaging the scholarly arguments here, and just share a few samples of visual art of the European Paleolithic that speak to me across the millennia, revealing the timeless qualities of great work.  These images come from books in my personal library, and I hope the copyright holders will not mind my sharing them with you.  Altamira, mentioned above, is the source of this exuberant galloping horse:

Galloping Horse, original painting in red, copied by Abbé Henri Breuil, fig. 130 from "Art in the Ice Age" by Maringer and Bandi

This painting has the lightness and simplicity of the loose brushwork of Asian painters grounded in calligraphy and taoism or zen.

This back-biting bison carving, from Trois-Frères Cave in France could be mistaken for a Picasso:

Bison sculpture in reindeer antler, from La Madeleine, France, fig. 44 from "Art in the Ice Age" by Maringer and Bandi

The Cave of Trois-Frères in France is famous for a human-animal hybrid image known as “The Sorcerer“.  It also has a magnificent complex herd scene with at least forty-five animals, densely overlapping, all of them individually expressed in different lifelike positions.  Is the figure on the right in the detail shown below a hunter disguised in a bison’s skin, a shamanic summoner of animal spirits, or a bison god?

Detail from a mural engraving at the Cave of Trois-Frères, France, copied by Abbé Henri Breuil, p. 135 from "La Peinture Prehistorique: Lascaux ou la Naissance de l'Art" by Georges Bataille

Here’s another detail from the same cave:

Bison, engraving at the Cave of Trois-Frères, France, copied by Abbé Henri Breuil, fig. 121a from "The Roots of Civilization" by Alexander Marshack

These vigorous drawings burst with vitality, conveying the power of the looming beasts and the fury of the hunt.

You may notice that I’ve chosen to show many of these works in copies made by the Abbé Breuil, one of the early 20th century’s foremost specialists in European cave art.  His beautifully rendered copies clarify images that are often hard to read in photographs, painted or engraved on rough and mottled stone surfaces.  It’s difficult for photographs to capture the qualities of cave art, which is not flat and not intended to be seen in harsh bright light.  Many of the original paintings incorporate the bulges of the stone walls as the bulges of the animal bodies.  In other places, paintings continue from walls up to vaulted ceilings, as in this image from the most famous painted cave of all, Lascaux:

Ceiling of the Axial Gallery, Lascaux Cave, p. 111 from "The Cave of Lascaux: The Final Photographs" by Mario Ruspoli

Depictions of animals are far more numerous, and usually more detailed, than depictions of the human form in paleolithic art, but the human figures can be strikingly sensual:

Reclining female figures from Cave of La Madeleine, France, relief carvings above with copy drawings below, fig. 111 from "The Way of the Animal Powers" by Joseph Campbell

Those remind me of Matisse.  The carved “Venus” figurines, a selection of which are shown below, prefigure the styles of Brancusi and Gaudier-Brzeska:

Small paleolithic figurines, from left to right, vitreous rock from the Riviera, hematite from Moravia, mammoth ivory from Ukraine, and mammoth bone from Russia, figs. 121 thru 124 from "The Way of the Animal Powers" by Joseph Campbell

From a slightly later period, after the invention of the bow and arrow, we have silhouetted figures like this one, similar in style to South African rock art, but this is from Spain:

Archer with compound bow, rock painting in black from the Spanish Levant, fig. 177 from "Art in the Ice Age" by Maringer and Bandi

This is just a small sampling from an incredible wealth of prehistoric masterpieces.

New note added April 21, 2010:  Get a great feeling for the art in context with the navigable CGI reproduction of the art in context in the cave of Lascaux.

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