Our visual powers

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Chapter 4



Painting awakens our visual senses in such a way as to make us see color, shape, light, and form in new ways. Painters such as Siqueiros, Goya, Cézanne, Wesselmann, Valadon, Neel, and virtually all the painters illustrated in this book make demands on our sensitivity to the visual fi eld, rewarding us with challenges and delights that only painting can provide. But at the same time, we are also often dulled by day-today experience or by distractions of business or study that make it diffi cult to look with the intensity that great art requires. Therefore, we sometimes need to refresh our awareness by sharpening our attention to the surfaces of paintings as well as to their overall power. For example, by referring to the following Perception Key we may prepare ourselves to look deeply and respond in new ways to some of the paintings we considered in earlier chapters.

PERCEPTION KEY Our Visual Powers

1. Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Figure 3-3). Identify the three major colors Pollock uses in addition to the background. How do these colors establish a sense of visual rhythm? Which of the three colors is most intense? Which most surprising?

Page 642. Suzanne Valadon, Reclining Nude (Figure 2-23). Examine the piece of furniture, the sofa, on which Valadon’s nude reclines. What color is it? Why is it an eff ective contrast to the nude? What are the designs on the sofa? What color are the lines of the designs? How do they relate to the subject matter of the painting?

3. Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning (Figure 1-8). What are the most important colors in the painting? How do they balance and complement each other? Why does Hopper limit the intensity of the colors as he does? What is the visual rhythmic effect of the patterns formed in the windows of the second floor? Are any two windows the same? How does Hopper use unexpected forms to break the rhythm of the first level of shops? What emotional qualities are excited by Hopper’s control of the visual elements in the painting?

4. Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire (Figure 2-4). How many colors does Cézanne use in this painting? Which color is dominant? Which figure in the painting is most dominant? How do the most important lines in the painting direct your vision? Describe the way your eye moves through the painting. How does Cézanne use line and color to direct your attention?

Our point is that everyday life tends to dull our senses so that we do not observe our surroundings with the sensitivity that we might. For help we must go to the artists, especially the painter and the sculptor—those who are most sensitive to the visual appearances of things. With their aid, our vision can be made whole again, as when we were children. Their works accomplish this by making things and their qualities much clearer than they usually appear. The artist purges from our sight the fi lms of familiarity. Painting, with its “all-at-onceness,” more than any other art, gives us the time to allow our vision to focus.


Throughout this book we will be talking about the basic materials and media in each of the arts, because a clear understanding of their properties will help us understand what artists do and how they work. The most prominent media in Western painting—and most painting in the rest of the world—are tempera, fresco, oil, watercolor, and acrylic. In early paintings, the pigment—the actual color—required a binder such as egg yolk, glue, or casein to keep it in solution and permit it to be applied to canvas, wood, plaster, and other substances.


Tempera is pigment bound by egg yolk and applied to a carefully prepared surface like the wood panels of Cimabue’s thirteenth-century Madonna and Child Enthroned with Angels (Figure 4-1). The colors of tempera sometimes look slightly fl at and are difficult to change as the artist works, but the marvelous precision of detail and the subtlety of linear shaping are extraordinary. The purity of colors, notably in the lighter range, can be wondrous, as with the tinted white of the inner dress of Giotto’s Madonna Enthroned (Figure 4-2). In the fourteenth century, Giotto achieves an astonishing level of detail in the gold ornamentation below and around the Madonna. At the same time, his control of the medium of tempera permitted him to represent figures with a high degree of individuality and realism, representing a profound change in the history of art.

Page 65

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