Our visual powers

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Piet Mondrian, Broadway Boogie Woogie. 1942–1943. Oil on canvas, 50 × 50 inches (127 × 127 cm). Given anonymously. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Since line is usually the main determinant of shapes, and shapes are usually the main determinant of detail, regional, and structural relationships, line is usually fundamental in the overall composition—Mark Rothko’s Earth Greens (Figure 4-10) is an exception. The term “linear design” is often used to describe this organizing function.

Cézanne’s small bushes are formed by small juxtaposed greenish-blue planes that vary slightly in their tinting. These planes are hatched by brushstrokes that slightly vary the textures. And from the center of the planes to the perimeters there is usually a shading from light to dark. Thus emerges a strong sense of volume with density. We see those small bushes as somehow distinct objects, and yet we see no separating outlines. Colors and textures meet and create impressions of line. As with axis lines, the visible suggests the invisible—we project the outlines.

Mark Rothko, Earth Greens. 1955. Oil on canvas, 90¼ × 73½ inches. Museum Ludwig, Köln.

At seven and a half feet high and six feet wide, Earth Greens has a huge physical impact on the viewer. Many of Rothko’s similar works were commissioned for public spaces such as restaurants, but they ended up in sanctuaries because of their calming, spiritual effect on the viewer.

On occasion, this kind of projection may occur when we think we see outlines of trees and other objects in the natural world. We see a tree, know it is a distinct object, and assume, of course, that it has distinct edges or outlines. But it may be that sometimes we imagine lines while seeing only colors, shadows, and textures. Cézanne has clarified the way we sometimes see things in the natural world. That is one reason his paintings may strike us as so fresh and true. What Cézanne has revealed is the way we sometimes see and our ignorance about how it occurs. What we are suggesting is controversial, and you may not be seeing it that way. Try to get to a museum that has a late Cézanne landscape (after 1890), and test our analysis. But above all, participate. You may come out with a wonderful new lens in your eyes.

Page 76In the Asian tradition, the expressive power of line is achieved generally in a very different way from the Western tradition. The stroke—made by fl exible brushes of varying sizes and hairs—is intended to communicate the spirit and feelings of the artist, directly and spontaneously. The sensitivity of the inked brush is extraordinary. The ink offers a wide range of nuances: texture, shine, depth, pallor, thickness, and wetness. The brush functions like a seismograph of the painter’s mind.


Examine with a magnifying glass the brushstrokes in Landscape after Wu Zhen (Figure 4-7).

1. What different kinds of brushstrokes can you identify?

2. Why such a variety?

The brushwork in Wang Yuanqi’s painting varies with the tone of the ink. The rising forms of the mountains are made with a broad brush, almost translucent ink-tone, with intense dark dots implying the vegetation defining the top of each ridge. The man-made structures in the painting are made with a smaller brush, as in the curved bridge at the lower right of the painting. The rooftops and buildings in the mid portion of the painting on both left and right use a small brush with strong lines, like those of the trees in the mid foreground. The leaves of the nearest trees and bushes are deep-tone dark ink produced by chopping strokes, sometimes known as the ax-cut. The painting demands that our eyes begin with the trees in the foreground, then rise inexorably upward following the rising nearby mountains, leading us to the smooth, distant higher mountains that have no vegetation.


Color is composed of three distinct qualities: hue, saturation, and value. Hue is simply the name of a color. Red, yellow, and blue are the primary colors. Their mixtures produce the secondary colors: green, orange, and purple. Further mixing produces six more, the tertiary colors. Thus the spectrum of the color wheel shows twelve hues. Saturation refers to the purity, vividness, or intensity of a hue. When we speak of the “redness of red,” we mean its highest saturation. Value, or shading, refers to the lightness or darkness of a hue, the mixture in the hue of white or black. A high value of a color is obtained by mixing in white, and a low value is obtained by mixing in black. The highest value of red shows red at its lightest; the lowest value of red shows red at its darkest. Complementary colors are opposite each other on the color wheel—for example, red and green, orange and blue. When two complements are equally mixed, a neutral gray appears. An addition of a complement to a hue will lower its saturation. A red will look less red—will have less intensity—by even a small addition of green. And an addition of either white or black will change both the value and the saturation of the hue.

Page 77Texture

Texture is the surface “feel” of something. When the brushstrokes have been smoothed out, the surface is seen as smooth, as in Wesselmann’s study for Great American Nude (Figure 2-20). When the brushstrokes have been left rough, the surface is seen as rough, as in van Gogh’s The Starry Night (see Figure 15-4) and Pol-lock’s Autumn Rhythm (Figure 3-3). In these two examples, the textures are real, for if—heaven forbid!—you were to run your fingers over these paintings, you would feel them as rough. Yet the surface of paintings that would be smooth to touch can render simulated textures that are rough.

Distinctive brushstrokes produce distinctive textures. Compare, for example, the soft hatchings of Valadon’s Reclining Nude (Figure 2-23) with the grainy effect of most of the brushstrokes in Wang Yuanqi’s painting (Figure 4-7). Sometimes the textural effect can be so dominant that the specific substance behind the textures is disguised, as in the background behind the head and shoulders of Renoir’s Bather Arranging Her Hair (Figure 2-17).


1. In what ways are the renditions of textures an important part in the portrayal of the ten nudes (Figures 2-16 to 2-25)?

2. Suppose the ultra-smooth surfaces of Wesselmann’s nude had been used by Neel. How would this have significantly changed the content of her picture?

3. In Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm (Figure 3-3), the impasto (the protruding paint) lies noticeably on top of a smoothly textured brownish background. Suppose there were no impasto. Would this have made a significant difference? If so, why?

Neel’s nude would be greatly altered, we believe, if she had used textures such as Wesselmann’s. A tender, vulnerable, motherly appearance would become harsh, confident, and brazen. With the Pollock, the title brings autumn to mind; and, in turn, the laying on and drippings of heavy paint suggest vivid chaotic swirling rhythms of rain and windblown debris.

The medium of a painting may have much to do with textural effects. Tempera usually has a dry feel. Watercolor naturally lends itself to a fl uid feel. Because they can be built up in heavy layers, oil and acrylic are useful for depicting rough textures, but of course they can be made smooth. Fresco usually has a grainy crystalline texture.


In painting or any other art, composition refers to the ordering of relationships: among details, among regions, among details and regions, and among these and the total structure. Deliberately or more usually instinctively, artists use organizing principles to create forms that inform.

Principles Among the basic principles of traditional painting are balance, gradation, movement and rhythm, proportion, variety, and unity.

Balance refers to the equilibrium of opposing visual forces. Leonardo’s Last Supper (Figure 3-1) is an example of symmetrical balance. Details and regions are arranged on either side of a central axis. Goya’s May 3, 1808 (Figure 2-3) is an example of asymmetrical balance, for there is no central axis.

Gradation refers to a continuum of changes in the details and regions, such as the gradual variations in shape, color value, and shadowing in Siqueiros’s Echo of a Scream (Figure 1-2).

Movement and rhythm refers to the way a painting controls the movement and pace of our vision. For example, in Botticelli’s Venus and Mars (Figure 4-8), the implied movement of the satyrs establishes a rhythm in contrast with the gods’ indolence.

Proportion refers to the emphasis achieved by the scaling of sizes of shapes—for example, the way the large Madonna in the Cimabue (Figure 4-1) contrasts with the tiny prophets.

Unity refers to the togetherness, despite contrasts, of details and regions to the whole, as in Picasso’s Guernica (Figure 1-4).

Variety refers to the contrasts of details and regions—for example, the color and shape oppositions in O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch Cliffs (Figure 4-11).

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