Our visual powers

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Georgia O’Keeffe, Ghost Ranch Cliffs. 1940–1942. Oil on canvas, 16 × 36 inches. Private collection.

O’Keeffe found the American West to be a refreshing environment after living for years in New York. Ghost Ranch is the name of her home in Abiquiu, New Mexico, where she painted landscapes such as this.

Page 79PERCEPTION KEY Principles of Composition

After defining each principle briefly, we listed an example. Go through the color photographs of paintings in the book, and select another example for each principle.

Space and Shapes Perhaps the best way to understand space is to think of it as a hollow volume available for occupation by shapes. Then that space can be described by referring to the distribution and relationships of those shapes in that space; for example, space can be described as crowded or open.

Shapes in painting are areas with distinguishable boundaries, created by colors, textures, and usually—and especially—lines. A painting is a two-dimensional surface with breadth and height. But three-dimensional simulation, even in the flattest of paintings, is almost always present, even in Mark Rothko’s Earth Greens (Figure 4-10). Colors when juxtaposed invariably move forward or backward visually. And when shapes suggest mass—three-dimensional solids—depth is inevitably seen.

The illusion of depth—perspective—can be made by various techniques, including

Overlapping of shapes (Wesselmann, Figure 2-20)

Making distant shapes smaller, darker, and less detailed (Siqueiros, Figure 1-2)

Placing distant shapes higher (Goya, Figure 2-3)

Moving from higher to lower saturation (Pollock, Figure 3-3)

Moving from lighter to heavier textures (Cézanne, Figure 2-4)

Shading from light to dark (Giorgione, Figure 2-16)

Using less saturated and cooler hues in the distance (Rothko, Figure 4-10)

Slanting lines inward—linear perspective—illustrated by the phenomenon of standing on railroad tracks and watching the two rails apparently meet in the distance.


Choose four paintings not discussed so far and answer the following questions:

1. In which does color dominate line, or line dominate color?

2. Which painting has the most balanced space?

3. Which painting is most symmetrical? Which most asymmetrical?

4. Which pleases your eye more: symmetry or asymmetry?

5. In which painting is the sense of depth perspective the strongest? How does the artist achieve this depth?

6. Which painting most controls the movement of your eye along set paths?

7. In which painting is proportion most important?

8. Which painting pleases you the most? Explain how its composition pleases you.


Cézanne’s form distorts reality in order to reveal reality. He makes Mont Sainte-Victoire far clearer in his painting than you will ever see it in nature or even in the best of photographs. Once you have participated with this and similar paintings, you may begin to see mountains like Mont Sainte-Victoire with a more meaningful vision.

PERCEPTION KEY Mont Sainte-Victoire (Figure 2-4)

1. Why did Cézanne put the two trees in the foreground at the left and right edges? Why did he have them cut off by the frame? Why did he portray the trees as if trembling?

2. In the painting, the viaduct has been moved to the left. Why?

3. In the painting, the lines of the viaduct appear to move toward the left. Why?

4. Furthermore, the lines of the viaduct lead (with the help of an axis line) to a meeting point with the long road that runs (also with the help of an axis line) toward the left side of the mountain. The fields and buildings within that triangle all seem drawn toward that unseen apex. Why did Cézanne organize this middle ground more geometrically than the foreground or the mountain? And why is the apex of the triangle the unifying area for that region?

The subject matter of Cézanne’s painting is the mountain. Suppose the title of the painting were Trees. This would strike us as strange because when we read the title of a representational painting, we usually expect it to tell us what the painting is about—that is, its subject matter. And although the trees in Cézanne’s painting are important, they obviously are not as important as the mountain. A title such as Viaduct would also be misleading.

Each aspect of the painting’s composition helps bring forth the energy of Mont Sainte-Victoire, which seems to roll down the valley and then shake the foreground trees. Everything is dominated and unified around the mountain. The rolls of its ridges are like waves of the sea, but far more durable, as we sense the impenetrable solidity of the masses underneath.

The small color shapes are something like pieces in a mosaic. These units move toward one another in receding space, and yet their intersections are rigid, as if their impact froze their movement. Almost all the colors reflect light, like the facets of a crystal, so that a solid color or one-piece effect rarely appears. And the color tones of the painting, variously modulated, are repeated endlessly. For example, the color tones of the mountain are repeated in the viaduct and the fields and buildings of the middle ground and the trees of the foreground. Cézanne’s colors animate everything, mainly because the colors seem to be always moving out of the depth of everything rather than being laid on flat like house paint. The vibrating colors, in turn, rhythmically charge into one another and then settle down, reaching an equilibrium in which everything except the limbs of the foreground trees seems to come to rest.


In addition to revealing the visually perceptible more clearly, paintings give us time for our vision to focus, hold, and participate. Of course, there are times when we can hold on a scene in nature. We are resting with no pressing worries and with time on our hands, and the sunset is so striking that we fix our attention on its redness. But then darkness descends and the mosquitoes begin to bite. In front of a painting, however, we find that things stand still, like the red in Siqueiros’s Echo of a Scream (Figure 1-2). Here the red is peculiarly impervious and reliable, infallibly fixed and settled in its place. It can be surveyed and brought out again and again; it can be visualized with closed eyes and checked with open eyes. There is no hurry, for all of the painting is present, and, under normal conditions, it is going to stay present; it is not changing in any significant perceptual sense.

Moreover, we can hold on any detail or region or the totality as long as we like and follow any order of details or regions at our own pace. No region of a painting strictly presupposes another region temporally. The sequence is subject to no absolute constraint. Whereas there is only one route in listening to music, for example, there is a freedom of routes in seeing paintings. With Mont Sainte-Victoire, for example, we may focus on the foreground trees, then on the middle ground, and finally on the mountain. The next time, we may reverse the order. “Paths are made,” as the painter Paul Klee observed, “for the eye of the beholder which moves along from patch to patch like an animal grazing.” There is a “rapt resting” on any part, an unhurried series, one after the other, of “nows,” each of which has its own temporal spread.

Paintings make it possible for us to stop in the present and enjoy at our leisure the sensations provided by the show of the visible. That is the second reason paintings can help make our vision whole. They not only clarify our world but also may free us from worrying about the future and the past, because paintings are a framed context in which everything stands still. There is the “here-now” and relatively speaking nothing but the “here-now.” Our vision, for once, has time to let the qualities of things and the things themselves unfold.


Abstract, or nonrepresentational, painting may be difficult to appreciate if we are confused about its subject matter. Since no objects or events are depicted, abstract painting might seem to have no subject matter: pictures of nothing. But this is not the case. The subject matter is the sensuous. The sensuous is composed of visual qualities—line, color, texture, space, shape, light, shadow, volume, and mass. Any qualities that stimulate our vision are sensa. In representational painting, sensa are used to portray objects and events. In abstract painting, sensa are freed. They are depicted for their own sake. Abstract painting reveals sensa, liberating us from our habits of always identifying these qualities with specific objects and events. They make it easy for us to focus on sensa themselves, even though we are not artists. Then the radiant and vivid values of the sensuous are enjoyed for their own sake, satisfying a fundamental need. Abstractions can help fulfill this need to behold and treasure the images of the sensuous. Instead of our controlling the sensa, Page 82transforming them into signs that represent objects or events, the sensa control us, transforming us into participators.

Moreover, because references to objects and events are eliminated, there is a peculiar relief from the future and the past. Abstract painting, more than any other art, gives us an intensified sense of here-now, or presentational immediacy. When we perceive representational paintings such as Mont Sainte-Victoire, we may think about our chances of getting to southern France some time in the future. Or when we perceive May 3, 1808, we may think about similar massacres. These suggestions bring the future and past into our participation, causing the here-now to be somewhat compromised. But with abstract painting—because there is no portrayal of objects or events that suggest the past or the future—the sense of presentational immediacy is more intense.

Although sensa appear everywhere we look, in paintings, sensa shine forth. This is especially true with abstract paintings, because there is nothing to attend to but the sensa. What you see is what you see. In nature the light usually appears as external to the colors and surface of sensa. The light plays on the colors and surface. In paintings the light usually appears immanent in the colors and surface, seems to come—in part at least—through them, even in the flat polished colors of a Mondrian. In Lee Krasner’s Celebration (Figure 4-12), the light seems to be absorbed into the colors and surfaces. There is a depth of luminosity about the sensa of paintings that rivals nature. Generally the colors of nature are more brilliant than the colors of painting; but usually in nature the sensa are either so glittering that our squints miss their inner luminosity or so changing that we lack the time to participate and penetrate. To ignore the allure

of the sensa in a painting, and, in turn, in nature, is to miss one of the chief glories life provides. It is especially the abstract painter—the shepherd of sensa—who is most likely to call us back to our senses.

Study the Krasner (Figure 4-12) or the Rothko (Figure 4-10). Then reflect on how you experienced a series of durations—“spots of time”—that are ordered by the relationships between the regions of sensa. Compare your experience with listening to music.

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