WHAT IS A PAINTING: Do You See What I See?

Leo Segedin   |   August 10, 2016 |   Print this essay


In my last paper, I discussed the history of the idea that image making was a creative process. I pointed out that, although today, we assume that images are creative, it wasn’t until the 18th century that this idea was applied to paintings and only since WW II that all images have been seen that way. Previously, paintings had been seen as practical objects, as religious objects, as aesthetic objects, as economic commodities, as descriptive, expressive and philosophical objects. In this paper, I would like to discuss two issues, implicit, but unstated in these observations. First, what does it mean to say that these paintings have been ‘seen as’? Second, how do these different ways of seeing affect our judgment of paintings? Is the word, ‘seen’, used figuratively to mean ‘understand? Does it mean that everyone sees paintings the same way, but interprets them differently? Or is the phrase, ‘seen as’, literally true? In past papers, I have challenged the idea that perception is an objective process and that what we see is a copy of what is in front of our eyes. I maintained that although people may be born with the same visual potentiality, they do not develop the same visual skills and that the physical and cultural environments in which such skills develop are major factors in determining how and what they see. The result is that there is a difference between looking and seeing. Based on these assumptions, I will propose in this paper that because of their different histories, they literally did ‘see them as’. To do this, I will first discuss the psychology of perception and apply it to the perception of painting. I will then argue that what is called taste and interpretation is often really a matter of literally different perception. We take for granted that we exist as observers of an objective world. Underlying this assumption is the belief that perception of the external world consists of images of that world projected onto our retinas. We assume that everybody sees this world this way because we all live in the same physical world and our eyes record that world. Only our brains are supposed to be affected by experience. In this scenario, the eye is an objective recorder and the brain, a subjective interpreter. Thus, a scientist should have a neutral, objective vision and, with hand-eye coordination, be able to copy these images. We should also be able to recognize representations of these images on a 2D surface. The 5th century B.C. Greek artist, Zeuxis, was famous for painting grapes so realistic that he fooled birds. We are likely to believe that that a blind man learning to see later in life, as well as infants, animals and even insects, have this innocent vision and can see their environment as it ‘really is’ without interpretation or cultural bias.


None of this is true and research does not support it. Unfortunately for the Zeuxis legend, there is no such thing as an innocent eye. In fact, birds, as well as insects, frogs and fish, respond only to the most essential characteristics of what they are looking at.The outline of a cow is sufficient to trap tsetse flies in a trap. Two dark round shapes of different size and the silhouette of the head and body of a bird will cause baby birds to open their mouths. High flying eagles respond to the movement of a rabbit, not the rabbit itself. Frogs will snap their tongues at anything that moves; they can even make mistakes determining how far away objects are, sometimes confusing a predator with prey. Rats have trouble distinguishing between squares and circles. A chimpanzee cannot distinguish a triangle made up of small circles.

Even among humans, infants 2-6 months old will respond with a smile to any face-like form. There is even physiological evidence that there is a center in the brain devoted entirely to responses to smiles. It is likely that infants will also respond to other expressions. There is apparently also a built in tendency to see images where there is only the slightest resemblance. Human faces will be seen in abstract patterns in wall paper as well as a close arrangement of 3 circles. Two horizontally arranged circular forms, such as knotholes or patterns on butterfly wings and peacock tail feathers, will be seen as eyes. We tend to see animals in clouds, trees, moss patterns, scribbles, smudges, etc. The evolutionary psychologist, Steven Pinker believes that there is a module in the brain especially devoted to perspective, to depth cues such as texture gradients, overlapping and converging lines. In his view, such abilities are the same for 2 and 3D experiences.

To whatever degree perceptual skills may be hard-wired in the brain, they develop through adaptation and learning. In fact, without experience, no functional hard-wiring can occur. For example, when rats first look at simple, geometric forms; they see only the closest part. Their recognition of the whole form is learned slowly and depends originally on multiple visual fixations. A blind person who has learned to see late in life may be able to see a figure against a ground, but will have great difficulty telling whether it is a square or a triangle and cannot name them. This recognition is completely destroyed if the object is slightly changed or altered. He has trouble identifying colors. He has no sense of 3D space, sees objects far away as appearing as small objects up close. In frustration he often reverts back to a tactile and kinesthetic world. Since people living in dense forests, when taken out of the forest, also see distant objects as small rather than far away, we can assume that, although we are born with the innate capacity to discern distance, we must experience it at the appropriate time for the ability to develop.

Perception thus does not require a picture of the world. Perception is not a copy of appearances, but a structure of selected, pertinent data determined by the physiology of the eye and brain and the intension of the observer. It is an awareness of certain privileged and relevant aspects of what is there. It is a process of detecting, of picking out what is being looked for. And the more relevant to what we are looking for, the less resemblance there has to be. Consider, for example, how things look when you are hungry or horny. All this is because perception is an organic, not a rational or mechanical process. Perception develops neurologically, not logically. Although it is functional, it is not, like a computer program, neutral and objective. Our perception is similar to that of others in that, on a fundamental level, our experiences are similar, but only to that degree. We take for granted that, because we can function in the same environment, we all see the same thing. In doing so, we ignore the fact that to the extent our experiences have differed, our perception will also differ. We are oblivious to the fact that others do not see as we do and are surprised when we realize that someone does not see what to us is obvious.


How does this apply to the perception of painting? A painting is, physically, ‘water and stone’, (James Elkins) because paint is made of powdered earth combined with some liquid, usually water, but also, oils. As a physical object, it is meaningless. Brushstrokes do not have intrinsic meanings. Their significance is determined by the context of the painting. For example, a brushstroke in a painting can be seen as the local color of leaves of a tree, the color of light reflected off the leaves, the actions and emotions of the artist, the style of the artist, his philosophy or that of his historical period, its relation to the color it is next to, the chemical and physical substance of the paint and even the age of the painting. Today, some artists project subtle, personal meanings into their paint strokes. The painting and the total physical stimulation may be the same, but the awareness - the focus and selection - is determined by the intention and experience of the artist and viewer.

Although it is possible to understand a painting without being able to see it and see it without understanding it, what we do and don’t know about it affects our perception and judgment of what we are looking at. I propose that negative judgments are often literally determined by the viewer’s vision rather than his intellectual interpretation or taste. I believe that many such judgments are made by those who literally cannot see what the people who like the painting see and do not like what they can’t see. Again, this not to say that potential stimuli is not the same for both, or that all paintings are equally good, but rather that the sensations selected and structured by the viewer are determined by what he has learned to see. This is not interpretation because he can’t interpret what he can’t see. Only once he can see, can he judge quality and determine why some artists and paintings are better than others.

Thus, even if we assume that the artist wants to represent ‘reality as it is’ or ‘as he sees it’, it is still impossible for him to see or record all the visual phenomena potentially available to him. Because we learn to see only certain aspects of ‘what is out there’, what and how the artist knows about what he sees is an essential aspect of what his “realistic” picture will look like.Ê This is true whether or not the artist is aware of his assumptions. Consider, for example, the following ideas about reality and perception:
  • Perceptible reality consists of solid forms surrounded by empty space.Ê Light shines on these forms.ÊÊ Part of the forms catches this light; the part of the form away from the light will be in shadow.Ê The color of the object is a secondary quality, in that pictures in black and white will show the fundamental character of what is represented.
  • Perceptible reality consists of our sensations of it. What we see are light rays which stimulate the retina of our eyes. All that we know is based on such stimulations.Ê Light rays are of differing lengths, each different length stimulating a different sensation. Light rays come from everywhere, not just from the light part of an object. Light has color; shadows have color; objects reflect colors; light conditions constantly change, changing colors. Our eyes see after-images or grow fatigued, changing the colors we see. The colors we see are the result of the mixture of our sensations in the retina of the eye.Ê Photographs in black and white will not show the fundamental aspects of what is represented.

Both of these concepts are objective, that is, they are based on observation, but compare the different kinds of worlds which results from each one. In the first, the world is solid, stable and relatively permanent. In the second, the world is in a constant state of flux, all light phenomena being transitory.Ê In the first, the world is independent of man; in the second, it cannot exist without man’s perception of it. In the first, color is of secondary importance; in the second, it is the essential aspect.

Color in the first is on the object; a kind of icing on a cake; in the second, it is in the eye. Since the first concept underlies the Renaissance and the 500 years of Western painting that followed it and the second, the premise of the Impressionist painters at the end of the 19th century and a major influence on the art of the first half of the 20th century, it is apparent that the history of Western art is determined to a great extent by how the artist literally sees his environment.Ê In fact, we can even trace the whole shift from interest in the external world to the subjectivity of much 20th century art to this change in assumptions about perception.

Most of us would have no trouble with the first concept and few of us today who are familiar with Impressionism would have trouble with the second. Yet, in 1876, the French art critic, Albert Wolff in the publication, Figaro, wrote about a painting by Renoir: …try to explain to M. Renoir that a woman’s torso is not a mass of flesh in the process of decomposition with green and violet spots which denote the state of complete purification of a corpse. He also wrote: It appertains to madness; it is a deliberate excursion into the realm of the horrible and the execrable. One might surmise that all these pictures were painted with closed eyes by the insane, who on tin palettes mixed, haphazard, the most violent colors.

Wolff literally could not see these paintings as representational images. He saw colors indicating reflected light which were supposed to mix in the eye as decay on the surface of a three-dimensional human body. He still ‘saw’ images in terms of Renaissance conventions. He made a judgment, expressed an opinion, on the basis of ‘visual ignorance’. People who did not see as he did were insane. And yet, an 18th century Chinese person, when looking at a Renaissance portrait, which Wolff would have had no trouble seeing, asked, "Are Europeans dirty on one side of their faces?" Although we can say that the Chinese viewer did not understand European concepts of chiaroscuro and therefore misinterpreted the picture, in fact, he did see a dirty face. Thus, the identification of a painting as being realistic is really the recognition of particular, culturally determined conventions, for example, Renaissance one point perspective and chiaroscuro or Impressionist broken color.

For the same reasons, people who don’t like Titian’s paintings don’t necessarily see the same thing as people who do. Today, Titian is admired as one of the greatest painters of the last 500 years. As early as 1590, the art theorist, Giovanni Lomazzo, declared him “the sun amidst small stars not only among the Italians but all the painters of the world.” Without Titian, Velazquez, Rembrandt and Rubens are unthinkable. The French, Romantic artist, Delacroix, said, “We are all Titian’s flesh and blood.“ “It was Titian who demonstrated the full range of powers specific to painting on canvas - to be at once a convincing imitation of appearances and also something else, something abstract. At the same time he displayed painting's sensuality: when the American artist, Willem de Kooning, said oil paint was invented to depict flesh, it must have been Titian (and his disciple, Rubens) he was thinking of. Today, it is possible to argue that Titian was the most influential painter in history. And because his painterliness has an abstract quality, he has continued to influence modern artists. In the 19th century, ‘Delacroix took Titian's colour into realms of romantic madness - his Death Of Sardanapalus is a psychotic riff on Titian - and Degas took up his cult of the flesh….” But visual blindness affects even the perception of major artists. The equally great artist, Michelangelo, said of Titian:
“I like the man’s style and his coloring, but it is a great pity that in Venice they don’t learn to draw well from the beginning and pursue their studies with more method. I tell you, if Titian had been helped by art and design as much as he was by natureÑfor the man has exceptional talentÑno one would have been able to beat him, because he has a fine spirit and a captivating style. Really.”
And William Blake wrote:
Colouring does not depend on where the Colours are put, but on where the lights and darks are put, and all depends on Form or Outline, on where that is put; where that is wrong, the Colouring never can be right; and it is always wrong in Titian and Correggio. Rubens and Rembrandt. Till we get rid of Titian and Correggio, Rubens and Rembrandt, We never shall equal Rafael and Albert Durer, Michael Angelo, and Julio Romano.

Here are some other judgments which are also based on perception rather than taste or interpretation. What do these people see when they look at a Rembrandt? Gerard Delairese, in 1669, wrote: A master capable of nothing but vulgar and prosaic subjects…who merely achieved an effect of rottenness.

John Ruskin, in 1864, wrote:
It is the aim of the best painters to paint the noblest thing they can see by sunlight. It is the aim of Rembrandt to paint the foulest thing he could see Ð by rushlight.
And as late as 1914, the art critic, Clive Bell, wrote:
Except in a few of his later works, Rembrandt’s sense of form and design is utterly lost in a mess of rhetoric, romance and chiaroscuro.


In conclusion, everyone in Western culture today grows up in an environment of images on film, TV, computers, billboards and magazines. As a result, we are familiar with the conventions of modern image making. We have learned to see and have no problem responding to the complex manipulations of images in modern TV, films and advertizing. The extreme distortions in cartoons and animation are entirely comprehensible and enjoyable. We see conventions that would have been unintelligible 100 years ago. But there are many such ‘conventions’ which artists have used over the years which are not part of popular culture, but which expand our perception and are valuable in giving insight into our present lives. Images communicate experiences which are inaccessible with words and are therefore incomprehensible to the visually illiterate. We can always respond intuitively and, although we may not be able to see as people did in the past, there is still much to see. The more we know about how others see the world, the broader our understanding and the more profound our responses. And we will understand why some artists are so much better than others. Learning to see, like learning to read, is not easy, not always pleasurable, but immensely rewarding.

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