Wednesday, April 13, 2011

An ODE to CONTRAST (verse 5)

Contrast is like those bad boys your mother warned you to stay away from but you just couldn't help yourself.

When you first encounter a picture, your eye is irresistibly drawn to the points of greatest contrast.    Other parts of the picture-- the largest shape, the prettiest color, the darkest or lightest form-- may strive for your attention but there's something about contrast that always catches our eye first.

In this painting by Motherwell, our eyes pass over the huge black shape and go right to the tiny corner with the contrast.

Milk contrasted against the shadows in N.C. Wyeth's lovely painting

Arthur Mitchell
This doesn't mean that contrast is the best or the most important part of a picture.  To the contrary, pictures contain many other fine, respectable elements.  As your mother told you, once you get past first impressions you may learn to appreciate subtle details and other less glamorous virtues.  All it takes is patience and time.

Harvey Dunn
You can go on to enjoy a long, satisfying relationship with the less flashy components of a picture.   But it seems that a mature relationship must wait its turn, until we get beyond our initial fascination with contrasts-- that rough, vulgar but sexy feature that first catches our eye.

22 Comments:

Blogger Tom said...

Hi David

I like the Mitchell painting, I feel like the highest point of contrast is with the horse's saddle and the orange light of the indoors but my eye keeps getting hook on the head of the white horse instead.

I find the Dunn picture a little frustrating because I can not make up my mind what the soldiers are doing? Do you know what they are up to?

4/13/2011 8:17 AM  
Blogger अर्जुन said...

I'm the kind of man she warned me of~ Is anyone greater than Bowie?

"my eye keeps getting hook on the head of the white horse" ~ I think the attraction power of eyes and faces trumps all contrasts.

"what the soldiers are doing?" ~ Carrying a stretcher.

4/13/2011 2:31 PM  
Blogger StimmeDesHerzens said...

I'm not particularly moved by the Motherwell painting, but I really like the unsubtle metaphor in Verse 5.

No interesting Greek this time-- but i also like the use of simple words to help convey your concept of contrast, such as ie. "pretty".
greetingsB :-)

4/13/2011 2:34 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Tom-- well, I'd say the head of the white horse is a close runner up because even though the "white" is really a mottled blue, the background behind it is one of the densest blacks in the picture so the contrast is noteworthy.

अर्जुन wrote, "I think the attraction power of eyes and faces trumps all contrasts."

अर्जुन, if you viewed a painting with 99 faces staring out at you and only one head covered by a black bag, what do you think your eyes would focus on first?

StimmeDesHerzens-- Sorry for the unsubtle metaphor; whenever I stray into the common vocabulary of art and love, you always pick up on the connection right away while the rest of us are busy poking each other in the eye over some artistic preference or other. I get a kick out of that.

4/13/2011 5:19 PM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

In a well composed picture, the eye is drawn to the answer.

4/13/2011 6:02 PM  
Blogger अर्जुन said...

Every rules got one.

I'll cede value, edge and size contrast …yet still win!

(turkeys!)

4/13/2011 6:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just like the immediately apparent contrast between love and hate is so convincing yet with more experience you can appreciate all the subtle similarities. :-)

4/13/2011 8:29 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Kev Ferrara wrote, "In a well composed picture, the eye is drawn to the answer."

Kev-- an interesting notion and one that is true, I suspect, for many kinds of pictures, but are you saying that it is the job of the artist, through composition or other means, to lead the eye to the answer?

As long as we are talking about contrast that job description sounds more likely than not, because artists deliberately contrast color, value, shapes (even subject matter such as eyes or faces in deference to अर्जुन) to start the viewer on a particular path. That's one of the things that contrast does best. But once you get beyond those easy examples, I'm not sure I would concede that the artist always even knows the answer (or at least, the best answer) or that the artist is always capable of consciously structuring the composition in a way to draw the viewer's eye to that answer. For example, if you are among those who believe that a work of art becomes autonomous after it is launched by the artist, and its future meaning becomes shaped by the joint perceptions and misperceptions of the viewing audience, then I am not sure you can count on any audience being uniformly drawn to any singular answer.

There is a legitimate school of art that strives to purge the art object of any linear meaning, and instead to leave the meaning at least ambiguous, and preferably open ended and collaborative with the viewer. For this type of art, leading the eye to any particular answer would be the equivalent of the artist handing out acoustiguides to explain his or her work.

4/13/2011 9:59 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

अर्जुन wrote, "Every rules got one."

I didn't start out to articulate rules about contrast-- in fact, by doing a daily series of posts about contrast I thought I could avoid bloviating about a single theory and instead hold the phenomenon up to the light in several different ways. I guess the downside of being a lawyer is that the temptation to codify gets into your blood. On the other hand, the good side is that you don't have to wear a hideous mullet like Bowie did in your video.

Anonymous-- ahhh, yes!

4/13/2011 10:10 PM  
Blogger Øyvind Lauvdahl said...

Hard edges on soft objects, reds vibrating against greens, the lonely vertical in a sea of horisontals, the candlelight in the night etc etc...these are signs of life.

When I work on a drawing or a painting, knowing when to stop is just as important as knowing when to begin. I've ruined a lot of promising pictures by expediting the heat death of the work - by mindlessly blending and smoothing edges and transitions until finally realizing that the resulting unity wasn't one of synergy, but of entropy.

The journey from the initial sketch, barely readable but full of powerful potential and life, to the bland blend of boring can be surprisingly short, and I'm still trying to figure out how best to know when I'm at that point where life is possible.

So far, I'm certain of this: Bold beginnings are important, and contrast is the oposite of true death.

:)

4/14/2011 3:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

David - just wanted to mention a very powerful and moving documentary on an artist I just found on dvd , The Cats Of Mirikatani . A website is up for info on the film . It certainly contains themes of contrast , and from reading your blog , I think you might really appreciate it - if you're not already familiar with it .

Al McLuckie

4/14/2011 4:19 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

Kev-- … are you saying that it is the job of the artist, through composition or other means, to lead the eye to the answer?

No, it is the result of the sensitive artist’s efforts. Just as setting a beaver near running water and some chewable trees will result in a dam.

I'm not sure I would concede that the artist always even knows the answer (or at least, the best answer) or that the artist is always capable of consciously structuring the composition in a way to draw the viewer's eye to that answer.

Whether a tunnel is the result of natural processes or dynamiting is irrelevant. The hole in the rock is still functional as a passage.

When F.R. Gruger was in school, he was enrolled in an exacting composition class which lasted quite a while. After he was allowed to graduate from that class, he was graduated into a class where the meaning of composition was added to the mix. Which means it was understood at the time that visual rhetoric (in the original sense of that word) could be constructed unconsciously…. Which is probably the source of that old art truism, “A thing is only as good as it looks” which becomes a deeper insight when considering the inherent grammar of visuals. (This was at a time when the word composition meant the same in English class as in Art Class, before the word was conflated with Design.)

4/14/2011 11:31 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

if you are among those who believe that a work of art becomes autonomous after it is launched by the artist, and its future meaning becomes shaped by the joint perceptions and misperceptions of the viewing audience, then I am not sure you can count on any audience being uniformly drawn to any singular answer.

I believe artistic quality is an inherent property best perceived aesthetically. And I believe structure is the fertile soil from which quality blooms. Yes a launched artwork is an autonomy, but it is just as autonomous from the viewer on the shore as from the maker who set it sailing in the first place. A human being may mis-experience a work, based on some preoccupation or perceptual inability, but they cannot unstructure a work by their misinterpretations. Nor can fantastical speculation about hidden symbolisms, actually place those features into a picture.

Art is long, its interpretation is usually predicated on momentary fashions and fancies.

4/14/2011 11:35 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

There is a legitimate school of art…

Care to name an illegitimate one in your eyes? ;)

…that strives to purge the art object of any linear meaning…

The use of “linear” is confusing. All graphics have linear meaning as long as they are juxtaposed within the same frame. Not all graphics have meanings that can be identified by ready linguistic or conceptual labels. (Which is just to say that there is such a thing as abstract meaning, Leonard B. Meyer being the last author I read that made a coherent argument of this proposition.) Nor do groups of meaningful abstract relations in a picture plane necessarily add up to a meaningful composition, just as a host of sensible arguments don't necessarily make a coherent and pointed overall court case.

There is a legitimate school of art that strives to purge the art object of any linear meaning and instead to leave the meaning at least ambiguous, and preferably open ended and collaborative with the viewer. For this type of art, leading the eye to any particular answer would be the equivalent of the artist handing out acoustiguides to explain his or her work.

A well structured work can have many answers, (always in some hierarchy of significance though… with only one true climactic moment.)

A work that does not have a unifying compositional structure will have no questions or propositions that prompt a direction of inquiry, and thus answer-ness doesn’t apply. A mystery can be a legitimate answer to a well-structured inquiry. Good mystery fiction directs ambiguity to suggestive ends.

Ambiguity that is akin to mumbling or disorganized thought prompts speculation about the structure itself, about the propositions or questions themselves, about the direction of inquiry.

Structural ambiguity would not fall under my defintion of sound composition (which I'll loosely define for the moment as "to arrange significant information according to some logic for the purposes of establishing a particular understanding in the mind of the viewer.")

However, wholly ambiguous work can be delightful as design and interesting to those who like prompts for daydreaming (recalling DaVinci’s recommendation for artists to wake up their imagination by looking at random abstractions on weathered walls.)

4/14/2011 12:05 PM  
Blogger Carolyn said...

I like the Mitchell painting too!

Homeowner Insurance

4/14/2011 2:08 PM  
Anonymous Garlic blood pressure said...

I really enjoyed the imagery in your post today :)

4/14/2011 10:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I think the attraction power of eyes and faces trumps all contrasts."

Not as much as breasts and ass. Race through 1,000 pictures and those shapes will stop you every time.

4/15/2011 11:05 PM  
Blogger Marie Alice said...

Enligtening, as always. Thank you.

4/22/2011 11:21 AM  
Blogger Robin Cave said...

Hi David,

Another great post.

Following on from my last photoshop-imagery tip for enhancing those chilling Nazi photos (Early March) I have been waiting for the opportunity to pass on a few more photoshop tips to you.

Well I have just finished a post on my blog using the images here to explain the Levels tool in Photoshop. It helps to increase the contrast, maybe more in line with the original art and the artists intention, and hopefully enhances your arguments/discussions. It was too long to post here so I put it on my own blog.

http://robincave.blogspot.com/

I hope it of interest to you or anyone else, it's a very quick trick that I use on almost any scanned or sourced image.

;-)

Regards
ROBin

4/28/2011 12:45 AM  
Blogger kev ferrara said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4/28/2011 5:18 PM  
Blogger Robin Cave said...

I'm truly sorry if I have offended Kev's fine aesthetic values with my crass technical advice.

I really only meant to help David with his blog, if I had his direct email I would have sent the tip straight to him rather than posting it on my own dull blog.

With so much detailed discussion on the images I thought that any way to improve them would help clarify peoples thoughts.

Tom says in the first comment that he can't work out what the soldiers are up to, 20 seconds in photoshop with levels and it is much clearer...

Anyway, I was only trying to help David, not increase traffic to my pathetic site.

4/28/2011 7:43 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Robin, thanks very much for your technical assistance. I am grateful for the tips and I hope you will continue to provide them.

Sometimes I travel for my work in a way that prevents me from accessing my blog for 3 or 4 days at a time. I apologize for not getting back to you sooner on this, but I always check out every comment when I am able.

Thanks again.

4/29/2011 8:04 AM  

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