How often have we heard someone dismiss a piece of art because it doesn’t look ‘real’? It is almost as if a work of art has to conform to a given set of visual rules before it can be accepted as art in some people’s eyes. It seems that this means of judging art stems from the premise that there is a link between how something is perceived and the skill in which that perception is portrayed on paper, canvas or on board.
These two concepts: perception and technical skill become the basis on which so many judge art, which is a shame because it is such a limited and misguided view. In this blog I’m just going to consider perception. Perception is a process by which the retina detects an image and a signal is sent to the brain, which then interprets what is seen. Some would have us believe that this image is the truth and this is what the artist should strive to achieve in his work, but is what is perceived the truth?
If one was daft enough to stand on a railway line and look along its length the rails appear to meet at a point somewhere in the distance, often referred to as a vanishing point. However, we know for a fact that railway lines do not meet at a point; otherwise the train would fall off the tracks. So what we see is not the literal truth, but the visual truth. Two forms of truth.
If a person is colour blind then the world to that person will look different from a person who can detect the full range of colours. Similarly a fly, which has a multifaceted eye, perceives the world as though looking through frosted glass. If the fly could paint his visual truth would be quite different from ours, even though he is seeing the same world.
It is only in the last 500 years or so, since the invention of perspective in the early Renaissance, that we have become obsessed with the visual truth. This phenomenon happened only in the west; in the east things were quite different. Particularly, in Japan, China the emphasis was not so much on the visual truth, but on the literal truth. So a road would be painted parallel, a figure at the top of a mountain depicted the same size as one in the foreground. Why? Simply because people do not shrink because they are further away, neither does a road change shape.
Children from all over the world draw and paint in exactly the same way until around the age of five when culture begins to exert its influence. A child paints the literal truth, the sky is blue and ‘up there’ the grass is green and ‘down here’ and there is nothing in between, hence the fact that children’s work will often have a blue strip along the top of the paper and a green one along the bottom.
The work of children and of these eastern cultures is just as valid as ours, but is based on a radically different concept. What is known to be true rather than what is seen to be true.