Monday, August 30, 2010

Color and Relative Perception

It is common knowledge to artist that "there's no accounting for taste," or that viewing art is already a highly subjective affair.  Two people from the same location, economic status, education, gender, and so forth will often have quite different opinions about the same work of art.   There's no reason to assume that they may be seeing them under a different perceptual bias, or is there? The New York Times recently posted an article that postulates that our native language may be a default lens through which we perceive reality. (Here's a link to the full article.) On page five, Guy Deutscher writes:
In what other ways might the language we speak influence our experience of the world? Recently, it has been demonstrated in a series of ingenious experiments that we even perceive colors through the lens of our mother tongue. There are radical variations in the way languages carve up the spectrum of visible light; for example, green and blue are distinct colors in English but are considered shades of the same color in many languages. And it turns out that the colors that our language routinely obliges us to treat as distinct can refine our purely visual sensitivity to certain color differences in reality, so that our brains are trained to exaggerate the distance between shades of color if these have different names in our language. As strange as it may sound, our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue.
At first, this claim seems to have shocking implications for a visual artist.   (Exaggerating colors could be perilous for a realist!) Earlier this year, James Gurney stated in his blog that we already have a an exaggerated awareness of warm colors due to historical availability of  certain pigments, but he does not go so far as to suggest color is at all relative person to person.  Like most artists, he would insist that perception of color is fixed and quite knowable, and demonstratively reproducible.  The thought that someone from a different culture could see your painting in a radically different way, as the article states, is a mind-bending hypothesis. I am reminded of the classic sophomoric discussion of the uncertainty of shared perception which wonders if we all see the same color "blue" that we call blue.   We learn from perceptual psychologists that many women actually have a biological difference that leads to a richer perception of blue. (Jameson)     (I'll try not to worry how tetrachromats see Chagall.)

Deutscher's implication is vocabulary provides the foundation for experience, and we certainly know vocabulary can be expanded.  In my experience as a teacher, I can certainly attest that a student beginning sees color very differently than trained painter.   For example, a student sees a green bell pepper in a still life and tries to paint it. For them, green equals green right?  They grab the first green tube of paint and approximate the shape and size of the pepper.  The result is a green blob.   If they have a background drawing, they may try to make it look round by mixing in some black or white to make it lighter or darker, but the base color is still green, and the result will still look nothing like the pepper.  An experienced painter may attempt the same thing, and will use a variety of colors: blue, green, yellow, perhaps even red!   More specifically, the painter will construct a painting from specific pigments.   For the professional, blue is a conversational simplification; a painter talks in terms of Indigo, Phathalocyanine, Prussian blue, Ultramarine.  No doubt, someone trained in art restoration would have an even larger vocabulary of pigments no longer commonly used.   Yet, I return to the question:  do I see the same pepper as the student?  Is the inability to create a visual facsimile a gap between the eye and mind, or the mind in hand?  Is failure a flaw of vocabulary, a lack of articulation, or a lack of facility and experience?  A trained student can learn the names of pigments, identify them on a test, and still take many years to learn how those pigments may be applied.   When I take students to a museum, do we see the same Chagall painting?   Most certainly, we do not. Much as "you cannot step twice into the same river,"  I never see a painting exactly the same way as I look at it in different stages of my life.   Obviously, the reasons are too far to count, ranging from my development as an artist to what I ate for lunch that day.  Yet, as I have matured as an artist, I do feel that not only my vocabulary, but my vision itself has expanded.  I see a very different pepper than most people. This brings me to the question of sophistication, or connoisseurship.

Let's presume that the ability to produce a veristic representation has little to so with perception.   After all, one can be a lover of art, an aficionado, with no training.   Furthermore, the field of Art History produces experts who will describe a painting using very different words than an artist. A skilled writer with a mastery of language, but no visual arts training, will invent phrases and wording more different still.  A writer knows the specificity of colors by the context of place, events, narrative purpose.   More radical still, color evokes emotion in the layman, the untrained, someone who simply "knows what they like."  For an elitist, there is no doubt which person's perception is more valid.   (I'll have to leave my worries on elitism for another time.)  For today, I am only concerned that there are so many different perceptual versions of the same painting out there in the world, so many different experiences of the same thing.

Who will be able to see my paintings as I see them or as I want them to be viewed?  From a point of true relativity, some viewers could get close, but I have to ultimately answer that that no one will.  That thought alone could drive an artist to despair. Back to the what-I-had-for-lunch example, my own views shift widely on my own work day by day,or even down to the second in the studio.  During the act of painting I may feel something is brilliant only to look again and see another flaw, and another, until the whole situation seems hopeless. This leads me to conclude that an artist, in fact, may be least qualified to recognize their own work due to this total lack of perspective.  (A crazy as it may sound, I do feel like any painting I create over time or rework is a collaboration between many past and future selves.  Again, another topic.)  For the self-critical, it's a blessing that others may appreciate our work more than we do.

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