Saturday, 19 July 2014

Colour Perception And The Impossibility Of Ever Painting Things Exactly As They Are.

When I was sixteen I had my first serious opportunity to do an oil painting en plein air as it is sometimes referred to, harking back to the French impressionist practice of painting in the open. I had an easel and primed board set in front of a huge field of oilseed rape and the choice of a handsome selection of colours. I also had plenty of time, it being the summer holiday, and my plan was to build up the painting gradually as each successive layer dried. Everything went well enough until I began working on the intense yellow of the oilseed rape. I could mix the colour very convincingly on the palette and for a while there seemed to be little difference between my yellow and the yellow of the field. But as the lighting conditions changed the difference between painting and field was unmistakable. This was a source of enormous frustration to me since it seemed that either my skills of colour mixing were defective or else the paints were sub-standard. Actually the paints were professional quality oils so it seemed unlikely that they were at fault but what I didn't realise then but is clear to me now is that the paints were indeed defective. All paints are. The reason we don't complain to Windsor and Newton or Rowney is because our perceptual powers are also systematically limited in ways that we do not notice because these flaws are shared and are therefore the perceptual norm. Pictorial representations such as oil paintings or photographs would be impossible without these shared perceptual limitations because pulverised pigments or chemical dyes—even when expertly mixed—would almost never seem to have the same properties as the things they represent. Their chemical structure and therefore their spectral properties under varying lighting conditions would simply be too easily discriminable for use as colour substitutes. If our perceptual capacities were faultless, no two different things would ever seem to be the same.

The issue can be better understood in the case of my struggles with oil painting. The reason the yellow of my painting and the field seemed to be the same for a short time was because under those particular lighting conditions I was incapable of discriminating between them. Other humans would have the same difficulty whereas other perceivers with different perceptual skills probably wouldn't have nearly the same trouble. Tetrachromats who—like many birds, fish and amphibians—possess an extra set of colour-sensitive cones on their retinas, would be unlikely to make the same mistake. When the lighting conditions over the field changed, the differing spectral properties of the paint and oilseed rape absorbed and reflected light in ways that were more easily discriminated (for me with my trichromatic vision) so it was obvious that the paint wasn't the same shade as the oilseed rape. Any hope I had of mixing a perfect spectral match of the crop was doomed before I had even begun. Perhaps if I had known this at the time I wouldn't have mistakenly concluded that the fault was due to a lack of skill on my part, but rather to inherited weaknesses which make all the wonders of pictorial representation possible in the first place.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

The Intellectualist Attitude

In an essay entitled “Representing the Real”, Berkeley philosopher Sean Dorrance Kelly, remarks that the laws of perspective are: “the laws for drawing things as they are seen in the detached perceptual attitude.” The detached perceptual attitude he tells us: “is the attitude one takes when one not only has a perceptual experience of a thing, but at the same time pays attention to the details of the very experience one is having. In the detached attitude one pays attention not to meaningful things, but rather to the ways things look.”
For Kelly the detached attitude is to be contrasted with the standard “engaged” or “absorbed” perceptual attitude that “we adopt with respect to objects when we see them as things in our meaningful environment.”
It is true that different situations and intentions demand different kinds of attention just as different jobs require different tools. Use the wrong tool for an inappropriate task and the results can be disastrous. Kelly is right then to make a distinction between different forms of attention, but aside from this rather obvious observation is there any deeper sense or coherence to Kelly’s claims?
If, according to Kelly, our environment is meaningful and artists, when drawing, do not pay attention to meaningful things, does this mean that artists need not or cannot attend to meaning as they draw? Surely that can’t be what Kelly means. Perhaps he means that by adopting the detached attitude, artists absorb or discover meaning anyway. After all, if the environment is already meaningful, as he claims, then all they need to do is record this predetermined meaning? So, by being detached, artists get what they would otherwise get by being engaged and absorbed. But that doesn’t sound right either. Anyone who has spent even a little time trying to produce an observational drawing knows that it requires considerable engagement. Perhaps Kelly would concede that the detached perceptual attitude does actually constitute a kind of engagement, just a different kind of engagement from what we might call “standard engagement”. So, in this non-standard attitude we attend to how things look rather than what they mean. Perhaps artists might also benefit by commencing any act of drawing by adopting the standard perceptual attitude first in order to attend specifically to the meaning, before then applying the non-standard attitude in order to capture this meaning.
Does that sound okay? Well it might if our environment were meaningful but sadly it isn’t. Meaning is something that humans have to strive to produce and it requires articulation through the use of shared strategies, codes, and cultural symbols etc. Certainly we can record things that are apt for interpretation, but, once again, meaning isn’t an intrinsic attribute of things, it is an attribution based upon cultural norms, associations, references etc. There is no app that will ever tell you the meaning of the world you point your smartphone at, nor will there be such an app, at least not until smartphones become capable of inventing stories.
When discussing the standard perceptual attitude (the engaged and absorbed one), Kelly observes that running down a flight of stairs would be dangerous if you were to contemplate the colours of the carpet or to consider “where exactly the best spot is to place your foot.” True, but does it follow that we need to interpret the meaning of the stairs as we descend them? Presumably not. So what is he saying? It might be argued that Kelly is simply saying that the brain is doing a lot of intricate processing regarding the position of the stairs, body etc. Undoubtedly the brain has to process a lot of stimuli in order to respond accurately and rapidly in some situations but this doesn’t necessitate interpretation of the meaning of the environment. A defender of Kelly’s position might suggest that by “meaningful environment” Kelly means to suggest that the environment is significant in certain ways and that perceivers need to be able to apprehend and process these significances. However, significance—like meaning—requires conceptual understanding and interpretation. Environments are not things that organise themselves for our interpretive convenience. Interpretation is something that has to be learned – it certainly isn’t a genetically acquired skill.
An entirely different characterisation of the process is necessary if Kelly is to avoid the pitfall of what is known in philosophy as intellectualism*. Simply stated, intellectualism is the idea that all intelligent acts are preceded by intelligent abstract thoughts. I will have more to say about intellectualism in a later post. If the capacity to perform an action intelligently were reliant upon interpretation—on the processing of meaning—as opposed to simple recognition and efficacious action—then the demands placed upon even the simplest life-forms would be evolutionarily intractable. Even insects behave with a sophistication that makes a mockery of contemporary AI and surely nobody seriously supposes that insects conduct interpretive analysis of the meaning of their environment as they move around and interact with things.
Skilled action is reliant upon non-conceptual capacities, i.e. memory, sensory discrimination and rudimentary representational skills like mimicry which have developed over millions of years and that have been shaped by countless trials and incremental improvements (at both the phylogenetic and ontogenetic level). 
Any artist wishing to draw by observation needs to employ only two strategies, neither of which require any kind of detached attitude. (In fact the accompanying attitude is simply a behavioural side-effect of the application of these techniques.) One is to maintain a fixed point of view for the duration of the drawing—the other is to close one eye when looking at the subject.
Intellectualists, on the other hand, might benefit by opening both eyes and going back to the theoretical drawing board.

*Kelly would insist that his position is not that of an intellectualist. On the basis of my analysis, I beg to differ.