‘THE PEERING AID’ – ART AND ILLUSION
In the early 1980s I looked for a way of painting that I could practice throughout the winter, and at night. I had become intrigued by the chapter in Gombrich’s ‘Art and Illusion’ (1960) entitled ‘Ambiguities of the Third Dimension’. To this end I devised a drawing frame, the object of which was to select and draw more random viewpoints and subjects.
The subject matter was less appealing to me than in my outdoor scenes, and the apparatus offered a welcome short cut by allowing me to trace it directly through a transparent screen, and, unlike my usual drawing process, not to question, but to accept the initial drawing.
First attempt using the peering-aid
Using the ‘peering aid’, as a friend wittily called it, meant I could still proceed in the presence of the subject. The results have a mechanical quality resembling photography, partly as a result of non-axial lines of vision. I deliberately set out to explore the unnaturalness of an ostensibly realist projection.
The resulting paintings were also ‘sight size’, so that if the viewer stood at the same distance from the picture as I stood to draw it, the depicted objects appeared life size. In my other works, I intuitively double sight size.
Very occasionally I employed the ‘peering aid’ in combination with a wild garden scene, but the foliage could not be painted in the same way, because it would change too much during the painting. ‘Kitchen Window – a Study in Recession’ is my most serious, and only plein-air, example, painted in 1990, when ‘recession’ of a different kind, economic ‘recession’, was in the news. The left and right hand sides of the painting contrast two ways of evoking spacial recession.
Usually when drawing or painting from direct observation, one’s line of sight tends to be parallel with the ground. In most of the pictures carried out with this device, the view is not ‘axial’ in this way. With the ‘Kitchen Window’ picture the centre of vision is incidentally in the sky just above the garden fence. As a result, though the painting obviously took me a long time to do, there is a slight sense of instability, almost as though the viewer is in movement.
Equally incidentally, in painting the miserable cloths on the window sill and the armour-like metallic spikiness of the thistles on the right, I had Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece very much in mind.
It was not just the unclean rags and armour that Grünewald depicted so well, I was also reminded of that Resurrection of Christ painting, with Christ in mid-air floating up from his tomb, and the unconscious guards in mid-fall. The illumination of the tomb is solely emitted from the risen Christ. But ordinary daylight, which my painting has to make do with, is also miraculous in its own way.
The Kitchen Window – a Study in Recession, oil 1990
In the ‘Kitchen Window’ painting, a technical challenge for me, working as always from direct observation, was that if I turned to look directly at one of the bricks on the left, it simply did not appear in the shape required by perspective. Not to turn, and to see them out of the corner of the eye, on the other hand, meant I could not paint them in detail.
This is the sort of dilemma Gombrich describes, and the Renaissance masters who cherished an ideal of painting as the mirror of nature were probably the first to discover it. The realisation that to paint a colonnade directly in front of you in perspective, you must paint the columns at either side from the centre larger the further they are away from you, not smaller, as they would appear could well have been disillusioning.
However, as Gombrich says, this does not mean perspective is ‘merely a convention that does not represent the world as it looks’, it is just that ‘the ordinary results of geometric projection sometimes take us by surprise’. Such issues must have haunted Constable if he wanted to frame his landscape with large trees: drawn from observation he might make them too thin and thereby weaken the consistent rendering of space.
There is no single objective answer to this difficulty of drawing. One recourse is indeed to use shading and other realistic techniques to entice the viewer’s willing suspension of disbelief. Conversely, one can use sfumato – Leonardo’s deliberately blurred image – or impressionism.
And yet, the paradox, the uncertainty, the dilemma, is, just as in every spoken or written sentence, the whole point. As William Blake once wrote “Hope and fear are – vision”
EXPERIMENTS WITH THE PEERING-AID.
In each case I made an initial drawing onto a transparent screen (or ‘window’) using the peering-aid apparatus. I traced the drawing onto a canvas and continued painting from direct observation. A few paintings were made at night with an unchanging, artificial light. Others were done in daylight, so there was an element of change. Still others included window views in which foliage grew and changed in the course of the painting.