‘THE PEERING AID’ – ART AND ILLUSION
In the early 1980s I looked for a way of painting that I could practise 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, on similar principles Albrecht Dürer described and illustrated in The Painter’s Manual 1515 (above). My object was partly to select and explore more random viewpoints and partly to question perspective.
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 this they differ from my other works: for example my outdoor paintings usually seem to be double sight size. This can even mean that objects which are closest to me in my visual field end up as actually life-size on the canvas.
Very occasionally I employed the ‘peering aid’ in combination with an outdoor garden scene, though the foliage continually changes during the painting. ‘Kitchen Window – a Study in Recession’ is the most serious of my ‘peering aid’ works, and the only plein-air example. It was painted in 1990, when economic ‘recession’ was in the news, while the left and right-hand areas of the painting explore different ways to evoke 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 at a point 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 sense of instability, as though the viewer is in movement.
Equally incidentally, in painting the miserable pieces of cloth 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 the Resurrection painting with Christ floating in mid-air and the unconscious guards in mid-fall. There is no other illumination of the tomb besides that emitted by the risen Christ. But ordinary daylight, which my painting has to make do with, seems equally miraculous in its own way.
The Kitchen Window – a Study in Recession, oil 1990
In the ‘Kitchen Window’ painting, a technical challenge was painting the brickwork. If I turned my head to look directly at one of the bricks, 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 value of the ‘Peering Aid’ – it reveals a perspective that one doesn’t actually see, for all that the modern mind accepts it.
This is the sort of ‘dilemma’ Gombrich describes, and the Renaissance masters who cherished an ideal of painting as the mirror of nature may have been the first to discover it. To draw a colonnade directly in front of you in perspective on a consistent plane surface, you must make the columns at either side from the centre larger the further they are away from you, not smaller. as they would appear. This could have been disillusioning as well as surprising, and some large -scale paintings – e.g. depicting a subject like The Last Supper – deliberately depart from this principle, since it requires a distortion of human figures as well as of collonades. It also has a flattening effect.
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’.
There is no single objective answer to this aspect 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 smokey areas – 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.