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Notes from the Underground Part Four — Knowing Enough About Seeing To Let

Jean Detheux continues his series on the nature of art. This month he discusses approaching reality and its representation through art aware of our predetermined notions. In other wordshe takes a look at looking.

(Or "Things my drawing teacher never told me.")

In "Part 3 -- Drawing, Without Knowing (Or, The Art in the Doodle)," I started talking about the central and peripheral areas of our vision. I suggested that paying attention to the qualitative difference between central and peripheral vision (sort of "looking at the looking") may help one realize how ambiguous our vision actually is and, by almost automatic extension, how much we take our experience of our visual world for granted.

Our experience of our visual world is above all made of non-differentiated "images" (more accurately, I should call that "potential for images") in which we project a sharply focused and differentiating "beam" (our central area of vision) as if it were a searchlight probing into the night.

However, this searchlight metaphor is only half the truth, another facet consists of the intention that drives the searchlight, making it pick "this, " and not "that," and putting the resulting overall "image" together based on a predetermined "project."

Culturally, we are conditioned to using this "beam of differentiation" according to societal norms, lighting up this and that element (almost like "making it up") in order to constitute/compose an overall image that corresponds to what we have been conditioned to anticipate.

In other words, the world we "see" is the world we constitute by constantly picking and organizing bits of information; a picking and organizing that is directed by an intentional project ("deriving meaning from our experience while simultaneously projecting meaning into it," as Merleau-Ponty would say). It's very similar to assembling a bicycle following a set of instructions. (Imagine that, "reality by number," or at least, by design! ;-)

Look At How You Look

Here's an example: We are looking at a face, and we are going to give its features a different musical value (C, D, E, etc.). Let's say that the nose is "D," its left eye "E" (as we look at it), its right eye "F," and the mouth "C."

All original artwork © Jean Detheux.

All original artwork © Jean Detheux.

I will also present another option, a smaller head that will move based on the pattern of scanning, unlike the previous one, which remains stationary. (This will become clearer when viewing the QuickTime movies.)

If we pay attention to how our eyes scan the face, we will notice that they do so in patterns that are fairly revealing: for example, I may come back to the tip of the nose far more often than I would go to the left eye. So, the "tune" I may compose with my scanning would be something like: D-E-D-C-D-E-D-etc.

This "tune" could be called the musical equivalent of our ("my") experience of our ("my") own pattern of scanning.


D-E-D-C-D-E-D Click on image to view the QuickTime movie.

In this example, the head is taken for granted and stays in the centre of the vision while the attention moves around from scanning point to scanning point.


D-E-D-C-D-E-D Click on image to view the QuickTime movie.

In this example, where the head position is affected by the placement of one's attention, you can see for yourself that if you look at a square (for example) and look at each corner in succession, each corner when looked at is always in the centre of one's attention. In order to notice that, one has to become capable of dropping the hold one's anticipation has (that is, one's anticipation of the "square") on the way one sees. ("Suspend Adumbration" is a Website where I explore some of this more.)

But let's say now that I want to determine the colour of the eyes in the face I am looking at. My scanning pattern will likely change drastically and become something like: E-F-E-F-D-E-F-E-C-E-F, etc.


E-F-E-F-D-E-F-E-C-E-F, etc. Click on image to view the QuickTime movie.

In this example, the head is taken for granted and stays in the centre of the vision, while the attention moves around from scanning point to scanning point, primarily from eye to eye, trying to determine the eye colour.


E-F-E-F-D-E-F-E-C-E-F, etc., etc. Click on image to view the QuickTime movie.

In this example, the head position is affected by the pattern of scanning, which moves again primarily from eye to eye, trying to determine the eye colour.

"Same" face, but what different tunes!

If you reflect on this for a while, you may come to realize that this world we see is (almost) never seen as immediately self-given, it is (almost) always constituted by --and the product of -- our projects, it is a "seen-as-intended world."

In other words, it is never experienced as a "world in itself," an "objective world," it is always constituted by the subject ("me") "under the influence" of his/her ("my") deep intentions and projects. The product of our naive perception has even been called "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness" because it is invested with a "reality status" anchored in its taken-for-granted "being," while our reality is truly one of constant "becoming."

Trained Perception

Our experience of visible reality is most often made of "illusions," illusions we create and become attached to, over and against the possibility of getting a glimpse of "the appearing as it appears."

To reiterate, the lines between madness, creativity and the fallacy of misplaced concreteness are very thin indeed. (Foucault's Madness and Civilization is another book I highly recommend.) Madness is almost always defined in social terms, and often traced to alternate ways of constituting "the real," while these alternate ways of constituting "the real" are very much at the core of what artists are searching for and working from.

If these alternate differentiations are relatively safe and "mild," we believe we have "an artist!" If they are destructive and powerful, we trust we have a "nut case" (or a new world leader!).

Try as hard as you can, you can never take yourself as a (the) viewer out of the equation. We are subjective beings, through and through.

I feel we need to spend more time with this: far too many of my students would come into the studio totally convinced that there was an "objective world out there," often believed to be the same for everybody. The common belief is that working from the visible simply requires one to pay attention to "what is," understand how "it" is made, learn how "it" works, then simply draw accordingly.

This usually has two extremes: one is an approach to image making that slavishly follows societal norms ("photo-realism"), while the other is one of gratuitous manipulation of the taken-for-granted "real," with all sorts of variations available between the two.

It is widely believed that this would yield "art," and in animation, especially commercial animation, the more a 3D software package can render details of the assumed-to-be-known objective world, the more valued it is by "habitual" animators, while 2D animators, especially with "art" pretensions, most often favour the second extreme.

Even my art school in Belgium (a good one) made human anatomy and morphology studies a prerequisite for "advanced" figure drawing. It did not matter that ancient cultures did not know a thing about anatomy (or did not care about it one bit) and yet gave us amazing images of the figure, creating them from an angle that did not go through an a-priori knowledge of the inner structure of the human body; we were still "forced" to believe that good figure drawing would necessarily come from a good knowledge of anatomy and morphology.

Look at the ways aspiring animators have to learn about drawing the figure now, especially with the domination of 3D animation software packages. We are zillions of miles away from working according to our being "a brand new point of view on the world," and have been forced into submitting to "this is how that goes, and here's how it should be drawn."

Most of the drawings I have seen coming out of art schools that cater to the dictates of 3D animation are, to me, absolutely appalling, much closer to what one would expect from students of architecture or dentistry (or even plumbing) than to what ought to be made visible by students of art ("to make the visible visible").

For one thing, the differentiation between figure and ground is almost always forced, even made up, while in lucid perception we constantly witness a much more ambiguous dance between figure and ground, with whole sections of the figure fading into the (back)ground, and sometimes elements of the (back)ground coming forward claiming figure status.


In fact, we even sometimes can see a strong element made of the tension between (for example) two edges, making a flat plane appear with utmost credibility, even though we know that it is not "there," that there "should" only be empty space in that area.

Model Reading 3 1978 13

Model Reading 3 1978 13" x 17" graphite on paper

This intensely points to the need to suspend our disbelief and to probe and accept the evidence of our own experience (an infinite journey).

Model Reading 4 1978 13

Model Reading 4 1978 13" x 17" graphite on paper

The project "figure drawing" filters out all the other possibilities that constantly offer themselves to us, rendering us blind to what could take us beyond mere "figure drawing."

Model Reading 6 1978 13

Model Reading 6 1978 13" x 17" graphite on paper

Giacometti once said, while working with a figure: "Sometimes, the distance between one nostril and the other is like the whole of the Sahara Desert!"

Intuition vs. Repetition

The notion that we have to learn how to draw "the figure" makes us unable to connect with our own vision, the vision that takes place prior to the filtering effects of "projects."

This notion that art is at the end of knowledge is a farce, a huge deception that almost kills one's chance to contribute the best one has to offer! ("Each one of us is a brand new point of view on the world," said Merleau-Ponty, but if the emphasis is placed on "the world" and not on "the point of view," we're "cooked" before even having started.)

I will come back to this in greater depth in part #5 (most likely) when I will try to show how much damage Eadweard Muybridge's work has caused to the potential of animation, giving people access to a strong illusion of power over "how 'it' works," wrongly assuming that they could/can bypass the need to become aware of how they see "it" in and through their own particular experience.

There is a huge difference between thinking/seeing/working in terms of "what is," and in terms of "how do I see/know what I see/know?"

So, going back to our exploration of our very own seeing through drawing, let us now assume that those who are interested in this exploration have noticed the qualitative difference between central and peripheral vision.

Trying to draw accordingly (most important if you really want to get into this in depth, your discursive mind's comprehension won't allow you to follow this proposed journey all the way without the support, without the help of the vehicle of drawing), you will notice that when you see a sharply differentiated area, it is not only fairly tiny, it also -- when you connect with it -- totally supersedes whatever awareness you might have had of the larger peripheral vision. And conversely, if you open your focus wide and connect with your field of vision as a whole, you may have a sense of that undifferentiated field, but have no contact with any sharply differentiated centre.

The moment you bring your attention to one mode, there goes the other!

Try as you may, if you "sense" one (the overall undifferentiated field), you can't "get" the other (the sharply differentiated centre of vision), and vice versa.

It may take a while for this to sink in (through drawing), but you will likely come to see that getting "this" rules out getting "that."

For those courageous ones who are discovering this through drawing, please make the effort not to keep whatever one mode of perception made available, when you find yourself already switched to the other mode.

In other words, if you started drawing with a clear connection to a differentiated element, do not keep it when you find yourself no longer connected, seeing a rather undifferentiated field. And of course, if you drew while responding to an undifferentiated field, do not merely add to it a differentiated centre. These two modes do not belong to each other, they are really at odds with each other. (We will look at this centre/periphery duality in greater depth in "part #5.)

Think of it this way: you started making a head using clay, and halfway through the making of that head, you change your mind, you now want to make a foot! You don't throw the head away and get new clay to make the foot. Instead, you "shape the head into a foot" (morphing? ;-), suspending your reliance on the symbolic "head" appearance and shifting to another mode, allowing you even to find parts of the head useful in making the foot.

This applies to how you can bounce off whatever you accomplished when in one mode of perception to realize that which you now see as needed while in the other mode, ad infinitum (or at least for as long as your paper will allow it as this requires much erasing used as a genuine and legitimate drawing means).

This is a great chance to experience consciously the full impact of that dilemma I have been talking about for so long: one knows one's vision is not split in two parts, yet one can't deny that sensing/seeing one area makes one lose one's conscious awareness of the other.

We seem to only have access to the awareness of one mode at a time, the oneness of our seeing does not seem to be available to us in conscious perception!

What can one do about that?

This already brings up the need for a different way of drawing ("drawing without knowing") to which I will no doubt come back several times before the end of the planned six articles.

We are trained to "look, understand, then do."

This is getting us in a serious dead-end if we are sincerely involved with trying to bring the totality of our vision onto paper (we just saw that when I "get" one mode, I lose the other). If the understanding has to precede the doing, it limits the doing to the plane of the already known, which is exactly where we get stuck when we try to draw the totality of our field of vision.

What we need is a reversed approach, "look, do, understand" which brings into the "picture" something else, something "other" which is, though unknown, a formidable source of help.

If one can come to the experiencing of the limitations of the habitual ways of working (made of "look, understand, do"), and if one continues on drawing anyway, one has entered a new level of work, the one opened by "look, do, understand."

Picasso said it very well: "What saved me is that I became much more interested in what I was finding than in what I was looking for."

Giacometti was even more in touch with the flavor of this experience when he said: "When I no longer know how to hold this knife, then, and only then, if I persist, have I got a chance for any kind of breakthrough." (That knife is a tool he used to carve and shape the wet clay he was working on.)

It is only when that "stuckness" manifests itself (and we are quite capable of setting up conditions in which that will be almost inevitable) that we are finally starting the real work.

In essence, we not only have to accept the risk of being stuck, we need to find ways by which this "being stuck" will become almost inevitable, even desirable!

By the way, when I talked about "looking at the looking" early on, I meant that.

But if so, and if we indeed can do that, with what are we looking at the looking?

That is one of the things we will try to explore in part #5, in about two months from now.

Jean Detheux is an artist who, after several decades of dedicated work with natural media, had to switch to digital art due to sudden severe allergies to paint fumes. He is now working on ways to create digital 2D animations that are a continuation of his natural media work. He has been teaching art in Canada and the U.S., and has works in many public and private galleries.

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