Archive for October, 2004

Cat vision

Cats eyes. Look at them. The pupil a narrow slit, vertical through the

iris. Mysterious, intriquing.

One day, many years ago, I was relaxing in the summer sun in front of

our lovely old house. With me were our two cats, Mao and Myrtle. They

were as lazy as I was, “lolling” being the only word to describe their

movements. But where I favoured the sun, they both preferred the shade.

It was hot, I was nearly asleep, and just barely taking in the scene

before me through half-closed eyes. The cats were invisible in their

shaded patches. One of the cats got up and padded over to a new

position, again, in the shade. After a while it moved again. Also into

the shade. With my eyes half closed, where there would normally be an

undifferentiated garden path, I could see a meaningful pattern of light

and shade.

Slowly it became clear that the cats were seeing the garden in this

way, as a meaningful map of light/shade patterns. And that they

responded to this information by moving from shady spot to shady spot.

For me to see the pattern I had to close my eyes and observe the scene

through my eye-lashes, as it were. No such need for the cats though.

They have these specialised pupils which contracts to a narrow vertical

line, eliminating excess light while allowing good depth of field in a

narrow band from the twigs in front of them to the distant prey.

Unblinking. To enable this level of concentration, even blinking is

enhanced by a third eyelid, transparent, quick, clearing the surface of

the eye without obscuring the vision. What immortal hand or eye could

frame THIS fearful symmetry?

Something kept nagging at me, though. I knew that I was right, but what

was the payoff for the cat? What was the evolutionary benefit of such a

visual system? I could even identify a reason not to have such a system

in hunting animal. with our eyes half closed, we see less. It is most

amusing to tease a cat into hunting your hand… A fraction of a second

before it attacks, the pupil opens to its full extent, and if you pull

your hand away at this moment, the cat will leap, but into empty space.

Most embarrassing for the cat! But it needs to see every detail before

pouncing, as also in the momentum of its attack.

It was only in writing this note, that the benefit became clear to me.

Camouflage, first. As the cat moves from shade to shade, it remains

virtually invisible. And then, environmental. In Africa, the big cats

spend the day in shade, and in cold climates, they would seek out the

sunlight. Their superb visual system frees them to do this on a

virtually subconscious level.

All this has a lesson for the artist. Light and shade is the most

important of all skills that the artist has to master. And if we cannot

see light and shade, we can never render it. So the lesson of the cat

is, to see the clear and vital patterns of light and shade, half-close

your eyes.

Even in the 19th century a contemporary critic wrote,”Impressionism is

painting done through half-closed eyes.”

Before them the classical artists used a device called a Claude mirror,

a concave mirror backed with black instead of silver. You can make this

at home by taking a flat piece of glass and painting one side of it

black. The other side is a Claude mirror. Looking into it we see the

world in enhanced tonalities… lights remain light, but middle tones

are shifted down towards the darks, very much like a Rembrandt

painting. Colours in the shadow also tend towards Rembrandt-like black


A simpler way of achieving the same result is by looking at the sky

through an unexposed film negative, the way we look at eclipses,

except, don’t use it to look at the sun so much as to look at cloud

formations. You will be surprised. The skies you see will look

remarkably like Turner skies (Don’t forget that Turner idolised Claude,

who is credited with the invention of the black mirror.)

Ruskin, for all his admiration of Turner, abhorred the black mirror and

what he called “Rembrandtism”. His reason was simply that to sacrifice

the glories of colour to get good light and shade was too high a price

to pay. We must have good light and shade, yes, but we must also have

good colour (Colour is the type of love, Ruskin said.)

The answer is not to use the Claude mirror to distinguish light and

shade but rather to use the natural method of looking through

half-close eyes, emulating that great hunter of nature, the cat. This

way we see, at the same time, true tonalities, and true colour.


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The mind’s eye.

Dreams, sleeping dreams I mean, are fugitive and hard to pin down. Many

people believe that our dream experiences are real, and in the sense

that they open a path to our subconscious and the collective

subconscious, they are very important.

When I mentioned “dreamers of dreams”, I meant not sleeping dreams,

but that most vital aspect of the true artist, visualising or


Images, even from daydreaming, are clothed in mystery, and need

exploration and investigation to transform into art. Still, they are

all there, they come as a totality.

If we imagine a woman standing with her back to us, the imagination

holds her in fullness. But, if we want to know what her face looks

like, we cannot see that until we, in imagination, make her turn

around, or move around her. This is the creative aspect of the true

artist, to hold the images, and to dwell in the dream.

The experience of JK Rowlings the day she found the inspiration for the

world of Harry Potter, demonstrates this point. Her train was delayed

for hours, and she was allowed/forced to stay with the images that came

to her, to explore and to delve into this world, until it demonstrated

to her its own laws. She got fully formed characters, places, moods,

and events. All she had to do was to write it down. Mozart had similar

experiences. His manuscripts were written in one draft, with no

corrections or alterations.

So, as you say, you always have to use time to enhance what you put

down originally. Time, drawing on paper, and time, exploring the dream.

This dialogue between paper and fantasy is central. The one drives the

other, and to some extent the images on paper become as powerful as

those held in the imagination. Greatness lies in keeping the dream

alive. Don’t let it fade, don’t let it die, don’t let it go. Even as

you paint, be the dream.

This is why it is vital to draw and paint exactly what we see. Because

until we can accurately render what we see in the real world, we can

never render what we see in the world of myth, memory, and imagination.

For a great artist to paint from real life requires a similar approach,

to see this world as a dream, held in pure consciousness, and to render

that with as much reverence as if it were a vision handed down from the



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Of all the skills an artist may or may not have the most basic, and the

most important, is imagination.

This is the one that makes us an artist in the first place. Without it

nobody is an artist. It might even be thought not to be a skill which

can be developed, but a gift, or a god-given talent. WITH this gift,

nothing will stop you from being an artist. Prose, poetry, novels,

screenplays, musical composition, choreography, sculpture, painting,

comic strips, moviemaking, architecture, sandcastles; the imagination

will express itself.

This is the heart of art, of which the photopainters and the mechanical

renderers know nothing. This is Shakespeare, Beethoven, Turner, Rodin.

And this is the approach that we have chosen, or which has chosen us.

If you have this gift of the imagination, apart from real physical

distress, what can limit you? If you were to lose your sight, you would

tell the stories, and if you were to lose your voice, you would play

the music. Degas was blind, and Beethoven deaf, but the imagination

flowed through. Even if we were unable to communicate, as long as we

were able to fight the demons of loneliness, we would simply enjoy the

passing show.

My next note, hopefully, will be on the nature of imagination, and ways

of tuning in to the mind of God (or the collective subconscious).

With all our problems, let’s not forget to be grateful for being who we


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Art and skill.

“Art is skill”, the great Plato said.

This axiom has only been contested once in the history of art: in our time.

First, it was contested by the Modern school who were patently without skill. Cutting up animals and throwing paint at canvas, or painting flat squares with masking tape, piling bricks into a museum, are obviously not skilled activities. This travesty is still continuing because of the aging Modernists who still control all public-funded museums and art schools. More recently they have found a new skill-less art form to espouse: the work of unskilled ethnic groups whose work has to be shown as a kind of “democratisation” of art. They fear skill, because it is recognised by all; and their jobs depend on them alone being the arbiters of artistic merit. These jhighly paid jobs are lifetime appointments, so don’t look for any changes here. They will leave only when the die of senility.

But now there is another, much more dangerous group who deny the role of skill in art.

They are the highly successful artists who project colour photographs onto their canvases to trace in pencil outlines and then to color in oil paints. There is NO skill is involved in this. They, like their mortal enemies, the modernists, say that skill is of no consequence; that it is only the result that matters. At least the modernists were honest about their uselessness; these photopainters are dangerous deceivers, selling fraud as art. They need to be exposed and identified for what they are.

Because at the heart of art lies this truth: “Art is skill”.

The skill of observation, of empathy, of memory and of visualistion.

The skill of capturing movement in rapid sketches, and studying tone and form in careful studies.

The skill of composition and of arranging color and texture into passages of great beauty.

The skill of handling oil paint, pastel, and watercolour, as well as pencil and charcoal.

The skills of comprehending the secrets of chiaroscuro, palimpsest and paint quality.

The skill of conveying expression and mood qualities to shapes and forms.

The skill of integrating the various elements that make up the work into a seamless and harmonised whole.

One of the greatest flowering of pure skill was in the 19th Century, with artists such as Waterhouse, Burne-Jones, Leighton, Klimt, Alma-Tadema, Corot, Bouguereau, Gerome, Degas, Mauve, Mancini and others.

Why are they unknown today? Simply because the Modernists who control the exhibition and teaching of art, have so decreed. Ironically, the people who shout the loudest about these truly great artists, and who pretend to emulate them, are the fraudsters of photopainting.

Look up these artists of skill in your library, or on the internet, and rediscover the joy of loving art.

Then discover the joy of creating works of skill, truth, power, and beauty.


The picture below is by Waterhouse; Saint Cecilia.


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