"Visual experience, if attended to, tells us that the things of nature are uncountable but connected; unpredictable but patterned; nothing to do with us and everything to do with us." Stephen Taylor
Over the Christmas break I read Alain De Botton's The Pleasures And Sorrows Of Work, a fantastically evocative series of essays on a subject which people can find in turns enthralling and soul-destroying, yet is never less than one of the most important things in our lives.
I think ever-increasing complexity, and how we navigate the many complex adaptive systems that we are a part of, is one of the defining challenges of our time. It's been interesting being a part (though I'll admit to being more of a lurker than a contributor) of Bud Caddell's journey to write a book that will help make sense of, communicate and confront the challenge of a more connected and complex world. But it's also intriguing to see a different perspective on it. One that is completely different from any that we're likely to encounter in our industry.
One of the essays in De Botton's book is about the artist Stephen Taylor. Stephen spent most of two years in a wheat field in East Anglia painting the same oak tree. He painted it in a huge variety of weather, light, and detail. He painted when the wheat was ripe and blown by a late summer wind, when the snow was thick on the ground, when the earth was bare and cold. He painted in the early morning light just after sunrise, in the heat of a summer midday, and when the tree was lit only by moonlight. A whole series of paintings capturing the complexity of a single living thing and the living things that surround it.
De Botton describes how it was paintings like Titian's Man WIth A Quilted Sleeve that really taught Taylor how to paint, and of the value of economy, and how to imply things rather than explain them. The way Titian was able, using only five shades of blue, to portray the infinite variations in light, weight and depth, and convey such richness, texture and realism that you felt an urge to reach out and touch it: 'He taught him that a painting of a tree should be the story not of each individual leaf but of the dynamic mass of the whole".
Taylor says that Titian is able to look at a piece of clothing as if he'd never seen it before ("You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you" Heraclitus). In his own essay (which is worth taking the time to read) he describes the unpredictability of painting an environment that is not pre-visualised, and whose combinations of shape, light and colour are unique every time you see them. And how perception is forever unstable, a two way process where both parties are always changing, where individual colours are affected by the colours that surround them (colours are relative, not absolute), and the result of not just the colour of the object, but the colour of the illumination falling on the object. In the "dance of the eye with the environment there is constant interaction, adjustment and readjustment".
After reading the chapter in De Botton's book I bought three pictures from Stephen, including the one above. This artistic approach to dealing with complexity so intrigued me that I asked Stephen about it, and he was kind enough to send me an answer.
Over to Stephen:
"An architect (so familiar with drawing) once said that she felt my style was a form of "clarification". I liked that. But an experimental psycologist came up with what I think is the best single word description: he said I was "parsing" nature. In other words I use a technique that makes complex things readable.
It's a method of selective simplification. In front of the subject I paint what I feel are typical colours for different areas, then use digital analysis to find their distibution, usually as a colour-texture.
Of course many factors go into choosing a colour. But you can get an idea of what a 'typical" colour might be like of you take a moment to try to imagine the difference between a gold and a silver candlestick.
It shouldn't be too hard to form two mental pictures, but what colours are in your mind's eye? Not every one that you would see in the real world, that's for sure. The mind seems to store and use only those which it needs to identify something and no more; in this case, a set of colours for gold and a different set for silver : a body colour, a highlight, a shadow and perhaps one more, but probably no more than that. To process information as fast and efficiently as possible the mind does it's own parsing.
My methods, and those of any good observational painter, exploit a natural parsimony of perception, showing the spectator all they need and not much more. This also gives good painting an energy that poor realist painting - sagging with redundant information - lacks."
It seems to me that much in life is unpredictable but patterned, uncountable but connected. You can see more of (and buy) Stephen's work here.