Jun 172008

In the previous post we talked about a powerful method to arrive at effective ideas: completing the painting in your mind. In this post we will talk about a directly opposite way, one of undoing the painting by using your imagination and other tools.

Although it may seem that simply reversing the first technique would do the trick, such an approach would give only partial results. Some basic principles indeed need to be turned on their heels but, undoing, or “undressing” a painting also involves procedures that were irrelevant to the completing process. In other words, this method is not an opposite equivalent, but a new and entirely different manner of using your imagination for interpreting art.

 We have talked about the use of digital assistance before, but in this case technology plays a particularly important role. Indeed, what other better way is there to manipulate a reproduction of a painting than by using a computer and an image processing software? A computer program allows to discolor hues, rotate the image, remove parts of it, zoom in and out of the picture. Moreover, you may draw lines and make notes an the image without worrying about corruption (provided you made a backup copy), a helpful feature to denote carious underlying connections.

Sometimes the only way to get at the core idea of a piece is by getting rid of the secondary details. For this purpose, a computer program may prove to be an indispensable tool. If you are weary of using external technological aides for an assignment because it is supposed to be entirely yours, don’t be. Using modern technology is a known technique to extract information from art, it is being commonly used by art historian and critics. Professionals use X-rays and infra-red rays, we will settle for a strong PC.

Get to The Point

Usually you see it right away. It is that place on a painting that had your eyes fixed on it for longer than usual. Admittedly, for every interpreter that place would be different — but that’s the whole point of interpretation. You have to go with your gut and trust your intuition: use the software to get rid of the rest of the image, magnify that part and study it carefully.

  • Faces: In human scenes and mass portraits it can be a single face, expression, a facial characteristic (mustache, faint smile, sneer, wrinkles). You have the ability to make an enlarged portrait out of any head on any painting; the artists themselves often resorted to this technique, including self-portraits in mass group scenes. Studying faces up close give you the psychological material to make supposition on the state of mind of that person — a step towards interpretation of the entire piece.

  • Hands: These limbs are possibly the most expressive body parts after the faces; they are also follow in difficulty of execution. There are many signs hands may express (folded as in a prayer, political affiliation, secret society), look for them. Usually the hands comprise clusters of lines, so this is a good place to learn about the artist’s draftsmanship skills. Hands mean gestures and bodily movement on a local scale, they can teach you a lot about their owner. Try to study the hands before the heads — this will give you a more objective outlook on the depicted individual’s psyche.
  • Still Life: A bowl of fruit is a bonanza of miniature still life paintings. Isolate each fruit, see how ripe and how seductive it is. Look for information about harvest times and find out whether the painting makes chronological sense. This data will back up your hypotheses regarding composition and color.
  • Landscape: Look for the farthest, less expressed parts and try to realize how the artist uses and manipulates color; then compare to the foreground. Simply give the painting a look without some of its components, try to treat each area as an independent landscape. Depending on how natural these areas would appear, you will be able to make some conclusions about the artist’s compositional approach in particular and understanding of nature in general.

Look for Symbols

We have seen that undoing the painting means making countless mini-paintings from each isolated area, either the included or excluded one. These areas suddenly receive unprecedented attention; by focusing on them you discover secret links within the work and generate your own ideas about them. But even more importantly is the discovery of symbols. Because during the process of “undressing,” your attitude to a painted locus changes, you start to attribute symbolical significance to even the smallest and seemingly unimportant details. Indeed, many of these attributions would eventually turn out to be irrelevant but, some will give you penetrating insight about the painting as a whole.

Stay Tuned for the next part!

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