On composing pictures: shape recognition and mind

"Generic Robot Principle" Front View vs Back View" G. Scheckler 2001

“Generic Robot Principle” Front View vs Back View” G. Scheckler 2001


In composing artworks, we are often told that geometry matters. “Treat nature by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone” — Paul Cezanne to a student.

The traditions of art education in European and American art schools are clear: use geometry to create art. But which geometry is most useful? Why aren’t we using the crenallated, mobile geometry of clouds in the summer sky or the dendritic branching of tree limbs and river’s tributaries as our favored models? Why do we rely on obviously abstract concepts like line and shape modeled as perfect square or circles, and then cylinders and spheres? Aren’t these geometrics invented human forms, not actual natural ones?

If you observe nature closely, you’ll find it has few or no straight lines. Wasn’t the use of Euclidean and Pythagorean geometrics just a matter of popularity and what students had been taught? Why aren’t our basic ideas of shape more like trees and less like bricks? Why in art do we use straight lines when, if you observe nature closely, you see that there are no straight lines. In Nature there’s a lot of wiggly shapes, funny crenellations, odd bendiness and unpredictably chaotic liquid flow. Where’s the straight lines? There are edges, surely, but are they roughened or are they really straight? Sometimes I think that the only straight lines are ones that people built, like telephone poles, which truth be told are often slightly conic and tippy and bending under the weight of power lines that droop thanks to gravity. The summary straightness we describe the horizon with, for example the distant edge of Lake Michigan kissing the sky, is actually wobbly and a little bent in places — we abstract it to a straight line, although it actually is much more complex.

In the essay “Shape Recognition, Object Recognition and the Subthings of the Mind’s Eyes: Composing in Response to Natural Formations” I outline a comprehensive, contemporary view of types and kinds of uses of shape that begin to make sense within the contexts of contemporary pictorial composition. For a long read on this topic, click through to the full essay here “Shape Recognition…” (pdf file, ~26 pages, illustrated). (The file is free and available to you for educational uses). My conclusion is more like Rudolf Arnheim and less like Jacques Derrida. To summarize: The conventions of art and language strategies exist because they’ve been adapted from nature; to some extent we simply cannot help but use shapes. Subthings, Supernormal Stimuli, the ease of finding Symmetrical, non-accidental shapes, with reversals for art and language designed out of perception, and the long history of regular shapes as the basis of art education, all together point to the large-scale processes that are relevant to visual arts composition. And these grow out of far tinier, adept neurons that filter what we see in Center/Surround patterns for contrast differences, for directionality and movement, and then for combinations that form basic conceptual groupings like edges, gestalts, mental models and other basic contents of consciousness that help us recognize subjects and objects in our world.

About The Author

Gregory Scheckler