Category Archives: Practice

Shifting Ground

Figure-Ground Metamorphosis Spatial perception is a continuous, cognitive process of inferring three-dimensional sense from the constantly shifting pattern of retinal sensation in which we are daily immersed. For everyone except visual artists the process is almost completely unconscious; something we have picked up from birth, along with our native language. The central mission of the visual sense is to identify “things” and distinguish them from the empty space that surrounds them. Graham Collier, in his book, Form, Space & Vision states, “…to perceive space… there must be a figure on a ground. For then a visual tension is created between the physical presence of something that intrudes, and the… apparent emptiness which surrounds it…” Naturally people take more interest in actual things than they do in empty space, but for an artist this isn’t necessarily so. Over time, working with the two-dimensional language of art trains the artist to be acutely aware of both object and space as two co-equal entities. In the student work below, working with one of Collier’s classic exercises, the co-dependence of figure and ground, and the capacity of each one to shift or reverse, is beautifully demonstrated.

Students employed the subtractive process of block printing to create a sequence of individual rectangular designs that, together, configure a larger rectangle. The unifying element of repetition works to break down the perception of each print’s individual design, and the recognition of metamorphic change propels the eye forward. The  whole enterprise is fraught with instructive ironies regarding the nature of figure-ground interactions. First, the initial figure is produced by an absence – removing the solid material of the block with a cutter – but in the print it appears as a presence, a white figure on a dark ground. The white mark reads unequivocally as figure due to the relative smallness of its area with respect to the larger black rectangle, and also because our eye can surround it. After each printing, students “add” another mark, or several marks, before printing again. Some students worked out their cuts in advance from a master plan while others, like jazz musicians, improvised by responding intuitively to the developing image. In the process of subtraction marks are added to the design.  Somewhere along the march of progress an interesting thing happens. First, the ratio of white figure elements to black ground equalizes. Figure and ground become ambiguous and interchangeable. Then, as cutting continues, the figure-ground relationship reverses. The black ground has become the figure and the white has become the ground. The total design consists of twenty stages arranged in a flowing pattern from left to right and top to bottom. Students are challenged to select the states from 30 to 40 printings  that best create an integrated whole with smooth transitions and without abrupt changes that interrupt the flow or that create undue emphasis.

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Frottage: Student Response

The senses of sight and touch are strongly linked. Tactility in art adds another level of impact to the more obvious formal elements of shape, line, and color. Texture can be both actual and visual, the first being a factor of the materials used, and the latter generated by the mark-making of the artist. Students in this project investigated texture as a design element using “frottage,” a strategy first developed by the Surrealists, to lift textures from the world around them. A period of foraging for textures armed with an array of different media and papers was followed by designing with the raw materials of found textures. In the designs below students worked within the constraints of two different design constructs. A columnar structure defines the first problem. Students selected textural elements by cropping and experimenting with various arrangements with the goal of breaking down the taxonomic effect of the columns. In the best designs similarity groupings and continuities lead the eye across the borders, configuring larger patterns of movement within the whole. Contrasts provide  forces of variety, emphasis, and visual weight that organize to produce a balanced, integrated and dynamic whole. The second design was developed from a previous problem involving isometric forms. The final design is a large square composed of four smaller squares, each of which contains an isometric figure translated into three values, black, white, and a middle-value consisting of the optical gray of the frottage elements.

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Broken Symmetries

In this problem students created symmetrical designs based on concentric forms. Introducing the element of line, and allowing for variables of thickness and direction, students sought to establish a tension between the static nature of the initial symmetrical construct and the dynamic variability of the line play. The symmetry of the original design structure allows for rotation, or interchangeability of component elements, introducing new potentialities for increasing complexity. The principle of continuity, or closure, generates new implied shapes, activating the ground as the eye connects the fragmented dark figures. The natural desire of students to control outcomes through drawing and planning eventually gave way to unique and very instinctual responses to the unforeseen visual energies that are produced by the interaction of the elements.

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Color and Space: Sonia Delaunay

Color Moves: Art and Fashion by Sonia Delaunay, Cooper-Hewitt Museum

Sonia Delaunay

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Color and Space: Louisa Matthiasdottir

Louisa Matthiasdottir

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Color and Space: Jacob Lawrence

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series

Jacob Lawrence, Bio

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Color and Space: Milton Avery

Milton Avery

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Color and Space: Roger de la Fresnaye

Roger de la Fresnaye

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Color and Space: Ken Kewley

Ken Kewley

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Color and Space: Frank Stella

Frank Stella

Frank Stella on Painting and Art

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Color and Space: Victor Vasarely

Victor Vasarely

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Color and Space: Dorothea Rockburne

Dorothea Rockburne

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Color and Space: Al Held

Al Held Paintings, New York Times, August 2011

FutureModern

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Color and Space: William T. Williams

William T. Williams

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Color and Space: Ron Davis

Ron Davis

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