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Some thoughts on what I think about when I think about art

February 1, 2012

Over the years, I’ve noticed that I’ve come to have a very distinct taste in visual art; although I must admit that I’m not entirely sure where it comes from. There are traits that I’m immediately drawn to when I see a piece, and these traits are generally pretty consistent. Most of them, upon reflection, seem to be mathematical in one way or another.

One of the only lessons I remember from art class in school was on drawing perspective. I remember it well enough that I still think about it from time to time, and I often used elements from it and doodled in notebooks throughout high school and college. I sometimes even do it today. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

It’s a very simple way to draw, but it contains both angels and a sense of depth that I find compelling. I think this may be because it’s a truer representation of what I perceive reality to be than a drawing of a plain box or a square would be. I can see why the angles are drawn the way they are in this picture, and I’m not ashamed to say that it soothes me.

Another feature of art that I enjoy is a sense of contrast. Take, for instance, this picture I snapped out the window the other day while I was on the train to New York:

This is hardly the work of a master photographer, nor was it taken with the best of equipment (I used, as we all so often do, my phone); but it demonstrates something that speaks to me. I knew as soon as I saw the scene that I wanted to preserve it. The sky was even pinker than it appears in the photo, but set against the dark, gloomy ground I found it exhilarating to behold. And the houses are just the kind of intrusion into the sky to set it apart for me.

Another example of this phenomenon (and a far better one) is in the picture I have currently set as my Google homepage image (the one that inexplicably caused a HUGE spike in visits to this site over the last week):

I see this as something of the the opposite of the picture above it. This time the grey is in the sky, and the vivid color is the green of the grass. But it’s the same effect. The contrast is stark, and I really enjoy it.

Viewpoints are important in any visual medium, and I find particular enjoyment in the sort that might be different than we might notice on an everyday basis. I see this most often in film rather than paintings. But a good representation of what I mean can be seen in another photo that I took myself:

Without looking up from the street, I would have never seen this particular viewpoint. It’s novel, I think, and different from what most of us notice in the world from day to day. I find we don’t usually see this, but then a lot us probably don’t often look for it.

A final trait that I’ve found I really enjoy is one that I’ve also come to learn actually has a name. It’s called the Rule of Thirds. It “proposes that an image should be imagined as divided into nine equal parts by two equally-spaced horizontal lines and two equally-spaced vertical lines, and that important compositional elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections.”

The Rule of Thirds certainly has it’s basis in a sense of mathematical symmetry, and I’ve demonstrated it here:

You can see how in this picture, it lines up very well. And if you were to take those lines and place them over the other images in this post, they would do the same.

The other day I posted one on my favorite paintings. It’s by Jacob van Ruisdael, a 17th century Dutch painter. Here is it again:

I first discovered this painting in an Art History class in college. We had to analyze a painting for a paper, and had a number of them to choose from. All were in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, so we had to take a trip up there and look at them. I picked this one as soon as I saw it, though at the time I wasn’t sure why.

Since then, however, I’ve learned a lot. I know that I’m attracted to angles, stark contrasts, interesting viewpoints, and symmetrical features. All of these are obviously demonstrated here, and of course that’s quite intentional, even if I didn’t know it when I first saw it.

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