|Backhuysen, Dutch Marine Painter, About 1700|
In paintings like this, everything matters- the precise positions of the sails and rigging, the indications of the wind (the perspective on the flags indicate it's strength and direction.) But modern marine painters almost entirely miss the boiling power of the sea and sky, the many subtle indications of the motions of the surface of the sea and wind and rain whipping though the clouds; it's rare enough to be able render the drapery of the sails and the wickedly subtle arcs of the ships. Photographs freeze the motion of the sea falsely, entirely unlike how people perceive it in life- it takes a work like this to really capture in a still image the furious power of water and air in motion.
As I think about it, I have an inference about this- see what you think...What's key here is how our perception of a scene or a surface works: a collection of large number of events, not a simple two dimensional projection.
1) The geometric turbulence - (complexity, for you science people)- of a stormy water surface is extremely involved. As the 4000 people who put together what artists call "organic" surfaces like water vegetation, hair, etc, for Pixar.
2) All of that however, models water in motion. Here we are talking about what is arguably the tougher problem still image that must suggest all of that movement. 3) Imagine looking directly at the waves over, let's say, 30 seconds. Unless you are highly trained for another purpose, your eye remains in motion, darting all over the scene, the foam sloughing the backside of a trough, the petal-like outfall of a crest pouring into the glassy underside of a wave, the flick and splash of two waves hitting at off angles. The point is that what you see is dozens, more likely hundreds, of distinct events, inextricable from the ever-transforming shapes of the surface.
4) What is "realistic" in art, I will assert for this idea, is what conforms to the totality of the experience of being there. (A photograph records only one small aspect of this - it's two dimensional projection- and even that isn't quite right.) In this case, it is the memory- what actually soaks into the mind - of the huge collection of hundreds of simultaneous events, waves moving in a dominant direction, or a confused one, wavelets whipping off in many directions, most which are stone in the pond, and arc-like; there are innumerable nuances, shape, direction, transparency, color, all of which have related but independent motions.
5. To represent these in a still image with greater power means not only to record this extreme complexity, with it's 3-D qualities, but to present the action of time and direction on each of these micro-events. In other words, the mind perceives each micro-form (think of a wavelet on the surface of a wave melting away and sliding) as something that must imply motion and transformation, as an event. Further, to maximize its power, it has to be edited - irrelevant details from life that take away from the total effect must be eliminated.
6. Further still, meticulous details of reality can interfere terribly with the mood described beautifully by Shawna: It is precise yet conveys a real sense of chaos, entropy, movement. " It's precisely because humans fixate on details that a large number of irrelevant details take away from a broader perception. If you try to describe a forest with every detail on every tree, you may well miss the visual concept of "forest," that you are trying to depict. 7. Paintings like this typically compress space and time, and imply time and transformative direction, not because it's an inadequate echo of reality, but because its necessary in order to represent the reality of what was really perceived and understood. It is, in many ways, far more realistic than a photo presents, but the mechanical assumptions of photographs today happen to dominate what we think of as realism.
7. Paintings like this typically compress space and time, and imply time and transformative direction, not because it's an inadequate echo of reality, but because its necessary in order to represent the reality of what was really perceived and understood. It is, in many ways, far more realistic than a photo presents, but the mechanical assumptions of photographs today happen to dominate what we think of as realism.
My friend Monty, an aeronautical engineer, summarized it well: Yes, we don't perceive everything in a scene all at once, our minds build it up over time. We only think there must have been an instant, a peak point of highest drama that can be captured when in fact there is not. In this painting. It is impossible for this scene to have occured at a single instant, yet it conveys the power, the intensity, terrifying forces at work.