formal elements

Examples of how a shape can be created,

Examples of how a shape can be created,

This post is a first installment on this subject.

The power of an artist derives from his intellect and his interaction with form.I learned this concept early; yet it grew in importance over the passing decades.

I first expressed this concept in the above manner in the thesis I wrote as an undergraduate: then it was simply an expression of how one may view an object: as a swelling form, as a collapsing form, or as a static form; this is easily translatable into the academic use of positive and negative space. In graduate school, when I was still doing retinal drawing and painting, I was instructed to feel the movement of a line (parabola) as it moved around the form of the model; as my mentor Peter Agostini was involved in creating a swelling human shape (look up prana).

[An aside: Peter Agostini had been involved with the creation of swelling forms from early in his career: inflated inner tubes (I didn’t see any but he did describe working with them), plaster balloons, and large swollen heads; this consideration of swelling from within carried over into his representation of the human figure and that of the horse. I did not realize Peter had comprehended prana until I spent an overnight in his studio when I drove his “Old Man” sculpture up to NYC: on a shelf over the entrance to his studio, he had displayed a few small figurines of Indian sculptures exhibiting prana. I first learned of this quality of inner swelling from George Weber but had not seen it directly applied until I saw Peter’s work. The figure to the left in the above image illustrates prana.]

Later on, while still in graduate school, I did a quick what if experiment and learned that if I held an objects’ position in relation to its environment in my visual field, the drawing carried the expression or feeling of the objects spacial relationships. The what if experiment was to retinally multiple focus on a column and on the cabinet doors behind it and to include an awareness of the space between them: The few strokes I put down conveyed in their meaning the spacial relationship of the original objects.

[aside two: when I refer to drawing from the retinal image, I mean that I had learned to draw an object while looking at the object and not at the drawing. the image below is an example.]

An example of looking at the object and not the image as I drew.

An example of looking at the object and not the image as I drew.

This manner of drawing continued until the early 1980s when my mind simply stopped wanting to be enslaved to the retinal image. I had to find a way to move inward that would satisfy my imagination.

To be continued.


In 1969, Dr. George Weber Jr. at Rutgers at Newark, New Jersey introduced me to the nature of meaning in art: I was taking his “Art and Aesthetics” class as a requisite for majoring in art education; George introduced the class to the Venus of Willendorf, explaining what it meant, how it conveyed that meaning both tactilely and visually, how it represented an existing canon and, by extension, the existence of a master apprentice system; then, he demonstrated how the modern artist fails to convey this meaning even when he attempts to replicate the piece for a museum exhibit. Then George went on to discuss the art of cave painting and the canon of glyphs.
I was hooked. I became George’s student and research assistant: my job was to take slides and run the slide projector; in addition, I was taught to draw Chinese bronze ornament designs: this line of training came to an end following a summer when the slide librarian failed to make the requisitioned slides and I had to haul my tail to produce them for the art history class.
I spent three years under George’s tutelage, taking a second senior year. Not only did he teach me the basics of drawing and color, he introduced me to the psychodynamics of seeing: the formal elements of vision and how they create effects in the viewer. In the final year, as part of an assignment, I wrote a manuscript on these dynamics: this entailed reading the writings of the three initial founders of Gestalt psychology, and the writings of the artists Wassily Kandinsky, Joseph Albers, and Paul Klee; yet, in the end, it came down to taking the formal elements (i.e., light and dim, area, shape, line, and point), contemplating them as they were in front of me, and discovering their psychodynamics: what did they do individually and when in a group. At the end of the year, I turned in a thin volume that fulfilled the assignment (there is more but that involves my being an ass and I won’t cover that here).
The understanding which I acquired of the psychodynamics of vision after many hours of observation is the foundation of all my work I have done since. My plans for this blog include writing on this understanding.
At the end of the year, as I was leaving his office and his private assistant was packing the office, George pointed his finger at me and said, “The next thing you need to learn is the parabola.” That statement set my direction on a path that led to my mentor at graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in North Carolina.