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Sunday, 10 March 2019

Spotlight: Watercolour World

Does it look like that?
Recently at home we found a box of old photographs, dating back to the 1990s. There are also some photos inherited from previous generations, going back to the 1960s. Compared with today’s digital photography, old prints have a different colour quality, and look smoother.  Blurry as memories and dreams. 
Partly this is because prints are seen through bounced light. We see the light that is reflected off of the glossy paper and its pigments that were once laid down in red-lit darkrooms, then printed in factories. They look old now. Today we are accustomed to the digital sharpness of mobile phone’s swagger, and the Supersize-me photo-laptop screen, far bigger than printed photos of even our ancestors’ most cherished wedding moments. The difference in how photographs look then and now is not simply due to scale and pixels. Or that older photos required more preparation time – rather than indulged in it, in the style of hour-long wedding shoots, and posed selfies. Or even that we no longer have mantelpieces to limit the size and angle of frame-displayed cherished pictures. Much of the change in how we see pictures now is due to light.
Screens emit light. Paintings and prints reflect it. We see photos and paintings based on whatever wavelengths land on them and bounce into our eyes. 
In a screen, the technology creates the emitted light that we see. Not even nature does that, except glow-worms and stars. 
If we go back to the times before photography, what would we see? And how would we see it?
There is a charity that does this. “Watercolour World” is a UK charity whose people collect and catalogue watercolours from before 1901, and make them publicly available online. It gives you a view of what the world looked like – or how it was seen – or how it was portrayed, before the last century.
You can look for particular regions of the world, or cities and towns. And you can search by topic. It shows you the historical and focusing perspectives of old watercolours. If you type in a topic you can find what remains now, of how it was portrayed a couple of lifetimes ago. 
Of course, viewing these images of watercolours involves a mixture of screen-based light emission, based upon reflective old paint and paper. It is not the light of what today’s digital cameras see. It is the light that artists wanted to convey. 

In future, the next level of imaging could be anything. We don’t know. Holograms? 3-D printed models with accurate perspective? Or projecting into someone’s mind exactly what a view looks like, or an experience? 
All of these are possible with existing technology.
These are all tools for showing how something appears. That is not quite the same as showing what something is. Its essence and meaning, for example. An object or situation’s intrinsic nature. Its emotion. Existence.
  These considerations are still the realm of art and religion and philosophy. It hasn’t changed. With science as the new participant in the discussion.

      “Art, Philosophy, Religion, and Science walk into a bar. In that order.” 
  Art buys a round for Philosophy, cos Philosophy never has any money. Science talks loudly and expects everyone else to pay. Religion used to be the richest, but it also had the most internal battles and issues, and can’t quite keep up with the conversation. Philosophy has become a good listener. 
   Welcome, science. Let’s all explore existence and truths. 
        Screens. World. 
Watercolour World includes paintings that people cherished, and handed down, valued, and shared with galleries and the charity. They are the painted visions that survived the test of time. 
I searched for “reed beds” in Watercolour World, and found beauty. 

For comparison, I searched Google for “reed beds”. 
See how flat and rectangular everything has become. The difference between paintings then, and images now, is the difference between life and life’s paperwork.
It is as if, in the early 20th century, plants and fields were taken from their home and put in the workhouse. Landscapes which were once the realm of watercolour’s floods and brushstrokes, became increasingly designed by Vorticists and Piet Mondrian. Fields become angular. Form follows function.  
This trend of artistic angularity seems to be reversing now. In today’s human world of rectangles and box tessellation, art is resurrecting natural forms. A reversal.  
Much of street art aims to reduce urban angularity.  This is the work or artist Odeith, who sprays realistic images of nature or walls and old infrastructure features to beautify it, typically with detailed paintings which, viewed from the right angle, appear highly realistic, and enlarged, as if reclaiming the land, and reclaiming natural form.

We know that trends move back and forth in time. Music and clothes fashions seem to come and go and return in cycles, like waves and tides, the same as economic booms and troughs, and political divisions and cohesions. Art and technology are similarly taking alternating views, in the sine wave of time. A constant, however, is that beauty still seems to be becoming increasingly synthetic, both in science and art's approach to appearance and essence.  


'OctoElephant' in Shoreditch, by Alexis Diaz
The 19th century watercolour world is from a time that we have mostly assimilated and understood. Like today, it is loaded with beauty and progress and wonder.
Writer: Matt Smart
Watercolour World: https://www.watercolourworld.org/search

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