The Clarno Palisades and Ranger Station, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, oil on board, 12 x 16 , May 2008


The Clarno Palisades and Ranger Station, digital photo, May 2008

I am having trouble finding time (and intellect) to discuss the particular mental discussion I have been engaged in over the last couple of weeks. However, if you check out to position of the little building (the ranger station) in the photo above, and compare it to the painting, you may see something of the perceptual question I’m pursuing.

Of course, I’m not pursuing these perceptual quandaries all on my own. Rackstraw Downes, a contemporary urban landscape painter from the UK who graduated from Yale alongside Philip Pearlstein, Chuck Close and others, has taken up the query and worked out various ideas about what we empirically perceive. Downes’ art and his intellect play with his empirical knowledge of linear perspectives, versus what we’ve been taught we perceive. He maintains that our book learning on perspective is based on architectural renderings (as well as the studies we know from the Renaissance). But empirically, he says, what we actually see of the world of apparent verticals and horizontals is very different.


Rackstraw Downes, Atlantic Avenue At The Entrance To The Van Wyck Expressway, 2007, Betty Cuningham Gallery (click image to enlarge)

Downes paints, in Robert Storr’s words, “the surface of the earth and what rises from or cuts into it….Virtually all of Downes’s paintings are horizontal. The vast majority are strikingly elongated.” (from Rackstraw Downes, Sanford Schwartz, Robert Storr and Rackstraw Downes, Princeton Univ. Press, 2005, p.61)

By and large, Downes’s paintings are very long and narrow — typically one might be 12″ x 40 inches or 18 inches by 94.5 inches. He also paints wide horizons on panels that are exhibited next to one another. So he’s a master at seeing what happens when the artist is planted in a specific spot, painting, and turning her head to either side to pull in the wide horizontal view. “As I turned to my left, without moving my feet, the verticals began to tilt: the more I moved the steeper they tilted…. The positions and movements of the body as the the artists looks and works are factors that are implicated in the way space is perceived and depicted.”

Downes is, as he says, an empiricist, and when he began painting representationally (he started out as an abstract painter) he tried to paint what he actually saw. And what he saw was that a wide horizon, say 100 degrees, will appear to tilt inward in the foreground and downward and back as the ground moves further back. Looking upward at structures that are at the corners of our vision will make those structures also appear to tilt inward.

These “tilts” are not generally accounted for by classical theories of linear perspective (the monocular converging railroad tracks) but they are what someone like David Hockney confronts when he photographs as horizontal scene from a variety of viewpoints. Things don’t look “right” in his photos, but we are hard put to comprehend quite why.


David Hockney, Pearblossom Highway, Photomontage, 1986


Rackstraw Downes,Water-Flow Monitoring Installations on the Rio Grande near Presidio, TX 2002-2003 (5 parts. Part 1: Facing South, The Gauge Shelter, 1.30pm)

The painting I did last weekend is a case in point. In the painting, I used a vertical viewpoint and, taking artistic license, pulled the ranger station close to the rock base so it would fit on the board that I was using. But the photo, taken at the widest angle my digital camera lens provides, shows something of the skew that a painter might perceive if the support were much longer and could encompass both the ranger station and the palisades.

The skew is one that anyone who photographs structures will recognize as being a result of the camera lens at a wide angle — fish eye views are the extreme of this. In the photo, the building tilts inward; empirically speaking, in our single-position eyeball-view as well as in a camera’s lens, foregrounds curve in as they are seen on left and right (Rackstraw Downes, p 129); then they move out and down as the scene moves to the middle ground.

I was unaware of the photo-eye view of this scene until I finished the painting and off-loaded my images. But I automatically corrected for it in my much narrower “view” of the landscape.

A good article and interview by David Cohen with Downes can be found on Artcritical. The book called Rackstraw Downes, cited above, with essays by Sanford, Storr, and Downes, has marvelous photos of Downes work as well as interesting classical examples to bolster his theoretical stance.

These perceptual conundrums raise interesting questions; does the horizon appear to curve in various directions because of the spherical nature of the eyeball? And where does the curve begin and how should it be attended to in painting? And what about photography — should the parallax (is that the word?) be corrected for by the photographer? Interesting questions.