Painting What Eyes Can See
From the scientific point of view, only the visible is the proper object of painting.
by Vicente Collado Jr
Munting Nayon News Magazine
November 22, 2003

Girl with Necklace
(Oil on Canvas, 50 cm x 40 cm)
When I finally stepped back to assess this painting, I smiled not only because the girl was smiling at me but because for the first time I did not have to ask "Who is she?"

Every field of study has a predefined scope or proper object on which it focuses all its tools and methods of inquiry. Zoology, for instance, limits itself to animals while Botany concentrates on plants. Medicine is concerned with human health while Archeology studies fossilized rocks. What about painting? As a sphere of organized activity with its own systems, what is its scope or proper object?

At first, this seems to be an inane question fit for discussion only among highly spirited individuals in a pub. After all, you can paint a stick, a stone, a bird, a horse, a corn, a unicorn, anything under the sun, including the sun! However, problems arise when indeterminate shapes or forms splashed on canvas are claimed to be images or visual representations of ancestral spirits or of inner thoughts and emotions. This may be acceptable to people who have already imbibed a certain amount of spirit. But people still in possession of their faculties can not but wonder if such is possible at all. Hence, this question can not be set aside as inconsequential. In fact, it's one of the most significant if not controversial questions ever raised because previous attempts to answer it set in motion several revolutionary trends in art.

What entities properly qualify as subject of painting? Or to invent a new word, what is paintable?

And Only What Eyes Can See

There are several ways to go about this problem but one obvious systematic approach is to list down all the objects that have been painted before and then ferret out their common characteristics. Luckily for us we do not have to do this because, based on subject matter, painting has already been classified into landscape, figurative, portraits, floral, animal, still life, wild life, genre, etc. All that is left then is to determine what they share in common. Certainly, a landscape differs from a portrait or a still life. More concretely, a corn bears no resemblance with a horse but both are said to be the same in the sense that both are paintable. Is it because both are real? Can we paint real objects only? Initially, this appears to be the case until we bump into paintings of unicorns, mermaids, or vampires. Undeniably, even though they portray purely imaginary beings, they are still paintings in their own rights. And so, back to square one: what similarities do a real corn and an unreal unicorn have that make them paintable objects?

I believe any diligent study of these objects will eventually lead to one indisputable albeit seemingly superficial common denominator: they are all represented on a surface using pigments. In other words, we will need to go down to the very materials of which any painting is made to find clues to the answer.

Fading Sunlight
(Oil on Canvas, 50 cm x 60 cm)
Painting sunsets and sea waves has always been my favorite. Though breaking waves appear to be chaotic and random jumbles of colors and shades, they do possess a certain degree of internal order. It is this order that I tried to capture here using autumn colors.

Pursuing our lead, if we do some reverse engineering, we will see that, materially speaking, a painting is always a surface with pigments applied on it. The surface could be a stretched piece of cloth or canvas, a wood panel, a stone slab or a piece of paper. The pigments could be oil, acrylic, watercolor, pastel etc. But no matter what materials are used and no matter how delicately or forcefully the pigments are applied and no matter how much or how little emotion was put in the process, the finished product will always be a flat surface with coloring substances on it.

What do these elements do? The surface serves as a rigid support for pigments. In turn, the pigments have only one basic function: interact with light. The interaction consists in reflecting a component wavelength of light or a so-called band of spectrum and in absorbing the others. For example, a red pigment bounces back the red wavelength and absorbs the blue, yellow, green, orange, violet and other wavelengths, thus making an observer see only the color red. Of course, in a painting, not one but several pigments are present, each reflecting light in its own way. They are calculatedly applied and arranged on the canvas so that collectively they reflect light in the same way the object being painted would.

Let us try to clarify this with an example. In the material world, everything reacts with light according to this phenomenon described by Physics: reflecting some wavelengths and absorbing the rest. A real corn for instance when hit by light will reflect a set of wavelengths (perhaps, different shades of yellow or orange) depending on the colors of its various parts. If we want to paint the same corn, we must try to recreate with the use of pigments that same phenomenon. The pigments must be applied on canvas in a manner that when light hits them the effect is the same as when light hits the real corn. In other words, the set of wavelengths reflected by the pigments should match the set of wavelengths reflected by the real corn. This is what painting in its crudest form or from the scientific point of view is all about. Painting any object consists in simulating with pigments the interaction of such object with light.

From this perspective, the solution to our problem naturally follows. Something can be painted only if its interaction with light can be reproduced on canvas by the interaction of pigments with light. And, corollary to this, something can not be painted if its interaction with light can not be reproduced on canvas by the interaction of pigments with light.

What kind of objects are capable of such type of interaction with light? Practically everything as long as it has colors and dimensions.

But, in relation to an external observer, a technical term used for such type of objects endowed with colors and extension is "visible". As everyone knows, visible means it can be perceived by the eyes. Of course, one may say unicorns and deceased beings are no longer visible and yet they can still be painted. There are two ways a thing can be visible: actually and potentially. Something is actually visible if it exists now and if it has colors and dimensions. Something is potentially visible if it does not exist or is not currently being perceived by an observer but having colors and dimensions is part of its very essence or concept. Potentially visible objects could be: beings of the past like Napoleon and his horse; beings of the future like next year's corn harvest; or beings of reasons like unicorns, mermaids, and vampires.

Therefore, the proper object of painting is anything visible. This conclusion appears to be in keeping with our intuitive knowledge of painting, which, by its nature, always tries to show or to visually display something. And a thing can be depicted visually only if it is visible either in act or in potency.

And Not What Eyes Cannot See

By elimination, anything not perceptible to the eyes can not be a suitable object of painting. These are usually colorless and dimensionless realities.

Medieval Lobster
(Oil on Canvas, 50 cm x 60 cm)
This crustacean must have met its end as dinner for Willem Kalf one night 350 years ago. But Kalf's masterful depiction of it had somehow immortalized it. Obtaining a lobster and setting it up in a Still Life composition is both hard and messy. To avoid making my studio smell like the sea I just used Kalf's appetizer as model and added some of Carol's wine glasses as peripherals.

Sound, smell, taste, and the tactile - the proper objects of the other external senses - can not be painted, strictly speaking. One of my favorite Dutch paintings from the Golden Age is a figurative piece entitled "Children Making Music" which depicts young happy boys playing some improvised musical instruments. But from the painting there is no way to tell whether they were playing pop, rock, or hip hop. Also, painting a bouquet of Sampaguita, the national flower of the Philippines, is an easy task but its fragrance can never be obtained from its image on a canvas. Similarly, vanilla can never be tasted from a Still Life of vanilla ice cream, and the softness of a baby skin can never be felt from a portrait of a baby. Sound, taste, smell, and the tactile can not be captured directly by the eyes. Therefore, pigments can not simulate their appearance for the simple reason that they have no appearance.

Many, of course, claim otherwise. But, the burden of proof is on them and they yet have to present a convincing evidence supporting their view.

Likewise, contrary to popular beliefs, feelings, thoughts, and emotions as such can not be painted either simply because they have no visible characteristics. But this is a volatile issue that requires a more extensive and in-depth analysis. So we better leave it for later. Meanwhile, let us just ask ourselves these questions: Do they have colors? Do they have dimensions? Are they visible?

Respecting Limits

A unicorn is not a horse that has eaten a lot of corn. They are two different beings from two different worlds with no chance of ever getting close to each other. But pigments can put them together on the same canvas because both have visual characteristics. One is visible in act while the other is visible in potency.

Strictly speaking, we can only paint what is visible. This restriction is imposed on us not by our limited mind and skills but by the very nature of pigments themselves. As visual media, paints or pigments, whether we like it or not, can only reach up to a certain point. To force them to extend their capabilities would be to exhibit little understanding of them, to say the least.



Painting What Eyes Can See
November 22, 2003