Painting is creating a special sign of the visible.
A painting of a rose simulates the rose's interaction with light so that the painting appears to be the rose itself and not a colored surface. When this happens, the painting is said to be an image of the rose. The image is not the rose. It is a separate reality composed of coloring dye smeared on canvas following a certain pattern whereas the rose is a three-dimensional structure of living tissues and cells. The image only stands in place of the real rose. Why we would rather hang an image of the rose instead of the rose itself is, of course, a question only each one of us can answer since the motive can only be personal. But, perhaps, the advantage of hanging an image rather than the thing itself becomes obvious if we replace our example with a dinosaur or a whale. That is why the prehistoric caveman contented himself with just painting images on his cave walls. He would have found hanging a stuffed elephant quite literally a mammoth task.
In general, a thing that stands in place of another is called a sign. Thus, an image is a sign too.
It is then imperative for us to go deeper in our understanding of signs, determining in the process the proper place images occupy within the multiplicity of signs.
Notion, Importance and Types of Signs
A sign is a thing that represents another thing. This definition has three essential parts. First, a sign is a thing, which we can call a subject. As a thing, it has its own existence or act of being which makes it the same as other things but, at the same time, different from them. Second, this subject presupposes the existence of another, which we can call object. This object is separate and distinct from the subject. Third, a relation exists between the subject and the object. The relation consists in the subject representing or pointing to the object. This unique relationship is the distinguishing mark of a sign. It is what makes a sign a sign.
A flag is a clear example. Often times, it stands for a nation or country. By itself, a flag is no more than a piece of cloth with some colored designs in it. But, its whole being does not end there. Seeing a flag is seeing what it represents: a group of people residing in one territory, following one law, and striving for one common good. That is why, disrespecting a flag could bring grave consequences not because the rights of a rectangular piece of textile have been abused but because a whole human society, for which the flag is a sign, has been dishonored.
Signs are important for several reasons. But all these can be reduced to only one: they are indispensable for everyday human communication. In fact, a great part of our knowledge is acquired through signs. When we read books, listen to lectures, or tackle mathematical problems we are using signs. To convince others to help protect anacondas, for example, we can avoid our own extinction by using signs like words and photographs instead of persuading a live anaconda to aid us in our presentation. When we want to narrate our misadventure in the fish market, there is no need to bring the fishmonger, the fish, the weighing scale, and the other characters of the story. Signs will suffice.
Signs can have different classifications since there can be different types of subjects, objects, and manners of representation.
According to subject, signs can be classified into natural and artificial. Natural signd are things that spontaneously represent or point to other beings. For example, smoke is a natural sign of fire, children represent their parents, an identical twin mirrors the other twin, etc. Artificial signs are man-made signs. They are either human artifacts or even natural things that have been designated by men to stand for something else. Examples are traffic signs, statues, printed words, mascots, etc.
According to object, signs can have as many classifications as there are types of objects. Scientific signs represent items and concepts pertaining to science. Mathematical, religious, military, chemical, logical, musical signs, etc. are other types.
But the classification we are interested in is according to the manner of representation. There are two types. The first is when the sign bears no resemblance with the object it represents. For lack of words let us call it dissimilar, invented or pure sign. An example can be the name of a person. A name is nothing more than a group of letters from the alphabet and therefore has no similarity with the person it stands for. But, a name is necessary to indicate an individual. Words, language, traffic signs, icons, emblems, coat of arms are more examples of pure signs. In ordinary language, when we talk about signs we normally refer to this type. The second type is when there is a likeness between the sign and its object. Let us call it similar or special sign. An example can be the photograph of the same person. The photograph holds visual similarity with the person. Pictures, sculptures, statues, images on reflective surfaces or on paintings are examples of special signs. Both the name and the photo are signs of the same person. But the name represents the person by merely pointing to him whereas the picture represents him by being his visual resemblance or likeness.
Images as Special Signs
From these classifications, it is clear that images in general fall under the category of special signs. Images are special signs that represent visible objects by being a visual likeness of them. This similitude is the defining element of an image. In fact, precisely because of this likeness it is safe to assume that all special signs are images. When there is no likeness, a thing can never be called an image of another.
In addition, images represent their objects automatically and immediately. The moment an image is formed it immediately represents the object of which it is a likeness. No outside intervention is necessary. A parliamentary session is not needed to declare that an image of David Beckham in Madam Tausud museum should represent David Beckham. In contrast, pure signs need an extra action from outside for them to become signs. They need to be defined and designated as signs by men through convention, custom, law, national consensus or any form of human declaration. Words, traffic signs, and musical notes, for instance, become signs by designation.
Furthermore, images reveal their objects directly and even indirectly. The revelation is direct with respect to the objects' visible features and indirect with respect to the rest. From the image of a dinosaur, anyone can directly know its colors, size and shapes. And if you ever happened to be a naturalized citizen of Jurassic Park, the same image can serve as an indirect reminder of how they smell, sound, feel and taste. By contrast, pure signs make their objects known only indirectly. A person encountering the word dinosaur for the first time will never know from the word alone what it represents until he bothers to find out what linguists intended it for. And even after finding out, the word dinosaur will always remain as an indirect signal for him to retrieve from his memory whatever information on dinosaurs he had managed to store previously.
Naturally, there are gray areas here. For instance, nothing would prevent someone from using an image as the sign of something else entirely different from what it visually represents. In this case, a sign becomes a sign. The image of a bull, for example, immediately depicts a wild four-legged beast that some Spaniards love to play with. But we are all quite aware that the same image can remind us of Michael Jordan and company. Or, the image of a crocodile, which shows a large long-tailed tropical reptile, has been used since time immemorial to represent human beings with incredibly huge appetite. With diligence, however, all these gray cases can be reduced to the basic notion of image so they really pose no immediate obstacle to our analysis.
Finally, images themselves have several types. There are naturally occurring images such as reflections on mirrors, images forming in one's eyes, imagination or memory as a result of sensorial perceptions, identical twins, etc. There are also man-made or artificial images such as photographs, sculptures, and, of course, paintings. Paintings differ from photograph in the way the image is produced. And they differ from sculptures where the image is created using all three dimensions of the medium.
Forming Images of the Visible
This conceptual analysis on signs and images may appear excessive just to explain some pigments splattered on a piece of cloth. But its true relevance will become clear when we try to explain and elaborate on abstract painting, impressionism, cubism, fauvism, surrealism, expressionism and even vague concepts associated with modern paintings like self-expression, interpretation, emotional content, originality, creativity, taste, etc. For the time being, let us settle with the immediate consequences.
Painting is forming an image of an external visible object on a two dimensional surface using brushes and pigments. The image created is not the object itself but a sign of it. The image is constituted a sign immediately upon its formation and by the very mere fact of its formation. In other words, its signifying capacity is inherent and not an addition from outside. The image reveals the visible aspects of its object directly and the other aspects indirectly. Thus, seeing the painting is seeing the object. A painting is a vicarious visual experience of its object.
Forming images of his preys was surely the intention of the prehistoric caveman when he took his first steps in painting. His failure to produce perfect images could be attributed more to his ignorance on techniques rather than to lack of willingness or to desire for subjective interpretation. And such was the intention of other painters who came after him. Until, at one point in history, someone turned up and chose to paint pure signs alone. And then we got image problem.
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