Abstracting from reality …


In a recent post, I mused on the blurred boundaries between “representation” and “abstraction” when applied to the microscopic world (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition (2)”.  These reflections sent me back to one of our earliest winners, Mario Sironi’s image of a Southern Right Whale swimming through an algal bloom (see “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition”), to test these thoughts.  My reflections were mostly concerned with the microscopic world; that Mario’s image deals with one of the largest organisms on earth just helps to make the point.  At the heart of representational art lies the ability of an independent viewer to relate a two dimensional image to a “sense impression” (or “schemata”) lodged in their mind.   That means that if the viewer does not have the same schemata as the artist, then an image that was intended by the artist as representational will not be recognised as such.  The artist usually assumes that viewers will possess a catalogue of such schemata that are broadly similar to his or her own.

Most people who depict the natural world – whether by photographs or other media – confine themselves to the macroscopic and the obvious.  This means that there is a strong chance that the viewer will possess the appropriate schemata and both “recognise” the image and make appropriate mental connections that allow viewers to add layers of context in order to interpret a picture.   A picture of a lamb, for example, should be recognisable as a juvenile stage of Ovis aries.  This, in turn, may be used by the artist to suggest an interpretation.  To a 16th or 17th century viewer, a lamb included in a portrait of a child suggests youthful innocence: an interpretation that may be lost on a modern viewer who sees, simply, a child with a lamb, but lacks the mental connections to read more deeply into the image.

When the microscopic world is used as subject matter, the distinctions begin to blur yet further – the images themselves might be “realistic” but still not be recognisable by the lay viewer, and the reduced number of mental connections will limit the ways in which the picture is interpreted yet further.   One person’s “representation” can become someone else’s “abstract” image.   The idea in the painting above is to take an image that is representational – most people would recognise that two whales formed the focal point – and then to “nudge” it over the border into abstraction.   The interplay between the greens and the blues of the water brought to mind some of Mark Rothko’s juxtapositions of colour.   The whales and their attendant foam could, in turn, be reduced to a few lines of black and white paint, providing a focal point for the canvas that sets it apart from Rothko’s signature style.   In retrospect, I could probably push the image a little further towards abstraction than this experiment …

I see antecedents for this work in Piet Mondrian’s explorations of the boundary between realism and abstraction around 1912.  He painted a whole series of images of trees that gradually, over time, were stripped back from recognisable Post-Impressionistic landscapes to a point where form was asserted over content, the palette was reduced and, eventually, the schemata of a “tree” disappeared altogether.

My point is that the boundary between “realism” and “abstraction” is not a fixed point, but depends upon our own sensory experiences.   Those of us who portray the world of microscopic algae need to remember this.  Perhaps the same argument can be posited for the boundary between “representation” and the “other worlds” theme that I mentioned in my earlier posts?   Again, we need to consider our audience: my aim in my paintings and in these posts is to convey some of the wonders of the natural world that most people overlook.   The question we need to ask is whether we are fulfilling this role as ambassadors for the hidden world of algae if most of our audiences are just seeing shapes and patterns?


Gombrich, E.H. (1960).  Art and Illusion.   A Study in the Psychology of Pictorial Representation.   Phaidon Press, London.

John Tunnard: Nature, Politics and Science


The DLI Musem and Art Gallery in Durham, August 2015

I’ve written about my interests in the borderlands between science and art several times before (see ““Imagined” but not “imaginary”” amongst other posts) so an exhibition entitled “John Tunnard: Nature, Politics and Science” at our local art gallery is not something that I can ignore.   The exhibition, at the DLI Gallery, is an overview of the career of John Tunnard, a modernist painter active during the middle of the 20th century, and the relevance to a blog that focuses on algae is that the exhibition was curated by, and contains many  paintings owned by, my PhD supervisor, Brian Whitton.


John Tunnard: Nature, Politics and Science at the DLI Museum and Art Gallery, August 2015

Tunnard worked in a variety of styles, but the picture below is a good summary of his work, which often hovers on the borderlands between realism and abstraction.   There are identifiable elements within the painting (the sea on the right hand side, a moon suspended in a night sky towards the centre?) but also abstract shapes that veer towards surrealism (though, apparently, Tunnard himself did not formally associate himself with this movement).   Other pictures include references to the natural world, particularly around his home in Cornwall but, again, he pushes our expectations of what this natural world looks like, teasing us with alternative, more abstract, realities. In Cliff Tops, amongst near-recognisable flowers, we see a rock formation that bears an uncanny resemblance to the head of a whale.   Does this borderland between realism, imagination and abstraction exist in the head of the artist or the viewer, or does it depend on a synergy between the two?   Or is it out there, all the time, just waiting for an open mind to approach it?


John Tunnard: Holiday, 1947, lithograph, 42 x 68 cm.

In his later paintings his interest in science branches out and space motifs, in particular, start to appear in his paintings. The parabolic bowl of a satellite earth station dominates some whilst one painting, from 1969, shows moon craters. This brings the issue of realism and the imagination into sharp focus: before the Apollo missions, we had ideas about the moon; from 1969, lunar landscapes had a reality against which the efforts of an artist could be verified.   As is often the case, abstraction and reality are not mutually exclusive; perception and experience play a part in determining the limits which, consequently, can vary from person to person, and from subject to subject.

The exhibition runs until 4 October 2015


Peat, A. & Whitton, B.A. (1997).   John Tunnard: His Life and Work. Scolar Press, Aldershot.

Whitton, B.A. (2015). John Tunnard: Nature, Politics and Science. Exhibition Catalogue, DLI Museum and Art Gallery, Durham.

Abstraction and reality in Upper Teesdale

Just before Christmas I wrote about a visit to Upper Teesdale to collect desmids (see “Hunting for desmids in Upper Teesdale”) and mentioned that I was working towards a painting.   That painting is now finished and is reproduced below.   The style of this painting is quite to the other pictures I’ve been working on recently, drawing on ideas I explored during the final year of my Fine Art degree.   I was interested, during this period, in exploring the boundaries between figurative and abstract art and found algae to be an ideal resource for this investigation.   To me, they are living organisms with defined parameters yet they are beyond the boundaries of most people’s sense of reality.   “Most people” included my tutors and this led to some challenging discussions about just how far I could alter the shapes and colours I was using.   They felt that I was too rigid and unwilling to push my artistic experiments too far. In many ways they were right but there were also times when I felt that they were asking me to do the phycological equivalent of drawing a cow with five legs.


Upper Teesdale. 2015. 86 x 91 cm. Acrylic on canvas,

The picture shows five different desmids that I collected from Upper Teesdale in December.   To me, these organisms are as much a characteristic of the area as the more famous gentians (see “Blue skies and blue flowers in Upper Teesdale”) and to present them in an context that evokes abstract art emphasises the lack of familiarity that most of the visitors to this area has to these organisms.

The lower picture shows a close-up of some of the desmids in the picture, to show how the painting was built up as a series of washes of very dilute acrylic paint over a white ground, with the details of the desmid blocked out in stages using masking fluid. The result is a “negative” image of each of the desmids. The final stage of the painting was to use a syringe to add translucent trails of paint thinned with acrylic gloss medium to give a translucent effect that imparts some visual energy into the finished picture.

You can see more work on this general theme at http://www.martynkelly.co.uk/other_paintings.html.


Upper Teesdale. Detail.