Category Archives: art and science

In the Light of Knowledge

Joseph Wright of Derby, Sunset on the Coast near Naples, 1785

Joseph Wright of Derby, Sunset on the Coast near Naples

Artists have always been fascinated by light. Joseph Wright of Derby became famous for his ability to recreate the effects of light, illuminating faces and figures and scenes in a way that brought drama and interest to the subjects that he painted.

He is best known for his paintings of scenes such as The Orrery (“A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery in which a Lamp is put in place of the Sun” to give it its full title), and “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump”.

Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery

Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery

These paintings of scientific demonstrations are full of light and shadow and detail and drama. They show his interest in science and his keen observation of people and their reactions to what they saw.

It took a while for him to move past the relative intimacy of such scenes to the play of light and shadow on the larger landscape around him. An eruption of Vesuvius that he witnessed seemed to awake a sense of nature’s drama and the desire to paint it. Naturally he was drawn to the light.

You can see that in his sunset painting above.

The first thing you see is the light. Luminous, beautiful colours in the distance, framed by the darkness of the coming night, by the front-lit clouds lowering over the hills, by the sun lingering on hills and jutting points of land, and by coastal rocks just touched by the sunset light. The sun has already withdrawn its light from the rocky slope closest to you, and its darkness emphasizes the light over the sea.

Afterward you become aware of the scale and depth of the scene. You notice how far off the horizon seems, how close the rocky bluff. As you see more and more of the detail – trees on the distant ridge, a sailboat by the point, another boat far off in the distance, animals on the ridge closest to you – you see how small the living creatures are. They are dwarfed by the land, sea and sky that surround them.

And you wonder what he thought – did he contemplate the contradiction between the scientific advances of his time, the sense of growing knowledge that fed the idea of controlling the natural world, and the perception that we are, in the end, small and powerless in the face of the forces of nature?


You can see more of his work in this video from  laoniricArte1 

Winter’s Light

Karl Bodmer, Confluence of the Fox River and the Wabash, Watercolor, 1832

Karl Bodmer, Confluence of the Fox River and the Wabash, Watercolor, 1832

It’s about this time of year, when winter knocks at the door to be let in and winter light already casts its influence over the landscape.

Outside the town of New Harmony, where the Wabash River and the Fox River meet, dying trees trailing vines rise from swampy land and cattle come to the rivers to drink.  The light is soft, the sun’s rays long.  They make even the dying trees seem to glow with life.  The water looks soft and misty. Tree branches bare of leaves make lacy patterns among the cypresses.  The trees in the distance are softly silhouetted against a glowing sky.

Karl Bodmer painted this ‘Confluence of the Fox River and the Wabash’ in early December, in 1832.  He was a visitor to the continent and the region, a Swiss artist contracted to accompany the famous naturalist Prince Maximilian of Weid-Neuwied from Germany to America and record what he saw there.

He traveled with and without Prince Maximilian.  With him he traveled from Boston through Pittsburgh and down the Ohio River to Mount Vernon, Indiana before arriving at New Harmony.  There he left the prince, and traveled on his own to New Orleans.

Along the way he painted the scenery he saw, the artefacts he found, the Native Americans he met.  After he returned to Europe he had many of the scenes he had recorded reproduced as aquatints, and many of these were incorporated into the book Prince Maximilian wrote about his travels.  Bodmer had done his work well – even now it is recognized for its great accuracy.

And in this case, it’s beauty.

I wonder, is it so beautiful there still?

The Art of Changes

Lately I’ve been spending some time looking at the works of Anish Kapoor and Janet Echelman.  On the surface these artists don’t seem to have much in common, but the pieces I’m drawn to, Kapoor’s mirrors and Echelman’s fibre installations, have similarities.

There are the empty spaces in the works – at the edges of Kapoor’s mirrors, in the layers and the holes of Echelman’s nets.  There is the way they reflect and are affected by the environment.  Most interestingly, there is the way they draw those who see their works into being part of the work, interacting with it.  There is the fact that in both cases the work is based on movement and change.

But they also approach their work quite differently.  Echelman is drawn to make the choreography of the wind visible – the wind dances with and changes her creations, moulding the forms she creates into new shapes.  Kapoor’s mirrors play with curves, reflections and people’s perceptions, changing the shape of what is seen as well as being changed by everything that moves around them – from lights to plants to clouds to birds to people.

You can see Janet Echelman’s windblown sculptures here, and if you just want a taste you can see a video of one of her pieces, Her Name is Patience, which includes people’s reactions to it here.  You can see some of the architectural/public art projects of Anish Kapoor here, including his work with  mirrors.  Or you can take a look at Sea Mirror here, or at Cloud Gate here.

I hope you enjoy their work too.

Where Art and Science Meet.

Art and science are normally thought of as being very separate entities.  Yet there are many areas in which art and science come together, and visualization is one of them.  This past week I came across two separate things that showed how important visualization can be – from understanding our hominid ancestors to seeing sound.

In an article on Wired Science, Brandon Keim writes about the 3D renderings of  hominids created by paleoartist Viktor Deak, with pictures of the very lifelike creatures he creates and a little bit about the way he uses computers and animation to help him.

On TEDtalks Evan Grant demonstrates cynatics, a process for making sound waves visible in patterns that seem to be already present in nature, and in work much older than our own era.  It is interesting the think about where and how these sound created patterns already entered our consciousness, and the way they might have been created.

Whose Shoulders Do We Stand On?


“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Isaac Newton.

Newton acknowledged that his revolutionary theories found their roots in the work of others. Building knowledge is a cumulative process, and the results, for better or for worse, accumulate around us. As knowledge becomes accepted more widely then human ideas lead to human creations that become objects and concepts we integrate into our lives.

It’s a good thing we never have to start from scratch. Consider the difficulties – we would have no home, no clothes, no farming, no way of cooking – nothing we did not create ourselves. Should we find time for creating images, we artists would have to make our colours from earth and clay and plants, and paint on rocks or other natural surfaces. Writers would have to tell stories instead of write them, carry their stories with them to share with one or two or a few instead being able to send their words in books or files around the world. Because every one of these things and many, many others we take for granted were created by someone else who developed them based on knowledge developed by someone else before them, starting at a time so long ago and in a place so far from here that we find it hard to imagine a world in which such knowledge and skills did not exist. We stand and build our lives on the shoulders of many, many who have gone before, whether or not we acknowledge it.

Why would I bring this up? Because we so often ignore the fact that we are nothing without all the things that those who came before us learned and passed on. We would not even be able to read this if someone else had not invented the alphabet we use – never mind enjoy the benefits of printing, books, computers. Counting would be pretty difficult too, if others had not figured out how to do it and then how to write down numbers. Someone had to figure out how to measure things, draw maps and charts to guide others, make the wheel – never mind engines. The list goes on and on.

What kind of people created the many things we take for granted? We will never know about the lives of many of the early inventors and explorers, but we can be sure that they were people who observed, learned, explored, analysed, created. Perhaps they had to create new things to survive; perhaps they invented new things to meet a need; perhaps they simply enjoyed the pleasure of achieving a new understanding, finding new way of doing things.

In the end, I’m not sure that their motivation matters. But I do think we owe it to all who have struggled to understand and to create to treat the gifts of knowledge they have left us with respect, to acknowledge them, use them well and add, if we can, our own little bit to the store. For those who will stand on our shoulders.

Arts and Sciences – two sides of the same coin?

Mae Jemison: On teaching arts and sciences together

Who better to talk about the arts and sciences, what connects them and why they need to be taught together, to be re-integrated with each other in popular culture than someone who embodies that integration? Mae Jemison is an astronaut, a doctor, an art collector, and a dancer. Her words come from experience, knowledge, and thoughtful analysis. Of all the words she spoke, these particularly caught my attention:

“Science provides an understanding of a universal experience, art provides a universal understanding of a personal experience.”

What Would Leonardo Be?


What Would Leonardo Be?

One of my joys has been poring through the parts of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks that have been printed. Full of intricate diagrams, observations and theories, they give some insight into a man who was both scientist and artist.

Then today I opened the twice-weekly letter from Robert Genn to find him exploring a subject near to my heart – the idea that scientists and artists are not separate species, but have much in common. He began by talking about Frank Oppenheimer’s Exploratorium . To quote Robert:

“Frank Oppenheimer believed that artists and scientists were cut from the same cloth, destined to be the sensitive eyes and ears of mankind and the creators of human progress.”

Much has been written on the subject, and examinations of the processes by which great scientists and great artists have reached beyond the known to open new areas to exploration certainly seem to suggest that they have much in common.

Breakthroughs are based on both width and depth of knowledge, exploration, categorization, experimentation and a rigorous method for assessing the new knowledge gained. And an ability to know what matters, and what should be put aside.

Those are the broader themes. On the personal level, it seems to me that the links between the artist and the scientist include the ability to visualize, to see patterns, to weed out unnecessary distractions, and to play with ideas and concepts both consciously and unconsciously.

Like Leonardo. Or Einstein. Or Frank Oppenheimer.