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Eye and I

Drawn 1999/11/15 by Wayan

In February 1998 I visited San Francisco's De Young Museum where I stumbled on a small but amazing show by Peter Milton, a draftsman & printmaker. His hallucinatorily detailed work achieves a great range of textures, and manages to subtly define figures and images clearly, even in moody, shadowy, low-contrast areas; and it's all done without color.

Detail of a grayscale print by Peter Milton. Click to enlarge.
Interiors VI: Soundings (1989), Peter Milton (detail: self-portrait, lower right)

The day I visited, he happened to be there, demonstrating his technique. I asked him "Why do you omit color? Wouldn't it help you separate figures where contrast is low?"

He told me "I HAVE to do without color. I'm colorblind." He suspected his precise, heightened sense of value was probably a compensation--like the sonar sense heightened in the blind.

Now, my visual world is organized by color--light and dark, shape and texture are all background to me. So Milton was a revelation for me, showing how much could be done with value alone--if I could keep color from elbowing its way back into my visual foreground and hiding it!

Until I met Milton, I hadn't realized it was possible to be grayscale-blind! And I think I qualify--marginally at least.

Not to say that I'd never worked in grayscale--for example, the epic dream Fishergirls was drawn and shaded in pencil, and only later tinted digitally.

Two catgirls dancing with a huge flying fish; scene from 'Fishergirls'; dream drawing by Wayan
Out of the Fish-Trap! Dance for Joy! 1996
Catgirls fighting off a hungry sea-serpent; scene from 'Fishergirls'; dream drawing by Wayan
Our Fears of Dragons, 1997

But the pages of Fishergirls both early and late are all basically line work strongly defining figures in action; I rely on high contrast or even a total absence of background so those figures stand out clearly. My default was always a white page with firmly outlined figures & objects. It's complex, realistic cartooning, but still cartooning.

In contrast, Miltonian drawing allows a full palette of backgrounds--his creatures swim in darkness as readily as light. That allows him a wider palette of moods.

So In 1999 I took a series of drawing classes focusing on black & white media, especially pencil and charcoal. Eye and I was a deliberate Miltonian experiment. Classmates and teachers liked it--it ended up on the cover of a college magazine--but I'm not proud of it; if I drew it today, I'd make a flowing, overlapping stream of figures and faces and recognizable things, probably dreams, instead of these unemotional geometric shapes--the only bit I like now is the highly Miltonian reflection of me in the pupil.

A huge eye full of abstract shapes and the artist reflected in the pupil; pencil drawing by Wayan
But even in this geometric experiment, you can see that I'm starting to learn a technique I could later use in service of more emotionally charged images.

Well, not technique, really. Pencil is pencil. The shift isn't in doing but seeing. I'm clumsily learning to choose what I see--in this case, value (art-jargon for "light and dark").

More than that, really. Most people I've asked seem to organize their visual world around shapes defined by value not color. That's not just a human thing; most mammals do. Intense color sensitivity (and a wider color range than humans see) is common in birds, fish and bugs, but not mammals.

So, in a way, I think I was striving to learn normal vision--trying, by effort of will, to simulate typical mammalian sight! Or as close as I could get--despite a powerful (probably genetic) predisposition to see more like a crow, a salmon, a dinosaur, or a bee.

Which I still do. But it's easier now for me to focus on seeing line or value or mass or negative space... or color. By choice, not predisposition.

I'll never be a facile artist; my native way of seeing is just too different from my human audiences. But learning to shift how I see, to put on Milton's greyscale glasses... it did help.



LISTS AND LINKS: artists & the arts - art experiments - pencil - eyes & vision - color - light & darkness - Milton, Peter

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