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Notebook

Notebook, 1993-

ELEMENTS

Contour

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To turn round . . . . Outline . . . . The representation of the outline or boundary line of something . . . . The shape, form or structure formed from line . . . .To delineate . . . .The forming line, furrow, ridge . . . . conforming to or fitting the form of . . . .

In Regard to the Contour Line . . . .
A purist would insist that there are no lines in nature, not even in a single hair--only contours, horizons--rejecting the fact that the visual system tends to see contours as linear percepts. According to the Gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, percepts give us general sensory categories or qualities, significant structural patterns that stand for the particular stimulus material out there in time, space, and light. We see, for instance, "dog-ness" rather than the "raw material" dog, as such. We assimilate the stimulus "apple" as a pattern of general sensory qualities: "roundness," "solidness," "greenness" (or "redness," as the case may be). "Squareness" seems to come with the stimulus square drawn on the paper or blackboard; and so on. Paraphrasing the old saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees, Arnheim seems to be telling us that, if some incredible type of thinking isn't going on in the whole visual apparatus, the "forest" of the world would be an even more confused panorama than it is! Which leads Arnheim to declare that "eyesight is insight." Meaning that perceiving is a spontaneous type of thinking, a formation of perceptual concepts--not concepts in the usual application of the term (that is, ideas, theories, spectral entities), but in a creative activity of the mind, a thinking with forms, shapes, images. So then, "representational concepts," as Arnheim calls them, are an extension of this into the medium itself, whatever its properties may be (that of pencil, paint, glass, stone, wood, metal, and so forth), in the process of creating a work of art . . . .

The most common means of describing shape, plane, and form is the line, a vital element that both children and adults use as though instinctively. More than one authority has stressed the primacy of outline in the way the eye actually perceives form. Many people seem to have a more immediate grasp of two-dimensional images than of three-dimensional images, especially in this age of the printed page, photographs, television and cinema screens, where forms and shapes are apt to be seen at a distance, in rapid succession, out of the corner of the eye and in haste.

In earlier times, most images in the social environment were three-dimensional and made by hand The unerring strength and authority of Egyptian, African, and pre-Columbian objects testify to the time, patience, and skill that went into their formation . . . .

But line, because it is so active, tends to create forms that are themselves rather passive in character. Their interest often lies more at their edges than at their centers, from which energy is usually expected to assert itself.

The term outline would have more significance if used along with its functional opposite, inline. The two together would foster a more lively appreciation of the internal and external forces at work between form (or shape) and environment.

If there remains any doubt concerning the ability of line to represent the conjuncture of form (or shape), space, and movement, the student-artist may start this series of studies by using line to record his or her experience of an interior.



Outlines & Inlines If it is true that a mere point may appear to lie not on a surface, but "behind" or in front of it, it is even truer of line. It would be true of a line placed vertically or horizontally to the sides or top and bottom of a square or rectangular area and to the implied lines that describe a fictive cross at the center of such areas. It would be especially true of a diagonal line placed on a surface: Such a line would appear immediately to project forward and backward in depth: the surface would seem to give way to pictorial space, to some kind of perspectival space.

Moreover, when a line turns around upon itself, as in a loop, it creates a shape, a figure, and becomes outline. The figure so created will assume a curious density and relatively stable position in space. We speak of a figure--ground relationship, but this relationship should be understood as something more than that of an inert shape superimposed on an inactive background. If, instead of always thinking of delineated shape as outline, we could persuade ourselves on occasion to see it as inline, we may move with greater speed toward recognition of dynamic interactions, give-and-take between forms and spaces. [ . . . . aren't all line drawings of open mouths, holes, caves, and the like really "inline" drawings?]

Rudolf Arnheim, in his book Art and Visual Perception, says that "all percepts [specific patterns of general sensory qualities] are dynamic--that is, are described best as configurations of forces . . . . A 'figure' is not just a bounded area that lies on top. It spreads outward, pushing into and over the ground."

We must prepare ourselves to recognize systems of internal and external forces. Since the final years of the last century, artists, designers, and architects have shown increasing interest in form/space interactions, and, because they are so versatile, lines and planes have been employed with great frequency to define them--witness but a few of the hundreds of exploratory diagrams and sketches by Cubists, Constructivists, Suprematists, and Bauhaus artists and architects and their many contemporary descendants......

[Vision & Invention, An Introduction to Art Fundamentals. Harlan, Calvin. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986.]



Hard and Soft Contours
Hard and soft contours also influence the disposition of a shape in space. Hard outlining tends to cut the shape away from the ground, causing it to assume a forward position, as though overlapping the ground physically. Soft edges tend to yield to the ground and the space around them; they establish a more open relationship. Yet, there are situations in which very closely related colors and values, which normally slide in and out of one another with ease, require the use of hard-edge shapes for purely structural reasons. Without them, the design would break down into mere atmospheric effects.

Artists have always been fascinated by finely tuned relationships of positive and negative areas in designs, and none more so than those known and unknown artists who painted the elegant forms, patterns, and movements on ancient Greek vases--none excepting quite a number of Renaissance artists (Piero della Francesca and Sandro Botticelli come to mind immediately), certain Baroque artists (Poussin), certain nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists (Ingres, Puvis de Chavannes, Degas, Matisse, Picasso, Braque, Motherwell, and Ellsworth Kelly), all of whom surely gave more than a passing glance at Classical art. Matisse, in his cut-paper designs, and Picasso and Braque, in their prints, designs, drawings, and paintings, inveigle the viewer into looking with almost equal interest at the shape of the background spaces as at the figures themselves. Indeed, the viewer is almost forced to participate in the contest of equals. Many Cubist works challenge the observer to a game of simultaneity. Braque liked to present both the front and the profile of a face in one and the same image. In order to see it, the eye must focus first on one, then on the other aspect. It cannot focus on both at the same instant, nor pass easily from one to the other as in pre-modern art . . . .

[Vision & Invention, An Introduction to Art Fundamentals. Harlan, Calvin. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1986. [contours] [pg. 158]


R  E  F  E  R  E  N  C  E  S 
Contour n [F, fr. It contorno, fr. contornare to round off, fr. ML, to turn around, fr. L com- + tornare to turn on a lathe --more at TURN] [1662] 1. an outline esp. of a curving or irregular figure: SHAPE, also: the line representing this outline 2. the general form or structure of something: CHARACTERISTIC --often used in pl. [__s of a melody] [to delineate the tortured psychological __s of the tribal past -B.J. Phillips] 3. a usu. meaningful change in intonation in speech. -syn. see OUTLINE.

2 Contour adj [1844] 1. following contour lines or forming furrows or ridges along them [__flooding] [__ farming] 2. made to fit the contour of something [a __ couch] [__ sheets]

3 Contour vt [1871] 1a. to shape the contour of b: to shape so as to fit contours 2: to construct [as a road] in conformity to a contour.

[Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition. Springfield, MA, USA: Merriam-Webster, Inc. 1995.]




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