Finding the right balance between two seemingly opposing ideas is often the solution to artistic problems in representational painting. Focusing on one idea without engaging its opposing idea, for example, sometimes creates results that are too simplistic, lacking in the complexity that is inherent in Nature. Indeed, it is this tension, or ambiguity, between seemingly opposing ideas,which is often the life-blood of artistic creativity when it comes to representational painting.
Take for example the painters concept of “edges”. Edges, and the manipulation of them, are one of the key elements in representational painting. In representing nature, there exists a continuing tension between “sharp, edgy contrast” and “atmospheric space” when it comes to representing form. On the one hand, form has boundaries. Such boundaries differentiate one body from the next, one mass from the next. However to represent form in space, and thus mass in Nature, there needs to be created a sense of atmosphere and airiness around the form to make the form seem dimensional. Manipulating the edges of a painted form achieves this. The tension lies here: to over blur or manipulate the edges of a form obliterates the perception of it as a solid object. To ignore the attenuation of the edges creates forms that look “cut out”. Solidity is verified, but there is a falseness as the form does not inhabit the space around it. A balance must be struck in the manipulation of the edges of form. The balancing act is struck through the “action” of painting the edge: one can simply drag a brush through an edge to soften, but more importantly, the control of edges comes by the more complex action of painting the edge: to hold the edge in theory and create masses that conform to one another as they approach each other — in terms of value and color. This action creates a sense of atmospheric space. (See John Carlson, Landscape Painting) As such, a mass may conform in value and color as it approaches the edge-boundary between itself and an adjacent mass without actually obliterating the edge completely, which would thus obliterate the form. Here in lies the ambiguity. Herein is the “action of painting”.
Another example involves local color and our perception of it. In determining strategies for color choices for any given object, there is a tension between distinct “local” color, and “spectral” color theory. Neither consideration in and of itself is a satisfactory solution. But both considerations are inseparable from the other for a satisfactory solution. Consider local color. Any object, for example an apple, has a local color. Suppose an apple is a deep rich red. However, this same apple has all the colors of the spectrum shot through its local color: red, yellow and blue. Thus, if one were to simply apply red paint so as to accurately represent the red apple, the solution would be too monochromatic. Necessary is a modicum, perhaps, of yellow and blue added to the representation: perhaps the shadow has some yellow reflected light, or perhaps the turn of the form creates a bluish haze on the form as it turns. Yet again, a balance must be struck, because to over do this would detract from the local color and take away from the richness of the color. A balance must be struck between two different ways of seeing color: spectral and monochromatic. The same could be said with respect to floating the compliment into a color mass: the compliment may be there, but to over do would render gray.
Thus we can see that the balance between two seemingly opposite ways of thinking is a necessary element to good creative execution in representational painting: the balance creates a good tension between polarities that must resolved. Indeed, it is “living within this ambiguity” that we can find desirable solutions to artistic problems. Even though we are using a tube of paint, our solutions do not come “out of the tube”, as it were. We have to learn to enjoy exploring seemingly opposite ideas. We must co-mingle opposite ideas with each other if we want to create convincing representations of the complexity and beauty of the world around us.