About Optical Art

It seems to me that ‘Optical Art’ is about using fundamental psychological and mathematical principles that inform the way we interpret the universe, to create what – I hope – are beautiful and interesting pictures.

Triangle 3
“Triangle” by Chris Tucker, 1968 – One thousand painted cubes of wood, cut and glued, making a 3D effect. Dimensions are 60″ x 60″ inches / 153 x 153cms

Physicists Hawking and Mlodinow wrote in their book ‘The Grand Design’ (page 46), published by Bantam Press in 2010:

In vision, one’s brain receives a series of signals down the optic nerve. Those signals do not constitute the sort of image you would accept on your television. 

There is a blind spot where the optic nerve attaches to the retina, and the only part of your field of vision with good resolution is a narrow area about 1 degree of visual angle around the retina’s centre, an area the width of your thumb when held at arm’s length.

And so the raw data sent to the brain are like a badly pixilated picture with a hole in it. Fortunately, the human brain processes that data, combining the input from both eyes, filling in the gaps on the assumption that the visual properties of neighbouring locations are similar and interpolating.

Moreover, it reads a two-dimensional array of data from the retina and creates from it the impression of three dimensional space. The brain, in other words, builds a mental picture or model”

Optical Art takes this “assumption that the visual properties of neighbouring locations are similar and interpolating” and creates images, that do not have these properties or the sub-conscious expected psychological baggage of ‘reality’ (chairs, people, books, television, trees, et al) and confuses this assumption.

By using geometry, number series, colour theory and artistic intuition, Optical pictures can, at the same time, be alluring, disturbing, exciting and intrigue the viewer. Their appreciation is not a function of history, culture, education or context, but they do say to the viewer:

“What are you looking at? Why do I move? Why am I disturbing you? Why do I keep your attention?”

‘Optical Art’ provides a counterpoint and juxtaposition to the way some realities are presented in a Photoshop, special effect, technology driven world.

Click here to see some of my 3Dimensional  artworks and Optical Art Objects.

The art to observe

Giotto di Bondone (c. 1267 – January 8, 1337), better known simply as Giotto, was an Italian painter and architect from Florence in the late Middle Ages. He is generally considered the first in a line of great artists who contributed to the Italian Renaissance in particular and art in the western world in general.  cropped-20170131_151406

The late-16th century biographer Giorgio Vasari says of Giotto: “He made a decisive break with the crude traditional Byzantine style, and brought to life the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life, which had been neglected for more than two hundred years.”

Now what has this to do with what is euphemistically known as Optical Art?

We need to start with a quote from Giotto’s biographer “the technique of drawing accurately from life”. In order to draw life ‘accurately’, the artist had to learn new ways to observe, how to really look at the world about him, how to ask the right visual questions. The Genie was out of the bottle – the artist became free to develop his own interpretation of his universe; not the interpretation once determined by the ruling religious rich of the day.

Thus began a great tradition of objective observation and accurate rendering of ideas, people and events that not only gave us great art, but contributed significantly to the development of science, medicine and philosophy.

Uccello, Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Michael Angelo and of course Leonardo da Vinci are fine examples of how this new approach to observing ‘life’ resulted in what is acknowledged today as truly ‘Great’ Art.

And so, as the centuries rolled by, painters became more and more adept at presenting the reality of a three dimensional world, onto a two dimensional surface. But most painting was still the result of patronage, and art continued to be a method by which society made a visual historical record of the world and its societies.

Then two forces came together to change the world of art:

  1. The Industrial Revolution – where the number of people who were middle class grew exponentially larger and the working classes seized greater political power.
  2. The invention and wide spread use of the stills camera closely followed by the moving image camera.

The artist was free to explore the infinite possibilities of the image and so ‘Modern Art’ was born. Some argue, and I tend to agree, that it was Gauguin, Cezanne and Monet that were the precursors of Modern Art and revolutionised painting, and together with the changing nature of society at the end of the nineteenth century, helped free the artist from the artistic constraints of history.

Artists began to explore many visual ideas; Braque and Picasso with Cubism (a particularly interesting exploration into the problem of three dimensional representations); Seurat with Pointillism; Chirico, Dali, Magritte with Surrealism; and later in the 1960’s – Optical Art (which interestingly never became an ‘ism’) represented, amongst others by two legendary artists – Bridget Riley and Victor Vasarely.

It seems to me that Optical Art explores the fundamental basic visual information that informs the way we see the universe. The ‘tricks’ used to portray depth and movement in such ‘optical’ images are all about us in nature and science. The waving in the wind of wheat fields, flocks of Flamingo’s flying from a lake, the dynamics of the DNA helix, modern architecture and even the stars above.

We have now moved into a world whose description and analysis of the universe is, by technological necessity, being defined in mathematical and subsequently digital terms. This is particularly true of the visual image. We can look at a large printed sheet of a binary code, and with only a little imagination, believe we are looking at a Bridget Riley picture.

Using simple mathematical/geometrical series, along with logical colour and tone changes it is possible to create images that have apparent movement and/or a three dimensional appearance. These phenomena are present in most paintings, drawings or prints (although they may not have been considered in their creation), and they are self evident in printed matter, television and other digitally created images.

In fact, the digital image is now entirely ubiquitous; TV & Cinema (now presenting ‘real 3D’ – Avatar, a recent block busting example), Video Games, Digital Camera, Advertising Hoardings and even printed matter. These images tend to make the viewer, particularly the under 30’s, visually ‘lazy’, and with the relentless pursuit of a perfect reality resulting in the ‘Photoshop’ phenomenon we can no longer be sure whether the image we see is accurate or true.

The ‘optical’ images I have created, introduces the viewer to a visual experience that demands an interaction with the image that I hope engenders a whole raft of emotions including aesthetic appreciation. The viewer is presented with a new way of viewing an image, and I hope encourages questions about what is being viewed. Is it actually a moving three dimensional image on a static two dimensional surface? Of course not, it’s all in the head! I hope that this encourages just a little scepticism in the way future images are perceived.

I think I have demonstrated that the journey to the creation of ‘optical art’ has a long and illustrious history involving many interpretations of art history, mathematics, science, psychoanalysis, psychology, politics, religion et al. And I haven’t even begun to discuss the influence of Islamic art on the optical illusion.

I hope my pictures are interesting, exciting, disturbing, emotional and above all aesthetically pleasing – enjoy!