by Alice R. Cathrall

What visual information do we gather to pass through our days?

I am studying art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in Philadelphia, and a significant amount of what we do is learn how to identify what about an object is important to communicate through our art.

For instance, you and I have evolved to see and comprehend information in survival mode. We quickly grasp contours of shapes that could impact our future in a very significant way. If we saw a silhouette of a T-Rex on the horizon, we would end up being lunch for the beast if we did not quickly identify the shape as one very dangerous lunch companion. We would react without ever noticing the brilliant green eyes or delicate chartreuse tone of the hands. The sharp lines of the image would be all the information we would need.

On the other hand, consider the flat silhouettes of our political candidates projected by intensely packed dots of color on a plasma screen. We all know we need to gather more information to act than what those simple images project. And, to further complicate our modern experience, we are constantly bombarded with images telling us what to think and what to buy. We record images quickly.

Often at first glance, we "see" very basic information. We don’t notice the beautiful shapes and colors of people and our environment. How to clearly see the beauty in the world is something I am trying to inculcate in my information-gathering experience when creating art. It is something I would like to share with you.

To get started, just look at nearby buildings. Notice not just an outline of a square, but think of the three dimensionality of the cube. See the way the roof line recedes, slanting to the horizon.

Imagine the interior walls and corridors. See the way the sunlight casts shadows on the façade. It is not just white limestone and grey shadow, but warm yellow and cool purples and greens. Look for colorful masses that exist as light and dark shapes, and the white and grey square becomes something more beautiful and real in your visual experience.

It is wonderful to learn to see beyond what we need to see to merely survive in our world. I am going to try to use these skills to study figures. One of the images I am thinking of using is the mature female nude. I am also thinking of giving the mature male nude equal time as the object of my gaze, but that is an entirely different tangent.

And why not? Just think of the elegance of the mature figure.

The human figure is the most complicated organic form. It is, therefore, a universally time-honored compositional subject. The mature body represents the spectacular, ephemeral beauty of the human form and the elusive personality and experience of the individual subject.

There is a neglected beauty to explore in these subjects. If you start to explore the simple beauty in architecture, imagine the beauty to be found in the warm colors of the cheeks and the cool green of the receding cheek bones, or the orange and blue of the fingers, and the legs swathed in a blur of mauve.

Alice Ray Cathrall is an artist living in Philadelphia. She recently retired as an executive vice president for a multinational reinsurance company. She previously wrote about quitting her job and enrolling in art school.

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  • Mary Anne Morgan February 28, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Yeah! The older I get the more beautiful I look in the mirror…I am loosing my eyesight with age! It’s a blessing in this regard.

    Alice, please contact me about finialized details for Sterling’s art show. Hope your eyes will be 20/20 for judging the event!

    Mary Anne