Basic Visual Language
I decided to explain this in visual form because it’s so abstract
in words, and it seems as if we’re getting tripped on the concepts. So I’ve prepared some sketches and also some
scans of paintings & drawings to try and illustrate what I mean when I say, art is communication. And, that
there is a concrete, formal language that applies to the visual arts.
So – follow me!
Drat – that dragon is SUCH a pest – he crawls into everybody’s stewpot. But – let’s let him do his thing and talk about design, in its most basic terms. He’s been around a long time & he’s good at it.
Our first element is LINE. As you can see, lines can be thin, delicate, thick, wavy, ragged and jagged – lines can “say” just about anything people want them to say. In Persian carpets, line is an extremely important element. Patterns are often formed on several levels, purely by the use of line. And, Persian lines are frequently curvilinear in nature. In Caucasian carpets, line tends to be straighter, more geometric. In any case, how the artist draws his lines will COMMUNICATE AN IDEA through this visual medium.
Shape is our second element. As you can see, shapes can be geometric or curvy, jagged, leafy – for any idea in the human skull a shape can be conceived to communicate it. In carpet art, shape can take the form of delicate little leaves or huge, formidable arches. Again, the shapes are determined by the message the artist wants to express.
As we’ve discussed previously, some shapes – crosses for example, have a highly symbolic or even iconic – religious – significance. This can vary depending upon culture but it must be remembered that the shape itself has some significance to the subconscious mind, which is why it was adapted to iconographic use in the first place. A form like a cross, if seen in the twigs and grass, can mean – as Patrick has pointed out – that an animal or person has been there and it therefore can serve as a warning. Moon forms have especial importance to women, as our cycles are often timed in synchronization with the phases of the moon. Snakes are so powerful in the human imagination that they have come to represent the fall of Man. Dancers celebrating human fertility imitate them. In many agricultural environments they represent good luck because they eat rodents. They have a powerful double meaning: both as threat and as protector. Probably their powerful winged cousins evolved from simple serpents. The dog-headed serpent of an ancient form of religion practiced by some Kurdish people was thought to represent both good, in the form of the head – and evil, in the form of the body. This embodiment of two ideas in one shape is a form of dualism.
I’m spending quite a bit of time discussing shape here because, in carpet art, it is highly significant. Line is exquisitely well suited to drawing and writing but delicate, expressive lines are harder to do in carpets and are usually found in very fine city carpets. The beautiful Persian carpets I’ve illustrated exemplify the type. They really reflect more of a painter’s art, a designer’s art, than a straightforward weaving technique. Nevertheless they are expressive of their highly stylized and idealized visions of gardens and hunts – ideas that are frequently reinforced by script in the borders.
Most tribal and village weavings express considerably more of the warp/weft structure of their foundation, i.e., they are more geometric in nature. Formally this will mean a more aggressive statement, a composition that will convey energy and power rather than elegance and refinement.
Now space is also an extremely important concept in the visual arts, but especially in carpets. Essentially, no shape can exist without creating a space around it. In kilims, the shape/spaces literally interlock. The negative spaces form exact echoes of the positive spaces. We see this in pile work too, especially in many Anatolian and Caucasian rug borders, in which interlocking arrow-like shapes interact with each other. In East Turkestan rugs one often sees large, tri-lobed borders, again forming perfect interlocking shapes. In some Turkmen pile pieces, there appear to be shapes of elephants complimenting shapes of leaves, or sometimes, in certain white ground asmalyks, the white spaces can look like crouching people.
Frequently, this element is neglected and “space” becomes merely what is “left over” by lines and shapes. However, some artists concentrate on making the negative space very expressive, either as a compliment to the positive space or to actually carry another visual message. I’ll be including some pictures of pieces like this in the thread on Dualism, which I plan to introduce in a couple of days.
There has been a lot of argument on this board about the negative space idea, especially concerning Turkmen rugs. I think it deserves more study. Questions have arisen whether the “elephants” for example, were deliberately intended or exist more or less as an accident of design that occurred while producing the leaf. I don’t know. As I say, it’s an interesting question and the fact that many examples, particularly in painted works, can be found that DO utilize this sort of design, seems to lend some credibility to the theory.
Our next two elements - texture and pattern - are of course extremely important in Oriental rug design. Texture is impossible to ignore in rugs. It can be smooth and silky, velvety, shaggy – one of the great pleasures of this art form. It’s extremely important to Moroccan weavings that utilize bands of pile alternated with bands of flatweave. In this case it is an important design element. In other cases, it’s more or less a result of technique – long or short pile, good or bad wool, and so forth, and can help reinforce the carpet’s “statement” – i.e., shaggy Kazak, velvety expensive-feeling Turkmen.
Pattern, however, is one of the key elements we use in carpet attribution. It is also a subject which never fails to elicit much debate, as people like to argue where this or that pattern originated, how it evolved, so forth. For our purposes, we are not getting into that in this thread. We are going to discuss it from the standpoint of DESIGN LANGUAGE.
The element of pattern, like the other elements discussed in here, serves to help communicate an idea. Pattern can be endless repeats of tiny motifs or it can be one huge, empty field. Usually we are somewhere in between. Rows of botehs are an example of a pattern. The much discussed “herati” motif, when repeated, forms a pattern. A leopard’s spots form a pattern. The very complicated Persian designs will usually be found, upon dissection, to be repetitions of very large and complex patterns. Occasionally one will find that the one pattern covers the entire carpet. Directional designs, like prayer rugs, may include areas of pattern, such as the millefiore areas in Mughal rugs; similarly, a few Yomud pieces are known, which seem to be prayer rugs and are covered with designs that seem to have evolved from flatweaves.
Size and scale are obviously elements of design. Size per se is an absolute – the Pyramids are huge, the Athenian krater is small. Rugs of course can be large or small. This will affect all other aspects of the design – how patterns are adapted to fit, how many borders are used, etc.
Scale is, in the expressive sense, perhaps the more meaningful element in terms of rugs. Scale is the RELATIVE size of objects. In Caucasian rugs, many of the most admired types have relatively LARGE SCALE elements or patterns. They have bold, simple forms rather than tiny delicate ones. Variation of scale of course provides visual interest, is attractive to the eye. Too much variation can be confusing.
Principles, such as variation, alternation, repetition, contrast, balance, dominance, direction, ideas like “visual weight”, all come into play when an artist is designing a piece. One of the great challenges facing the weaver is that she must “see” the image before it is created. Painters can change their minds, to a greater or lesser extent – people working in transparent media like watercolors don’t have nearly as much leeway as people working in oils. Weavers working from cartoons don’t have to go through this process; a designer has done this work. They may have to solve certain technical problems, such as squaring up the design to fit a larger format, or choosing their own colors. In other cases, a person “sings” or “chants” the color changes – this I find fascinating. I assume the person “singing” is reading from a cartoon but some people have asserted this occasionally occurs in memory-based weaving as an aid to visual and “finger” memory.
Volume and Perspective are elements that really only apply, in the FORMAL sense, to three-dimensional objects – for example, sculpture and buildings. However, they are so important to Western art and occasionally APPEAR to occur in Oriental art, that I have included them here. In two-dimensional art – paintings, rugs, they are actually illusions that are created by techniques and, while they help express a statement or tell a story – i.e., COMMUNICATE THE ARTIST’S IDEA – I’m not going to discuss them further at this point.
Now we come to the element which some carpet scholars say is the one that counts first, last, and always: color. It is also the most difficult to master and understand from a formal standpoint. Fortunately there are many excellent works on the subject. For the artist, trial and error and practice and failure are the only real paths to mastery.
For our purposes we’ll just have a brief discussion of the three elements that in turn make up COLOR: hue, value and chroma.
Hue is the – well, it’s the red of the red, the blue of the blue. It’s the exact color of the color, if you will. There are millions of them and only in nature, in light, do colors look like the spectrum. Paint and dye pigments are not “pure” in the sense that light is pure. So, instead of a pure, red red, we have to deal with blue reds, orange reds, brown reds, so forth. Synthetic colors can actually provide the artist with a far broader range than the old vegetable and insect dyes, but the early ones were terrible – harsh, fugitive – and because of the sheer NUMBER of colors available to many weavers, who haven’t studied formal color theory, they can make choices not to our taste although many have wonderful eyes. In any case, color is of course one of the elements that can elicit great emotion in the viewer.
Chroma is the brightness of the hue. This is hard to grasp at first. Think of it this way, for simplification purposes: cool colors, like blues, tend to be duller than hot colors, like reds and yellows. Grays, browns, and other neutrals tend to be duller than most other hues. White can actually have a very intense and unsettlingly bright chroma – this can be good or bad, from a design standpoint. Similarly, subtle grays and browns can reinforce the strength – the brightness, the intensity – of reds and blues and greens. Masterful artists know how to make their colors work to reinforce each other and the overall composition of their piece. We should remember to divorce our value judgments when looking at work that at first might appear to be disturbing, i.e. some people automatically hate anything with bright pinks and oranges. Color is color – it doesn’t care how it got born!
Value is the lightness or darkness of a color. That’s probably not too hard to understand in principal but it can be frustrating in practice. The wrong color VALUE can screw up a composition as much as the wrong hue or chroma. All must work together to make the piece look good and be expressive – i.e., communicate.
Hopefully, this discussion is sharpening the eye and helping us talk DESIGN LANGUAGE. As you see, this is real, objective stuff! These are our tools.
As I mentioned above, the elements are governed by principles, such as contrast, balance, repetition, so forth. What drives the driver? Why, in other words, does an artist make a piece a particular way?
Art has many functions. It can be decorative; it can be religious. It can warn, it can protect. Essentially, though, art exists to communicate. To social animals like people, communication is absolutely a requirement for survival. Communication happens in art both deliberately – i.e., the artist chooses a set of symbols – maybe even words! – and paints them on a wall. Oriental artists frequently write messages on paintings or weave poems into rugs.
And, it can occur accidentally or unconsciously – a particular set of colors, a shape – are unintentionally evocative and the artist decides to leave them that way. We often teach ourselves by making mistakes and having accidents. Oriental artists, who work in sumi ink and watercolors, actually prize the accidents. It makes nature a partner in the work. Children’s art is often amazingly communicative. People making rugs from memory-based patterns might create a brand new design by forgetting a row of knots. Some psychologists do not believe in accidents: art occurs a certain way because the subconscious WANTS it to. The Inner Lion is roaring! He will find a way to get out.
As I’ve said before, quoting Picasso, “nobody knows less about art than critics – except artists”. I would be the first one to agree that the creative process is an endless river of surprises, “miracles”, and mistakes.
Nevertheless, I believe most art is deliberate. Weavers, painters, potters, designers, sculptors – all have something to say. And they choose their elements and arrange them carefully, in order to express their idea.
Here is a portrait by the great French painter, Jean August Dominique Ingres. It’s entitled “Louis Bertin” and dates to 1832 C.E. Ingres was a neo-classicist, a certain type of art that has its roots in Classical Greece and was resurrected during the Renaissance. To put things into perspective, the French Revolution had followed hard upon the heels of the American and the Neo-classicists went to war against the artists of the Rococo, represented in France by Fragonard and Watteau to name a couple. The Neo-classicists wanted to reinforce republican virtues and establish French art on the solid footing of the ancient Greeks and Romans. No more frippery! No more frills! Solid classical form! Strong upright expression! Of course the Romantics immediately rebelled but that’s another story. Suffice it to say, this portrait not only exemplifies the form, it represents a pinnacle for this type of art. Very shortly thereafter, artists would again burst their bonds and create Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Symbolism, Expressionism, Surrealism – all the strange and wonderful forms we consider Modern Art.
This picture is one of Pablo Picasso’s sketches for his great “Guernica”, dated 1937. Guernica is Picasso’s monument of horror and anguish against the nightmare of mechanized warfare. Look at the difference in viewpoint between this painting and Ingres’ solid French bourgeois. All the self-confidence has been stripped away. The beauty of form has dissolved into the very shape of agony and loss.
The Industrial Revolution had wrought many miracles, but it had also brought warfare and related disasters of unprecedented terror. Marching into the guns at Gettysburg, tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers died in a few short days. Frederick the Great of Prussia lost some 20,000 HORSES in one battle. Famine and disease and poverty stalked the great cities of Europe. Old ways of life, old values, had simply vanished. And World War I, killing millions and millions of people, destroying the best of a generation – it was too much. By the time Guernica was painted, warplanes were in use by the Germans, and the wholesale killing of civilians had joined the horror of the wholesale killing of front-line soldiers. Old empires had collapsed and the evil shape of a new, demonic Reich had reared its head. Picasso and his contemporaries sought forms to express their agony and their dread.
I’ve used these two pictures to illustrate the absolutely inseparable nature of form and expression. In carpet art, form is equally expressive albeit in a generally more abstract manner. But jagged edges still say – jagged edges and they convey a type of form, express a type of emotion. Smooth, curvy forms, soft colors – these say something very different from bold colors and strong, hard-edged forms.
This is the language of the visual artist.
And look who’s back! Can’t seem to get rid of that fellow, can we? And now he’s chasing moths? Or maybe – he’s protecting them from that scorpion.
I think he’s here to stay.
Thank your for this very interesting and informative exposition on the formal elements of art. Most of it is educational and, I am sure, accurate.
On the other hand, and without retracting anything in the previous paragraph, I take exception to practically every sentence in the lengthy paragraph that begins As we’ve discussed previously, some shapes – crosses for example, have a highly symbolic or even iconic – religious – significance... It strikes me as a collection of unsupported assertions, errors in statements of fact, and generalizations of things that are demonstrably not general. I find it jarring because it is surrounded by what is mostly a well thought out, clear explanation of the elements of art. Unless pressed to do so, I won't elaborate because I think the paragraph is not at all essential to the main body of information in the post.
The Symbol Thing
We seem to be getting hung up on the symbol thing.
Thank you for your thoughtful comments.
What is so dubious or difficult to understand about the symbol thing? These are very old symbols and appear in art forms from ancient days.
Is it the snake? The cross? The moon? The snake for one thing appears in the Old Testament; the cross in Christian iconography, Berber iconography and Native American iconography. The moon is a well-known symbol of various Goddesses including Isis, Diana, and many interlocking Middle Eastern goddesses whose primary function was protective. These are by no means exclusive categories - just the ones that pop immediately to mind.
And, we have discussed how symbols even as ancient as these are used in modern advertising.
Are we doubting that the symbols are effective? That we can "read" them? I can provide some literature on Navajo sandpainting and Anasazi pottery that is clear, simple, and in the case of the Navajo literature comes from primary sources. Thus we do not have to speculate on ancient Turkmen rugs that get people so wired up.
This is a very important concept. I'd hate to see us tripped up over it.
And let us not forget that written language is a form of symbol language! It didn't come out of the blue!
OK, here's my list of problems with the only paragraph in your otherwise first-class post with which I have problems. Your sentences will be in italics, my comments in normal fonts. I'm editing out parts of yours for brevity, but I don't think I'm modifying your meanings.
... crosses ... the shape itself has some significance to the subconscious mind, which is why it was adapted to iconographic use in the first place
There is no evidence of which I'm aware that a cross has subconscious significance or, if it does, that this is why it was adapted to iconographic use. This use, mostly restricted to Christians, seems easily explained by the fact that the central tenets of Christianity include the crucifixion of Christ.
... a cross, if seen in the twigs and grass, can mean that an animal or person has been there and ... serve as a warning. This, from your context, seems to be another assertion of the subconscious response idea. But the realization that matted down twigs and grass (whether in the form of a cross or not) means that an animal has been in the area is neither innate nor subconscious. On the contrary, it is learned and is very much in the conscious level when it is used.
Moon forms have especial importance to women, as our cycles are often timed in synchronization with the phases of the moon. Women's cycles vary from about 27 to about 29 days. The lunar cycle is 28 days. Any woman whose cycle varies from 28 days will precess through the lunar cycle, her cycle beginning on a slightly different phase of the moon each time. So, if she is paying attention to the lunar cycle and her cycle, she will see no consistent relationship between them. That's because there is none. If, on the other hand, she has a cycle of exactly 28 days, she will remain synchronized with the reference phase of the moon until the first irregular cycle she experiences, at which point she will become synchronized with some other phase. She might be aware that other women's cycles are not in synchrony with hers, which would also tip her off about the role of the moon in this.
... Snakes are so powerful in the human imagination that they have come to represent the fall of Man.
To the best of my knowledge, they represent the fall of man only in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and I don't know any basis for attributing this to their power in the human imagination or for thinking that the human imagination sees them as especially powerful.
Dancers celebrating human fertility imitate them.
Some do, some don't. Anyway, this seems to me to be most likely related to the phallic implications of their morphology, neither a subconscious nor mysterious element in fertility.
In many agricultural environments they represent good luck because they eat rodents. Yes, and in some parts of the world the rodents represent good luck because you only have them in your house if there's plenty of food around.
They have a powerful double meaning: both as threat and as protector. But not to the same people. I think it would be more accurate to say that they have different meanings to different cultures than to say that they have a powerful double meaning.
Probably their powerful winged cousins evolved from simple serpents. I guess you're referring to dragons here. It does seem reasonable to believe that the dragon is a mythological creature inspired by some reptile, although probably not a snake. Crocodiles and alligators seem like much closer relatives to me. Huge, toothy mouths, thrashing tails, legs, and all that.
The dog-headed serpent of an ancient form of religion practiced by some Kurdish people was thought to represent both good, in the form of the head – and evil, in the form of the body. This embodiment of two ideas in one shape is a form of dualism. I know nothing of this subject (the dog-headed serpent). It does prove that my post saying that I objected to every sentence in this paragraph was not quite accurate, this sentence draws no objections.
I've referenced a book on Symbolism that you can read. As I mentioned in my other post, I'm sure there are many which would be enlightening, since nobody seems to want to accept that I have done any homework.
You might also want to delve more deeply into Jungian psychology.
These are well known fields of study and you should find ample material which will explain these basic symbols much more clearly than I can in our limited time and space, as well as the concept that we have a subconscious, which you don't seem to want to deal with, and that we have a COLLECTIVE SUBCONSCIOUS, which is a theory that many artists and pyschologists believe has merit. Whether these have "meaning" in the modern world is open to debate. Michael seems to admit that he has SOME instincts, i.e. when he is arguing in front of a jury. I regard this as PROGRESS ON HIS PART
I do wish he'd treat me a little less like a defendant on trial for murder and a little more like an interested colleague
Sigh. Nobody understands me Sigh.
As far as the dragon goes: he is very complicated. Crocodiles have been suggested as an "ancestor". However most of the books I've read about their genesis seem to indicate there is a serpent involved. They are referred to in America as winged or feathered serpents.
And, I was simply listing an example of the serpent's power, in the case where he caused the fall of man. I am aware that is only three religions. Isn't that enough?
And, I respectfully disagree with you concerning the dual role of the dragon/serpent. This is a form of dualism and is referenced clearly in Cooper's book.
Note: a study of dualism is recommended also. There are many books on this subject too.
And, moons are most certainly related symbolically to women's periods. They are an almost universal symbol of female power and stand for several goddesses. I will send you a scan of a very interesting one. Whether we all have regular cycles is another story
Let's see: will that do for now? I appreciate your interesting and challenging questions!
One more point, about dancers. Yes, you are right, not ALL dancers imitate snakes. Most of them wouldn't know HOW, being busy doing ballet, so forth. Which is fine but not, as I think you know, what I was talking about.
And no, we aren't imitating penises. We are imitating the supple, sinuous movement of SERPENTS, who in ancient mythology are associated with WOMEN, not with penises, and who stand for eternal life also, since they shed their skins. Sort of like women, who have periods (see above, ref. "moon").
Oh - and I just found an ancient Minoan butterfly symbol, see: woman, above, and Moon, above, also serpent. Also Goddess.
I don't know who would have the idea that you haven't done your homework. One thing that's absolutely clear is that you've put a huge amount of time into this Salon. And, I hope it's also clear, when I disagree with what you say and even become as exasperated as you do with what I say, that I appreciate the fact that you are willing (and able) to put your ego on the line, so to speak, in defending your ideas. I consider it a service to all of us.
We are not going to reach an agreement on whether the meanings of symbols and icons can be known or on whether there are subconscious but instinctive meanings hardwired in our brains. The reason isn't because I refuse to believe that Jung and many others wrote stuff about it, it's because I refuse to accept fervently held belief as a test of truth. We needn't revisit that part of the discussion, I think our positions are perfectly clear on it.
I'm sure we have a subconscious level in our brains; the evidence of its existence comes up every time I forget something and then remember it again later. Where was it all that time, if not in my subconscious? I know that there are people - intelligent, well-educated, of sound mind - who believe in a collective subconscious. I don't. It makes no more sense to me than a collective left leg or liver. That doesn't prove that I'm right, and I know that, but my conclusions from considering the evidence are all I've got.
I think my position has been stated as clearly as I can state it, and yours has, too. Neither of us being converted, it's probably best for us to go on to other things. I'm grateful for what I am learning (and it's a lot, in case anyone suspects otherwise) from the Salon and discussion. Refusal to accept the fact that intelligent, educated, rational people can weigh the same information and come to different conclusions because they test truth different ways is counterproductive to intellectual progress and never leads to anything good. So, I accept the fact that your opinions on some matters important to both of us will always differ from mine, and that this is perfectly OK.
reply to Sophia
I liked your discussion about art in the context of carpets. I especially liked the part about symbolism because I think we know things through symbols and express our feelings and ideas through symbols. Carpets are really woven paintings that depict the thoughts and beliefs of the weavers. The designs contain symbols of the real of imagined world and your dragon looked as if he could just jump right into a carpet along the edge or stretched across the middle. Just kidding. Keep on writing. Kathy
Request for Kathy
Welcome to Turkotek. We really like to have peoples' full names and e-mail addresses in their posts. If you would be good enough to send that information to me, I'll add them to the message you just put up.