Atmospheric Perception

Atmospheric Perception: Chapter Two of Figure Ground Rhythm Thesis by Jamie Hahn 2010

At this moment, at this view, looking through the blinds to the scene outside, snow is falling quickly. In an irregular rhythm the flakes dance across the trees, bounce against the window and hide the distant mountain. The pine tree shifts in and out of focus as the snow static blurs its identity.

Outside, an intense wind pushes snow flakes against my stance. Stillness is not an option in this whirlwind. Everything is moving. Individual flakes become a white flock of wild masses flying through dense, cold air landing only for a moment before being whisked away by a frenetic wind.

The view is chaotic as a visual search begins for recognizable forms to lead the way. Distant markers have been masked by the atmospheric display of white static noise. An otherwise well-known path is obscured by a white dressing, and the walk becomes a search for familiarity.

Illuminating the moment, light has an ability to direct perception through colors, shapes and atmosphere. On a journey with time, the view welcomes new tonality as each moment passes from sunrise to sunset. Atmospheric rhythms emanate from falling snowflakes, misty fog, crisp frost, hazy thunderstorms and dancing winds. From within forms of spatiality arises a depth of perception that becomes something of a meditation on shifting focus between the detailed moment and the distant horizon of passing time.

Light gracefully serves as a guide through variations of darkness depending on time of day and place within an exterior environment or an interior one. We use light to see through to find our way. In its multitudes of variance, light comes to our visual system in waves of intensity. When standing outside, our vision takes us only so far as the light allows us to see clearly identifiable shapes within a scope of distance. Existing here is a boundary in actual lightness perception.

“In judging the lightness of surface, an observer must estimate and discount the optical viewing conditions: these include illumination level, haze, and interposed filters. The physical effects can be captured in terms of additive and multiplicative factors which we call the atmosphere.”

Atmospheric light is more easily identifiable on a hot, hazy day when the horizon is slightly out of focus from the haze of humidity in the air. We can also see this diffused light when fog hangs as a mist in varying levels of density. Looking out across a mountain range also provides an example of atmospheric light as our view is vast but the distance details are less discernible. The visual system is working to see through atmospheric particles in the air as they diffuse and shift in various angles and directions from the sun.

As atmospheric perception guides the view, it works to define spatial relationships in the figure to ground environment. In a moment to moment revelation, light and tonality offer change and contrast to a relative point of view. This four-dimensional (time-based) experience is translated to a two-dimensional space in still and moving images. Aesthetically, performatively, in technological and conceptual formation, a system is in place to bridge visual perception to an internal reflection. Frame to screen, this interpretive surface leads the way to the tangibility of rhythmic, time-based relationships between observer, maker, media and the representation therein.

Light and depth have been represented in two-dimensional forms since ancient Roman frescoes first depicted illusory scenes of atmospheric perspective. By adding shades of blue to an overlapping distant background, they were able to suggest distance. Additional techniques of creating perspective were developed in the Renaissance with the mathematical formula of perspective which included diagonal, single point, atmospheric, vanishing point, foreshortening, picture space and viewpoint. By using geometry, painters could enhance the illusion of depth which further added to the believability of the compositional design; making it appear as close to a real-life dimension upon an otherwise flat surface. This picture space then, became the plane of foreground, middleground and background, “any object or figure in the extreme foreground was used to lead the eye into the picture and push back other objects, making them appear further back in the picture plane”.

Color, tone, contrast and scale were also meticulously used in the designing of the scene being depicted.  Painters such as Rembrandt, Caravaggio, and Vermeer used light and tonality to contrast and enhance their dramatic depictions. Additional shifts in light as focus occurred in the Baroque and Rococo movements as artists began to search the canvas for motifs of greater emotional impact. What followed was the Romantic era of subject and object being of one in the same: feeling. Illuminating this new sensibility was the increased use of lightness with darkness. From Gericault’s Portrait of a Child Murderer  and Friedrich’s Abbey Among the Oak Trees, new directional lighting was infused into spaces of darkness. From madness to spiritual awakening, painters filled their canvases with awe, terror and what became known for what couldn’t be described any other way: the sublime.

Halfway through the nineteenth century, the industrial revolution brought about a new sense of time and perception of light and motion. The railway offered an entirely new perspective, “objects viewed while rapidly traversing the landscape appeared to melt, and nature itself to be in motion. The scenes which unfolded were rapid sequences. The landscape became about the whole rather than the details within”. Out of the industrial revolution arose a greater sense of identity in relationship to place and time.

Relating to the moment, a select group of artists encourage each other to continue the work of Romanticism by rejecting the current academic and accepted art of the time, which included realism, anything imaginative, nostalgic or historical. The group became known as Impressionists after Claude Monet’s Impression Sunrise in 1872. Their work redefined the illusion of depth in painting as atmospheric perception advanced to include an additional layer of motion. Brush marks identified the passing moment with angle, direction and tempo, “open contours and related chromatic values were used for the figure and ground; form was invoked through the interplay of colors”. Rendering shifts in light and motion from atmospherics such as fog, rain, and wind, the artists also became known for painting en plein air. No longer working from their studios, they were able to paint directly from the impression of the moment, new light infused colors graced the surface.

As the Impressionist painters rejected convention they echoed quite appropriately the mode of the times: reality in reflection through light: a scientific embracement of the landscape as it shifted between rural and city, atmospheric and structured. Within the canvas lived a motif of the moment as highlighted by the sun and whatever the view at a particular moment revealed to its maker. Painters were driven more and more to render an “instant view” of such a moment.  Representations of these moments were evident in cityscapes and landscapes wherein the motif exuded an energy of movement from changing light and atmospheric conditions.

While Monet’s Impression Sunrise was the beginning of Impressionism, his own work evolved through the years to a deep investigation of light, motion, and time within a landscape. He pushed the motif to new levels of intensity which gradually separated him from his contemporaries and later set a path for modern art of the twentieth century. His work until 1890 held the primary concepts of Impressionism, painting in plein air while recording the moment of light as accurately as possible. Then, one day, “during a walk he was struck by a row of grain stacks ‘At the start, I was just like everyone else: I thought two canvases would be enough, one for cloudy weather and one for sunshine. But no sooner had I begun to paint than the lighting changed, two were no longer enough if I was to render a truthful impression of a specific aspect of nature and not end up with a picture from a number of different impressions.'”.

The series Grain Stacks altered and enhanced the making process to include the idea of anticipation. Creating a new paradox for himself, the motif evolved from Impressionism into a more personal approach to “render what was experienced”. By also now working on the canvases in his studio, the series took on a reflection of memory and sentiment thereby suggesting a mood through use of color, tone and lighting. As he explored additional series, his interest grew in how solid and seemingly unchangeable forms became altered and transformed in their appearance when atmospherics were at play. Associations of color harmonized within a “pictorial motif under metamorphosis with dematerialized definitions”. Growing less identifiable, the paintings took on an increasingly subjective interpretation. Monet’s interest grew away from a ‘topographical observation’ and more into the ‘alteration of perception over time’. Seeking a harmonious moment between the motif and himself, the work exuded a reflection of surface, intangibility and self.

At the turn of the century, Monet’s work further escaped the boundaries of Impressionism as he challenged the motif to render beyond what was a traditional pictorial method of a consistent horizon line. Moving away from such a dependence on form, his paintings reflected a sense of disorientation. Primarily working in his personal garden, the motif became one of intense study of water, foliage, lilies and the lush integrations of light and tonality. This new spatiality of form led a viewer to no longer identify with a reference point, instead, shifting the reflection from viewer to canvas in a “Romantic, holistic, harmonious way”. His late work of reflection landscapes created a fusion of an illusory motif of “walking through his garden” in a wide panoramic format. Scale and abstractions of expressive gestures intensified viewing and led the way to contemplation.


Thesis Bibliography: Chapter Two

Walter J. Freeman, “The Physiology of Perception”, University of California Berkley, 1991.

Barbara Novak, “Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting 1825-1875”, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Karen Sagner-Duchting, “Monet”, Tachen Press, 1998.