My mother got a brand new VW bug in the early 1960s. It was shiny and red. I particularly remember one bright sunny day. I had just gotten a pair of binoculars, and to try them out, I pointed its gaze to Mom’s car parked on the street. I can still see the sparkling red fender in my mind’s eye even now. The edges were so crisp; it looked like the sharpest, juiciest apple I’d ever seen. I was so excited; I brought my binoculars to everyone so they could see this amazing phenomenon. Somehow, my mother and father didn’t have the same reaction that I did. They didn’t seem to see what I saw. A few weeks later, I got glasses. Everything looked pretty clear after that.
I consider myself to be a visual person. Maybe it started that day, looking at my Mom’s VW. The way light interacts with different surfaces can be stunning, especially the early morning or late afternoon light. I love taking photographs at those times.
Where photography is well suited for capturing surface textures, drawing with pen and ink is a good way to capture edges. I’ve filled many sketchbooks in my attempts to craft the appropriate edge to a shape. When I look back at some of my sketches and see shapes, not the pen or pencil lines, I am pleased. I consider the drawing to be successful if it is recognizable to another person and I get a sense of my state of mind when I drew it.
There are two things I’ve always wanted to be able to do. The first is to capture a scene or a person’s face, or a gesture with my own hand, either by sketching or painting; the second is to be able to draw or paint something that I’ve seen with my mind’s eye, either in a dream or from memory.
I’m sure there is a range of ability to visualize. Temple Grandin, a very successful autistic scientist, for instance, thinks in pictures and can build working models of mechanical devices in her mind. I can picture faces, but it is very difficult to bring that image from my mind to a piece of paper. I hardly know where to start. This is particularly the case with dreams. I dream visually, and have tried several times to draw scenes from my dreams. Whenever I would draw a line, it wouldn’t be correct. I suppose my omnipresence in the dream is not transferable to a flat piece of paper.
Neuroscience of the visual
There are two questions about visual representations that occur to me. The first one is from an artist’s point of view that I just touched upon: How does one represent a three-dimensional (3D) scene on a two-dimensional (2D) piece of paper? The second is from a scientist’s point of view: How does one get a visual sense of a three-dimensional world through the two light-sensitive surfaces at the back of our eyeballs?
For a while, I studied stereopsis or, depth perception. At the Nashville Flea Market (Shout out to Mac and my other Nashville friends!), I used to buy these old rectangular cards that had two seemingly identical images on them. When placed in a stereoscope, a device with two lenses focused on the plane where the cardboard could be set, one of the card images is presented to each eye of the viewer. But in fact, the images on the cards were not identical. One was taken from a slightly different vantage point. Cameras that took these kinds of images typically had two lenses, in the same configuration as human eyes. The viewer, looking through the stereoscope, reconstructs a 3D image.
It is fascinating how the brain makes this transformation. Without going into detail, there are neurons which process the displacement between images in the retina, and convert that difference between images to a depth. Bela Julesz, a Hungarian visual neuroscientist developed a technique to test whether a person had use of these neurons. His random-dot stereogram consists of an identical field of random dots, presented to each eye. However, in one field, a set of random dots is displaced by a certain amount, and the place from which it was taken is back-filled with random dots that are not in correspondence with the dots presented to the other eye. A person with stereopsis would be able to see a figure in depth (in the shape of the displaced random dots).
Art versus Science?
Does the scientific understanding of the mechanism of 3D vision detract from the visual beauty of space? Not to me. It adds a dimension (pun intended) to my appreciation.
The next question to tackle is: how can I picture the shiny red fender of my mother’s VW, so many years later? Where is that space? Where in my brain does it reside? I can’t wait to find out.