Aesthetic Theory / Aesthetics / Art

On the Aesthetics of Scale

Do You Fit?

Structures on different Scales

Many pictures show different kinds of structures at different scales. For example, the above picture (courtesy of Adèle d’Alleray) shows different kinds of structures if viewed from a distance or in close-up view. From a distance, you see the dark square with an approximately circular structure around it, the dividing line on the left side with the different color shades on both sides, or the texture gradient on the right side, where the rust becomes denser. In this view, you would perceive the dots of rust and the grainy structure of the surface as textures, that is areas with some structure that is perceived as a whole, with some distribution or statistical properties, but without paying attention to the individual specks.

If you zoom in, the textures turn into structures of individual elements. The mix of blue and brown becomes an archipelago of islands, with a certain “geography”. You begin to notice shades of brown within those blotches as well as shades of blue in the areas between. You begin to notice patterns and perhaps to associate things.

At some scale, the structures of the picture will seem most interesting. Zoom further in and only a few simple structures remain, so those very small sections of the picture will turn boring. Zoom out and the small details may blur into a texture that also might become boring by overwhelming perception with too much fine detail if viewed from too far away. In between, in a certain range of enlargement, at a certain scale, there is a maximum of beauty where order and disorder are at the right balance (see FROM MONOCHROME TO NOISE – AESTHETICS, INFORMATION THEORY,  CREATIVITY and THE AESTHETICS OF DECOMPOSITION: “THAT “BEAUTY ZONE” WHERE THERE IS AN OPTIMAL MIX OF ORDER AND DISORDER”).

In pictures like this one, since there is structure on several levels, the picture remains interesting when you zoom out. The details of the “rust archipelago” are moving out of the focus of attention but are replaced with the large scale structure of the image. This example shows that one way to get a very interesting image is to have structure at several scales.

The art of the abstract photographer lies in finding and seeing such structures, finding the most interesting part in them and identifying the scale where they look most interesting.

Three structural scales

In painting, The same principles can be found. Interesting pictures often have structure on different scales. Here, the structures on the different scales often have different sources. One can distinguish the structures by the processes that generate them (like all statements in this article, these observations cannot be generalized to all cases, but it is often possible to make such distinctions).

The level of design

Structures on large scale are often a result of conscious design or choice (although some artists use random processes – think of Jackson Pollock as a well-known example).

The level of movement

On a smaller scale, structures are often influenced by unconscious movement patterns that result in an often characteristic style of strokes of the brush. Just as everybody has a characteristic way and accent of talking, people have a movement style. It seems quite appropriate to talk about a “movement accent” since it is basically the same phenomenon: a certain individual way of moving that results from the automated “movement programs” that we execute to move our tongues or hands and that are different in different cultures and different people. The result may be a level of small scale structures that contribute to the style of an artist.

The level of physical effects

Below this level of conscious design and of movement accent is a level of physics. The fibers of the brush, the viscosity of the paint, the structure of the canvas, the capillary forces sucking watercolors between the fibers of the paper, the random cracks forming in old paint, and other effects create a micro-structure, often of random nature, that may creates quasi-abstract, beautiful patterns, shapes and textures which are, to a large extent, beyond the control of the artist. However, artists might intentionally give such random structures more room by employing techniques that make them more visible or amplify them to a larger scale. By controlling the conditions that lead to the emergence of such structures, they can be influenced, if not controlled in detail.

Beyond paintings and drawings, this is also true for other materials like ceramics and textiles. You can see this, for example, in the random cracks in some types of ceramic glaze. Another example are the structures in weave felt materials designed by my sister, textile designer Christine Keller, where the special production-process leads to partially irregular, interesting and beautiful structures (see Breeze).

10 thoughts on “On the Aesthetics of Scale

  1. Pingback: Randomness and Control | The Asifoscope

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