In grammar school, one of my favorite things to do was take photographs. My parents had given me one of those smooth and sleek Kodak Instamatics. I remember taking seemingly random shots, documenting my world and waiting with a sense of glee until my parents got the pictures developed.
At the time, my 10 year-old brain didn’t connect the science of how the camera worked with the “art,” or my own perception of each still moment. I was just a kid with a camera. My subjects were anything from my dog to the backyard spiders. My method was remembering to take the picture, and making sure that what I was looking at was in the center of the eyepiece.
With practice and age my perception, and the tools I used, got more sophisticated. My knowledge of light, form, and perspective grew, and I began creating works of art that were based more on my intentions for what the image “should” be. These foundations, rooted in the science of capturing light, opened my eyes to new ways of perceiving the world around me.
History is filled with glowing examples of how integral science has been to art, and vice versa. Thousands of years of trial and error have allowed humans to create new tools and systems. These systems not only give the scientist a standard of measurement with which to document the world, but allow the artist to depict our realities (or fantasies) in new and interesting ways. The imagination of the artist allows the scientist to expand the dimensions of their analysis.
Scientific study and discovery give the artist new materials to work with. These materials (paint, brushes, chisels, etc…) help to refine the artist’s perception of her world. Her artistic refinement, and the integration of this work into society, change the way the community perceives itself.
Ancient Egypt is one illustration of this process. A great many scientific achievements come from this culture, but above all, it was the unit of measurement called the Royal cubit that spurred an artistic and architectural revolution. The cubit was approximately 523 – 525 millimeters long, and gave ancient builders, architects, and artists a standard of measurement that they used to great effect–as this picture of the Pyramid of Djoser depicts.
The following are a couple of examples of the lengths:
- 6 palms = 24 digits, i.e. ~45.0 cm or 18 inches (1.50 ft)
- 7 palms = 28 digits, i.e. ~52.5 cm or 21 inches (1.75 ft)
In John Legon’s analysis, sectioning the Royal cubit into cubes allowed Egyptian artists to create standard “fixed laws,” which in turn allowed them to render idealized forms. This system would continue to shape Egyptian art and commerce for centuries.
Leonardo daVinci is probably the best example of an individual who embodied the intersection of science and art. As a young man, da Vinci was an apprentice in painting and sculpting studio. It was here that he learned the techniques of making paint and brushes, and polishing bronze sculptures.
Following his six-year apprenticeship, da Vinci stayed with the studio and began to use science and mathematics to improve his art. His use of geometry, knowledge of anatomy, and advances in the theory of perspective made him the pre-eminent artist of the day, pioneering three-dimensional art on canvas.
Da Vinci’s ability to draw not only allowed him to paint beautiful works like the Mona Lisa but also forwarded the canon of proportion with his sketch, the Vitruvian Man.
Named after the Roman architect Vitruvius, the Vitruvian man was da Vinci’s attempt at depicting the perfect human form in geometrical terms. Prior to this sketch, depictions of the human form were typically flat and poorly proportioned. They lacked the “reality” that we are used to seeing in everyday media today. But with the Vitruvian man, da Vinci revolutionized the art of depicting the human form with his use of science.
Da Vinci was not only an accomplished artist, but one of the greatest scientific minds of the time. He advanced the fields of astronomy, anatomy, and civil engineering. His obsession with gears and levers allowed him to come up with invention such as the bicycle, the helicopter, and the tank.
These two brief, but significant periods in history have forever changed the way we think about our world. The tools, the innovations, the discoveries, and the standards created serve as a bedrock for our understanding of how we see and interact with our world.
I see an analogy between these periods of perceptual revolution and my own growth as a photographer–though I’m no Ansel Adams.
However, as the tools I use become more refined, I can’t help to but think that with practice, so will my understanding of light and shadow.
I can’t help but believe that, with persistent and thoughtful observation of the the world, I too can create a revolution.
So, what about you? What’s your art and how do you use science to create your own revolution in understanding?