The power of the visual

I had a blog back in the early 2000’s when I was in college. Most of the posts I wrote were quatsch I realized once I had learned a bit more about the world around me. However, there was one post I wrote that was relatively well researched from my studies in Medieval art history that I have kept and would like to share with you. Here it is:

Tuesday, February 7, 2006

The Power of the Visual

The past month I have been reading the book, Medieval Allegory and the Building of the New Jerusalem, by Ann R. Meyer, D.S. Brewer: Cambridge, 2003. It is quite a thought-provoking read for any who have an interest in the philosophy and theology behind medieval allegory. The first section deals with allegory’s philosophical and theological foundations from Plotinus (a follower of Plato) and Augustine. Then the book goes into detail of how certain liturgy sheds light on the meaning behind church architecture of the High Gothic. (Up to this point was of greatest interest to me.) The second half of part two goes on to describe the Chantry Movement in England, and part three moves on to discuss the late medieval allegorical poem, Pearl, and how it relates to gothic architecture, in order to “come closer to understanding the spirituality that inspired these medieval [architectural] achievements.”

One of the things that has stuck out to me while reading this book is how important the visual sense seems to be to mankind, whether in Scripture, to Augustine, theologians, or Greek philosophers. We know our world through our senses, especially through sight. Even the words we speak have images attached to them in our minds. We use imagery to explain abstract ideas in many branches of study. The press uses images to get a point across.

Plotinus took his philosophy of vision to the farthest extreme, turning it inot a religion. But perhaps there is still something to be learned from him. According to Meyer, Plotinus’ philosophy was a basis for much of medieval allegory. Plotinus believed that the sight was the foundation of all human knowledge. And thus, through sight can one gain knowledge of a higher being, “the One”. He also said that through sight one is connected to the universe, and when the spirit recognizes beauty, the spirit is connected to eternity.

[Augustine corrected Plotinus’ philosophy and asserted that only through Christ and the sacrament of the Church can one be connected to eternity. The only physical substance that can connect one to the divine is the sacrament of the Eucharist (55). According to Augustine, “Without the Eucharist, the Plotinian religion of the cosmos is ultimately, and at best, devoid of meaning; at worst it is idolatrous.” (56)]

The use of allegory emphasizes the importance of vision. Because what we see is what we know, images are often helpful to explain things we cannot see, such as the spiritual. For example, the structure of the Gothic church is literally a building, but figuratively, as revealed through its ornamentation, is a representation of the New Jerusalem. The building in itself is not the New Jerusalem, but its physical aspects reflect the spiritual qualities of the Church – the body of Christ – the New Jerusalem. These physical representations of the spiritual were meant to remind the viewers about Christ and the Church for the purpose of drawing them nearer to God.

Scripture itself is also filled with allegorical imagery. Christ’s parables to teach his followers, the visions of the prophets, and Johns’ vision of the New Jerusalem are a few examples. In Hebrews 9:24 the Tabernacle, “the holy places made with hands”, is referred to as “the figures of the true”. The earthly tabernacle is the “patterns of things in the heavens” (v. 23). The physical is a representation of the spiritual.

Vision seems to be a powerful sense, if even in scripture it is used as a means to learn of the things that are holy. In medieval art the visual was also a very important medium for learning, and not only for the illiterate.

[This following is my current thoughts on the topic.]

Now think about our modern world, how much imagery plays a role in our daily lives: scrolling through social media, television, movies, graphic novels. Yes, the world may be more literate today than it was in medieval times, but what usually sticks with us is not the words we read, but the images we see. How often do you close your eyes at night and remember something you saw during the day? How often do you remember an allegory of a spiritual truth better than its literal interpretation? If images are truly powerful enough to teach us spiritual truths, how should we approach the imagery we are bombarded with on a daily basis? The visual is important and should be part of our lives, but I think we as modern, literate people have played down its importance for too long.

As a side note, when I first wrote this article, I was coming from an iconoclastic, evangelical church. Since then, I joined the Eastern Orthodox church where worshiping with all your senses in important, including sight and smell. Now it really irks me when I go into a cathedral and the tour guide insists that the imagery is only there because the people were illiterate. I personally think that’s a simplified version of it and there was really more going on, based on what I know about the philosophy of Plotinus and my own personal experiences.

Solo Exhibit: Life is Fragile – Handle with Care

I dropped off the blogosphere during the last year and a half, but I’m back, and hopefully with more regular posts. After having been awarded a solo exhibit at the Art League Gallery in Alexandria, VA for April 2022, I spent all my spare time and energy since Autumn 2020 on creating works of art. Some of the pieces were large, mixed media paintings with sculptural elements (the largest measuring 40×48 inches) and others were delicately painted chicken and duck eggshells, of which I spent a minimum of 5 hours on each painting. The way I installed the exhibit turned out to be installation art in itself. The following is a documentation of my artist statement, a few samples of my work, and how I installed it in the gallery. In the coming weeks I will share more detailed accounts of my artistic process and inspiration for individual pieces.

Sea of Plastic, 36×48 inches

The beauty and fragility of life on Earth is the inspiration for this series of paintings and assemblages. In Genesis God gave man a commandment, “Be fruitful, multiply and subdue the Earth.” “Subdue” in this context means to “bring under control”, but humanity has gone farther than bringing nature under control and, like a tyrant king, through greed and sloth, is destroying the very ecosystem in which he/she lives. In this exhibit I explore the ways in which human beings are connected to ecology: how we pollute the earth, destroy it, and how this destruction ultimately affects us. This series highlights the ugliness of that destruction juxtaposed with the beauty and fragility of the natural world.  

I have incorporated found objects, which would have otherwise been thrown away, into the large acrylics on canvas and board. Sometimes, in order to incorporate the objects into the piece, I sculpted the foreground out of wire and papier mâché and covered this in gesso and paint to make a transition between the 2- and 3-Dimensional portions of the artwork. Juxtaposed with these large, foreboding paintings are tiny, delicate eggshells painted with living creatures. There are a handful of eggshells that are intentionally broken, representing extinct or endangered life. In the paintings as well as on the eggshells you will find humans, there to represent our presence in the environment and the fragility of human life. Humans are stewards of creation, and the choices that we make not only affect the non-sentient life around us, but other human lives and the lives of the next generation as well. This series focuses on the destruction that greed and carelessness have on the ecosystem, but there are layers of meaning hidden within this tiny cosmos of paintings, waiting to be uncovered.

Above is a sampling of how I chose to exhibit the works. Photography, unfortunately, fails to exhibit how 3-Dimensional the artwork actually is. The works on canvas and board were hung traditionally, while at least half the number of eggshells were hung from wires strung across the ceiling. The centerpiece of one arrangement of coral reef life was a sculpture of bleached coral made from papier mâché, gesso and eggshells. The rest of the eggshells I displayed on egg stands set on pedestals.

These are two of the arrangements that pull my artist statement together, which is that human life is as dependent upon and as fragile as the rest of the environment. The oysters in the sculpture/painting on the left were sculpted with wire, papier mâché, and gesso. This work represents the toxins that can enter food sources through improper water treatment, crop fertilization, or manure runoff. The egg carton on the right is symbolic of the safety and protection of the mother’s womb, but of which all sorts of toxins and threats can penetrate. I will write more about these works in the future.

If you wish to see more of these works, check out my portfolio page:

Shades of Green

If you look through my portfolio you’ll notice how much I enjoy painting landscapes. I also happen to love the color green. I’m not sure whether I love green because I love landscapes, or I love landscapes because I love the color green? It doesn’t matter. Green is often thought to be a calming color, and I definitely feel calmer when I’m surrounded by it. Until you start painting, however, you don’t notice how many different shades of green there are. Beginning artists learn that you mix yellow and blue together to make green, but you don’t learn until painting awhile how much greens can vary depending on which yellow and blue you decide to use. On my palette you won’t find a green that is premixed. This is because I find that greens are more interesting when you mix them yourselves, either on your palette or directly on the watercolor paper. When you mix the greens yourself, you can achieve a wider range of hues from blue-green to yellow-green. Until I travelled to other parts of the world, I didn’t realize how much the color green can vary depending on where you live, the flora that grows there, as well as the weather. The following blog post is intended to give you a little glimpse into a journey I took in discovering my personal palette of greens.

A chart of my favorite mixtures of blues and yellows to create various shades of green. All colors are Winsor and Newton Watercolors.

I grew up in rural Maryland and have been painting the landscapes there since I was a teenager. Once a year I return to Maryland to participate in a plein air painting event to paint historic barns. Maryland is very green in the Spring, but the grass can yellow in the Summer as it rains less often in those months. After years of painting in Maryland and Virginia I discovered that ultramarine blue mixed with Winsor lemon, cadmium yellow light, or yellow ochre worked well for the various shades of greens in the fields and trees. For the darker, forest greens I used Prussian blue mixed with various yellows. After some experimentation in my teen years, I discovered that Prussian blue mixed with burnt umber makes a gorgeous hunter green. This color found its way into every one of my paintings for about 10 years.

Maryland Landscape in Summer. I used ultramarine blue and various yellows to create the greens for the fields and trees. (This painting has sold.)

In 2014 my husband and I took our young family on a trip to Ireland. I was blown away by the beauty of the landscapes there, especially after taking a drive through the Ring of Kerry. No other place have I seen green hills covered in heather that slope right down to the sea. I love both mountains and sea, so western Ireland was like a dream for me. The other thing that everyone mentions about Ireland after visiting (and it’s totally true), is how green it is. And Ireland’s not just green, but it’s a different shade of green than I had ever seen! I don’t feel like the photographs I took while in Ireland quite captured the greens in the landscape. But I started painting the landscapes soon after arriving back to the States while the scenery was still fresh in my mind.

A painting of the Ring of Kerry, Ireland. I used cerulean blue mixed with various yellows to achieve the greens in this painting. The green of the hills in the back were painted with mostly cerulean blue to achieve the hazy look. (This painting has sold.)

As I began to paint, I realized I needed to find a new combination of yellow and blue to capture that gorgeous, bright green I had seen in Ireland. I turned to cerulean blue to mix my colors. Cerulean blue plus cadmium yellow light makes what you would call Kelly Green. If you mix the cerulean blue with Winsor lemon you get a bluer shade of the Kelly Green. Add more yellow than blue and you can create the effect of light on the grass. If I wanted to paint grass that was yellowing, I combined yellow ochre with cerulean blue. I was excited by the possibilities of these color combinations! My subsequent paintings of Ireland captured the atmosphere of the countryside and successfully sold within months of completion.

I look forward to explore a new part of the world someday and discover new shades of green. The rainforest is still on my list of places to visit. I wonder which blues and yellows I’ll need to capture the greens there. What are some of your favorite blues and yellows to mix to capture the landscapes you like to paint?

Another painting of a farm in Maryland. I used ultramarine blue for the greens in the fields and trees but used cerulean blue on the mountain in the background. (Sold)

Water: Chaos and Creation

In October 2015 my water series, Water: Chaos and Creation, featured in a solo exhibit at The Delaplaine Art Center in Frederick, Maryland. While several of the paintings have been sold since then, a few still remain in my collection. Water continues to be featured in many of my paintings, so I thought I would share a bit about the significance of my water series and what was intended in the original exhibit.

Water is vital to our very being. It is cleansing, washing away dirt and grime. But out of control water can be destructive. In some creation mythologies water represents the chaos before creation, but becomes a life-giving source when order is established. Water is also beautiful – a mirror reflecting the light and colors around it and ever changing. This poetic beauty of water and its symbolic nature are the major sources of inspiration for the paintings in my water series.

My series of water paintings seeks to capture the abstract qualities of water and reflections, shapes and forms that will change in a fleeting moment. Moreover, these paintings are imbued with a deep appreciation for creation and a love for symbolism and allegory. Together these paintings visually narrate a story of water and creation. Several of the paintings illustrate the early chaos of the unformed world through designs that lean heavily on abstraction (i.e. Fury of Water I, II and III and Sunlight Dancing on Still Water). As the “world” takes form and is given order, the paintings take on a more representational style (Creation Emerging). Much of the content of the paintings as well as several of the titles (Springs Gush forth in the Valleys) were inspired by descriptions of water in the Psalms.

Creation Emerging In Egyptian mythology, the Lotus flower was thought to be the first plant to emerge from the water.

Although my exhibit was almost five years ago, I still find myself inspired by water – both the symbolic attributes of water as well as its abstract form. Water finds its way into many of my paintings, even if it isn’t the main subject matter. I imagine that I will continue to revisit the theme of water as my paintings continue to evolve through the years.

The paintings that are still available from my Water Series can be found on my website:

In the Studio with Amy

This blog is to give you a little glimpse into my studio. I both paint and teach drawing and painting, so I will be sharing anything from the meanings behind selections of my work; tips and techniques that artists can use; projects for your children to do at home; and an occasional write up about an art exhibit you can visit. I hope many people who enjoy art can find something of value in my posts.