Monday, May 2, 2011

Dealing with Ambiguity: "Through a Curtain"

Through a Curtain --original version
Last time I ended with a riddle: spot the difference between two images of the painting "Through a Curtain" and see if you can guess why I changed it. This was a tough question to answer considering the quality of my images. Having just spent a week in the company of some real experts in photography and digital manipulation, I'm especially conscious of my shortcomings, and more determined to improve, but for now will have to make do with the images I have, with their misleading faults. Some of the minor differences between the before-and-after images of "Through a Curtain" have nothing to do with the painting and are just indications of my photographic deficiencies. For example, I didn't change the stripes at the sides--the frame of the sliding door. The way they curve and change width is simply a result of photographing a tall, narrow canvas without knowing how to correct the resulting distortion.

Through a Curtain - acrylic - 2011 - 36" x 22"
In spite of the difficulties, one reader took on the challenge, and was on the right track when she wrote: "The back of the chair was making too solid a barrier in the 'first' version. You've lightened it up and this allows the viewer to go past the chair. Also for some reason it becomes easier to actually see the person in the chair." There was in fact a problem with the figure in the chair, who could be seen in two different ways. This ambiguity placed my painting in the company of trick images, which usually depend on how the positive and negative space are perceived, and of those unfortunate snapshots we've all seen where a tree sprouts out of someone's head. For some glaring--though possibly contrived rather than accidental--examples of this, go to  You'll see that the problem (or the joke) usually arises when the photographer doesn't allow for things being in different planes, so that it isn't clear what is in front and what behind. This kind of problem occurs much less frequently in painting than in photography because painting is a slow-moving medium with lots of time to think and make adjustments, but as I've discovered, some mistakes slip through undetected.

The woman in "Through a Curtain" is the same friend who appeared, in a very similar pose, in "Foreign Hotel" (Easel Talk, Feb. 14, 2011.) The more recent painting is based on a photo I took during our 2010 trip to Sicily. My friend was sitting on the balcony of our hotel in Taormina. I liked the contrast between the straight lines of the door frame and the curves of the railing and the organic shapes of the vegetation outside. I also thought it would be an interesting challenge to paint a scene and figure veiled by a nylon curtain. The curtain, in fact, seemed to be the main player in this little drama, and determined the title.

The painting was completed, or so I thought, early this year, and was on my living-room wall when my travelling companion came to visit. To my surprise she did not at first recognize either the setting or herself. When I gave her a hint, she stared at the painting for some time and then asked in bewilderment, "But why did you paint me with a beard?"

I was as mystified as she was, but eventually realized that what she what she was seeing was something like this:

 whereas what I intended was more like this:

For me it remained hard to see the bearded lady (who also seems to have a black face but a white arm) without squinting and contorting myself, but obviously I had to take the painting back to the studio and try to eliminate the ambiguity. I modified the outline of the dark foliage that seemed to be causing the confusion. Then I had to fiddle with the folds of the curtain and touch up other parts of the scene. My friend hasn't yet seen the revised version, but I hope when she does she'll recognize her beardless self!

Please note: from now on I will be adding posts to this blog about once a month. Look out for the next instalment in early June. I'll email the people on my "Notify" list--let me know if you'd like your name added--and will also announce it at  Meanwhile, if you're in the Vancouver area and would like to see the real thing, please come and see paintings at the annual art fair Art in the City this weekend (May 6 - 8) at the West End Community Centre. I'll be sharing a booth with Suzan Marczak ( ) who will be showing ceramic sculpture. Hours and address at . Admission free!