The art of illusion
How Michael Newberry rediscovered the role of color in creating the illusion of depth and space.
The Grizzly Professor
Edgar Ewing came through the door. The students beheld a tweed suit topped with a grizzly gray mustache and sparkling blue eyes. He moved with the melody of confidence and the whimsy of delight. He set down his case on the table, spread his arms, and smiled at the the classroom of freshman students. “Making art,” he announced “is like making love.”
The students looked at one another with sidelong smiles, most of them inexperienced with one or the other part of the metaphor, and certainly not fathoming the connection between the two. It was the first day of a fundamentals of oil painting class at USC. The year was 1974.
In the 1970’s, the art department at USC was dominated by abstract expressionism. Ewing was the exception in the department, he was an artist with technical skill and a deep passion for art. Representational art, that is — the kind that depicts the world around us (figures, landscapes, still lifes) in a way that reflects how our sense organs experience the world.
While other professors taught classes on conceptual or found-object art, Ewing taught his students how to paint. Never having had a classical training, Ewing was an experimental modernist who floated between realism and cubism. His colors were intense, subtle, and always moving.
In the piece Bugler’s Table, a vivid red cloth emerges from a textured cool background. Objects on the table float in various layers of transparency and shadow.
Whatever the technique or style, whatever the period of his work, Ewing didn’t paint unless he felt something. He had an infectious, childlike excitement about painting.
One student, Michael Newberry, took to him instantly.
Newberry, who had fallen in love with Rembrandt at an early age, had spent every spare moment of his teenage years drawing and painting, challenging himself to capture highlights and reflections. He was also an excellent tennis player and had received a full scholarship from USC.
From the first weeks of his freshman year, Newberry seemed to understand that the professors at USC were not looking for skill or emotion, they were not teaching art. He knew what art felt like; it was a universe of emotion, it was the sparkle and magic of Rembrandt. Whatever this was, was not that. Until Ewing walked through the door.
In class, Ewing would walk around looking over the shoulders of his students. Once, while Newberry was painting a still life of bones, Ewing reached over his shoulder, thrust his thumb in the white paint, and scraped a highlight across a bone in front.
Suddenly, the bone popped forward in space.
Something clicked. Newberry had spent years lovingly contemplating Rembrandt, who was a master of achieving a realness in the depth and space created by the forms.
For example, in Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer, there is a slow gradation of brightness as an arm, draped with golden folds, creates a triangle in space between the shoulder, elbow, and wrist. Each point has a sharpness that suspends it at a point in space that has a clear triangulated relationship to everything else in the painting — Aristotle’s nose, Homer’s forehead, the corner of the table. The golden folds of the arm bend to follow the shape of the arm, melting into the deep umber of the background as it recedes from our view.
In Rembrandt’s world of browns and golds, the gold brought an object forward in space, and the local intensity of the contrasts between the shadows and highlights locked a point in space. The effect became a caressing sense of depth that the eye, and the soul, could feel.
Ewing didn’t tell Newberry what color combinations to use, or how to start. He didn’t even express the idea verbally. It was all about making the vibrations of color work with one another, letting your eye and heart lead you. He taught by example. And, by occasionally sticking his finger in the paint.
Human beings are, biologically speaking, omnivores. Our eyes point forward in order to hunt prey, and our eyes have a nuanced color perception in order to distinguish between edible fruits. We evolved from primates that lived in dense jungles, and the mechanics of our senses are specifically designed for unbelievably fantastic perception of three dimensional depth and space in confusing environments.
What allows us to see so well is stereopsis, the ability to see in stereovision, in which our brain takes in the images from two eyes and performs a calculation to gauge the distance. This our brain does automatically, and after a lot of experience seeing this way, we begin to pick up a wide variety of other depth cues that aid the effort.
Oliver Sacks, the famous neuropsychologist and writer (and until his recent passing one of my favorite people in the universe) was always particularly fascinated by stereovision. He collected stereograms, which allow the viewer to see in artificial depth by way of polarized light, colors, or plastic ridges like early versions of today’s holograms.
Sacks is well known for his entertaining stories of individuals with weird neurological problems. In Sacks’s book The Mind’s Eye, he tells the story of Sue Barry (“Stereo Sue”). Sue was born cross-eyed and had several eye surgeries when she was a little girl. She didn’t achieve true stereovision until her late 40’s, with correction and physical therapy.
A few days into her therapy, the world started to pop into three dimensions. Documenting her experience in letters and a diary, and later her own book, she described the experience as “absolutely delightful.” Stereovision made ordinary things look extraordinary. Sometimes, it was shocking — like when she walked by a horse skeleton on display and it loomed at her, frightfully close in space.
Once on a run, she stopped and just gazed at the vegetation:
every leaf seemed to stand out in its own little 3-D space. The leaves didn’t just overlap with each other as I used to see them. I could see the SPACE between the leaves.
She was so enamored with the world that she would take hours to just walk around and look at her new environment. Even after a few years of the new vision, it continued to surprise and delight her. Her visual experiences became a deep source of joy.
How wonderful would be to experience the world again, for the first time? Sometimes, art gives us that chance. But the idea of taking delight in our senses was not a theme often picked up in twentieth century art. Abstract art delights in a distorted visual picture, unconscious of the reality that many people fight against distorted vision their entire lives.
Experiments in Transparency
In 1974, under coach George Toley, the USC tennis team tied for first place. But in a summer tournament in Hamburg, Newberry had begun to sense his own limitations in the sport.
Meanwhile, in his art, he could nail it. Everything he was trying to do, every time he pushed himself to master something new. And he didn’t stop until the expression was there, he could feel it. It gave him the energy and excitement to try the next thing. To push harder.
Newberry accepted an offer from Holland to play tournaments as their one international player. He did so for the next several years. It left most of his year free to do art, and provided him a stipend.
Europe was where the art was. The Hague had the Royal Academy of Art, and the Free Academy, which held nine hours of figure drawing sessions with live models, three days a week. Even one day there would be more life drawing than he had experienced in three years of class at USC.
Following the insight that began with Ewing, Newberry concentrated his thought on the space of a painting, and the movement of forms through space. All the greats in history were masters of it.
The contrast of a white object over a dark background, or a dark object over a white background — these relied on value to create space. Rembrandt translated value space into browns and golds. Contrasts in between the highlights and shadows on each point in space strengthened the illusion.
In the above image, which square in each line appears furthest forward? I see the black square in the first line popping forward, and the whitest square in the second line popping forward.
Colors, too, could create the contrast needed for the illusion of depth. The French Impressionists, especially Monet, injected an expansive new realm of possibility for color. A warm orange object over a cool blue background could pop it forward in space, but so could a cool green object over a hot red background. The contrasts between ‘hot’ and ‘cool’ colors brought objects forward, and transparencies sent objects away.
In Monet’s Water Lilies piece from 1919, the scene is close enough to the viewer that Monet cannot rely purely on atmospheric depth to create a sense of space. Instead, lilies on the surface of the water pop forward by using strong yellow-blue contrasts, yellow-green contrasts, and yellow-purple contrasts. Lilies in the distance blend more with the ochre-greens. If you concentrate only on the reflections, you can see the water fades from almost purple-blue in front to light indigo in the distance, and the trees fade from vibrant forest green to ochre. He is controlling the depth of both the surface of the water and the content of the reflections.
Although art in the twentieth century took a turn away from realism, Picasso started his career as a masterful representational painter. In Nature morte au compotier, a frenetic painting with two dimensional forms patched almost into a collage, Picasso allows background layers to come through foreground layers, making them transparent. A piece of cloth clearly falls over the edge of the table, but where the line of the table meets the line of the wall in the distance, the cloth has a clear gradation of lightness that occurs right at the line.
In his Melancholy Woman, the face is made up a series of blues that deepen into the figure’s eye socket. These blues make the shadows transparent to the background. This creates an artificial sense of depth in the shadow that feels right, even if, out of context, it would place the left cheek of the figure to far back in space.
Newberry wanted to create optical realism and felt that Picasso had added something brilliant to the tools of prior masters. In three canvases from this period in Holland, Newberry began to experiment with the power of transparency to create depth.
In Jette, he washed a limb to make it recede into the distance, transparent to the blue of a window behind it. He strengthened a thigh in the foreground with an intense red to pull it forward from the pink of the floor. When cool blues fell back, hot reds pulled forward.
In Rob II, the background is muted gradations of green, the edge of the bed beyond drawing a line through the figure. In the foreground, a knee pops out of the canvas, and a triangulation of space is established between the elbow and both knees that creates an enormous gulf of space.
In both pieces, the lines of the background cut through the figures in ways that go far beyond normal optical realism. But squinting at the painting, something seems to work that makes it dissolve into space.
In Rob I, the background comes through the figure, especially in the shadows, while blue highlights sharpen the form and bring it forward in space. Squinting seems to clarify the planes of space. The first plane is the figure’s left arm and left knee, and the table. The next plane is the rest of the figure. And then, the background.
The pieces dissolved and materialized the figure in space like a force field of color and light; the iridescence of a soap bubble sculpted into human shape, absorbing and reflecting the atmosphere around it.
Scientifically speaking, the paintings were experiments in how to create the illusion of stereoscopic vision on a two-dimensional canvas.
Evolution to Greatness
As Newberry continued to develop as an artist, he sought to integrate the depth sensations produced by color contrasts, shadow-highlight contrasts, and color transparencies with a mastery of natural realism. The next phase of his life was in New York and Los Angeles.
In the oil painting The Writer and the Artist, there is clear relationship in space between the heads, hands, and knees of the figures, as well as the edges of the desk and chair. Every detail and form is locked in position, brought forward by the intensity of the contrasts. The figures easily float over the flat plane in the background, which almost has an atmospheric depth to it.
Further, notice the color transparency in the shadows, such as the man’s right arm leaning on the table. The transparencies are extremely subtle and almost subliminal.
Finally, notice how the brightness of the background plane is sculpted around each figure. I like to call this “warping” space. There is almost a halo of light at the back of the woman’s head in order to pop the shadowed brown hair against the background. There is an extremely subtle thread of light following the edge of the man’s right arm in order to ensure that it doesn’t dissolve completely.
Although Newberry achieved mastery with this piece, it still doesn’t feel like many of his later works, because it lacked the intense color vibrancy that would distinguish the next twenty years of work.
When Newberry began drawing with pastels, he discovered that blending the pastel into the paper quickly saturates the ability of the drawing to receive new layers. But using individual strokes, with space between the lines, allows layer upon layer of color to be added. Further, the color of the paper itself still came through transparently in the shadows.
Pastels became a laboratory for observing color combinations and nuance in nature and life. Newberry began doing color studies in pastel for new major paintings. Translating pastel into oil was not easy, but it gave a new powerful dimension of color brilliance to his works.
In Pursuit, Newberry dramatizes a scene between two lovers on the streets of New York. The scene was controversial in its portrayal of a woman playing cat and mouse in an alley as her lover approaches. The woman is beckoning her lover and almost overcome by the anticipation; one viewer described it as a “disconcerting mix of excitement and fear.”
The woman’s vibrant red dress under an orange street lamp contrasts against the cool blues of the fading evening sky. Hot colors floating over cool colors.
The drape of the woman’s dress shows that Newberry first studied the figure in the nude before layering clothes, to allow the shape of the figure to come through the flat fabric.
With Pursuit in 1985, Newberry had created drama and an emotional depth within the figure. He had shown his true colors as an optimist and a romantic and done it by integrating wisdom from previous generations of artists.
With his next piece, he wanted to push it as far as he could go, to make the greatest work he was physically capable of making. He wanted the theme to be universal, but not political. And he wanted to reach for the most important moment in life for a human being.
After three years of work, the result was Denouement, a scene with two radiant lovers and a lamp spilling golden light over a Mexican carpet. The complexity of color integration in this piece is masterful; orange light diffuses through a transparent green sheet to casts transparent shadows against the golden walls and subtly alter the colors in the carpet. Discarded blue clothes float over hot yellows and greens.
Newberry prepared over a hundred sketches and pastel studies for the piece, but even so it was overpainted many times. In progress photographs, the colors are more naturalistic, the human skin appearing as if under a white light. Over time Newberry altered the atmosphere to show what the lovers were feeling — with a hot vaporous cloud of warmth, like the corona of the Sun, radiating from the lover’s bodies.
Like Monet’s Water Lilies, the carpet is a flat surface receding in space, and the colors had to harmonize perfectly for it to work. Newberry worked on the painting’s color harmonies for thousands of hours.
To complicate things, the light source is in the middle of the painting. Whereas a photograph might show an extremely sharp contrast where the light source was obscured by an object, Newberry made surfaces more luminous as they approached the light source, even in the shadows. This recreated the glare the human eye perceives when looking directly at a light source.
The theme, beauty and complexity of this piece makes it one of the masterpieces of American art in the twentieth century.
The Vision Science
In 2002, Newberry gave a talk to the European Conference on Visual Perception in Glasgow, Scotland on his technique of transparency and contrast. He was speaking to vision scientists, who study the physics, anatomy, cognition, and psychology of vision.
Newberry began by discussing value space, blacks over a white field; whites over a black field, and referring to examples such as ancient cave paintings, sketches by Michelangelo, and paintings by Monet. He then discussed modern intense color contrasts seen in the work of Van Gogh — intense yellows and oranges with a blue field; and intense blues and greens over an orange field.
One of his own paintings that he spoke about, Pastels, is a small oil on panel that might be considered an allegory of color. A box filled with cool color pastels sits on top of a box of warm color pastels. The hot background punches the cool colors forward in space. There is also a visual joke in this piece — a single pink pastel stub was tossed into the wrong box.
When illustrating cool colors popping forward over hot fields, Newberry comments:
In art school we were taught that cool colors go back and warm colors come forward, this diagram contracts that idea
In 2015, the vision scientist Jan Koenderink from the University of Leuven published a study on Hue contrast and the sense of space in which participants were asked to make depth judgments based on stimulus patterns. Each pattern consisted of two color fields with a material feel but a fuzzy edge, such as the one below. All four orientations for each color pair were provided to help take away any bias due to orientation.
The data demonstrated that participants preferred to see hot colors as near, and cool colors as far. It also revealed that yellows and oranges were more ambiguous to observers.
When I spoke with Newberry about this study, he felt that this was good evidence for a three-axis approach to color space. Yellows can be interpreted as hot or cool depending on the context, and we don’t have as strong of a preconceived bias.
It should be possible to design a study that gets closer to Newberry’s theory. Imagine if participants are shown two images side by side; each one with an object over a field, and the participants are asked to rate which object is deeper in space.
Which orange blob looks further back to you? I see the orange blob on the right pop forward more over the blue field. Koenderick believes a study like this may be possible but it would need to compensate for a wide variety of implicit visual biases.
The Delight of Seeing Deeper
After months and years of seeing with stereopsis, Sue Barry never lost the delight in the space of the world around her. But she also noticed that her brain began to pick up other tips and tricks to aid the process of recreating an understanding of space even when stereopsis wasn’t there.
Notice that when you close one eye, the world does not suddenly go flat. This is because your brain is telling your visual processing center that it should be seeing steroscopic depth, even when it isn’t. It is using the way light and shadows are reflecting from surfaces, and at how objects occlude other objects — as well as a great many other subtle factors.
When I first discovered Newberry’s theory of color depth, I spent time training my brain to really feel the depth created by color space. It enriched my appreciation of art immeasurably, much like Sue Barry’s experience. More over, I began to really appreciate old masters.
The disappointment came when a great many paintings by living representational artists were insufferably flat. I don’t blame them for that — they are the first of an era still rebuilding after the postmodernists decimated our art culture. Many artists over the age of 40 today had to teach themselves their craft through trial and error; some even by consulting ancient texts.
Most works of art rely on a wide variety of other context cues for recreating the illusion of space (perspective, lighting, object occlusion, texture, et cetera), but nothing can quite match the feeling produced by a masterwork that integrates color depth. The way it allows your mind to slip into the reality of the artist — a true window into a 3D world — will always be, for me, an experience of joy.
Figurative art is coming back; brilliant artists are emerging all over the globe; and an atelier tradition is being reborn at figurative art academies that will allow knowledge to pass from Newberry’s generation to the next, and then the next.