Perceptual Aspects of Visual Stylization

in Art & Perception
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Visual style is instantly recognized as that which sets the qualitative tone of what we look at. For all its intuitive immediacy, verbal articulation of the fundamental visual characteristics of style can be elusive. This paper conceptually analyses the perceptual dimensions of style, suggesting at least eight general properties applicable to visual stylization. These characteristics not only embody the essential dimensions of perceptual experience of a given style, but can also be thought of as a generative grammar of stylistic expression. Together they can be utilized as an early attempt to more clearly conceptualize experimental inquiries regarding the effect of visual stylization in perceptual experience.

Perceptual Aspects of Visual Stylization

in Art & Perception



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    Stylized clouds and lightning bolts in two 19th century Japanese dye stencils. (a) Cloud and lightning outlines are simplified, reduced and emphasized, but retain the character of clouds and lightning. Rendered with dots, the design has a light and delicate signature, appearing like cheerful tadpoles playing in a labyrinth. The delicate dots and playful shapes set a light-hearted and joyful stylistic tone. Used during a festive occasion, this design would convey greater stylistic depth than if worn at a funeral. (b) Part–whole relationships in a highly stylized motif. The simple curves and formal rectangular grid are stylized to a greater degree than in (a), hence appear less immediately recognizable as clouds and lightning. The design conveys an elegant stylistic tone, more serious than (a) and potentially more appropriate for a semi-formal occasion. Images used with courtesy of Gert van Tonder.

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    Individual sheets (a) and (b) from a set of Japanese double stencils. Layers of block resin scraped through each sheet will overlap (c) such that it leaves a sparse pattern to be exposed to a dark dye (darkest areas in (c)). The end result is a design of cranes and pines amidst a flurry of snow (d) — delicately stylized but quite different from the stylistic appearance of the individual sheets. Images used with courtesy of Gert van Tonder.

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    Pine Forest, Tōhaku Hasegawa (1539–1610). Ink on paper. The composition is carefully arranged so that no shape or spatial interval repeats. The full range of contrasts obtainable with ink on paper is utilized, the interplay of light and dark vividly suggesting fog shifting through a grove of pines. The work is thought to have been painted at a time when the artist suffered a great personal loss. Tokyo National Museum. This figure is published in color in the online version.

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    Section of Persimmons, attributed to Mu C’hi Fa-Ch’ang (1210–1270). Ink on paper. Originally painted during the Song period (960–1279) in China, this work was originally rejected by the imperial court as ‘lacking style’ (Cahill, 2012). It did not conform at all with the canonized landscape genre established at the time: there is no sweeping vista with a fully worked out range of brush stroke types, but only a mundane subject, viewed up close. Stylistically, this and other works attributed to Mu C’hi actually share distinct stylistic proportions of spacing, size, texture and contrast ratios. The darkest object is roughly central on the canvas, peripheral objects are drawn in nearly translucent outlines. The darkest brushwork is sharply defined — the work of a skilled calligrapher — and contrasted with subtle smooth and rough ink washes. All of the brushwork is done with a sure hand, meaning that the ink was laid down once without retouching it in repeated strokes. The painting is currently housed at Daitokuji Temple, Japan. While the work of Mu C’hi was initially not highly valued in China, the Zen community in Japan immediately found an affinity with its artistic spontaneity, hence the only surviving works of Mu C’hi today remain in Japan.

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    (a) Section of Pine Forest, Tōhaku Hasegawa (1539–1610) and a corresponding section of (b) Pine Trees in Moonlight, attributed to Tōhaku Hasegawa (1539–1610), but of uncertain origin. In (a) moving vertically along each tree, and from one tree to the next, there are large variations in contrast. Brushstrokes are crisp, placed with certainty, and contrasting the spindly leaves with smoother tree trunks. The sparse dry brushstrokes offer a glimpse of what lies beyond, enhancing an impression of spatial depth. The branches are not too heavily laden with leaves, and no two branches are aligned parallel to each other or of equal length. Thus the differences between branches within each tree, and differences between the trees themselves are emphasized. Scrutinizing (b) reveals solidly painted shape regions, a significant amount of equal spacing between parts and a smaller range of contrasts, presented in fumbled brushwork. The differences in stylistic accomplishment raise doubts in the mind of the author regarding the provenance attributed to (b). This figure is published in color in the online version.


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