Snowflakes and paint

Lately, I’ve been deeply impressed by how complex everything is. Granted, I’ve been watching Nova. But nanotransistors and subatomic particles aside, things that would seem to be relatively simple, just aren’t.

Take snow—of which I’ve seen quite a lot lately. It looks white, wet and cold. But when Snowflake Bentley, living in Jericho, Vermont not too many years ago (1865 – 1939), started taking pictures of snowflakes, he discovered after over 5,000 pictures, that it was so much more. No two snowflakes were alike. Not only were they different, they were complicated, delicate and gorgeous in their design. Yet, somehow, taken in mass they become snow—white, wet and cold. Bentley had the heart of an artist. He was less interested in the phenomenon of snow than the beauty and intricacy of the flakes. But watching them fall the other day, as they seem to do most days here, I wondered how frustrated he must have been. So many millions, and he could only capture impressions of five thousand.


Another instance: I’ve begun reading What Painting Is by James Elkins. Now, like most museum-goers, I’ve looked closely at the brush strokes of some of history’s greatest painters  (getting as near as I could without drawing a warning from a guard). I know that what you see close-up and at a distance are two (or more) different things—just as the intricacy of millions of snowflakes ends by making a single cold white surface, glinting, shadowed at times, rife with many colors at others, but still a recognizable winter phenomenon. I know that things are not what they seem in art and in real life. Nevertheless, to read about Monet’s brush strokes is to be amazed.

There are many colors in the painter’s lily ponds. But Elkins has really studied them. He’s had students try to copy what seem to be simple pictures by Monet and end up with flat, dispirited scenes. Studying the artist’s brush strokes, he says (and his descriptions go on for pages):

… each mark has to be different from each other mark; if one slants downward, the next has to go up. If one is straight, the next must be arcuate. Lancet strokes must follow rounded ones, zigzags must be cut across by ellipses, thickened strokes must be gouged by thin scrapes. Any pattern has to be defeated before it grows large enough to be seen by a casual eye.

And even this is too simple. An ordinary square inch in a Monet painting is a chaos, a scruffy mess of shapeless glints and tangles. His marks are so irregular, and so varied, and there are so many of them, that it is commonly impossible to tell how the surface was laid down…..


So it seems to me, nothing  is simple. As we learn more and more about ourselves and the universe, that becomes more and more apparent. Remembering it, our mouths should be perpetually agape with wonder.

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