Many years ago I was teaching at a country art society and trying to explain to a student how to paint a still life and have it look life like without any tricks or formulas.

He insisted that he knew how to do it as he had been shown the ‘Ten Apple’ test, as he called it, so I was all ears. It goes something like this:

If one was to arrange ten apples in a row going away from you, one behind the other, the front apple would be easier to see than the next one and so on until the apple furthest away would be the most difficult to see. Therefore, he posited, one should soften the edges of each of the apples in turn more as they recede.

I had heard something of this theory when visiting a solo exhibition many years ago and being asked by the artist whose work was on display, whether I was a painter and on answering yes, was asked where I had learned to paint. When I mentioned my teacher’s name the artist remarked “Oh, everything in the same plane.”

I had noticed when looking at this artist’s still life works that the items in the background had far softer edges than the ones to the fore. In other words, they were out of focus.

Since that time, I have mulled over this idea as I had never been told about this theory and being sceptical about theories in art, have attempted to come up with a method to explain to students how one can achieve the effect of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface without any calculations apart from tonal comparison and good form being required. We must remember always that what we have in front of us is only a set of shapes and not things.

Firstly, we must return to the basics in realist painting which must be still life and let us consider a still life subject consisting of apples placed in a way that some are further away from us than others.

If we concentrate our gaze on the apples  closest to us, the edges will be clear and strong. Depending on the lighting the edges of the apples towards the rear will not be as strong. If we then transfer our gaze to the apples in the ‘middle distance’, once again we will find that their edges have a very similar if not the same quality as the front ones had when we concentrated our gaze on them. The same will apply to the furthest apple but as we gaze at the furthest apple the edges of the apples towards the front will become unclear.

If I ask as did Julius Sumner Miller, ‘Why is it so?’ I say am not a scientist and certainly know nothing of the science of vision. One of my maxims in painting is ‘Do not ask why, merely ask what’, and I have found the above to be true.

When presented with the theory under discussion my first question is how much should we soften edges over what distance?

The seeming paradox here is that the same phenomena is apparent when we look at a painting of the apples painted realistically. If one softens the edges of the receded apples its edges will never look sharp so the painting would not obey our visual perception.

When we paint from life in a realist manner our major tool is our eye. Sure, we can use devices to measure Height and width and even tonal difference but to paraphrase Alan Martin these are dangerous as there may come a time when you may be without them and what would you do then? One always has the eye! Alan even eschewed the viewer, but I find one handy for composition purposes only. He also said that “Tone is the third dimension.”

Don James November 2022

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