Visual science in the art of Chuck Close

I’ve just found this amazing article on the work of artist Chuck Close from a 2008 edition of the Archives of Ophthalmology.

It examines the visual science behind his pixelated style and how a stroke left the artist paralysed – after which he has produced some of his finest work.

Chuck Close (1940- ) is one of the most famous American artists working today. His distinctive paintings are huge canvases that depict faces, often his own. He works in a nontraditional manner by combining many small geometric forms, usually squares or rectangles, to create a portrait. The individual elements he uses in making an image may be termed pixels. The word pixel is a neologism used in computer technology to mean the smallest form in a digitized image and is a combination of the words picture and element.

Chuck Close is a compelling individual who has endured a great physical misfortune. In 1988 he experienced an occlusion of a spinal artery in the neck, which left him quadriplegic. The occlusion has affected the way he paints, but not his style of painting. Many experts have found it difficult to differentiate work done before the onset of his quadriplegia from that done afterward.

The paintings lead to important questions concerning visual perception and the possibility of artificial vision. What determines our ability to combine many small geometric units into a coherent image? How many different elements are needed to create an image? What are the effects of changing colors within the elements?

Close has had a long interest in science, and even painted a cover for the journal Science.

For someone who paints such remarkable portraits, you might be surprised to learn that he recently revealed he has prosopagnosia, a life-long difficulty in recognising faces.

The Archives of Ophthalmology article looks at how we perceive coherent images from patterns that seem chaotic when viewed at close quarters and how Close takes advantage of these processes in his work.

You can click on the images in the article to see them much larger and really get an idea of how they’re constructed.

Link to Archives of Ophthalmology on Chuck Close and visual science.

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