The other day I was out with my sons and their friend, walking through Rock Creek Park. When we reached a little grassy field along a hillside trail William, my youngest, decided to test our powers of observation.
It’s a game both my boys love to play, and one that they have raised to the level of performance. The casual passer-by often takes little enough note of the obvious, let alone the animals, objects, and even young boys hidden in plain site. Observation, I think, is the connection between the naturalist and the artist.
William’s game reminded me of an exhibit we saw a while back at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Included in this exhibit of artists sketches and journals were the notebooks of American artist and naturalist Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921).
Working in the late 19th – early 20th century, Thayer has since become known as the father of camouflage for his writings on countershading and high-difference patterning. Ideas that would later be adapted by Norman Wilkinson to provide what still, to the untrained eye, seems like a counterintuitive camouflage patterning for British naval vessels.
What Thayer and his colleague George de Forest Brush noticed was not, as you might expect, that animals that closely mimicked the patterns of nature–the ones that best matched the color and texture of their surroundings–had a distinct camouflaging advantage. Of course, similarity in color and texture does help disguise potential prey, and assists the predator in stealthy attack. But by studying optics and applying the artistic concept of countershading, the two determined that the real secret to camouflage is to break up the patterns in order to confuse the viewer. The way the white belly of a fish or frog for instance serves to break up the hard lines that distinguish its shape. The effect, rather than to completely hide an animal from its predator, or a ship from its enemy, is to confuse the viewer. To break the pattern of recognition.
My son’s game works on the same principles. The idea, of course is to hide, to become invisible. But becoming invisible is only really fun if someone sees you doing it.
When we look at the natural world, or at art the disruption of our view often results in misrecognition and at times mild confusion. With art as with nature, close observation is necessary to distinguish the patterns, to see the connections, and eventually for the object to to become recognizable and meaningful–whether it’s food for the belly or the mind.