Abstraction, Expression, and Sonification

Conflict by Maria L. Berg 2023

I looked at expression as an abstract noun back at the beginning of my study in April of 2022, and created a facial expression out of wire for my images. But today, I’m exploring “a manifestation of an emotion, feeling, etc., without words” and communication of emotion through art.

In Photography and the Art of Seeing by Freeman Patterson, he says, “Once you have abstracted the visual elements most essential to a scene or event, you have to select. Selecting is choosing those parts of the subject matter that will best express the character of the scene or the meaning of the event.”

If I’m trying to express happiness, I need to select lines, shapes, colors, tones, and textures, then combine them in a composition that is my expression of happiness. And then select the ones that most express happiness and despair together? So if I go with yellow, orange, in the brightest tones, and the most harmoniously balanced composition, is that happiness? It’s like my Ship of Theseus question about story. What are the elements that can’t be replaced for it to still express happiness?

Generation by Maria L. Berg 2023

Patterson thinks I should be looking at this the other way around. “Once we have determined what the subject matter expresses (that is, its subject or theme), we may notice how that expression was achieved—by means of particular shapes, textures, and colours. . . .When you make pictures, take advantage of the natural sequence in which your senses provide information. First, ask “What does the subject matter express?” (Possible answer: joy.) Then ask “How does the subject matter express it?” (Possible answer: the joy is expressed through soaring vertical and oblique lines, light tones, and bright colours.)”

So today, instead of having an intention and attempting to capture an image, I’m going to look at some of my images and take advantage of that natural sequence. When I look at “Conflict” (top of page), I see forward motion being blocked, opposing forces. I see disappointment, and frustration. How is that expressed? Through the direction of the shape, the change of color from cool to warm, the dominant size of the reversed shape on the right , the brightness of the reversed shape, and composition putting the shapes in opposition with a zig-zag space between them.

When I look at “Generation” (above) I see calm, happiness, the lightness of Spring. How is that expressed? Through the light pastel colors, the two forms connecting through their overlapping lines, the overall swoop of the design moving up and to the right, the pink haziness joining the two forms like a warm feeling.

Though “Interruption” (below) is similar to “Generation” (above) it expresses a very different emotion. When I look at “Interruption” I see irritation, ugliness in the beauty; the chain of connection is broken. How is that expressed? The pastel color is overpowered by the brighter intruding shape in the foreground. The flow of the lines is interrupted creating a jagged line just left of center. The overall direction is down to the right, but also horizontal across the center.

Through this exercise, I noticed a zig-zag line of space creates a break in flow in both of the images with more negative emotions. This may be something I try as an expressive technique in the future.

Interruption by Maria L. Berg 2023

“We respond with different emotions to different shapes, textures, lines, and colours on the basis of qualities we perceive in them,” said Patterson, and then quoted Rudolf Arnheim from Art and Visual Perception.

I put Art and Visual Perception in my kindle and searched for “expression” and then “abstract”. While reading the sixty-five matches for abstract, I found, “The surprisingly strong expression of geometrical figures in movement has been demonstrated in the more elaborate “abstract” films of Oskar Fischinger, Norman MacLaren, Walt Disney, and others.”

I had already watched Fischinger and Disney, so I looked up MacLaren and found this interesting film about drawing sounds on film.

Drawing sounds

This got me wondering if there were programs that would turn my images into sounds, and then I spent the rest of the morning playing with sonification.


PIXELSYNTH is an online program. It instantly turns your photos black and white when you upload them and then has knobs you can turn to adjust the brightness and contrast which will change the sounds. You can choose the key and types of scale used.

Photosounder has a free downloadable demo. At first it turned my image into fluctuating noise, but then I found “Group to Nearest Semitone” at the bottom of the Operations menu and it turned the noise into tones.

I’m just getting started experimenting with the possibilities, but I love how it brings music into my abstractions study in a new way.

RNLN Focus

This week I read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. It was our third novel in a row in omniscient POV, and yet it was very different from John Irving’s distant omniscient narrator of A Widow for One Year. Woolf’s narrator was so close inside the character’s heads and hearts, she was like a telepath with no control.

The novel was assigned as part of the online course “The Modern and the Postmodern (Part 2)” and in the lectures he talked about how the novel was the study of relational distance which I thought was interesting. And I’ll talk more about that on Thursday.

Today’s Surprising Connection

I got my copy of the poetry collection Waves by PJ Thomas to review for Library Thing Early Reviewers program, and started thinking about how I want to approach Reading Poetry Collections as a Poet. I looked at a great book on writing poetry In the Palm of Your Hand: A Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit, and in the section “Getting Your Poems into the World” he said, “The best places to learn about publishers and book contests are in the bimonthly magazine Poets and Writers and the bimonthly Writers Chronicle.”

I hadn’t heard of The Writer’s Chronicle, so I looked it up. It turns out it is the magazine of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs and in the February issue there is an article called, “In Working Order, or Proxemics & the Poetry Book” by Anna Leahy. Sadly, I couldn’t read it without being a member or subscriber, but it got me curious about Proxemics.

Proxemics is the branch of knowledge that deals with the amount of space that people feel it necessary to set between themselves and others. It is the study of how people unconsciously structure the space around them. It also has a Linguistic definition which is the study of the symbolic and communicative role in a culture of spatial arrangements and variations in distance, as in how far apart individuals engaged in conversation stand depending on the degree of intimacy between them.

Though my professor didn’t mention it, it seems to me that Virginia Woolf’s novel is a study of proxemics.

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