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The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts, The New Version [Paperback]

Rudolf Arnheim
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the Visual Arts 3.5 out of 5 stars (2)
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Book Description

March 25 1988
Using a wealth of examples, Arnheim considers the factors that determine the overall organization of visual form in works of painting, sculpture, and architecture.

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About the Author

Rudolf Arnheim is Professor Emeritus of the Psychology of Art at Harvard University. For many years he was a member of the Psychology Faculty at Sarah Lawrence College, and he spent his last ten academic years at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he now lives.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
This book offers an in-depth analysis of the visual dynamics in a piece of art according to the sizes, positions, orientations and the balancing centers of its components. Paintings, sculptures and architectures are the subjects of discussions in the book. In addition to the balance between the components of a piece of art, the shape of a picture frame, the environment, the perspective prescribed by the artist and the viewer all play an important role in the interpretation of a piece art. The author takes an step-by-step approach to explain how the understanding of the roles of all these elements would help us to appreciate a piece of art. Many examples, modern and classical, are provided to demonstrate his points. I find his approach to understanding a piece of art interesting and revealing. This is one of the best books I ever read about arts. I think this book would benefit aspiring artists and art enthusiasts alike. I would hane given it five stars instead of four and a half if the pictures in the book were in color.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More scientific than artistic April 20 2000
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
The book reads like a complicated mathematical college text book. The author either tries to impress you with his knowledge of the english language or confuse you with the ideology behind his observations in artistic composition. I found the book to be very confusing and at times boring enough to put it aside and read something else. The author does relate some good input when critiquing paintings but you need pay complete attention to the beginning of the book in order to understand his complicated formulas. It is definetely not an easy read, and not for the artist. This book is for the art critic who tries to find scientific formulas for the study of composition.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  5 reviews
57 of 58 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Power of the Center: A Study of Composition in the visua April 17 2000
By passtime seeker - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This book offers an in-depth analysis of the visual dynamics in a piece of art according to the sizes, positions, orientations and the balancing centers of its components. Paintings, sculptures and architectures are the subjects of discussions in the book. In addition to the balance between the components of a piece of art, the shape of a picture frame, the environment, the perspective prescribed by the artist and the viewer all play an important role in the interpretation of a piece art. The author takes an step-by-step approach to explain how the understanding of the roles of all these elements would help us to appreciate a piece of art. Many examples, modern and classical, are provided to demonstrate his points. I find his approach to understanding a piece of art interesting and revealing. This is one of the best books I ever read about arts. I think this book would benefit aspiring artists and art enthusiasts alike. I would hane given it five stars instead of four and a half if the pictures in the book were in color.
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Yes! March 19 2007
By Thomas F. Brosnahan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I've been looking for a book like this for years! As a photographer, I know what I like but I can't always say why I (or others) like it--in other words, what makes a "good" image. Arnheim helps by examining with extraordinary sensitivity the psychology and even physiology of visual perception.

Yes, it's complicated, and if you are not on the same wavelength as the author it may seem obtuse (perhaps even willfully so). But if your thinking is congruent with his, if you have been puzzling over how people examine images, how their eyes move about an image and absorb and appreciate it, then Arnheim's analysis is nothing short of brilliant and revelatory. I find myself saying "Yes! Yes! Yes!" as I read.

There is more here than I need--much more. I don't feel that I need to master everything he writes in order to fulfill my need to understand visual perception so as to improve my photography. But I celebrate the day I discovered this book, and I congratulate the author on such a perceptive, clearly--even engagingly--written work.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One Working-Artists' Essential Read Jan. 6 2010
By Visual Medicine - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Professor Rudolph Arnheim passed-on in 2007-- too-early. His words have long been on my very short shelf of those convincing writers on the Experience of art, and is at the zenith of those few who can actually teach Learning To See (at distance).

This title concentrates on elements that, while eventually intuited by working artists, are here spelled-out so clearly that I caught myself sighing-and-startling several times. Could I be more emphatic, short of drooling?

It begs to be written-into, including lines onto the (simple) diagrams, so I am today purchasing a clean copy for my daughter (who accepted my pushing it into her hands only a month ago). I had passed it along too-soon.

Professor Arnheim has, in this one among many fine volumes, produced one of the finest books of the past century for art AND artists. Rare, indeed, given that it is never pompous and contains not a single color picture. Nearly impossible to cram more experience into such a small work; AND to discover that simple words can still provoke new meaning in my daily decisions in making images. His writing style is that of the helpful, kind (insider) friend to (the novice as well as the elite). He is to the point, softly-- minus the terse collegial congratulations often evident in academic art writings.

I am grateful for his contributions to my education and Life of the Mind. Had we ever met, I would have shook his hand too hard; new thoughts from his pen will be missed.
39 of 62 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More scientific than artistic April 20 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The book reads like a complicated mathematical college text book. The author either tries to impress you with his knowledge of the english language or confuse you with the ideology behind his observations in artistic composition. I found the book to be very confusing and at times boring enough to put it aside and read something else. The author does relate some good input when critiquing paintings but you need pay complete attention to the beginning of the book in order to understand his complicated formulas. It is definetely not an easy read, and not for the artist. This book is for the art critic who tries to find scientific formulas for the study of composition.
5 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic by the great pioneer in the perception of art Nov. 27 2005
By magellan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Arnheim's great books, this one as well as his Visual Thinking, began a revolution in the understanding of art and inspired me to make my own analysis of one artist's paintings, van Gogh, so I just wanted to make a few comments about that. (I even once received a letter from Arnheim, saying he liked my ideas). His ideas have influenced many researchers since, including myself, and I hope you don't mind if I make some further comments on that. Again, I owe Arnheim for pointing me in the right direction. So the following ideas really result from following his lead, so I hope it won't be considered too inappropriate to post them here.

As Ernst Gombrich has shown, analyzing space in a picture is an extremely complex business. The fact that even sophisticated observers sometimes form mistaken impressions of a pictorial space is itself an interesting phenomenon and illustrates an important principle of the human visual system, which is that it is not very good at evaluating precise metrical relationships. If the space is so constructed that it is at least internally consistent, it may look realistic when it is not, and the space may even seem distorted when it is not.

Considering the problem of the different recession rates for the objects in van Gogh's paintings, how do we account for these distortions? We could simply dismiss them as errors resulting from van Gogh's inability to paint perspectivally, but would be a mistake, for the following reasons:

1) The magnitude and direction of the errors in the sizes of objects are consistent with known psychophysical mechanisms of size constancy.

2) There is a strong shape constancy effect, and also (as John Ward has pointed out), such as in the two chairs and the pictures on the wall (in his Bedroom at Arles).

3) Van Gogh's failure to map out an initial, precise, major metric eliminates the most important perspective cue for object scaling and thus permits the inherent constancy-scaling effects of the human visual system to surface.

4) Although distorted perspectivally, the space is nevertheless internally consistent. This is to be expected from secondary size-constancy effects.

5) The technique of squinting to enhance one's depth of field, which van Gogh sometimes used, would reinforce cues to size constancy by essentially putting the station point behind the artist.

Points 4 and 5 require further discussion.

As noted earlier, secondary size constancy is the tendency for the sizes of objects to correlate with other perspective cues. Even in a painting with a very poorly defined or no major metric (such as in van Gogh's Bedroom), most perspective errors are not random. If they were, the errors would occur in both positive and negative directions about some mean value and would therefore average out. This is rarely the case, however. Usually the errors show a consistent trend. This is because once a given direction and magnitude of deviation has been established, other cues tend to be altered accordingly for the sake of consistency. This can be seen in van Gogh's Bedroom where different objects show similar effects. Although the objects themselves show different vanishing points, the size effect is nevertheless the same.

Van Gogh is also known to have used squinting in order to increase his depth of field. This would cause both foreground and background objects to appear simultaneously more in focus and therefore would have the effect of putting the station point artificially in back of the observer. Durer illustrated a device to accomplish this in his treatise on perspective, but simply squinting strongly can produce a powerful effect of several feet.

Schapiro, Heelan, and various other writers have commented on the sense of realism which van Gogh's paintings create in the viewer. But at this point we could ask why, if van Gogh's perspective space is in many ways so imprecise, we continue to see it as powerful and realistic? Partly it is due to the fact that although there are many spatial distortions present, the space is nevertheless consistent with psychophysical expectations and the distortions due to size constancy are of the proper psychophysical magnitude. This is perhaps to be expected given van Gogh's interest in objects and in the depiction of objects for their own sake. The result is that objects possess more autonomy in van Gogh's paintings than they would if he had taken pains to construct a unified perspective space and thus show appropriate psychophysical effects.

The main reason, however, concerns a fundamental principle of mammalian visual systems. It has been demonstrated repeatedly in experiments that the human visual system is a poor detector of the absolute values of such things as brightness and distance. On the other hand, the visual system is very good at preserving relationships and relative levels of things. Our eyes, for example, throw away information about luminous intensity but conserve and even enhance information about relative brightness and contrast borders, as in the well-known case of Mach bands. This mechanism enables us to easily detect the outlines of objects under varying levels of illumination. In fact, the visual system is such a good extractor of lines that it creates them where they don't even exist or where they are only suggested, as in the well- known case of illusory and subjective contours.

A similar phenomenon occurs in space perception. As I discussed earlier in this article, many experiments have shown that people rarely view paintings from the proper perspective point, and yet experience very little distortion in the perceived objects. This suggests that the visual system constructs an internal model which preserves the relations between the objects in a scene. When distortions occur, the visual system is capable of compensating internally for the perceived distortion. In practical terms, this means that the perspective may depart substantially, both quantitatively and qualitatively, from reality and yet be seen as realistic if it is not too greatly distorted and if the space is at least internally consistent.

What all this shows is that artists are, in essence, perceptual problem solvers, or, as Rudolph Arnheim has said, "visual thinkers." Such a view is, I believe, preferable to the idea that the artist paints from some inexplicable or mysterious talent, or from some sort of abnormal psychology or pathology.
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