Ideas Made of Light

#16: The Blank Check, by René Magritte

Le blanc-seing (The Blank Check), by René Magritte
This analysis copyright 2009, Scott M. McDaniel

The Image

The Blank Check by Magritte

The first time I read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics what he did with René Magritte’s painting The Treachery of Images made me laugh out loud with delight. (The phrase in the painting means “This is not a pipe.”) I didn’t know who Magritte was at the time, so McCloud’s book was a welcome introduction. His most famous paintings are the visual equivalents of jokes – sometimes sly and subtle but always smart. Some of them, like The Rape I, are serious jokes that challenge more than they make us laugh. Others are visual puns, like The Collective Invention. All of them, though, try to knock you out of your usual mindset by tweaking something we take for granted and showing us how strange it is. Why is a half-fish, half-woman normal when the top part is the woman? Why not the fish? When someone looks at a woman as a sex object, does she have a face at all?

I suppose I’m dating myself, but I first saw a version of Le blanc-seing (The Blank Check) as the cover for the Styx album “The Grand Illusion” years before I read Understanding Comics. For this picture Magritte is playing with perception and the techniques we use all the time as illustrators. It’s a classic case of knowing the rules of perception well enough to know just how to break them. The two principles he plays with the most are occlusion and closure. (See the Leyendecker analysis for more on closure.)

The Closure Part

Closure is what happens when our brains take a few separate parts of a picture and, because they’re lined up just right, interprets them as a single object. (McCloud talks about it too in the context of filling in what happens between panels in a comic.)

If we black out everything except the horse, it’s easy for closure to do its job and give us a single object.

Closure with the horse and woman.

Closure with the horse and woman.

While in reality, all we have are pieces-parts:

Same pieces, no closure.

Same pieces, no closure.

We also use closure on the trees. In this case we can see some strangeness with occlusion going on, but we still read the broken trees as being a single thing. The arrow points to the foliage, which is particularly important. The smaller tree in the background passes over the horse’s body. The foliage there lets Magritte keep the relationship between the smaller tree and the larger one ambiguous. It’s one of our clues that we’ve fallen into a space warp.

Just the trees.  Note the area of critical foliage.

Just the trees. Note the area of critical foliage.

The Occlusion Part

Occlusion, which to me sounds like a horrible eye disease, is simply the name for when something overlaps something else. It’s in the perspective toolbox – Object A appears to be in front of Object B if it overlaps it, like so:

Occlusion: A occludes B because its line interrupts B.

Occlusion: A occludes B because its line interrupts B.

When Circle A’s outline interrupts Circle B’s, A occludes B. (If A’s and B’s lines just barely touch each other it’s called a tangent. In that case, the occlusion info in the picture is ambiguous – one reason tangents aren’t a good idea.)

Our brains constantly use both occlusion and closure to create what we see. Almost always the occlusion and closure information reinforce each other and we get an even stronger impression of space and objects. That impression of what we see, though – it’s not the same thing as what’s really there. It’s just a model. It leaves out all sorts of things and gets other things wrong. Reminding us of this fact was a theme Magritte came back to over and over and over and over again.

I said that occlusion and closure almost always support each other, but not in this painting. Magritte deliberately sets them against each other to see what will happen. What’s the result? An impossible image that somehow looks right for that split second when we first glance it. By the time our conscious mind is getting around to saying, “Wait a minute…” the perceptual model has already been set up. We’ve already seen a woman on a horse riding through the woods. That part is the joke’s setup.

Punchlines in jokes involve some shift in context – an “a ha!” moment. All of Magritte’s work in this painting is in the setup. Because he’s set up the closure information to contradict the occlusion information our model is wrong. We supply the “a ha!” for ourselves when we realize that the model is wrong. Normally our visual processing is below consciousness (thank God!). The only time we have to actually think about seeing is when our perceptual model is wrong. Magritte’s purpose, then, is to make us think about seeing. To think about the fact that we are seeing something that cannot be real but then realize that it is anyway. Sort of.

(If you doubt that we see things unconsciously, try looking at the letter A without reading it.)

The way Magritte sets up the joke is to have the background occlude certain parts of the foreground. Let’s look at the specific cases.

Background occludes the foreground.

Background occludes the foreground.

A: A tree that should be in the background passes in front of the horse’s leg and body.

B: That same skinny tree appears to occlude the woman’s arm and back. The foliage that comes in around her head means that Magritte can let the larger tree on the right occlude the skinny tree without showing an explicit T intersection.

C: The vertical stripe of background foliage occludes the horse’s body at the shoulder.

The Color and Values

While occlusion is the main perspective cue here, Magritte uses values and color to muddy the waters further, so to speak. Warm colors tend to come forward while cool colors tend to recede, so Magritte has given the horse a warm color to bring it towards us. He’s given the woman a purple outfit which pushes her toward the background. The far background is an even cooler color. Since the background’s cool color appears to overlap the horse’s warm color we get conflicting data.

When I put on an adjustment layer in Photoshop and dropped the picture’s saturation to 0, we find a curious thing.

Values for The Blank Check.

Values for The Blank Check.

Magritte couldn’t get away with a dramatic difference in values between the foreground and background. Normally artists use high contrast to draw our eyes to the point of focus. In practice, the foreground is significantly brighter or significantly darker than the foreground, but here Magritte had to keep them fairly close to each other since part of the point is to make us mix up foreground and background.

The trees are a little darker than the background. The front part of the horse has the same value as the background foliage. The horse’s hindquarters are similar to the lighter side of the tree trunks. The woman is closer in value to the background but still lighter than the trees.

Most paintings use values to help us read the picture better. Not only does Magritte not follow that principle, he deliberately subverts it. He uses values to help us misinterpret what we’re seeing.

The Composition

One thing that Magritte does use traditionally is the golden section.

The Blank Check and the Golden Sections

The Blank Check and the Golden Sections

The right vertical of the grid goes right through one of the critical trees, and it also goes through the front part of the horse and its leg. The left vertical line is the edge between another critical tree and the horse/background. The lower left intersection of the grid is precisely where the horse’s leg passes behind what should be a background tree – this placement is a critical part of the mind-frell.

The front-most tree, on the left, is right in the center of the left golden section. Except of course that it’s not the front-most tree. Every tree in this painting is exactly on the picture plane – no closer and no farther. And of course, none of them are trees. You’re looking at a painting of trees. Or rather, a scan of a painting of trees. Or perhaps your computer screen’s reassembly of a digitized file of the scan of the trees.

What do you think of the joke?

The Elements

Let’s go through Lee Moyer’s Elements of a Successful Illustration to finish things up.

Focus: The focus is on the woman and the horse. Because he can’t really use strong contrast, Magritte draws our attention to it with the color palette.

Composition and Design: Magritte places key parts of his illusion along golden sections and at their intersections.

Palette: The horse is warm and comes forward, while the cool, desaturated background foliage recedes. Mostly we have greens and browns with the horse being reddish.

Value: Magritte uses value to get us to confuse foreground with background. For example, the front part of the horse is about as bright as the background foliage, while its hindquarters match the trees in value.

Mass: Magritte keeps things fairly flat, with just enough value variation to give an impression of mass and roundness. If that sense were too strong, it would get in the way of the illusion.

Texture: The trees and the background foliage have clear textures. The horse and woman are smoother. Though not critical to the illusion, the texture difference is one way we can distinguish the foreground horse and woman from the background elements.

Symbolism: Other things yes, but I don’t see any symbolism popping out at me here.

Micro/Macro: The background elements have more detail than the foreground elements, though it merges into texture.

Ornament: Ornament would get in the way of the illusion, giving us irrelevant things to look at. Magritte dispenses with it.

Narrative: Again, if we’re trying to figure out what’s going on in a story that means we’re not paying attention to how we see. We know a woman is riding a horse in the woods – that’s all.

Juxtaposition: Foreground vs. background is the point of this painting.

Stylization: Magritte goes with a fairly flat style here. It’s not like paper cut-outs, but the flatness adds to the illusion. Hyper-realism was never Magritte’s style, though it does show up in a few paintings.

Character: Character isn’t the point of this painting. I will speculate, though, that he chose an upper class woman as a nod to those who would be buying his paintings in galleries.

Tension: The tension isn’t in the story – it’s in our heads. By mixing up the perceptual cues Magritte creates tension in our perceptual model. The center doesn’t hold and we have to do a double-take.

Line: There’s a strong vertical feel to the painting because of the edges between trees, foreground, and background.

Research/Reference: I didn’t find any descriptions of Magritte’s approach to the painting, but things like this don’t just spring out of head and hand by intuition. It takes careful planning, studies, and prep work.

Vignette: Magritte used a clear vignette to help us with the closure. It’s a standard pose for the horse and rider that we’re used to seeing, so it’s easier for us to complete in our heads.

Perspective: Perspective doesn’t always mean vanishing points. Occlusion is a key tool in the perspective toolbox and is one of the keys to this painting.

Fun: I’ve loved illusions like this since I was a small kid, and even chose Psychology as a major in college partially because they’re so fascinating.

That’s it for this time. Next week we’ll have a Caldecott medal winner involving flying frogs from the book Tuesday.