“How would you teach a naturalist to look at art?” Such was the prompt from Sumanth Prabhaker, editor-in-chief of Orion, that led to the launch of Visual Fields in Spring 2023. Each column defines a compositional element in an artwork related to nature, then uses that formal element as a lens to explore related environmental topics.
A perfect dovetailing of my research interests, Visual Fields also draws upon my past experience as an art history instructor, teaching students how to probe the meaningfulness of artworks through formal analysis. How might an artist’s use of symmetry complement her subject matter and reinforce her intended message? How might the dark tonal values of a painting in a low key help create a certain atmosphere? And in artworks pertaining to nature, how might these elements reflect ecological concerns, deepen our understanding thereof, and even encourage action?
Whether contemporary or historical, art always plays a role in mirroring society but also in shaping it. Learning how its formal aspects contribute to meaning and affect is thus a crucial component of visual literacy. Guided by this premise, Visual Fields aims to become a glossary of art terms in an environmental context: a guidebook for naturalists in the gallery.