Learning lessons in observation from art

This month I was motivated to put pen to paper early in order to capture my thoughts, triggered by two separate activities on consecutive days. OK, so finger to key, or rather bytes to hard disk! It is not that I haven’t adapted to new technology, it is just that it takes time to unlearn the old technology used for many, many years.

The first thought-generating activity was a visit to the city’s art gallery. I went with the intention of looking at an exhibition on the theme of ‘machines and the imitation of life’ in particular, but took the opportunity to look at the galleries and an exhibition of Japanese design. The first general exhibit I looked at had the usual written explanation at the side of it, describing what it was meant to portray and symbolise, which immediately brought out the regular, cynical reaction: “really?” It is just a video of a lemon and a melon: how can it have that meaning?

This raises two questions. What is art? What is its purpose? The answer depends very much on the individual who replies. The common answers are that it is pleasing to look at, it generates particular emotions and it makes you think. But in each case, I believe the art should involve creativity. The lemon and melon video didn’t, in my opinion, involve much creativity and the link between what you saw and the interpretation given in the explanation was tenuous and too far removed. I was a lot happier when I went into the galleries exhibiting various portrait and landscape paintings. One such painting was entitled: ‘When the West with Evening Glows’ by Joseph Farquharson. Again, in my opinion, it is a lovely painting of a sunset over a winter, snow-covered landscape. Then I read the explanation: “The footprints in the snow allow the observer to generate their own narrative”, or words to that effect. Now, I may be a bit of a dullard, but not once when looking at the painting did I think about who had made those footprints, nor about where the person had come from, nor where they were going, nor what they had eaten for breakfast. The colour of the sky and the light and shadow on the snow was beautiful: I enjoyed looking at the scene and could admire the skill of the artist in reproducing it, down to the detail of the footprints.

The following day, I went out for a run through the natural gallery in the environs around my home. It was a bright, fresh day and the birds were singing as they skittered in and out of the hedgerow in front of me like a bow wave. It was different to the art gallery: I wasn’t an isolated observer, I was an integral part and that increased both my awareness and my appreciation of my surroundings. Yet, the lesson I take from these two disparate activities is that there is a similarity between looking at art and at the natural environment – you can just look at and enjoy what is in front of you for what it is, or you can look at and enjoy what is in front of you and also see a narrative behind it.

I was assisted in reaching this conclusion, in part, by a book commentary on Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which he begins with “When we look…”. The author, Elizabeth A Johnson, goes on to say that Darwin was a great observer of nature, but: “At times his gaze was focused not outwardly towards the natural world but inwardly as he imaginatively brought together different bits of knowledge to glimpse larger patterns”.

Back in July 2015, I wrote about patterns and how non-destructive testing is based on identifying signal patterns: patterns in dye; patterns in magnetic ink; dark patterns on radiographs; and ultrasonic echo patterns in A-scans and B-scans. Data analysis is the process of finding the patterns and then working out if the patterns are due to the presence or absence of a flaw. As we often impose our perceptions on to the patterns, I suggested that we could improve analysis by incorporating a contemplative step into the process. My recent encounter with art, both man-made and natural, reinforces this conclusion. NDT has long been considered a black art, but we need to expose it to the light and make art critics of us all. As NDT professionals, observing and imaginatively visualising the narrative behind signal patterns is our daily task.

If we follow the art critic analogy, then the signal patterns we observe are, by definition, art. In addition, I am sure that a lot of you are creative and produce drawings, paintings or photographs that are worthy of sharing. Back in December 2013, I asked you to send in pieces of NDT art that you would like to see published or ideas for an image that you would like to have drawn up. Let us see if we can beat the 2013 postbag. Send pictures of your art to the editor.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within the NDT Newspaper. They do not represent the views of Amec Foster Wheeler or the HSE who funded the PANI projects.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Newton Building, St George’s Avenue, Northampton NN2 6JB. Fax: 01604 89 3861; Email: ndtnews@bindt.org or email Bernard McGrath direct at bernard.mcgrathfw@amec.com

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