A Texture Perceived by the Subconscious

by Matthew Lowes

If you enjoy any kind of art, every once in a while you encounter something that renews your sense of wonder. A couple weeks ago I came across Salome Dancing before Herod by Gustave Moreau and was awestruck by its jewel-like opulent beauty. I have been drawn back to it again and again, to take in the overall picture and to examine the incredible colors and details.

(Click for a high resolution image.)

Image: Gustave Moreau, Salome Dancing Before Herod, 1876. Oil on canvas. The Armand Hammer Collection at the Hammer Museum. Gift of the Armand Hammer Foundation.

Image: Gustave Moreau, Salome Dancing Before Herod, 1876. Oil on canvas. The Armand Hammer Collection at the Hammer Museum. Gift of the Armand Hammer Foundation.

I won’t attempt to describe all the amazing elements of this painting, nor articulate its effects on my imagination. But I think a part of its magic lies in the layered accumulation of all those fantastical colors and details. The texture creates a feeling arising from the subconscious. And the effect is more amazing than all its amazing parts.

This layering idea came to me through a book about the making of Blade Runner, one of my all time favorite films. In the book, Future Noir, Paul M. Sammon describes how Ridley Scott was obsessed with minute details of the sets and costumes. For example, newsstands in the background of a city street had to have made up future magazines in their racks, with real covers and articles and artwork. Nobody would ever see them on the film, but they had to be there. He called this process “layering”, with the idea that although every detail would not be consciously perceived, they would create an overall texture perceived by the subconscious.

Blade Runner

Photo by Warner Bros./Getty Images – © 2011 Getty Images

To this day, Blade Runner is one of the most influential films in science fiction, and one of most visceral and mind-blowing visions of the future. Nothing about it seems dated or superficial. In fact, it looks better than most recent science fiction films. I wish they still made them like this, with physical sets and models and matte paintings. But I think part of the magic of Blade Runner is also in the layering of so many incredible visual and auditory elements.

The same process can be used in fiction. The layers are built up through details, scene elements, word choice, language, structure, tone, et cetera. Bit by bit, they create the texture of the fictional world. But it’s not an easy task in any art. It took Gustave Moreau two years to paint Salome Dancing before Herod, and Blade Runner was one of the most contentious and troubled shoots in Hollywood history. But the results speak for themselves. Arrange the layers just right, and they create a dream-like reality that resonates with heartbreaking mystery and meaning. As an example of layering words, I leave you with a few by Clark Ashton Smith:

“Tell me many tales, but let them be of things that are past the lore of legend and of which there are no myths in our world or any world adjoining. Tell me, if you will, of the years when the moon was young, with siren-rippled seas and mountains that were zoned with flowers from base to summit; tell me of the planets gray with eld, of the worlds whereon no mortal astronomer has ever looked, and whose mystic heavens and horizons have given pause to visionaries. Tell me of the vaster blossoms within whose cradling chalices a woman could sleep; of the seas of fire that beat on strands of ever-during ice; of perfumes that can give eternal slumber in a breath; of eyeless titans that dwell in Uranus, and beings that wander in the green light of the twin suns of azure and orange. Tell me tales of inconceivable fear and unimaginable love, in orbs whereto our sun is a nameless star, or unto which its rays have never reached.”

– from “To the Daemon” by Clark Ashton Smith

2 thoughts on “A Texture Perceived by the Subconscious

  1. I love the idea of adding “invisible” elements to fiction, hints of larger things only glimpsed in the text. This is part of what makes world creating so fun!

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