This painting by Misha Bittleston was shown to twelve people, and they were asked to describe what they saw. The perceptions are astonishingly different:
Bonnie (artist): "I see a chrysalis about to open. I see sleeping potentials about to burst out and soar through the cosmos with radiance. Pure potential and love. Conch shell holding a golden gift of humanity. I see a polar bear raising his head and roaring at the heavens in a very proud way, because of what he's holding inside his form. And God is shouting back at him, saying "I've been waiting for you to recognize and embrace the unlimited possibilities with which I have endowed you."
Ernesto (counselor): "I see a mother and child; a large female body. The mother and child are in the belly. I see joy bursting out of sadness, almost like the light coming out of darkness."
Jo (dancer): "I see a face in the center, pale, looking down. Seems like it's expressing a mild sense of surprise and loss or letting go of something. Surrounded by a circular movement path from torso to head, turning away from the person looking. A heart on her side, in her movement path. A dark tree on the right. An open bright space above the tree; seems like where she came from, or something coming toward her. Another light streak on the left has a different feeling, more in relationship to her. Above her head is a form like two hands, cupped together. A lot of movement upward, almost like coming from her head, protecting her. The whole thing has rich particular colors: light and earth and fire. A lot of movement. Two things are mysterious : a dark snake or plant below the tree, reaching toward the heart; and the only smudged part, below her waist - a mystery to me."
Kathleen (teacher): "I see birth, an emerging soul with some pain; awareness of being and all the responsibilities that come... Signs of destiny around it. Light, dark, all the elements at play. Almost like the being is singing its life. Not necessarily joyful, but all that it has to face."
Christian (song-writer): "I get the sense of an emerging spirit of great warmth and love."
Howard (teacher): "I see a baby being born. I see an angel. I see a forest. A giant. A harp. "
Malin (from Sweden): "I see a person going through some transformation, but still inside a bubble and not really in contact with all things around. Warmth, but some anxiety. A heart that is beating. Another face that could be dead; a person that this person you see clearly is holding. It depicts strong emotions. Looking at it brings you inward. There are all kinds of forces around this bubble."
Isa (dancer): "There's the face in the middle. Almost like a mother and child. Another face up in the corner. These feel like arms. This is incredible. Oh, there's another face here. It almost feels like they're in the womb. This feels tree. Then there's somebody over here. This little red bit. I'm looking at the bigger circle around the central face. Gosh, there's a lot in here. Normally, I'd never spend this much time, if there wasn't this face to draw me in. This feels like a plant and a person."
Joya (arts educator): "I certainly see someone in there. I think it's two pe-, two beings. One of them is resting her head on the other's shoulder. They could be lovers. I think one of them is holding the other who has just crossed over the threshold, maybe the angel, maybe the higher self. Definitely an attitude of love and compassion going from the earthly realm into the light."
Daniel (musician): "This is a pretty powerful figure. I see something between awe and anger. Her mouth is open. These are either arms or wings to me. This red business looks like a heart; something between a big loving heart and a wound. This seems like a cathedral top - an ideal."
Daniel (editor): "I see a woman with eyes closed and yet also open. She has braided hair, a necklace, and the pillow lips of Scarlett Johannson; she's kissing her lover, who is leaning backwards in ecstasy, also with an eye that is closed and yet open. This within a grand, sweeping portrayal of the sexual organs in deep union."
Greg (writer): "I'm a dark dude. I see a person who's using a divine force to push away the innocence of childhood. And there's a heartbroken dog, and the whole, the upper person is trying to block with divine force who they really are as a child, the innocence and hope, and then this whole thing becomes a ghoul, a faceless pregnant thing, almost like Death itself. But then, you could look at it again and see something totally different."
So, what can we say about this diversity? It has extraordinary implications concerning our perceptions of reality. I had to ask Misha Bittleston for a final word:
Misha Bittleston: "This painting is subjective, just as color is subjective; therefore, to the extent to which you engage with it, it is about you. This painting's true meaning is the message of the colors which is always private, spiritual, intimate and individual. Like reality, this painting changes for each person and as each person changes its meaning changes too.
By making what we see specific, color subtly hides and limits. By providing additional information about the world, color makes it easier for me to narrow down what I am looking at, but while this clarity is empowering and practical, it lightens demands on imagination and narrows my view of the world.
What is seen in color can be imagined in black and white, but what is seen in black and white cannot necessarily be imagined in color. For example, with a little imagination I can perceive a light, rounded shape on a dark background as simultaneously: the sun in the sky, the full moon on a bright winter night, an orange ball floating in a lake, a giant crater, a deep well, the entrance to a cave from within, a swimmer out at sea, a white balloon, mushroom in a green meadow. When the same rounded shape appeals to my emotions by being colored yellow and the background is blue, it suddenly loses all but one appeal to my imagination. Lovely as it is, now, it is a picture of the sun in the sky and anyone who sees it different must be colorblind. The lesson here is that almost anything colored that is rendered in light and dark takes on a wide new spectrum of meanings.
Since I painted this, my work has evolved into being more difficult because it appeals more to the imagination than to the emotions. As I rely on imagination my work loses more and more people who don't want to be involved and would prefer just to look and feel. I now rely on light where I once relied on color. When I created this image I was making it quite easy by using color to encapsulate both the representational and symbolic elements of my composition, but these were limited to moods and feelings. Still, my work remains both personal and at the same time abstract (spiritual).
The personal makes it true for me, and because I do not need to make it specific for it to be a true communication of my personal experiences - I am not the first to experience tragedy, pain, infatuation, caring, obliviousness, obsession, tiredness, passion, loss, bliss, love, ecstasy and mourning - it is also universal.
In this painting I translated my heart into something visual through color improvisation. It is created spontaneously without a specific narrative; this enables anyone to see it as a depiction of their own very personal, emotional life.
Here is a quote from "Air" by Mike Heron of The Incredible String Band, (one of my dad's favorites) that I was listening to at around the time I made this painting and that achieves in poetry and music what I was trying to do with visual poetry and color.
Breathing, all creatures are, Brighter then than brightest star, You are, by far,
You come right inside of me, Close as you can be, You kiss my blood, And my blood kiss me.
Like so much poetry, most of my paintings are simultaneously personal and general. When I look at this painting I see a circle representing a love that joins two people. The two people and their red heart are within this circle, what is outside this circle are things that represent life but not love. The idea in here is that the beauty of love is its own reward but this metaphor of love it is also about loss because, where there were two hearts, now there is only one, and where there was freedom, now there is a boundary around these two. They share one heart which makes them try to be one, but they can never really be one, even though they share one heart and are blissful prisoners inside this ring together.
I was aware that it is simplistic composition to place the ostensible subject at the center. The true subject of this painting is not at the center, although the obvious subject is at the center. Just like love, it appears simple and sweet but it is also the most complicated thing in the world. This composition makes the painting feel pure and innocent until you delve more deeply into it.
This painting is not really about the figures; it is not about the ring around the heart and the emotions that swirl through it. This is not a literal but an abstract and a symbolic painting: the translation of certain powerful emotions and experiences into color."