Magic Realism

an essay by Artist Matthew Bates

Magic is a beautiful word, it conjures up images from our youth, it gives us hope, and it is something out of our normal understanding and perception. Realism on the other hand is something that we have lots of. It encompasses every aspect of every day of our lives, except for when we have moments of magic. As a painter I have to choose carefully what I am going to paint because each painting is a journey which will last several months, and I have to be sure that the subject of my painting is actually worth painting. Before I start, before the canvas is stretched, when the ideas are all that I have, I look for the magic around me. The world is filled to the brim with beauty. Everywhere I look I see it. When I look at a glass of water I see the reflections and play of light on the glass, the way you can see through it and the way reality gets bent and reshaped into something else through the glass. I love that.

So learning how to look is fundamental. You may ask, what are you crazy, I know how to look! But the fact is that an artist looks deeper into the reality surrounding him, he has to. Just like a writer knows words, and a chef knows food, a realist painter knows how to look.

What am I looking for? I am looking for the details on the small scale and the overall design on the bigger scale. Details are useless if they don’t fit well into the design of life. But is there an overall design to the universe? Yes, there is a design to the world, even though we watch the news and see all of the disgraces that they can find, the overall design works wonderfully. The sun rises and sets and we live our lives on a random ball in space, as if it were the most normal thing to do, when in fact it is not. The universe is incredibly empty, cold and devoid of life, and here we are, as if we deserved to be here! Amazing really, actually it’s Magic!

I have looked for that very pattern which makes life on earth possible. I want to see it, to touch it, and to try and understand it. My studies have taken me to an understanding that the universe is based on a mathematical anomaly. There is a pattern which is such extreme simplicity that it is amazing that it works. Here is the sequence:

1,1, 2, 3, 5, 8,13, 21, 34, 55, 89,144, 233, 377, 610, 987,1597, 2584, 4181, 6765,10946,17711..

To find the next number just add the last two numbers in the sequence. What is amazing is that when you divide the last two numbers in the sequence there is always a result of about 62%, and the bigger the number gets in the sequence, the closer it gets to perfection, this irrational number is known as the golden ratio, and it is truly one of the most magical discoveries I have ever made in my journey into how to look. When we look at the world we find the golden ratio everywhere! Seashells, leaves on a tree, and all of the proportions of our bodies have the golden ratio in their basic design. Almost as if the golden ratio were a blueprint? I don’t know enough yet to say so but I have a feeling, yes a feeling, not anything else, that we are a creation. Just like when you go to Greece and see ancient ruins, and you know that someone, a long time ago built something,

Click here to see Piazza Frescobaldi in another window

Use of the golden ratio in Piazza Fescobaldi, Notice how the yellow lines follow back to the end of the street along the grid made by using the golden ratio in the initial design of the painting.

we may be looking at the golden ratio and be seeing “ruins” left by a creator, a longer time ago.

By using the golden ratio in my initial plans for a painting I am using a system that works naturally everywhere. Therefore I am using a Magical sequence to find Reality.

An old friend once told me that we eat with our eyes. I asked him what he meant and he said that we don’t miss a thing, we gobble up reality all of the time. I liked that. It also reminded me that my paintings have to be extremely detailed to fool the eye into believing that there is more than a bit of paint on a flat surface, that there is a world in there. In my paintings I like to make the objects seem real, while I exaggerate the color. I realize that this is not the traditional use in Magic Realism, but I feel that like all movements need to evolve in time. I use a high grade Italian oil paint made by Maimeri called Puro, which in Italian means pure. The tubes have a higher content of pigment and the colors are incredibly vibrant. A big part of my use of magic realism is the electrifying of the colors in my paintings, as if there was a perfect light everywhere. Photography tends to have many dark areas where the detail is non existent. Pick up the newspaper and look at the front page, pick out a photograph and look at the dark areas, what do you see, not much, the dark areas always fade to black, without any detail. Now look up in the room where you are. Look at the shadows, any shadow will do, what happens is that your eye adjusts to the light and you can see the detail in the shadow. Cameras can’t do that. So as a painter, I like to adjust the light in my painting so that the dark areas have just as much detail as the light areas. I do this because that is what we do when we look.

The experience of looking at a large object like a skyscraper or a cathedral, or the Grand Canyon, is unlike staring at the TV. When we watch TV we fix on one point and that’s it. When we are at the Grand Canyon, we look around, because we can’t see it all at once. This feeling of taking it in all around us is one that usually makes people smile and say "WOW!" and "Look at that!", while in fact everyone is looking at something different because there is so much to see. People travel the world to have these experiences. I know that they have been some of my favorite, like the first time I saw Firenze from Piazzale Michelangelo, or when I was on top of the Empire State Building, or the view from Twin Peaks in San Francisco, and the list goes on. We live through the daily grind to hope for a few days like those. Naturally I was inspired to encompass that WOW! experience into my artwork. I have made paintings where the experience of looking gets expanded into the fourth dimension. By making a panoramic view of my subject I let the viewer see what they would see by looking around, all at once. The image gets curved making it look as if it were in motion, as if it were bowed in time as well as space. This is a magical experience, that of seeing something look so real, and at the same time, impossibly larger than life.

Santa Trinita Revisited

In Santa Trinità Revisited fourth dimensional design is being used because in reality it is impossible to see both sides of the bridge at the same time from that location.

The creation of art is a great freedom. Since it is up to me to decide what to paint I have chosen to paint what is beautiful and magical. I feel like it is my obligation to create only beauty, in respect for all of the beauty around me. Making reality “magic” isn’t that hard. Life really is magical already.


If you would like to learn more about Magic Realism and the Golden Ratio here are some great links:

Magic Realism on the Internet:

PH Moen - Magic Realism & Visual Art

Artnet - Grove Art


Tate Collection

Golden Ratio on the Internet:

Golden Ratio in Art in Architecture

An Article by Mario Livio, Golden Ratio Expert and Art Collector

Websites for Photographers 

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