XXI. Texture

Texture influences how we experience the world through the sense of touch—directly. The tactile sense is so acute and pervasive, images of texture are enough to elicit an experience vicariously. This makes it an important tool for communication and creative expression. When looked at up close or under a microscope, what makes an object textured is consistency in contrast between elements that rise above a surface—hair or fur growing out of the skin, loops rising out of a carpet, bark encompassing a tree trunk. As our fingers or sight moves across a surface we experience the peaks relative to the valleys. 

In looking at an object we reach out for it. With an invisible finger we move through the space around us, go out to the distinct places where things are found, touch them, catch them, scan their surfaces, trace their borders, explore their texture.

Rudolf Arnheim (Art theorist and perceptual psychologist)

When the contrast between surface peaks and valleys is low, the surface “feels” smooth. 

As the brightness difference between peaks and valleys increases, so does the texture. It becomes coarse.


Photographically, coarse textures increase the “sensibility” of a subject by tapping into the memory of direct experiences. Think of the difference between a fluffy cat and a hairless cat. Across the board, texture matters! I’ve noticed that gardeners, in particular, are sensitive to texture as well as color. For instance, Linda’s English country garden is full of color, and one of her friend’s garden consists of almost no color, but with a variety of textured plants and trees. In between these extremes, I’ve heard gardeners on television talking about an integrated approach where color and texture blend to achieve a balanced experience. The same can be said of photographers. Having come from the “classical” black & white tradition, I’m always looking for and trying to enhance textures. Others are looking for rich and bold color. And then there are those who strike a balance between them by integrating color and texture in their single images and themed presentations.   


Regardless of the subject, because texture consists of differences between hills and valleys, it’s the direction of light that determines whether it is diminished or enhanced. 

Here, diffused sunlight coming from above minimizes the appearance of texture. So also does front-lighting, even if it’s not diffused. Also, the farther a subject is from the camera, the less noticeable is its texture.

This is a similar subject with identical texture as the above image, but the sunlight is now specular (undiffused) casting sharp shadows not only from the latches but also the hills and valleys in the wood. To maximize texture, position the subject or the main light at a 45º angle to the side. Side lighting “rakes” over the peaks, leaving the valleys in shadow. Also, the closer the camera to the subject, the more prominent the texture.

Contemplating Texture in Personal and Social Contexts

Physically and emotionally, texture plays an important role in our lives. When we need some emotional comforting or just need to relax, we turn to soft chairs, pillows and blankets, and children gravitate to stuffed animals. And we use texture to create the spaces where we live and work. Hard, textureless surfaces such as upholstery, furniture, wall coverings, flooring, plants, and lampshades convey a clean, executive, sharp-edged, masculine sensibility, while these same objects with textured surfaces or coverings contribute to a soft and warm, more comfortable and feminine atmosphere. A luxurious room tends to feature soft or “plush” textures. And while business offices can also be elegant, hard surfaces convey a sense of strength and durability.

There are no colors in the real world. There are no textures in the real world. There are no fragrances in the real world. There is no beauty. There is no ugliness. Nothing of the sort. Out there is a chaos of energy soup and energy fields. Literally. We take all that and somewhere inside ourselves we create a world. Somewhere inside ourselves, it all happens. The journey of our life.

Sir John Eccles (Noble Prize in physiology)

Stand back far enough and it becomes clear that there’s also a lifestyle correlation. The observation that the structure of any texture is characterized by its peaks and valleys, raises a question about the “texture” of our lives. Specifically, as a general pattern, where do we stand on the continuum between rugged and smooth, coarse and refined, excitation and equanimity? 

Of course, there is no good or bad, better or worse assessment. And it changes from time to time throughout our lives. But I found it useful to consider my former self at various junctures relative to where I am today. You’d have to tie me down now to get me on a roller-coaster. And what was I thinking, standing at the top of a waterfall, three feet from a 200 ft. drop? For years now, I’ve noted how blessed I am with day-to-day “normal.” I’ve had “peaks” and “valleys” in every domain. Maybe that’s why I now, much prefer the middle path. 

Every time we invest attention in an idea, a written word, a spectacle; every time we purchase a product; every time we act on a belief; the texture of the future is changed… The world in which our children and their children will live is built, minute by minute, through the choices we endorse with our psychic energy.

Mihaly Csikszenthihalyi (Psychologist)

I welcome your feedback at <smithdl@fuse.net>

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