Crowd Theory: Uniformity, Abstraction, and Everything in Between
by Suzanne Knop, 2015

The crowd has always been a subject of curiosity: mob mentality, crowd pleasers, collective intelligence -- why are crowds so hard to grasp, to understand? Artists take various approaches when attempting to depict a crowd scene in art, oscillating over time between extremely detailed and overly abstract. Is there a perfect balance? Can the inherent characteristics of a crowd possibly be implied between brushstrokes and colors? Can the energy of a crowd possibly be maintained within a photograph? Can the chaos of a crowd possibly be contained within a formula? The crowd’s liveliness might not survive the composition of a painting, its energy the lens of a photograph, or its rowdiness the code of a computer. Artists always have to make decisions, to make sacrifices in their rendering of certain subject matter. In the case of crowds, these decision are crucial to the success of the piece.

After exploring various approaches to depicting crowds, we will find that the artist that prioritizes our perception of the world, rather what the world logically is, will win out. A crowd is not simply a large group of humans, each human an element, each element the same from far away. A crowd is both singular and diverse, and the artist must find a way to convey this. The crowd has a central energy, united by the setting, yet it also has components moving in every direction, each with its own trajectory. When we experience a crowd, we don’t see everything, we just get snippets, glances. One area may be completely nonexistent or abstracted in our vision, while another might be perfectly clear. We know the colors though we may not know that we know it. We feel the energy by just being there, and a crowd without its energy is flat and dull. As people who are constantly around other people, our minds are attuned to how people move, and the dynamic of a crowd; we will very quickly notice if something is off in an unnatural rendering of a crowd, and this is what makes crowds so intriguing, and difficult to pinpoint in art. A balance exists, but it’s hard to strike it. So, we ask the question, which approach comes closest?



The Uniformity Approach
 Procession in St. Mark’s Square - Gentile Bellini (1496), tempera on canvas
Procession in St. Mark’s Square - Gentile Bellini (1496), tempera on canvas

Gentile Bellini’s Procession in St. Mark's Square, made in 1496, is a prime example of how crowds were historically painted: in uniform conglomerates, each figure a stencil of the next. The crowd follows the rules of perception, decreasing in size accordingly as the space recedes. Each figure is defined, yet relatively indistinguishable from the rest. The processing men in the foreground of Procession in St. Mark’s Square all stand in a similar manner, and texturally the body of people in the bottom third of the piece is uniform. The men are all the same height, and evenly spaced out. The artist appears to have given the same amount of attention and detail to the people scattered throughout the square in the background than he did to the foreground.


The Uniform Approach of representing crowds while idealistic, is unrealistic. The method gives its artwork a highly structured, stiff, and posed appearance. Though the attention given to every figure in the background is impressive, it is goes unnoticed on the large part. Naturally, we pay most attention to the element of a piece closest to us, and let our eye travel from there. The groups of people flanking the sides serve important compositional purposes, but the detail put into them makes the scene seem unnatural. Although we see it and read “crowd,” something is still a bit off. When is a crowd in nature ever that uniform?


Face in the Crowd - Alex Prager (2013), photograph
Face in the Crowd - Alex Prager (2013), photograph

The Organized-Mess Approach

Ever since Daguerre took his first shot, artists have been consciously and unconsciously influenced by photography. Alex Prager does it differently: photography influenced by painting. Alex Prager’s series, Face in the Crowd involves elaborately staged crowd scenes that resemble a group portrait more than a candid snap of a crowd. Each figure seems to have independence; a whole storyline could be written for every person in this crowd. Far from uniform, this crowd still appears stiff and unnatural. The artist’s influence from paintings is clear: a great deal of attention was given to composition, individual figures, and overall clarity. Prager used this effect to convey a message of isolation within a crowd, individuals being proximate yet private. She individually picked out the clothes and poses to create this familiar yet strange image [2]. The familiarity lies in the inherent naturalism to the media (photography), the strangeness lies in the highly posed scene, and ambiguous setting.




Clips from FIFA 97, FIFA 06, and FIFA 15, part of a soccer video game series, give us a glimpse into the animated world of crowds [3]. Working with an entirely different medium, animators have to create crowds from scratch just like a painters do on canvas. There is a clear rowdiness to these crowds that from experience, we know to exist in stadiums, but there is also a sense of organization which is very unnatural. A problem unique to animation is the difficulties that come with modeling the real world in a formulaic manner, while still managing to make it seem natural. Each figure is doing it’s own movement, yet the overall effect is a crowd full of the same person just duplicated and offset a bit in time. The crowd in the distance is not given much detail asides from some abstracted movement; this is done both strategically and skillfully. It saves the artists the unnecessary trouble of having to render more people than they have to, and also gives a more natural scene of what a crowd is really like, since we as humans are limited by our eyesight and perceive things far away as abstract blocks.



The Organized-Mess Approach is a step forward from the Uniform Approach, but still (whether purposefully or not) strikes a feeling of unnaturalness. This method recognizes that crowds are by no means uniform, yet still has not managed to overcome the stiffness of a uniform crowd.


Big Mosh Pit - Dan Witz (2007), oil on canvas
Big Mosh Pit - Dan Witz (2007), oil on canvas

The Hyper-Realist Approach

Dan Witz astounds all with his hyperrealistic mosh pit paintings (yes, paintings). Big Mosh Pit is one example of of Witz’s work, and it looks exactly like a photograph. Witz combines traditional trompe l'oeil techniques with digital photography to create these pieces, and the result takes realism to another level. Although the implied energy of this crowd is aggressive and noisy, something hinders the full effect. Whether it is the flatness and harshness that often arises from copying directly from photographs, or the over-the-top accounting for every detail, this painting appears more static than it does dynamic.




The Hyper-Realist Approach certainly renders a crowd well, if the definition of a well-rendered crowd is a photograph. A crowd is more than just a snapshot in time, though; we all know this from experiencing being in a crowd. There is a certain liveliness, an energy. Just as the previous methods have had a stiffness they couldn’t seem to shake off, the photorealism of paintings such as those of Witz, even with the power of photography under its arm, still is not able to truly capture the crowd.



Bal du moulin de la Galette - Auguste Renoir (1876), oil on canvas
Bal du moulin de la Galette - Auguste Renoir (1876), oil on canvas

The Perception Approach

Impressionism is easily the best thing that ever happened to crowds. Settings as head-spinning and overwhelming as being in the middle of a crowd, or relaxed and joyous as calmly conversing at a party under a tree are not remembered as what they were, but rather how they felt, how they seemed. Impressionism follows this philosophy, and impressionist painters such as Auguste Renoir elevate conveying the atmosphere of a scene as their main aim. In Bal du moulin de la Galette, Renoir studies the moving crowd, embraced by natural light and a lively party scene. Strokes are kept broad and vibrant, and the overall image is blurrier than it is clear. The haziness of the scene, the muddled people in the background, and the chaoticness of the composition all combine to create a scene that is true to our perception of a crowd. Renoir strikes a balance of abstraction and definition, and is able to depict a crowd that appears comfortable and natural.



Outbreak - Kalle Kollwitz (1908), etching, aquatint and stencil on paper
Outbreak - Kalle Kollwitz (1908), etching, aquatint and stencil on paper




In Kathe Kollwitz’s Outbreak, the crowd is one body, its motion a single energy. It is a feeling with character of its own yet not distinguishable by its individual figures, completely embodying the notion of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Kollwitz does what the other approaches could not, and gives her crowd an almost contagious energy. The peasant revolt depicted in this etching has purposeful direction, yet is still uncontained and raucous [6]. Individual faces can be scene here and there appropriately, and as the space recedes abstraction ensues. The intangible chaotic and energetic elements of an upheaving crowd are achieved here by Kollwitz with the use of feeling and perception rather than precision or clarity.



Leicester Square - Oona Hassim (2009), oil on canvas
Leicester Square - Oona Hassim (2009), oil on canvas





The work of Oona Hassim straddles the line between perception and (as we will see later) abstraction. A quick glance over Hassim’s Leicester Square and it seems realistic. The colors, density, and unorderly character could easily be taken from real life, or a photo. A closer look will be surprising, as the realization sinks that hardly anything is actually fully rendered. Hassim masterfully applies our human way of limited perception to her paintings of urban landscapes. She hopes to “contrast the slowness of ambling groups and individuals with the chaotic rush and fragmented sensations at the height of the bustle” [7]. Not a single face can picked out, yet we still feel part of the scene, part of the feeling of being in a city among pedestrians.



The way we perceive a crowd turns out to matter much more than the exactness of the crowd itself, and also gives us insight into how we can trick our eye and spark our senses. When we see a crowd, we don’t really see it, we get a feel for it; we feel its general texture, its overall energy, its varying degrees of chaos. The Perception Method is the balance between complete accuracy and complete abstraction, and is most likely the closest art can get to a true depiction of the crowd.



Occupy London - Oona Hassim (2009), oil on canvas
Occupy London - Oona Hassim (2009), oil on canvas


The Abstracted Approach

In Occupy London, Oona Hassim takes her perceptive outlook and blows up its tendency for abstraction. The entire foreground of the piece is completely abstracted, and takes from our own view of a scene. From experience, we know that while in an unruly crowd and looking towards the distance, the foreground in our vision is blurred out. Hassim conveys this effect, while also using color and texture to portray the protest scene [8]. The blocks of color are abstracted, yet we can still tell they are various signs. We can tell that there is a crowd, a mass of people, though all we see are blocks of color. Hassim takes perception to the next level, pushing it to its limits and questioning if we even need any definite forms to be able to tell what something is.






Stadia II - Julie Mehretu (2004), ink and acrylic on canvas
Stadia II - Julie Mehretu (2004), ink and acrylic on canvas

At the pinnacle of abstraction, the actual crowd in Julie Mehretu’s Stadia II is nowhere to be found. Yet, somehow, a large body of people is definitely there, existing in the implications of the colorful banners, the energy of the stadium. Blocks of color read as fans, and the various groups of different colors and shapes in the top third of the piece read as flags, perhaps for a political event [9]. How can this be? How are we able to still feel the energy of a full stadium, of a celebrational event among thousands of people, yet not see a single person, not even in abstract? Mehretu unearths for us a surprising truth about our perception, and the power of our mind to stretch things and fit them into reality. We can take a look at four puzzle pieces, and construct the other ninety-six pieces in our mind alone. If our mind can make such big leaps, it turns out the other artists were working too hard!


The Abstracted Approach is admittedly not as naturalistic as the pieces akin to Renoir, but it tests the limits of our perception. In a way, it could be called the Hyper-Perception Approach. Artists, instead of defining anything at all, can simply leave breadcrumbs that are more than enough for the human mind, and convey everything else in the way we perceive it: blocks of color and energy. The crowd is an unexpectedly difficult subject to capture, and the methods that are successful in the endeavor may seem counter-intuitive. Naturalism lies in the way we see something, the way we feel it; the more artists take from this knowledge and the more they use it, the more successful they will be in rendering their subject matter with a life-like energy crucial to any depiction of life.



List of Sources

[1] http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/b/bellini/gentile/miracl1.html
[2] http://www.lehmannmaupin.com/exhibitions/2014-01-09_alex-prager#8
[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2dDHWCZH9ZA
[4] http://jonathanlevinegallery.com/?method=Exhibit.ExhibitDescriptionPast&ExhibitID=62EE3E98-19DB-5802-E06FF39EA234E308
[5] http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections/works-in-focus/painting/commentaire_id/dance-at-le-moulin-de-la-galette-7138.html?cHash=f8e493dbca
[6] http://artaddictsanonymous.tumblr.com/post/25552391479/kathe-kollwitz-the-outbreak-1903-kollwitz-was
[7] http://www.celesteprize.com/artwork/ido:30396/
[8] http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2011/oct/16/occupy-london-protest-second-day
[9] https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/global-culture/global-art-architecture/a/julie-mehretu-stadia-ii