Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Intuition is just another form of pattern recognition

Intuition is not some mystical sixth sense, nor is it the opposite of rational thinking. Intuition is pattern recognition outside the normal range of conscious thought.

Different areas of the brain process different information. Since we are a language dependent species, we have a tendency to favor language based, rational thought and relegate intuition to the hinterlands of unexplained phenomena. Neuroscience seems to be having a difficult time understanding how the brain integrates information, but the fact is that various areas of the brain process different kinds of information, sensory and otherwise, and all that information gets filtered into conscious awareness – emphasis on the word “filtered”.

In painting, if we fall into the expected path of language-based object recognition, the path of least resistance will be one of fidelity to object description and not to interpretation. Our rational brains will dictate our responses while our subconscious intuitive selves will be sidelined. Painting is difficult because, ideally, it combines craft and creativity, two very different ways of thinking.

In order to foster a different path of pattern recognition, it’s necessary to describe the information in a new way.

Do you see a still life or do you see bananas, an apple and an orange?

How you choose to describe the information will alter how you perceive the information and, in turn, direct the choices you make to interpret that information.

Choose the object names and you will see and describe individual things and then have to solve the problem of unity and how one “thing” relates to another.  Choose the less specific description of “still life” and you will change your perceptions and your expectations. The “whole” will become more important than the pieces and the visual elements of value, color and shape will become more important than the name of the thing. Finding new patterns is dependent on seeing the information in a different way, one that is informed by more than preconceived expectations.

Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, considered intuition an “irrational function”, but he also said “intuition is perception via the unconscious that brings forth ideas, images, new possibilities and ways out of blocked situations." It is interesting to note Jung was willing to consider intuition as irrational, while also recognizing the necessity of intuition in creative problem solving.

We seem to have an innate tendency (perhaps a reflection of brain organization?) to categorize everything into simplistic categories of “either-or” instead of simply acknowledging and accepting the unity of different, but complementary, aspects of reality. Intuition is not the opposite of rational, conscious thinking. It is an important and very real part of the brain’s ability to process information.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Where's all the art and other interesting stuff

Where’s the art?

Probably in storage in some museum somewhere. Quartz, a digital business news publication, surveyed 20 museums in 7 countries. While their survey was limited to the works of only 13 major artists, there is certainly enough information to draw some conclusions. Only a tiny fraction of art is actually available for people to view and enjoy. Much of the available work for viewing is purchased art, rather than donated art. And, of course, certain artists are better represented than others.

Cezanne and Monet were well represented, while Egon Schiele did not have a single work on display despite 7 different museums holding a total of 53 of his figurative works. Washington, DC’s National Gallery of Art has 199 Rothko paintings in storage and only two are on display.

Since most museums consider archiving, storage, and conservation to be their primary purpose, it seems as if the public’s access to art is far down on the list of importance. One can only wonder how long these museums can keep stacking up the work. And exactly who is all this art being archived for?

Do people who grow up in the arctic see better in the dark? 

C. Anderson
Leave it to a cognitive neurophsychology specialist to try and find out. In 2007 Bruno Laeng divided about 250 students from the Arctic University of Norway into two groups: those born above the Arctic Circle and those born below it. Both groups took a test measuring color discrimination. People who live north of the Arctic Circle experience two months each year with no direct sunlight. The only natural illumination during the dark winters is twilight, which tends to have a bluish color.

Those people born above the Arctic Circle made more mistakes arranging the yellow-green and green tabs, but fewer mistakes arranging the bluish ones.

And in yet another study  Ohio State University psychologist Angela Brown looked through dictionaries for more than 450 languages and found that the closer people lived to the poles, the more their languages distinguished between blues.

Nature’s fractal patterns

Marcia Bjornerud wrote an excellent article for The New Yorker, “David Maisel’s Geometric Geographies” about  Maisel’s aerial photographs of Toledo, Spain,

“Classical geometry—Greek for “earth measure”—is not very earthly. We love the serene, eternal, incorruptible form of the circle, and the illusion of mastery that being able to reckon with it mathematically gives us, but the shape itself is rare in the natural world. . . Given enough time, nature prefers other, quieter motifs. Consider the dendritic geometry of a river system. Each tributary stream is fed by creeks, which are fed, in turn, by rivulets of progressively smaller size. Try to determine the system’s total length and a paradox emerges: the closer you look, and the smaller your measuring stick gets, the longer the river becomes. Each level in the hierarchy encloses a smaller but equally complex microcosm. No single scale is more important than any other. Such unruly geometries, which are known as fractals, are obvious and ubiquitous in nature—in weather patterns, mountain ranges, ecosystems . . .

"Architects and urban planners are, on the whole, still acolytes of Euclid. It is rare that a human system develops into a fractal; most become top-heavy, with a few outsize elements dominating form and function. But look closely at Maisel’s images of Vicálvaro and you can see nature reasserting itself, the wind and rain forming notches and rills around the edges of the simple rectangular blocks.”

How Real is Reality?

A while back I wrote an article titled “The Problem with the Real in Realism”. I was trying to address the issues of visual perception, learned symbolism, and the impact of language on how and what we “see”.  So, of course, I was drawn to this article by Adam Frank “How Real Is Reality?” on NPR.

 Frank’s article details the convergence of the brain-frying science of quantum mechanics and its intersection with philosophy. While the scientists are left scrambling to explain quantum weirdness, we can question the possible fractal pattern in the micro and macro worlds of reality. The Copenhagen interpretation posits that electrons don’t have intrinsic properties like position or spin. It is only the act of measurement (observation) that makes the electrons take on specific values.

Frank wrote, “Is there something out there independent of us that has specific properties in-and-of-it? Or is it all a mush of potential and possibility about which only our knowledge takes on a stable form?

"The fundamental question remains. How real is reality?”

Museums are keeping a ton of the world's most famous art locked away
Do people who grow up in the Arctic see better in the dark
David Maisel's geometric geographies
How real is reality
The problem with the real in realism

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Color constancy and why some of the science is wrong

I am definitely not going to disagree with the science of color constancy, which dictates that the perceived color of an object remains constant despite changes in light. I am disturbed, however, by the insistence of some neuroscientists that color constancy and the way the brain simplifies color information cannot, under any circumstances, be disregarded or compromised.  Obviously, in their quest for fundamental rules, they are overlooking the possibility of variables in the science of vision. They are discounting the possibility that some people, especially artists, can learn to evaluate the color of the illuminant or light source and in turn learn to evaluate color more accurately.

Color constancy is a feature of color perception which ensures that the color of an object will remain relatively constant under varying illumination. Color constancy explains why the grass in your front yard looks green under blue sky, remains green under a cloudy sky, and still looks green during a red sunset. A yellow banana will always look yellow, despite any change in the light which illuminates it, and a red apple will always look red. Without the brain’s ability to discount varying light conditions, acquiring color information about objects would be difficult. Without this ability to stabilize visual information, the world would be a very confusing place.

The subjective nature of color constancy accounts for the fact that beginning artists often have a hard time seeing color. Shadows will simply look gray, and the yellow banana will be the same color yellow from one end to the other. Beginning artists are not likely to see variation in any local color or be able to adapt to changing light conditions. The idea of cooler north light vs. using a warmer studio light would be confusing. However, the ability to decipher variations in illuminants and to perceive the ensuing changes in the color of objects and the color of shadows can be learned. Most art teachers are going to know this, and so will many painters. At some point, with persistence and practice, we learn to see differently.

Can we learn to totally discount color constancy? Probably not. But we can and do learn to work with it, and in many cases we can learn to see beyond the visual system’s preference for predictable color.

We need to understand that color information relayed to the brain is dependent on the evaluation and comparison of the range of wavelengths of light reflected by different objects in the visual scene. This process allows the brain to estimate and dismiss the influence of the light source and assign a constant color to an object or surface. Color constancy is one of the many “programs” running in the background of our visual system.

The Fisherman by Joaquin Sorolla
So, how do you work around this preference for consistent color? Compare, compare, and compare. Ideally, one should evaluate the quality of the illuminant first. Is the light warmer or cooler? Compare a lit area to a shadow and decipher the difference in color temperature. Next, identify the value range. Find the lightest light in the area where you are looking, and then compare to the darkest dark. Try and grasp the relationship of the two by making a mental comparison to a value scale. Is the lightest area close to white? Or a step or two away from white? Do the same with the darkest value, comparing it to black. This is the beginning of using a different form of visual processing. View the scene as a whole, and then pick out the most obvious differences in the pieces of information contained in the whole.

Now do the same with the colors you are seeing. Look for the “warmest” color notes, those more closely aligned with red, orange and yellow, and then compare with the “coolest” information, blues, greens, and violets. Look for the most obvious differences and then try to assess the more nuanced information. Remember that this is an ongoing process and not a once-and-done thing. Once you stop looking for differences, and once you stop comparing, you will revert to normal visual processing.

And some of the neuroscientists? Well, it seems as if many don’t think artists can learn to use the brain’s ability to process and compare complex information in a different way. They don’t believe we can learn to see differently. I think this bias is compromising the integrity of their research. Believing seems to be the first step in acquiring new information. Learning to see differently comes from a place of knowing this is possible.

The Rouen Cathedral series was painted in the 1890s by Claude Monet. The paintings in the series each capture the façade of the cathedral at different times of the day and year. The cathedral allowed Monet to highlight the paradox between a seemingly permanent, solid structure and the ever-changing light which constantly plays with our perception of it. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Four ridiculously simply ways to improve your painting

1. Stop and Look
Yes, I know this one sounds obvious, but after 25 years of teaching workshops, I can tell you the most common mistake artists make is to quit looking. I’ve seen far too many artists veer off into trite and predictable painting after a good, strong start simply because they stopped looking at the subject and the canvas with a critical eye.

This is often the result of what I call “brush-overdrive” which basically means a person will move the brush around on the canvas just because the brush is in the hand. We could also call it “automatic painting” - something similar to automatic writing which is defined as writing without conscious thought. Although we would all probably like some painting spirit hovering overhead telling us what to do next, count that option as not available and deal with the choices at hand. Just because there is a brush in your hand does not mean you actually have to make a mark on the canvas. Moving the brush and actually putting paint down do not always have to go together.

Develop new habits for looking and painting. Try not to make more than 3 or 4 brushstrokes at a time without stopping or pausing to observe. This gives you a place to use some critical thinking and observational skills before returning to the more creative brush mark. Find your own rhythm, but make sure you are not making multiple brush strokes without intent and without stopping to look.

2. Stand comfortably with a good view and remember to step back
Find a comfortable stance in front of the easel that allows you to easily move or alter your stance. (For those artists who sit while painting, try a chair with casters.) Avoid a rigid, fixed stance that prevents you from adjusting your view of the subject and of the canvas.

Even more importantly, stand at a distance that allows you to see all four corners of the canvas. We have a tendency to paint “things” without regard to the spaces around the “things.” Getting in the habit of seeing the entire canvas makes it easier to recognize that each mark and each shape has a relationship to the whole. Staring at pieces of information is an entirely unnatural act. In our everyday lives our eyes are constantly moving so keep that in mind next time you find your nose inches away from your painting.

Stepping back from the painting is not just an exercise program for painters. At one time or another, or maybe more often than we care to admit, we have worked feverishly on a painting only to walk away and realize there is no “there” there. The values and color are nondescript and perhaps the drawing information went awry. Standing in a fixed position and staring at pieces of information is not conducive to incorporating all those pieces into an interesting whole. Moving away from the canvas (or yes, even to the side) on a regular basis allows a different view and is more similar to how we naturally see the world around us.

 Also, if you are working on a large canvas, you will need to step back to be able to see the whole of the canvas – all four corners of it. John Singer Sargent would back all the way across the room to view his life-size paintings and then run forward to make a brushstroke.

3. Squint!
Take off your glasses, close one eye, squint, or look sideways, but alter how you are looking on a regular basis.

Squinting is the best for value comparison. (It is not good for color comparison.) Squinting simplifies the information and allows us to see patterns more easily. Finding an interesting and strong value pattern is often the foundation for the entire painting.

Closing one eye eliminates depth perception and flattens the image.

Looking sideways or peripherally is an important, but unsung, part of our visual perception. Only the very center of our gaze is optimized for higher visual acuity with the ability to see detail. We don’t usually notice this because we are constantly moving our eyes. This does not mean the rest of our visual field is inferior – only different. Peripheral vision is optimized for coarser information and is used for organizing the spatial scene and for viewing larger objects. Margaret Livingstone in “The Biology of Seeing” suggests peripheral vision is better able to detect facial expressions, and that the spatial imprecision of peripheral vision was an important component of many Impressionist paintings, giving these paintings a sense of time and movement.

4. Mind your brushes 
Use the right size and type of brush for the task at hand. The paintbrush doesn’t just define information – it creates it. Whether you need texture, or shape, or definition use the proper brush and don’t just default to the one already in your hand.

Pay attention to how you are holding the brush. While there may be occasion to hold the brush like a pencil, recognize this method is not as conducive to creative and interpretive painting and it is also not likely to create variety and interest in your brushstrokes. Handling the brush like a pencil or pen is most likely to access the neural pathways in your brain that are associated with language and writing. For the sake of simplicity we can call this a left-brain, right-brain problem. The cognitive processes associated with language can easily override visual processing – the parts of your brain that can recognize shapes, compare value and color, find the pattern, and see the whole instead of just the pieces.

This blog was originally posted on
Lori Putnam's Best Blog Party Ever

Monday, August 31, 2015

The creativity crisis

American creativity scores are declining. Research by Dr. KH Kim, Associate Professor at the College of William & Mary, documents a decline on creativity tests at all grade levels starting between 1984 and 1990 and decreasing ever since.

Kim’s findings document a decline in all aspects of creativity, but the biggest decline is in the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way. More than 85% of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984. According to Kim, “children have become… less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, and less likely to see things from a different angle.”

So what exactly is creativity and why are we having such a problem with it? First of all, creativity is certainly not just the domain of the “arts”. The University of Georgia’s Marc Runco calls this “art bias.” The continuing belief that the arts have a special claim to creativity is unfounded. When given creativity tasks both engineering majors and music majors had the same patterns of response.

Creativity is not just right brain dominance; it is the ability of the brain to discern information from both hemispheres and to use convergent and divergent thinking (such as linear and non-linear thinking). Trying to solve a problem with only the right side of your brain would result in ideas on the tip of your tongue and just beyond reach.

The initial process of problem solving begins with the left brain analyzing obvious facts and familiar solutions. If the answer is not available, both the left and right hemispheres activate together to process the less obvious information. This more distant information is what we normally tune out, and without it we are less likely to find abstractions, unseen patterns, and alternative meanings. Once a connection is made, the left brain then processes the information into a new idea. Without the process of divergent thinking, using both hemispheres of the brain, we are completely dependent on only the most obvious and already recognized thoughts and ideas.

Unfortunately, many people are uncomfortable with the change and uncertainty that accompany creativity. It is easier and more comfortable to deal with what we already know (and think we see). According to Kim, the “decrease in originality scores is an indirect measure of growing social pressures toward conformity and status quo, and increasing intolerance for new ideas.”

“Yes, There IS a Creativity Crisis” by KH Kim Jul 10, 2012
“As Children’s Freedom Has Declined, So Has Creativity” by Peter Gray, Psychology Today Sep 27, 2012
“The Creativity Crisis” Newsweek Jul 19, 2010

"The Lemon" by Euan Uglow

Dome at Volterra

Euan Uglow described to an interviewer the inspiration for his still life Lemon (1973):
"I'll tell you what Lemon is about ... It's the dome at Volterra that Brunelleschi was supposed to have helped with. It's most beautiful, very simple, very lovely. I couldn't paint the dome there, so when I came back I thought I'd try to paint it from a lemon."

"The Snail" by Henri Matisse

Henri Matisse gave up painting in the last years of his life to create paper cut-outs. These were made by cutting or tearing shapes from paper which had been painted with gouache. Matisse said the technique allowed him to draw in color. His daughter said her father made many drawings of snails at the time of the work “The Snail” (1953) and that the idea for this work came from these drawings. The concentric pattern formed by the colored shapes in the center of the work echoes the spiral pattern found in the snail’s shell. 

Matisse said, “All this time I have looked for the same things, which I have perhaps realized by different means . . . There is no separation between my old pictures and my cutouts, except that with greater completeness and abstraction I have attained a form filtered to its essentials and of the object which I used to present in the complexity of space, I have preserved the sign.”

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Disney meets Sorolla

A while ago as I was trying to explain the concept of warmer-cooler color to a group of students, I could tell some of them just weren't getting the meaning of color pattern. The next morning, while reading the morning paper in my hotel room, I came across several images from a Disney animated film. They were excellent examples of design with color temperature. A frame would be either primarily warm or primarily cool with accents of the opposite color temperature.

 I clipped the pictures from the paper and took them into class. As I held the images up and explained the use of color it was apparent this example made an impact. Why? Because the images were simplified and the colors were easy to identify. They used basic color notations and were easily seen as primary and secondary colors. And once the identification of color was made, it was just as easy to see the pattern of warmer-cooler colors.

Understanding color temperature is complicated by the fact visual experience and, in turn, most paintings are composed of subtle variations that have little resemblance to a color wheel.  It is difficult to compare a grey or tan to a primary or secondary color. But if we learn to identify the most obvious information first, deciphering the rest of the visual information becomes just a little easier.

William F. Reese gave his students good information when he instructed them to: 1. identify the hue – red, yellow, blue or green; 2. adjust the value which is often to lighten by adding white, then adjust the temperature by using adjacent hues from the color wheel; and 3. adjust the chroma (intensity of the color) by using the complement if necessary.

I can’t say I am as directional nor as organized to follow this method of color mixing, but it certainly helps clarify the process.

The work of Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923) provides some great examples of color temperature and the pattern of color information. Many of his paintings have a clarity of color and a pattern of warmer-cooler color that is reasonably easy to identify.

Promenade on the Beach by Joaquin Sorolla

Children on the Seashore by Joaquin Sorolla

Child's Siesta by Joaquin Sorolla

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Chalk and mud

When an artist refers to an area in a painting as looking chalky or muddy, the problem is usually color temperature.

 “Chalky” refers to white without a specific and appropriate color temperature and “muddy” is probably a darker value without a color temperature. The problem is most likely paint without an identity – something akin to limbo, neither here nor there. This does not mean every bit of paint on a canvas needs to resemble a color wheel of primaries. Just a nudge here and there will identify a color as warmer or cooler.

Highlights and areas of very light values should have variation and interest. A touch of viridian or orange can do wonders for highlights, and larger areas of light value need to have an identity other than “white”. They need to be part of the overall pattern of color temperature but still be descriptive and interesting.

The problem with “mud” usually begins on the palette, but over-brushing an area of a painting will also mix the paint into one non-descriptive mess. The problem is not because the artist mixed more than three colors together on the palette. This “rule” arose in an attempt to find an easy solution to non-descriptive mixtures. Perhaps it works for some, but I am in the camp of sometimes scraping paint on my palette into one big pile and using it (and this is the important part) if it is appropriate and useful. This mixture of multiple colors might need some adjustment for value and color – lighter, darker, warmer or cooler.

Neutral mixtures of paint (tans and greys) are important. They enhance and help identify color. All areas of a painting do not need exclamation points. Just learn to appreciate subtle changes in color and pay attention to the overall pattern of lighter and darker values and warmer and cooler colors.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Do you see blue like I see blue?

For various reasons it is quite likely we don’t see color the same. The names for the colors of the rainbow are arbitrary constructions. The Russian language, for example, has two separate words for the color “blue” found in the rainbow. Most of us have just one word for the same color. Does this make a difference in how we “see” the color?

Recent experiments have shown that if we have a name for a color, we are quite likely to see it in a different way. Naming and seeing are connected and what we see changes according to whether or not the language centers of the brain are activated. (The Secret Language of Color)

The language of color differs depending on where you live. There are evidently still tribes that don't have color names beyond black and white. It is also interesting that the naming of colors across all cultures has a distinct pattern. Black and white are always the first to be named. Red is next. After that, there are variations in the naming of color, but usually yellow or green follow, then blue or violet. Colors such as orange and pink appear later.

The colors of the rainbow have changed over time. As late as the twelfth century, the arc was portrayed with only red and green and a band of white in the center. The rainbow didn't take on additional hues until the Renaissance, and it wasn't until the eighteenth century and Newton that we acquired the colors of the rainbow as we know them today. And then there is the Russian language which has two words for blue, “goluboi” for light blue and “sinii” for dark blue. This distinction is similar to the English language separation between pink and red.

Not having a name for a color does not mean a person can’t see the color. Linguists spent two centuries arguing about whether or not a person who didn't have a name for a color could actually “see” the color. We know now that is not true. We are starting to recognize, however, that the complexity of visual processing is both enhanced and inhibited by the language centers of the brain.

"The Secret Language of Color" by Joann Eckstut and Arielle Eckstut
"Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages" by Guy Deutscher

More interesting stuff - robins actually see the earth's magnetic field!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Something about color

The easiest way to understand color is to review Isaac Newton’s experiments with light in the late 1600s. He was the first to understand the rainbow when he refracted white light (sunlight) with a prism. When the light passed through the prism it scattered the different colors of light according to their wavelength, showing a continuous band of colors – violet, blue, green, yellow, orange and red, (Newton included indigo which would have numerically aligned his color diagram with the seven tones of the musical octave.)

Newton then turned that band of colors into a circle and created the color wheel. Up until then, for over two thousand years, color theory was dominated by Aristotle’s version of linear color which was arranged from white to black, with red in the middle, yellow next to white, and blue next to black. Obviously, Aristotle’s version was more of a value scale than a color diagram.

However, while the color wheel has its advantages in recognizing color relationships, such as complementary, analagous, and secondary colors, it also spawned multiple variations, numerous color theories and a lot of confusion for artists.

So let’s go back to the rainbow and the science of color – the band of colors discovered by Newton when he separated sunlight into wavelengths of light with a prism. Color is a property of light. The wavelength of visible light has a pattern. It is a range of color from violet to red. It is dictated by the wavelengths of the spectrum. The colors do not jump around at random. Just as value has a pattern of light to dark (shadow), color also has a pattern. Red turns into orange, which then turns to yellow, then green, blue, and violet. This is the pattern of visible light. Objects have no color of their own; they only have the ability to reflect certain rays of light.

The other pattern of visible light is what we can observe as color temperature. This is not an absolute value, never just warm or cool, but an “as compared to” value – warmer or cooler. The pattern of visible light, violet to red, ranges from cooler to warmer. Blue is seen as cooler than red, but ultramarine blue has elements of red color and is seen as warmer than cerulean blue. Alizarin red, which leans towards violet, is seen as cooler than cadmium red which leans towards yellow.  Understanding warmer and cooler colors is based on recognizing the importance of comparison and being able to see if a color tends towards red and/or yellow, or if a color leans towards blue and/or green. Trying to establish an absolute value with color temperature is confusing and misleading.

And now we need to understand that the quality of the light (warmer or cooler) modifies everything. As light changes, color changes, and our perception of color can change with the surroundings. Identifying the light source as either warmer or cooler will simplify the visual information and help us to observe, quantify, and mix colors. Cooler light (such as a cloudy day or early morning) means warmer shadows. And, please note, I did not write “warm” shadows.  A shadow is an absence of light and that same light has color information, so a shadow is an absence of that color information. That does not mean one cannot see a variation of color temperature within a cooler shadow. The real world is a combination of direct light, ambient light, local color, reflected color, etc. Identifying color is a process of comparison – warmer, cooler, lighter, darker.

To keep everything in perspective, we need to recognize that the science of light and color is different than the science of pigment and color. The former is additive and the latter subtractive. Add all the colors in light together (as Newton did after he first separated the colors with a prism) and you will have white light. Do the same with pigment and one will end up with black – or if you are an artist, something akin to “muck”. There is no such thing as the “right” color – only the color that looks right.

Also, the human eye can distinguish up to 10 million colors. Since the brain is the processing component for determining visual information, and the brain assesses information based on experience and knowledge, then it is safe to say that we can see colors differently. Ultimately, the whole idea of painting “things” is an illusion, smoke and mirrors, merely one person’s impression and interpretation of visual information. Somewhere other than trite and predictable is a place of creativity and discovery.

“Color is life; for a world without colors appears to us as dead. Colors are primordial ideas, children of the aboriginal colorless light and its counterpart, colorless darkness. As flame begets light, so light engenders colors. Colors are the children of light, and light is their mother. Light, that first phenomenon of the world, reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors." - The Elements of Color by Johannes Itten

While the history of art is a study of changes in the use of color, the Impressionist painters are notable for their study of sunlight and how it alters the local tones of objects. Monet explored these changes methodically, sometimes requiring a fresh canvas at each hour of the day. The best examples of Monet’s exploration of sunlight and atmospheric color changes are his series of Rouen Cathedral paintings.

Interaction of Color by Josef Albers - a highly regarded book by one of the most influential artist-educators
Color by Betty Edwards - instructive and informative
Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay - interesting, engaging book, part travelogue, part history 
The Rainbow Goblins by Ul De Rico – a classic story with beautiful illustrations for the child in all of us.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Anderson workshop - a short version

I just returned from teaching a workshop in Fredericksburg, Texas. It was great to see a few old friends and meet some new ones. I was privileged to again work with a great group of artists. One of those artists is also a very talented writer. Ruth Heffron surprised and awed us all with her poem about the workshop. We laughed and nodded in agreement when she read it aloud while I was doing a demonstration. Everyone agreed she nailed it. I, for one, will try and pay a little more attention to not just what I say, but how I say it!

Maker's Mark

by Ruth Heffron



MAKE INSTEAD YOUR "you are here" MAP

Ruth Heffron Fine Art

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Everything you need to know about painting

  1. The Art of Seeing - Squint!
  2. Design & Composition - Think cause and effect.
  3. Everything You Need to Know About Values - Is it lighter or darker?
  4. Everything You Need to Know About Color - Is it warmer or cooler?
  5. When Your Painting Doesn't Work - Identify the problem and find a solution.
  6. When Your Painting Still Doesn't Work - Take a break. Drink coffee. Read No. 5.
  7. It Still Doesn't Work - Never beat a dead horse.
  8. How To Know If Your Painting Is Finished - You have a run out of time or have nothing else to say.

Artists Paul Mullally and Ned Mueller taking a break from painting.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Why naming the "thing" can be a problem

Look at one or the other of these two well-known optical illusions and notice how quickly you can change the image by saying either duck-rabbit or face-vase.

The duck/rabbit and face/vase illusions are well-known examples of ambiguous information. Seeing is a "best guess" based on the information at hand. In these examples the visual information presents alternative interpretations so we see first one image, and then the other. We don't see the shape apart from the interpretation. The “naming of the thing” simplifies the process of trying to decipher the visual information.

Visual ambiguity is not just confined to optical illusions. Vision is a process, not a picture. We see what is most different and usually group together what is most similar. We see the obvious changes and make assumptions about what we see based on what we know and what we expect to see. ("Vision and Art" by Margaret Livingstone) It is important to understand how seeing can be compromised by knowledge, expectations, and also language.

When we "name the thing" we are more likely to see what we think we know about the object. We are less likely to see its specific and accurate attributes, such as shape variation, color, value and edges. There are varying levels of visual accuracy and artists need to be able to combine the knowing and the seeing. At times it is important to be able to see without the preconceived information of the "knowing." That is why some artists may view reference material upside down. It takes the information out of context and makes it easier to see the relationship of shapes, colors and values.
Realist painters paint “things” – ordinary (and maybe not so ordinary) objects, people and places. Realist painting has certain parameters and an obligation to reflect some aspect of a universally accepted reality. It may be easier to see “things” than it is to see structure, order and how visual information is related. But these are just two different ways of seeing.
Realism can also be about possibility – the possibility of vision and personal expression - the possibilities inherent in using value and color and making marks. Never underestimate how "naming the thing" can compromise the integrity of the visual information.
Do you really want to paint what you already know? Or do you want to know and see something in a different way?

“I don't paint things. I only paint the difference between things.” Henri Matisse

Friday, December 19, 2014

A Christmas story

Many years ago I bought a life-size horse made from cottonwood branches.  Joe Halko, a friend and colleague, made the sculpture. Joe was a well-respected wildlife sculptor, known for his sensitive and beautiful bronzes. The horse made of branches was an anomaly – he only made a very few of them. The work he had done throughout his career was more traditional, both in style and material.

I can still remember the day Joe and his wife delivered the horse and actually helped to set it in place.

A few short years later Joe died unexpectedly. Those of us who knew him were shocked and saddened.

Bronze by Joe Halko
As Christmas neared that year we erected an old Christmas tree with bright white lights near the horse. We had done this before and it seemed appropriate for the vastness of the prairie in front of our house. But that year two deer began showing up every evening at dusk to bed down near the tree. There was something magical and surprising to see them arrive each night. Maybe they were seeking warmth from the lights, I thought. But they never laid down right next to the tree. They were just there, every night, close, but not too close, to the lit tree and cottonwood branch horse.

Christmas Eve came. I waited for the deer to arrive. It seemed so important to have them bed down near the tree on that night – two deer by the lights of the tree and the horse standing nearby. I waited and waited, but they never came – not that night or ever again.

At first I was disappointed. Until I realized what had happened. In that moment I knew where the deer were. I knew they had someplace else, somewhere far more important, to be that night.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Garbage in, garbage out

Science has proven what we already know. Listening to someone talking on a cell phone is annoying.

Research has shown that subjects listening to a cell phone conversation had a hard time performing a task requiring concentration. They did not have as much difficulty when listening to a two-way conversation.They also did not have a problem when listening to speech that was completely incomprehensible.

On another annoying note, people are more inclined to perceive a cell phone conversation as louder than a regular conversation between two people.

Scientists estimate we are subject to receiving one billion stimuli every second in our brains. We manage to filter out most extraneous and unnecessary information. We can tune out what we deem unimportant and routine, and we can choose to listen to a conversation or not. But it seems to be difficult to tune out information that doesn’t make sense. It’s as if the brain gets caught in a loop of attention. Our brains are wired to make sense of the world – to recognize patterns and organize information. It is difficult to process incomplete information.

According to Max Liberman, a linguist from the University of Pennsylvania, “… when you're getting lower-quality information coming in, you're having to work harder to understand and reconstruct it."

So what does this have to do with art? Pattern and organization. We need to organize visual information.  But organization doesn’t begin and end with the placement of objects.  Common sense tells us to arrange and edit before we start painting; but organization is also dependent on value patterns, shapes, and the use of color. It is up to us to find the pattern.

In the context of information technology "garbage in, garbage out" means the output quality of a system usually can't be any better than the quality of inputs.

In 1876 Alexander Graham Bell exhibited the first telephone at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia.  Just four years later Mark Twain wrote the following:
“Consider that a conversation by telephone — when you are simply sitting by and not taking any part in that conversation — is one of the solemnest curiosities of this modern life. Yesterday I was writing a deep article on a sublime philosophical subject while such a conversation was going on in the room. . . . You hear questions asked; you don't hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise or sorrow or dismay. You can't make head or tail of the talk, because you never hear anything that the person at the other end of the wire says.”

Friday, November 7, 2014

The problem with edges

There is a reason why so many books on “seeing” have titles such as “Visual Perception,” Visual Thinking,” “Visual Language,” and “Visual Intelligence.” Sure, we’re dependent on the transmission of light through the eyes to the brain, but how we see is visual processing, not just image transmission. And the problem with edges has to do with how the brain processes edge information. 

Ask yourself what kind of visual information is important on daily basis. What do you need to know when walking around your house or driving down the street? Lost-and-found edges are probably not a high priority. In fact, the human brain is continually asking “what is it?” and “where is it?” We need to know where the chair in the room is so we can either sit on it or walk around it. We certainly don’t need to quantify unnecessary edge information. Vision is information processing on a need-to-know basis.

Imagine how much visual information is contained within one scene. The authors of the book “Basic Vision” did just that when they calculated an average scene viewed in shades of grey. When they also included the fact that the eye encodes roughly 30 images per second, the results showed an astonishing 3900 Mb per second per eye or six compact disks full every second. “The information flow from two eyes would fill up a 120 Gb hard drive on a PC in around 15 seconds.” And that’s without including color information.

How do we handle all this information? Image compression. This is similar to the image processing used in a digital picture when the picture is stored as a JPEG. A JPEG uses much less memory than a an uncompressed TIF image.  Information that is considered unnecessary is discarded. “The information sent back from the retina is not the raw light levels of each part of the scene but an efficient code about the changes, or edges, that are in the world.” (Basic Vision, an introduction to visual perception)

“In the visual system, regions of the image with high information content, such as edges, are signaled, but regions where nothing is changing are not." (Vision and Art, the Biology of Seeing)

If our visual system is wired to see the most obvious changes, then how do we see information that is not as obvious? The answer is simple – just look and look some more and compare, compare, compare. In this case knowledge is power and just knowing you do not necessarily see all the information should allow you to move forward and look for it.  With that said, here is some information that might be helpful.

The rounder the form, the softer the edge. The further away the object, the softer the edge. We are dealing with dimensional, atmospheric and focal information. And since we are dealing with “smoke and mirrors” in creating a three dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface, sometimes we need to exaggerate or minimize the information.

Do not assume there is an edge. Ask yourself if there is an edge, and if so, “what kind of edge?” ”What defines the form?” Is it a change in value or color or is it a change in shape. Often it's a change in information next to the form. A strong light next to a strong dark will usually result in a harder edge. Information turning into shadow will obviously not be as noticeable. A dark next to a light will appear darker than a dark in shadow. Everything is “as compared to.” Look for the doorways that allow one shape to turn into or become part of another shape. Pay attention to the edges opposite one another on an object. They should have variety and suggest dimension.

Edges are not arbitrary. They define our three-dimensional reality. They are the transition between value, shapes and color. They help to define or diminish form. Edges are areas of translation – allowing one area to become another.

“How the pieces are connected to each other is at least as important as what the pieces are.” (Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway)

#painting edges

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The quack in the grass

A friend recently sent me some photos of the landscape near her home in Missouri. I recognized those photos. I had never been there, to that specific location, but I immediately identified with that Midwestern landscape. I knew the shapes of the trees, I could feel myself walking through the lush grass, and I could smell and feel the damp air. I knew that place and it felt like home. And then I thought about ducks. Baby ducks, to be specific. And, briefly, I thought about the baby duck I had as a pet. But more importantly, I thought about how ducks, and some other birds, will follow and become attached to the first moving object they encounter, usually, but not always, their mother.

I grew up in the Midwest. The shapes, the colors, and the space resonate with me. I know my early visual experiences shaped how I experience the landscape. The fields, rolling hills, lush green trees and moist, humid air are as familiar to me as the faces of my family. I call this the land of foreground and middle ground. The land I live in now is a land of distance only – a land with no beginning and no end. There are never enough visual clues to accurately judge distance or elevation. But this is land of challenge and change. It is continually fascinating, but never comforting.

Visual experience is more than our eyes sending signals of contrast and color to our brains.  What we see in front of us is a combination of what we know and what we expect to see. It is our past and our present, our memories and our sense of space and place. It is time itself. In the book “Basic Vision”, the authors wrote, “We see the world in a particular way, not because that is the way the world is, but because that’s the way we are.”

In a study done on human-computer interaction, it was found there is a tendency for computer users to imprint on the first system they learned and then judge other systems by their similarity to that first system. This is called “baby duck syndrome.”


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Is it a door or a doorway?

Have you ever walked into a room and forgotten what you went in there for? Research by Psychology Professor Gabriel Radvansky from the University of Notre Dame suggests that the doorway itself is the cause of these memory lapses.

"Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an 'event boundary' in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away," according to Radvansky. In other words, your brain files away the thoughts you had in one room in preparation for a new locale and new information.

I think we artists can be misled by edges in a similar way. Just as a doorway can trigger an event boundary for information retrieval, too many hard edges prevent us from visually exploring the possibilities of transition and unity. When we paint outlines and hard edges we are creating barriers which are often difficult to overcome. This "stop and start" approach to painting makes it even more difficult to see how all those "pieces" fit together.

"Edges allow us to define spaces, see their boundaries as well as what flows across them, and work with these flows. They are places of transition and translation, where matter and energy change speed or stop, or often, change into something else."
                                          Gaia's Garden, a Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture
                                          by Toby Hemenway

Thursday, October 2, 2014

More myths and realities

   The more we paint, the more we see, and the more tools we add to our tool-belt. That should be a positive, but sometimes we don't see enough and sometimes we see too much. As our abilities increase, so should our expectations. I do not view painting as merely a craft - as something to be mastered. Painting is part of a journey of exploration and one of our most powerful tools is intent. Without intent all the skill in the world is merely craft. Intent can be the driving force that moves us forward and allows us to take risks and explore our perceptions of boundaries. If you want to learn to paint, you need to paint - and paint a lot. If you want to create, you need to be able to take risks and accept that not all paintings are created equally. One of our biggest myths is that this is all about skill - a craft to be mastered after long and arduous study - and once you have mastered the skill and learned the tricks, you will paint beautiful paintings forever and ever. The reality is even great artists struggled with their quest for exploration.

Claude Monet once wrote, "I'm hard at it, working stubbornly on a series of different effects (grain stacks), but at this time of the year the sun sets so fast that it's impossible to keep up with it . . . I'm getting so slow at my work it makes me despair, but the further I get, the more I see that a lot of work has to be done in order to render what I'm looking for: instaneity, the envelope, above all, the same light spread over everything, and more than ever I'm disgusted by easy things that come in one go."

Art Chats with Linda Fisler: The Myths and Realities of Creating a Painting with Carolyn Anderson

AMO Art Chat: Mastering Edges with Carolyn Anderson

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Rendering vs. creating

   When I interviewed with Linda Fisler for Art Chats one of her questions concerned rendering vs. creating. She wanted to know if I thought artists can be too technical. Does the process of managing a painting interfere with the journey of creating a painting? And how does an artist move from rendering into just creating?
   It seems so much easier to copy than to create. So think about creating as SELECTIVE FOCUS. We don't need to re-invent anything. We just need to focus on what we see and feel is important.
   If you are in the rendering stage of painting, try and render selectively. Make decisions based on whether or not you need all the information in front of you. Try and figure out what you need to define form and create shapes. Ask yourself what defines the form, is there an edge, what kind of edge, what is the value, the color temperature, and what is the shape. And the easiest way to do this is to compare one area of your painting to another. We are dealing with relative values, not absolutes. Whether it is value, color temperature, edges, or shapes, all this information should be evaluated based on "as compared to." This is the way your brain figures out what you are seeing. The painter part of you should do the same.
   Above all, avoid TMI - too much information, Remember - this is all smoke and mirrors. A painting is not real. It is an illusion of three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface.

Myths and Realities of Creating a Painting with Linda Fisler and Carolyn Anderson

Monday, August 25, 2014

Myths and realities of creating a painting

On August 22 I did another interview with Linda Fisler.We had a great conversation and both Linda and Sarah Allspaw did a fantastic job hosting the interview. Here is the link to the recent interview on Art Chats with Linda Fisler:
Myths and Realities of Creating a Painting

A while back Linda interviewed me for another Art Chat talk on edges. This one can be found at Mastering Edges with Carolyn Anderson.

For some more artist interviews by Linda Fisler check out her website at www.lindafisler.com

The interview on the myths and realities of painting addressed some of the problems and concerns I have encountered over the years teaching painting workshops. Linda started out by asking what myths do I consider as false or misleading and what problems do we have when dealing with these myths. I answered that question with three "myths" I feel create some of the most confusion when painting. Here they are:

MYTH: There is a list of rules to follow.
This one leads a lot of people astray. Creativity and possibilities are lost in the quest to follow the rules. Trying to follow someone’s idea of rules may be the path of least resistance but it is not necessarily the path to success. There are numerous so-called rules and most all of them can be considered suggestions, not rules. A few are factual, such as warmer light-cooler shadows, cooler light, warmer shadows (this is based on the science of color). The idea of working from dark to light is equally valid. Most people paint on canvas that is light to middle value. Why would you want to start making marks with anything other than a dark? Question everything and ask yourself if what you are reading or being told is written in stone.

One very common misconception is the belief there is a “rule” to never, ever, place anything in the middle of canvas. I have seen far too many students create compositions that make absolutely no sense because they are deathly afraid of breaking this one. As always there is a kernel of truth. We do not want to create equal balance. Unequal balance is not only more interesting but far more dynamic. This, however, does not mean a subject or for that matter, even the suggestion of a horizon, cannot ever be placed in the middle. How we use value shapes and color is what determines balance.

MYTH: Paint what you see.
This is another one with a kernel of truth. The problem here is with the seeing. This is a seeing problem which often turns into a painting problem. We absolutely do not see everything in front of us. Our brains process information on a need-to-know basis.  We do not easily quantify all values and colors and we certainly do not observe and quantify the variety of edges in our visual field.  And sometimes, information – whether value or color, or even objects -  needs to be modified. Just because you are seeing something doesn’t necessarily mean it will work in your painting. Seeing more information means we have to edit more information. I am not a great one for moving mountains to compose a painting, but I will certainly omit or modify information if I feel it is necessary. Sometimes we have to add more information, sometimes we need to delete information, and sometimes we may just have to modify information. Ultimately, whether or not your painting looks right to you is most important, not that you have copied all the information you are seeing.

MYTH: What we think we see is the whole truth.
Another aspect of the seeing problem . . . The reality is we are wired to make sense of the world and we will go to great lengths to reconcile discrepancies in our perceptions. Your everyday brain can have fits over seeing purple lights or shadows on a red apple and will simply ignore or discard color information it deems unnecessary or unnatural. It is likely you will not see this information. Your artist brain, however, should leap at the chance to explore unexpected color relationships. Accepting visual information without question shuts the door to seeing more information. Unless we accept there can be more information, we do not look for more information, and therefore we never see it. We can easily miss the nuances of value, color, shapes and edges. And the best way to see and quantify information is to COMPARE-COMPARE-COMPARE.

We cannot isolate and identify information as separate pieces.  Our brains will work overtime to find a pattern. Remember, verbal language (which actually compromises how we see the world around us) is object dependent. Visual language is relationship dependent. Realist painting may depend on the object, but how a painting is constructed is completely dependent on relationships.

If you want more information about how our brains work and how we see I suggest “Vision and Art, the Biology of Seeing” by Margaret Livingstone. Also National Geographic has an interesting show called Brain Games. And for a brief and interesting lesson on art history try “The Annotated Mona Lisa” by Carol Strickland.