Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Do facts matter or is truth just another possibility?

When we are faced with information that contradicts what we think we know, is there value in trying to understand the new information? Or is truth really based on some kind of sliding scale of perception? Why do we accept dogma for truth? Why work so hard to hold onto information that compromises our ability to change and move forward?

Red, yellow and blue are considered primary colors in the art world. This primary system of red, yellow and blue predates modern scientific color theory. Yet it persists in painting color theory today. This is what most artists learn and it is what children around the world are taught in art classes.These three primaries do not correspond to the subtractive primaries dictated by human color vision.

The more accurate and more scientific color primary system for subtractive color is magenta, cyan and yellow. (Pigment is subtractive color. This is the process of subtracting color as the light waves are absorbed and reflected off the surface of the pigment.) Subtractive color is also used in printing and photography. Just take a quick look at the ink cartridges in your desktop printer.

The primary colors for additive color, anything using light such as computer monitors and televisions, are red, green and blue. So we have two scientific primary color systems, additive and subtractive, and then we have the “painting” color primary system. Artists are still clinging to an outdated model of a color primary system.

Does using an outdated primary system make a difference? It is difficult to mix colorful greens, cyans, purples and magentas using these three colors, but most artists use multiple colors on their palettes. Unlike photography and printing, we have the ability to use variations of reds, yellows and blues. And even a simplified palette can be incredibly powerful. Just take another look at some Zorn paintings where he used black, vermillion, ochre and white. However, it is quite possible our critical thinking (or mixing) skills are compromised when we cling to a primary system that predates current scientific color theory.

Is our dependence on cadmium red a result of red, yellow, blue thinking? While cadmium red (or similar variation) is useful, it is not nearly as useful for mixing as a red that leans more towards magenta, such as alizarin or quinacridone.  Think about the possibilities of alizarin, mixed with a blue such as cyan, or alizarin mixed with yellow. Now consider what happens when cadmium red is substituted for alizarin.

Artists are dealing with the perception and psychology of color. Our job is to interpret, not to try and replicate, which is an impossible task. Light is the science of additive color; pigment is the science of subtractive color. Light is a physical entity; seeing color is a perception. Let’s not make this any more confusing than it already is.

Why the world map you know is wrong

In yet another example of inaccurate and misleading information, we are still using a world map created in 1596. The original map was made by a globe maker named Mercator to help sailors navigate the world, and its distortions and exaggerations are the result of the difficulty inherent in portraying a spherical world on a flat map. Imagine stretching a map on a globe to fit a rectangular space. Despite attempts at other projections, the Mercator map has maintained its dominance over centuries and is now used at Google Maps and Bing. We think Greenland is huge, but in reality it is about four times smaller than the United States and 14.5 times smaller than Africa. In fact, Greenland is about the size of Saudi Arabia. Africa is actually larger than Russia and Brazil is more than five times larger than Alaska.

Want to learn more? Check out the app The True Size Of.

And while we are at it - no, the moon is not huge when on the horizon. It did not zoom in for a visit. It is an illusion. Other perceptual observations such as perceived distance and the size of nearby objects are used by the brain to determine what size an object appears to be.

Also, your mirror image is not life-sized. This, too, is a perception and not reality. Just measure next time you are looking a mirror. The explanation for this one? We see what we know and what we expect to see.

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.”