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

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.