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Neuroaesthetics. Who knew?

January 21, 2012

Sketchbook image of imagined world forms

I’ve always wondered about the rules for making art. Here are some I’ve been taught (and used):

  • Use energetic, thick/thin, broken lines to suggest strong emotion; light, elusive lines to suggest delicacy and tentativeness.
  • Use complementary hues in unequal amounts (a main color and an accent) to make colors “pop” on a canvas.
  • Create a focal point in a painting so that the person viewing it knows what’s important and doesn’t get confused about where to look.
  • Create a path (e.g., zigzag, diagonal, cruciform) through the composition so the viewer can get “in” and “out.”
  • Vary the size and kinds of shapes, along with the treatment of their edges, to create more visual interest.
  • etc.

As useful as rules can be, it’s always tempting, and equally useful, to break them. That process of considering and breaking rules can result in new challenges and in new interpretations of why and how to make art.

For some reason I think about stuff like this a lot and when I stumbled across neuroaesthetics (while admiring images of working brain cells on the internet), I thought, “how clever—an investigation of how our brain influences our aesthetic intelligence!” I thought maybe I would have some insight into those artmaking rules. This blog statement from Jonah Lehrer in particular intrigued me:

“In general, artists are intuitive experimentalists. They make a brush stroke and step back and see if the brush stroke works. They’re constantly asking questions of the visual cortex and trying to figure out if this line or that line is better. They’re fascinated by learning a bit about what’s happening inside their head, what those electrical cells are doing. What they prefer and why they prefer it.”

Jonah Lehrer, in an interview featured in Brainstorm, July 21, 2009

He was talking about neuroaesthetics and how artists contribute to an understanding of how the brain works. Still hoping to have an “aha” along the way, I started researching neuroaesthetics. It is a complicated topic, the exploration of which is deeply rooted in science.

I was looking for an esoteric (and magical) answer to my questions about why artists work with certain shapes and colors, over and over…and how (or if) viewers respond to that imagery. I didn’t get an answer to that but what I did get from the reading I have done so far is that the artist and the brain (treated as two separate entities) have the same function in interpreting reality. Most simply, there is a direct correlation between how our invisible brain interprets and organizes visual phenomenon in our physical world and the way that artists interpret and organize that same physical world, making it visible through their art. In other words, art might be said to be the means for having a peek inside the brain. Ignore for the moment that the artist also has a brain, and he or she is not acting independently of that brain. The artist is like the big screen for the brain in sorting information to make sense of the world. It is not based on actual appearance as we think of it, but is based on relationships, simplification, and reduction. Frankly, the more I read, the more skeptical I was of the usefulness of this description of artist function and brain function. Especially since artists, knowing how to relate, simplify, and reduce “reality” often do just the opposite to shake things up.

But I do have a further take away that really does apply to making art…and this comes from sifting through scientific explanations in several articles. Trust your brain when it comes to making your art. There is a Line doodles of triangles, squares, and waves from the artist's sketchbookwhole process that is going on behind the scenes that you do not have to verbalize or justify. There is a logic, an elegant organization and interpretation, that will evolve as you keep working. And that’s really what I was looking for after all. There is a reason I like all of those little shapes I keep drawing—it’s my brain making sense of the world, and I’m just the tool.

More neuroaesthetics to dig into if you’re interested:

The Science of Art by V. S. Ramachandran and William Hirstein

Statement on Neuroesthetics

Artbrain: 5 Statements on Neuroaesthetics

Art and the Brain by Semir Zeki

Unlocking the Mysteries of the Artistic Mind by Jonah Lehrer

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