Getting Real

Art, in effect, is apparently just beginning, and there hasn’t been any art yet, according to artist Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957). I, also, read recently that some researchers have discovered the basis of creativity, in the Artist’s Keys blog by Sara Genn.

“The study identifies 972 “creativity” genes, which regulate three systems of learning and memory: emotional reactivity, self-control and self-awareness. The emotional reactivity network allows us to form social attachments and learn things. The self-control network gives us the ability to set goals, cooperate with others and make tools. The self-awareness network, unlike the other two, is unique to modern humans. Responsible for “episodic learning,” it allows us to remember experiences and improve upon past behaviors, as well as offering an autobiographical memory of our life, complete with a narrative with a past, present and future, “within which a person can explore alternative perspectives with intuitive insight and creative imagination.” It is this last item, say the researchers, that separates us from our distant primate relatives and earlier humans.”

According to the research, we did not have that last bit 100,000 years ago. I believe the current oldest cave paintings are dated at 78,000 years, and statues at 40,000. I notice that this is inconsistent with the origin story of the Sumerian’s visiting alien gods of 445,000 years ago in their written origin story.

The Sumerians are an interesting lot… they used base 60 mathematics and invented such tidbits as the hour, minute and second, as well as the 360° circle all of which we still use to this day. They are credited with inventing writing (cuneiform, the triangles) which started, initially, as pictographs (3 humps were a mountain range and the proverbial Y was a slave woman), then it progressed to a shorthand version using the pointy reed marks (thanks to scribes), and, ultimately, became one or two syllable sounding noises that could be combined to form words, names, and things, just to name a few.

That is quite a bit different than what philosophical folks might define as reality; perhaps a bit different than the current state of math and physics theories about multiverses and reality; and certainly different that what psychologists might consider it.

But, realism in painting is about light and shadow, creating and turning the form optically, the illusion of 3D space on a 2D surface. It’s all a lie really… convincing the viewer’s brain of that lie is the trick. We create the illusion of depth perception with linear perspective, values, edges, and contrasts. It’s interesting that the human brain creates a sort of survival shorthand of generalities, like… oh it’s a cucumber and then kinda dismisses the actual cucumber for the brain’s or memory’s file version it. My artist mentor, Walter Bartman, once said learning how to paint is learning how to “see.” We are taught to observe more consciously the actual cucumber. It comes into play when painting things like trees… our brain has a tendency to just create a pattern… a limb here a limb there and before you know it you have stick figure of a tree… the brains version, opposed to ‘see that twisty little bit on that limb over there where the light falls off it and the value and chroma drop off into a dull neutral warm dark?’

There is a lot that goes into that kind of seeing, actually. For instance there is a bump on the human nose. From the downturned trapezoidal underside of the brow between the eyebrows to the bump on the nose, the bone is close to the skin and it narrows, then it widens at the the juncture of the cartilage and the bone (the bump) and then narrows again on its way to the bulbous fat pads between our nostrils. Until someone pointed out that anatomical tidbit to me, my noses were just a straight stroke of paint, a highlight, a midtone, maybe, but just a straight line. So, seeing involves more than just observing, carefully. It can involve an understanding of the anatomy… the anatomy of how light trails off and becomes shadow, how the temperature changes from cool to warm, or how the chroma or intensity of the color moves from saturated to unsaturated (chromatic gray).

The painted illusion of reality involves more than just observing and memorizing rules or tricks, too. I heard a quote today by artist, Bill Davidson, on a Streamline YouTube video… ‘beginning painter’s were either good at shapes, values, or colors, but not all three.’ Granted, there is much more going on in reality than in painting it., but, there are a lot of aspects to painting it.

Color, surprisingly, is low on the list of priorities. I would go as far as to say there is a fork in that road. On the one hand we are creating art, beauty, the aesthetic; wherein, we design, compose, move trees and ignore certain details while downplaying readily observable portions of the overall image in order to create a focal point. We utilize color harmonies, contrasts of value, intensity, edge, and detail, as well as leading lines and repeating outlines of shapes to guide the viewer’s eye and perception around, symbolism to address the emotions and subconscious, sometimes altogether unconsciously.

It’s on the other hand that we have the technical prowess to deliver our rendition believably. That shadow may not be green at all… but we needed to cool it, dull it, neutralize it. That back edge may not be a lost line at all, but we blend it, make it fuzzier, lower the contrast between the color, chroma, temperature (warm/cool), or value of that edge and the background around it (negative space) so that it’s importance, it’s relevance is diminished in the viewer’s awareness, allowing it fall away from our attention and thereby create the illusion of depth, of that edge falling back into the distance. Similarly, we would use linear perspective to force receding parallel lines to converge at some vanishing point in our perception. Consistency of the direction of light, all tools that we use to fake out the brain, suspend disbelief, and mimic how our brain interprets reality. Color, as it turns out, is one of the least of these, fortunately for me the colorblind artist.



oil on canvas


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