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The Shape of Things to Come

Our brains work in mysterious but predictable ways. When faced with a traumatic situation, our brain bypasses our verbal frontal bits and it shunts control of things directly to our reptilian processor where we might have one of three reactions, fight or flight, dissociation, or paralyzed by fear freezing up. I forget what order they occur in. That is why PTSD survivors cannot always verbalize what happened. It can also rewire the brain to trigger those responses in lieu of the normal arousal/resolution programming. Fortunately, painting on location is usually not a traumatic situation, unless you forgot your paper towels, white paint, or something like that.


I’m reminded about some Plein Air painting advice… buddy system! Don’t paint out in the wild alone… safety in numbers.


But, this is a blog post about shape which is another process in our brain. Thanks to evolution, we recognize things by their shape. Our attention is drawn to pointy things, sharp edges, strong contrasts between light and dark, and probably some other things, too, like movement. It has to do with hunting out on the Savannah and survival, and although cats cannot see all that well, their brains are so well hard wired to track motion that they have humans beat hands down.


Shape is an interesting thing… there are outlines, contours if you will, silhouettes, and contrasts between light and shadow. Some of us can even see all the colors. Contrasts can be indicated by the visual difference between the object we see and the surrounding background. We call the object positive space and ‘the everything but the object itself’ negative space. That’s why we can recognize someone from far away distances. Their motion through space, that is the way they walk, tracks visually in our brain, as well. So, interior lines, as it turns out, are not that important, and while Kokopelli isn’t all that realistic, he’s instantly recognizable as a person, and Kokopelli, of course. (Kokopelli is a fertility deity who is venerated by some Native American cultures and is also a trickster god and represents the spirit of music).



As painters, we are sort of shape shifters. So there you have it… objects moving towards us are seen and the information is compared rather quickly. As it turns out, in order to recognize something, our visual processor searches the database for something similar. If we cannot categorize it, like oh that’s a discarded tire… our attention is focused on it, which leads me to another observation. If we leave a little to the imagination of the viewer, it’s more engaging for the viewer to process the information or lack thereof. On the other hand, if we spell everything out visually, there is nothing for the viewer’s brain to figure out, and off their attention and eyes go to the next painting.


It’s kinda like the internet and marketing. How long can we hold the viewers attention and keep their eyes moving around in our painting? Also, even untrained observers are very keen about incongruities, things like defective geometric perspective stick out. I guess bad attention is better than no attention and I suppose that’s what Picasso was up to with those transformations of three dimensional visual rules into vases with their mouthes skewed all cattywampus. That and that word caught my spell checker’s attention. This has been your art moment. Thank you for reading and stay tuned for the next painting topic.

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