For those who might wonder why music plays such a great role in human life and culture, Daniel J. Levitin has written This is Your Brain on Music. The book contains remarkable insights and new information on music, song and dance. Some researchers think music may actually predate speech. Others see it as a wayward deviation that only ends in harmless play. Curiously open-ended and open-minded, there’s something on every page of Levitin’s book that has me asking similar questions about the brain and painting.
Folks have been making marks on cave walls for almost as long as they’ve been humming and whistling. And folks have been painting some sort of pictures, getting attention and impressing others for longer than rockers have been rocking for chicks. Can these arts be related to the business of attracting a mate, or are they some form of mass or private beguilement? Further, has evolution hardwired some of us to our brushes? If so, what’s the nature of this wiring, why do we plug into it, and what’s it good for?
Among many other enrichments, three words keep reappearing in Levitin’s book — rhythm, repetition and novelty. Here’s how I feel they might just apply to our game:
Rhythm is an elemental force in human nature. In visual art the moving brush and the wandering eye are directed toward harmonious cycles and shapes that amuse and satisfy. This rhythm is between curves and flats, protrusions and recessions, crudeness and delicacy, patterns and amorphousness, lines and forms. As in music, the list goes on.
Repetition is one of those strangely satisfying curiosities that somehow helps us feel rewarded and secure. Repeated motifs, themes and stylistic peculiarities give a “beat” to visual art that seduces the eye and brings it back for more. Far from being boring, repetition is the grid on which higher themes may fly.
At the same time, the human brain and eye love novelty. Something new around the corner — a surprise, a jolt out of the normal — arrests our flow and gives a sudden flush of wonder and joy. In the evenness that describes so much of life, humanity craves the bump of novelty.
PS: “Another possibility is that evolution selected creativity in general as a marker of sexual fitness.” (Daniel J. Levitin)
Esoterica: Coincidentally, on recent jury duty I was paying attention to the choices of my fellow jurors. For the most part they chose art that was not necessarily technically competent or perfectly rendered. What held the juror’s attention and received the highest number of votes was work that appeared to me to overflow with rhythm, repetition and novelty. Coincidentally, I had just watched the works being painted on location, and those winning artists also seemed hardwired to having the most fun.
See the music
by John D. Vedilago, Goteborg, Sweden
Just look at Wassily Kandinsky and see the music. The whole premise of Abstract Art was to paint or sculpt as musicians compose, with one note just relating to another with no outside reference. In music you’re bound by linear time and memory but in a painting you respond to the whole symphony in one glorious moment of spiritual enlightenment and hyper reality. Your readers should check out Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Point to Line to Plane along with essays in The Blue Rider with the composer Arnold Schonberg.
“Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with its many chords. The artist is the hand that, by touching this or that key, sets the soul vibrating automatically.” (Wassily Kandinsky)
by John Bergman, Hoople, ND, USA
What happens to my brain when painting? Nothing. I lose all thoughts on realities and spend hours looking at my canvas not realizing time or space. It is as if the real world is gone and it is in this state that I am the happiest — maybe not so much in what I am doing or have done but being away from the real realties. To me, to create is more important than the finished product, which I never seem to be happy with, and I really don’t mind for I, for the time involved, have had my time with my, let’s call it, escaped adrenalin rush.
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Creativity’s complex dish
by Haim Mizrahi, East Hampton, NY, USA
As you speak of rhythm, repetition and novelty, I recall my early days of decision-making process as far as my artistic versatility was concerned and I can only share one important thing with you: these qualities were very tempting in seducing me to engage through their literal suggestions but quickly enough I have realized that they are only a very small ingredient in the complex dish called creativity, and therefore they can only serve as creative distraction in the much greater purpose. Constantly coping with desire, now why is it important?… because with art, music and writing we (I) cannot engage through the medium itself because it always proves to be stronger than me, so a distraction in place serves as a smoother path to the heart of our desire to find the alternative and isn’t it the most important thing in arts always to consider the alternative if at all we are lucky enough to have one.
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Levels of awareness
by Susan Burns, Douglasville, GA, USA
I am connecting with a deep part of myself when I paint, and reaching out to connect with others. If someone sees something in my painting that they like, they have connected with themselves on a deeper level. We all long to connect with others and ourselves over and over. Those that insist they are separate, struggle internally. When we see something novel in a painting, it is because we are recognizing some novel part of ourselves. We all have such different awareness and levels of depth of awareness so we all have our own likes and dislikes when it comes to art and music. I had a fairly common upbringing in the ’60s and yet I remember my parents’ belief that, The Beatles were radical and scary.
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by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Humans are visual hunters. Our roving eyes pour over our world looking for visual stimulus for all sorts of reasons. Sex and survival are probably the most basic concerns for our eye. Cave artists wanted to record their world and this also seems to be a core human need. We want to leave a record of our brief stint on earth. Those who possess this gift of drawing and painting were no doubt rewarded in these early societies and to a lesser degree are rewarded today. Artists serve as the collective eye for the rest of society. The viewers respond to both what is familiar and perhaps the unique twist that each artist gives to their paintings. We respond instinctively to contrasts familiar and strange, warm and cool, busy and calm, large and small, bright and dull, curved and straight, etc. Artists learn to manipulate these contrasts to create a visual feast for our audience. We are visual entertainers.
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Possible cosmic connection?
by Bill Hibberd, Summerland, BC, Canada
What if we are actually unique spiritual beings designed by a creator to comfort, stimulate, encourage and challenge one another through our art? What if we are not just a bunch of random particles subconsciously evolving from ourselves for no purpose greater than preservation of a species? What if we approached our art as a divine gift, on our knees with a realization that our creativity is a conduit between God, ourselves and fellow mankind? If we persevere in our art-making to a level of competence, will our art make a difference?
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Learn palette like a musician learns notes
by Ron Elstad, Anaheim, CA, USA
The painter’s palette can somewhat be compared to that of a musical instrument; the hues then could also be compared to that of the notes of music and the painting to the actual music. Moreover, the brush work would be the rhythm of the music and the proper use of the color would be its harmony. Therefore, to be a great musician or painter one must learn to play the instrument properly, this being the palette, before producing beautiful art.
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Doodles of the brain
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA
There has been research done on doodling and its benefits to the brain. If doodling is good for the brain, then why not painting and actual drawing. I personally find that I like to draw and paint partially due to the movements required to do these activities. To me they are a form of meditation. I paint and draw in a particular fashion that usually brings me the maximum satisfaction when it comes to the movements involved in applying the media. If the process itself was constantly too tedious I doubt that I would continue painting and drawing. There has to be some pleasure derived from any activity in order for it to continue outside of necessity. There are moments while painting
I find myself holding my breath to make a brushstroke, but those are not constant, only occasional. I also have found out that painting and drawing can relieve anxiety and soothe a troubled mind. These activities are therapeutic by nature. Yes, art may have many health benefits beyond what we currently acknowledge.
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Early fertility symbol re-created
by Leslie Edwards Humez, Painesville, OH, USA
Your intriguing comment regarding marks on cave walls — and presumably three dimensional works from antiquity as well — and the suggestion that such artifacts might have been made to attract a mate, or were actually some sort of mass beguilement, comes right on the heels of my sculptural poke at the presumptive fertility icon, the Venus of Willendorf.
On my website I’ve begun documenting thoughts and progress of a sculpture which modernizes this icon, and postulates that the original /pocket-sized/ Venus was either a handy “photograph” to be carried. Maybe she was mass produced and hawked by the zillions behind the bushes to warriors everywhere along with the naughty clay tablets.
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by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Hmmm, I think that linking creativeness with sexual fitness is debatable in context of evolution. In order for natural selection to kick in, sexual fitness is a condition, but survival of the offspring is the key. Most human offspring in recent history have been produced under the iron grip of conservative religions — nothing creative about that. Linking creativeness with the survival of the offspring makes more sense to me. What I am proposing is that being artists makes us attractive not as creative sexual partners but as creative nurturers. I know, that’s not nearly as sexy as what Levitin is saying, maybe I should keep the logic down and go with the marketing idea.
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Art and music in parallel
by Lindell Stacy-Horton, Oregon, USA
I was especially intrigued by today’s letter about the brain on music, art and dance. I am painting up a storm these days, greatly inspired by many of your ideas. I also play music, which I consider just as important in my life as my visual stuff (Irish trad and Celtic Fusion, fiddle, classical and jazz viola). I went to “art school” in Ashland, Oregon which they were calling applied art rather than commercial art, where we were to learn how to present ourselves as artists, concerned with package, record jacket, book cover, graphic design, magazine layouts, and newspaper ads. This was in the day before computers, and the French curve and technical pen, along with t-squares and see-thru rulers, proportion wheels and type sizing scales, and calligraphy skills were essential to survival. I was already a fairly competent painter when I started. My favorite instructor advised me to choose between muses, would I serve Art, or Music. I said both of course. He advised against this, and I have been dancing happily all these years with both partners equally. When I tried to choose one discipline above the other, all suffered. For me they are completely connected, and I think if the brain guys would look inside mine, they might get a surprise.
I believe the creative trait is definitely an indicator of success when it comes to survival. Humans are curious, and curiosity is a major component in the creative process. (Have you noticed how attracted to one another artists and musicians are?) Furthermore, I think this same curiosity is what enables us as a species to invent things, discover science and how things work, how to grow food, herd animals, and sadly enough, to mess things up and need to start again. I just keep hoping we can go a bit longer, I have lots of tunes to play, and lots of art to make.
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Silently Letting Go
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Judith Lenzin of Lausanne, Switzerland, who wrote, “Yet again I find that your letter is totally relative to my work as a quilt maker. Rhythm, repetition and novelty… it’s actually a hymn to what I do and I had never heard it expressed so succinctly.”
And also Nader Khaghani of Chicago, IL, USA, who wrote, “If rhythm is the backbone and the formal life of a painting, it’s perhaps best sensed not intellectually but intuitively with our bodies and senses, just like a dance. We move naturally without much forethought.”
And also Edward Berkeley of Portland, OR, USA, who wrote, “Rhythm exists since our conception. The embryo is exposed to the mother’s heartbeat and the fetus to his own heartbeat. Our heartbeat is our metronome.”
And also Bob Dawson who wrote, “I sent your “This is your brain on painting” to Daniel Levitin and he loves it. ‘Awesome’ being his word for what you wrote.”
Enjoy the past comments below for This is your brain on painting…