Back in design school a fellow named Brian painted from the top down. Brian painted like he was pulling down a blind. Anecdotal evidence here, but almost all the “top-downers” I’ve met have been men. Their work has tended to be what I call “tight” — careful, rendered, and of equal focus.
Some of us start on the right, some on the left, but most of us paint from the centre out.
Neurologists tell us a glance to the left indicates right brain activity. A glance to the right indicates the left brain has kicked in. Apart from all the implications about lying, searching your memory, etc., might this mean that more imagination might be found on the left side of our work?
I’ve recently noted the predominant right-weightedness of my paintings. This is particularly noticeable when starting, whether from life, reference, or from the imagination. Sometimes I work hard at rebalancing to the left to neutralize my tendency.
Daniel Pink and others interested in left brain/right brain dynamics have indicated a relationship to how we read. We’re heavily into speculation here, but Western languages read from left to right, and thus, one might guess, open with a natural affinity for metaphor or imagination. Interestingly, Hebrew and Arabic languages read from right to left, which might be indicative of the opposite tendency — the logical progression of facts and figures. Traditional Arabic art, for example, not only for religious reasons, is noted for its repetitious, mechanical patterning. This is not saying that people can’t switch — for that matter in either direction.
I’m pretty sure it’s valuable to work from foreground to background. This often means starting out lower central and working up. It’s also useful to work from the focused subject or center of interest, wherever that may be on your canvas. Some artists advocate finding “the big picture” — developing the composition all at once and gradually bringing the whole thing into focus. Where do you first touch your canvas? If you’re the kind of person who pays attention to this sort of thing, it would be interesting for people to know your leanings.
To get back to Brian, my friend from school. He worked in the manner of the Asian languages. He wasn’t Asian, but he did get to be a top-down design manager at General Motors.
PS: “In the past thirty years we have learned more about the workings of the human brain than in all of previous history.” (Daniel Pink)
Esoterica: Funnily, even though you may go to a new hemisphere, you tend to bring your old brain with you. Here in Argentina I’m still subconsciously finding right-weighted subjects — looking for things on which to inflict my style. But I’ve also been writing poetry. Take this for example:
The crimson ghost of a gaucho wandered the steaming pampa,
While the smiling guanaco knew the fate of his auntie’s grampa.
Did you notice that in both lines the imaginative part is on the left? That’s ’cause I had to glance that way to write it.
Order of battle
by Carl Purcell, Manti, UT, USA
Since I work principally in watercolor, I have to think rather strategically, the order of battle, etc. But invariably I begin with over all color patches that run into one another, connect through wet patches and generally cover the entire sheet, leaving almost random patches of white. Then I go into the center of interest and develop that about 75% so I know how far not to go with the rest. I keep my eye on that center of interest as I move through the rest of the painting, working all over. Everything I do is evaluated in terms of, “How does it help the main idea?” I usually finish off with the central idea.
by Joyce Everhart Hoff, Savannah, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
I am a muralist and, therefore, paint only large renditions. I work from the furthest background to the front. For instance, for a seaside scene, I begin with the sand and sky and pinpoint the horizon point of infinity. From there, I work forward adding large items such as trees and houses. It is at this time I see the roads, rivers, borders, etc. that naturally spring from the background. Then it is on to the minute items.
I used to be a career writer and found I worked in much the same manner. There’s old saying about how all writers need an editor to tell them when to begin and when to stop. All artists need the same advice — when to start a painting and when to stop.
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Revealed in reverse
by David Oleski, West Chester, PA, USA
Back when festival applications were submitted on slides, it was easy to accidentally load them into the projector backwards. Surprisingly, it was sometimes easy to see in reverse if a painting was left-right. For some reason we “read” subjects from left to right, and we also read compositions the same way, and something about being reversed just looks “off.” Maybe it has to do with the marks left when working right handed, or even just the methods of working in a right-handed, left-to-right-reading world, or the angle of sunlight in this hemisphere, or just the way our brains are wired.
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Brain too busy to analyze
by Anita Hunt, Upland, CA, USA
Have you ever noticed how analyzing a book takes all the fun out of it? It’s like picking apart Shakespeare with assumptions, speculation, comparisons and contrasts that take you away from the author’s original intent — to share a story, to entertain, to suck you out of your world and into the word spinner’s world. Some of my work leans to the left, some moseys on over to the right, and some just twirls dead center. I find that I tend to not use just the left brain, or the right brain, but the whole brain as I work; interestingly enough, I don’t think about which side of my brain is influencing my work because “brain” is too busy. I’m so happy the neurologists are picking apart the brain and learning so much about its function but do we really have to go so far as to pick apart the quantity of logic or imagination in a work of art for, what will likely become, the purpose of critiquing the artist — especially dead ones, who have no thoughts on this issue?
By the way, I start my work about 5 miles back into the paper and march towards the front, moving in all kinds of directions, depending on the demands of the terrain.
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Challenge of opposites
by Suze Woolf, Seattle, WA, USA
The physics of the medium may influence starting position. In representational watercolor it is often more effective to work back to front, light to dark, since you probably want clean rinsing water for the lightest areas so it makes sense to do these first. In landscapes they’re often the skies, which are usually at the top of the composition. If you want drips and spatters to add a sense of random texture, these will run top to bottom if you paint standing up.
Of course, now that you have made me question conventional practice, I shall have to try it exactly opposite — begin at the bottom, work front to back, from dark to light and maybe standing on my head.
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Left side last
by Sandra Bos, Cookeville, TN, USA
I usually start painting somewhere in the middle of my canvas, or where I’m most interested, putting a piece of dark next to a piece of neutral and light. I’ll keep painting the whole canvas, except I’ll leave a large portion on the left side unfinished until last. I do this all the time and it’s very noticeable. Actually, an artist friend of mine brought it to my attention. Of course I end up painting it, but I seem to unconsciously ignore it until the very end. I’ve often wondered why I do this. I also have a tendency to paint Vignettes when I paint the figure and portraits. I wonder if this is also related to the way I leave the left side ‘open’ or unfinished.
I do feel it’s good to leave the canvas ‘open’ as long as possible so that the canvas can talk to me. This seems to evoke more imagination. Once it’s closed up there’s not much more to say. But this idea is not the same as my leaving a lot on the left side undone.
Completion at blocked-in-colour stage
by Karin Snoots, Harbeson, DE, USA
I am one of those who block in the composition first and then go back and find “the path” to completion. This way of working for me has developed through time. Some really interesting formulations of color have appeared but I’ve worked beyond to the finished painting with the addition of detail. While working to produce a large body of paintings for a solo show, I finally got the courage to stop at the “color blocked” stage and include them in the exhibit. They were so totally different from what I normally display so I was terrified but excited at the same time. They were received with very favorable reviews and actually that style has been accepted into a gallery that normally wouldn’t be interested in my more traditional work. I love being able now to switch back and forth — it challenges my brain!
by Cathy DeWitt, Gainesville, FL
Starting from the center might show that the activity of painting utilizes both sides of the brain, as does music. There are, of course, artists in both genres who lean more in one direction than the other.
In the work that I do, using the arts with elders/aging population, the arts have been shown to keep the brain active and help people age more “successfully.” One notable thing that Dr. Gene Cohen, a pioneer in this field, found is that as people age the two hemispheres of their brain move closer together and start to work more in balance. Something to look forward to!
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by Cheryl R Long, Kent, WA, USA
The way I paint and teach watercolor is not so much top to bottom as by layer. The first wash for the entire painting goes down first. Subsequent washes go down dark to light, reserving the lights with care. Then the sequence is large shapes vs. detail. I find every painting is a puzzle and the subject matter and atmosphere have their own demands as to what works best for that painting. With that said, I admit I am a Gemini and probably reasonably whole-brained and occasionally no- brained. I think I have a little chipmunk up there racing from side to side at will!
Advice from a Behavioural Optometrist
by Helen Opie, Granville Ferry, NS, Canada
About 2 years ago I noticed that I had begun to leave out everything on the left: 6 – 8 inches of my paintings on those over 24″ wide. Later, I’d suddenly become aware that, while I’d blocked colour into the rest of the painting and even worked another layer of finish over that, I’d mentally cut off this strip down the left side.
When I went for my eye check with the optometrist, who describes himself as a Behavioural Optometrist, I told him about this, that maybe my brain was no longer capable of seeing the whole of things. He reminded me that in general when we think about the past, our eyes shift to the left, and he thought there might be something in my past I was vigorously ignoring or avoiding dealing with. I had been re-framing many parts of my life as I’d gained insight into them, and so I got to work on my thought processes and what I was thinking about — or not thinking about. I came upon some contradictory beliefs about myself, worked to bring them into line with each other, and must have done the right thing, for now I am once again painting all over the canvas. We seem to reveal more than the subject matter (even if it is non-objective, there is composition or colour as our subject) when we put brush to surface, and sometimes the only person who notices is ourselves.
There is a lot to learn about ourselves in becoming aware of how we paint, and also a lot to learn about how we want to present our own painting, from looking at the compositional techniques or devices of others.
All over and at once
by Jeanean Martin, Boyds, MD, USA
As one who is fascinated by the way other painters work, I was very interested in this article. In my training at art school I was advised to “work all over the canvas at once.” I still use that approach. Working in a top-down manner may keep your paint from smearing but may give less of an overall feeling of unity due to the systematic approach of working in a sequential manner. I also really enjoy the “excitement” of starting in a completely gestural manner, feeling the entire size of the canvas from top to bottom and side to side, making compositional decisions from this assessment of space and the constraints of the picture plane. The integrity of the picture plane can be realized more fully if you are acutely aware of its size and limitations. It is hard to feel this unless you move around from edge to edge. Every good representational painting has a strong abstract underpinning. By working all over the canvas in a gestural manner the image is “arrived at” and the emergence of this image relates fully to the entire canvas, not just an image stuck in the middle haphazardly like a cameo. Positive and negative spaces and their relationships are as important if not more important than the central image itself. I don’t care how beautifully you render a form, it will be hard to have a completely cohesive statement if it doesn’t fit well into the overall composition guided by the constraints of the canvas. If you look at Cezanne’s landscapes, especially the ones that are not completed, you can see how thoughtful each mark and color is. You can also see how each mark relates to another mark and how every color is determined and arrived at by another color. I think it is important to work in a way that allows for changes in the beginning of the painting. Working all over the canvas ensures unity and a better composition.
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Study of brain hemispheres
by Chris Carter, Califon, NJ, USA
Last night I attended the opening of an exhibit, “Art and the Brain: Studies of Lonni Sue Johnson’s Cognitive Abilities.” Lonni Sue worked as a professional illustrator for 31 years, including covers for The New Yorker Magazine. In 2007 she was struck with encephalitis, destroying part of her brain. She could not walk, talk or draw. Her case is currently being studied at Johns Hopkins University. Though she now walks, talks and draws, she cannot form new memories, nor can she remember much of her past life. Her vast vocabulary remains strong. The studies indicate that the brain may not be as compartmentalized as previously thought. It appears that creativity and language use areas of the entire brain, not just left or right.
My personal explorations of brain activity have been inspired by weekly sessions spent with my 88 year old father who suffers from Alzheimer’s. He wrote poetry as long as I can remember. During the last six months he stopped using adjectives and adverbs. He lost all desire to write at all. I began to teach him to draw contour drawings, hoping to stimulate his brain. What I didn’t expect was how the ten minutes of focused drawing would affect his language. After drawing, he used adjectives and adverbs again in his speech for the remainder of our visit. I continue to test this with him and the results are the same. When I arrive, his language is without description. After drawing, he is able to be expressive as well as able to associate abstract ideas.
Here is a link to Lonni Sue’s blog.
Here is a link to the entry on our Carter Family blog “Walks With Dad” that notes my first observation of his language change.
My father, an electrical engineer, never understood or enjoyed Abstract Art until he lost his memory. He can now stand in front of an abstract painting and lose himself in it, allowing it to trigger thoughts and feelings that had been buried deep beneath his judgements and logic.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Left, right, up, down…
acrylic painting, 36 x 60 inches
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 Bianka Guna of Toronto, ON, Canada, who wrote, “They say in Romanian … ‘the chicken makes eggs with the same derrière no matter where…’ ”
And also Elaine Chambers of Statesboro, GA, USA, who wrote, “I’ve had a few ‘spikey’ incidents with my blood pressure recently, so I always check my BP after returning from my studio and it’s always around 117 over 72, which is excellent. Painting isn’t just good for the soul — it’s obviously also good for the blood pressure!”
And also Peter Salmon of New York, NY, USA, who wrote, “Cezanne said, ‘Advance the whole composition at once,’ which is the way I tend to work, moving around to all areas, letting the whole painting slowly develop clarity, like those old Polaroid prints.”
And also Nancy Yu of Tivoli, NY, USA, who wrote, “Having a background in psychology, I have wondered about designing paintings according to the principles of neuro linguistic programming. Would it then be possible to design a painting that you not only like, but that made you feel good, too?”