Peak shift


Dear Artist,

Nigel Spivey, in his insightful book How Art Made the World, speculates on “peak shift.” It’s a concept that comes from research into both human and animal behaviour. A neurological principle, peak shift says we need exaggeration to make our lives interesting. Spivey asks, “Is it possible that a primeval instinct explains why humans like to create unrealistic images?”

Spivey cites the Venus of Willendorf, a round little female figurine that just happens to be 30,000 years old. Some anthropologists think this broad-beamed and buxom girl is the world’s oldest three-dimensional joke. Others think differently. Fashioned by someone in a harsh, ice-age environment, it’s an example of female steatopygia (fat-bottomedness) at a time when fatness and fertility might have been highly desirable. Where emaciation and hunger were the norm, fatness was the fashionable dream. With peak shift in spades, this four-inch sculpture might have excited people rather than serving as a source of mirth.

The peak shift concept also applies to animals. One of many studies investigated the actions of Herring gulls and their chicks. The chicks get their folks to regurgitate food by tapping on the red spot on the adults’ yellow beaks. When a yellow-and-red painted stick is substituted for a beak, the chicks peck at that too. When three red dots are painted on the stick — the chicks get three times as excited. Scientists wondered if making the chicks go really crazy in this way was the prospect of more food, or the extra red dots.

Here on the British Virgin Islands, my friend Bob Ogilvie and I have been painting some famous and curvaceous rocks. We’ve determined a painter has three choices: One is to get them right — make them accurate and realistic. Another is the pervasive tendency to make them less interesting than they are — muzzy them up, sand them down and minimize their form. The third, the peak shift way, is to make them even more voluptuous. It’s our conclusion that it’s generally better for artists to go for the peak shift. People don’t need to be bored with the ordinary, and they don’t want to have natural beauty nullified. Like those herring-gull chicks, people (and artists) get extra excited when things are overdone. They just can’t help it. They don’t know why. It’s a primeval instinct.

Best regards,


PS: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.” (T.S. Eliot)

Esoterica: The instances of peak shift in art are too widespread to be dismissed as nonsense. In depictions of the human figure, Michelangelo’s over-the-top musculature, Renoir’s ample bottomization, and the distortions of El Greco, Giacometti and Modigliani give an idea of what’s to be had. Extremes of colour (and the hammered repetition of it — think herring-gulls) developing from the Impressionists, the Fauves, to the advent of colour field and colour vibration, have led to the flagrantly gaudy. Are we excited yet? Like the creator of the Venus of Willendorf, have we peak-shifted too far and gone into what others (and later generations) might think is the domain of humour?


Exploring the peaks
by Winston Seeney, Speightstown, Barbados


“Silence in the Forest”
digital photograph
by Winston Seeney

When I began painting, a little more than two years ago, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I had to develop a visual sense which was distinct from what I perceived. Beginning painters struggle to paint what they see. This is the art of developing the craft. I reasoned that once I felt comfortable with the craft, I could use it to give life to my newborn visual sense and play with exploring the peaks.



Fascination with extremes
by Olga Lang, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Here and gone”
pastel painting
by Olga Lang

We are all fascinated with extremes in human form. Whether it is freaks or Olympians, our interest is peaked. It is exactly the alteration of the basic form that stirs our curiosity. We are drawn to the abnormally beautiful or grotesque and who’s to say what is what — Picasso?

Is the expectation in modern art to go past the Impressionistic, mild deviation from the norm towards the unrecognizable only a sign of our society’s boredom, or is it the nature of our curiosity to look for new possibilities? Either way, this constant and accelerating desire for change, redefines what is considered art. I think we might soon run out of labels.


Grand scale beyond the peak shift
by Helen Scott, NC, USA

Ahh! That explains something I have long wondered about with Michelangelo’s statue of David. Certainly it has the magnificent musculature you mention, the gorgeous profile of youth, and the wonderfully determined look of a giant killer. All on a very grand scale! However, T. S. Eliot was quite right when he made that statement that humankind cannot bear very much reality — thus explaining the sizing down of David’s “manhood,” for, perhaps, if it were of as wondrous a prominence as his right hand and the rest of his body we would be totally beyond the peak shift!


The mind sees more than the eye
by Nancy Davis Johnson, Durham, NH, USA


“June’s lilies”
original painting
by Nancy Davis Johnson

If artists could not/did not ‘peak shift’ (read: exaggerate, intensify, embellish, etc.), what boredom! In creating a painting, I have to intensify colors, shapes and values in order to communicate my message, because the mind always sees more than the eye. The photographic recreating of a landscape does not stir the viewer or the artist. Besides, it’s wonderful fun to explore the limitless possibilities of your chosen medium. Without a peak shift, what’s the point?


More and more to satisfy
by Marney Ward, Victoria, BC, Canada


“Pure as white poppies”
watercolour painting
by Marney Ward

The problem with the ever-escalating peak shifts is that over time, like any addiction, we keep needing more and more to satisfy. We lose our ability to gain pleasure from the beautiful subtleties we encounter every day, the delicate gradations of colour, the nuanced play of light around an object, the delights concealed within the depths of the forest floor or the pond’s edge, which require stillness and patience in order to really see. We become addicted to the quick fix, the blast of colour and strongly contrasting values, and our eyes and our souls lose the ability to recognize the subtle variations that make our world so attractive.

I work in watercolour and I know that since watercolour dries paler, one has to tweak the colour in order to make it “sing.” However, there is a fine line between an artist who pushes the boundaries in order to bring a painting alive, and an artist who pushes the boundaries just for the sake of being different and forcing people to notice their work. I believe we put too much importance in creating something unique and different, even shocking, rather than something truly beautiful. But then, that’s what galleries often reward.


Overdoing leads to something else
by Lee Mothes, Kaukauna, WI, USA


original painting
by Lee Mothes

I once thought I was overdoing a watercolor but then I decided to keep on overdoing it until it became something different, and I’ve been overdoing them ever since. Also, I couldn’t stop with just landscape and seascape paintings. Beginning with a simple painting, in 1992, of a woman dancing near the edge of an oceanside bluff, I decided to determine where she was, and why she was dancing. I eventually had to draw maps, write a history, mint a coin, design a flag, and create an entire fictional culture around this painting. The place is called The Commonwealth of New Island.



Desirable Venus of today
by Ellen McCord, Grass Valley, CA, USA

Starving for beauty pastel painting by Ellen McCord

“Starving for beauty”
pastel painting
by Ellen McCord

If exaggeration of the desirable created the image of the Venus of Willendorf, then commercial figurative art would reflect a radically different form. In the US, the desirable, at least in the media images we are inundated with, is that peak shift: female bodies that are emaciated, no fat allowed. The models I’ve drawn in my figurative work are beautifully diverse, yet when we hire one who is the Venus of today, it pains and saddens me. I believe a peak shift with figurative subject matter can be as much political comment about what’s desirable as it is an artistic expression.


Real and the unreal
by Ann Heckel, Lambertville, NJ, USA


original artwork
by Ann Heckel

Combining the real with the not-real has an added benefit, so I add that to my decision making process. If you can interest people, by using both the real and the unreal, to take a second look, there is an additional element of surprise and discovery.






Isn’t it obvious?
by Gaye Adams, Sorrento, BC, Canada


Unfinished Cat in Sunlight”
pastel painting, 18 x 24 inches
by Gaye Adams

I’ve always ascertained that, as artists, making obvious what might not be obvious to others is the whole point of creating the art. It is our heightened sense of observation and the awe that it creates in our souls that is our gift to the world. Whether it is a sunlit pattern on the grass, a rich red coat on a furry winterized cow, a glowing red tulip, the effect of light on water — wherever the artist finds beauty and wants others to take note of it as well, she makes her statement by either exaggeration or by subduing or manipulating surrounding elements to draw attention to the thing of interest through any number of artistic methods. The danger lies in going overboard, in abandoning taste. A little salt is good, too much wrecks the soup. Make your point and get out, I say. Adversely, when an artist sees a thing of beauty, photographs it and then painstakingly just reproduces the photo, he may be in danger of losing the point altogether.

When I see artwork that boarders on the garish in making its point, I must say I do find it a little humorous. It’s much like a speaker who doesn’t know when to stop his speech. After a while the crowd asks, “Is he done yet?” or comments, “Enough already!”


Viewers fear the peak shift
by Odette Nicholson, Saskatoon, SK, Canada


Gouache painting, 30 x 30 inches
by Odette Nicholson

I wonder, will my Peak Shift be recognized a few hundred or thousand years from now? What I’ve learned from taking instinct fantastic and applying beauty is that it makes almost everyone feel good, but they also fear it, need it explained to them so they understand it and most of them stay far away from it with their cheque books! I’m doing what I feel I must do, following my own muse and that is all I have ever asked of my art practise and, for that matter, my life. So yes, it’s a primal instinct.




Not fully understanding
by Edna Hildebrandt, Toronto, ON, Canada

I am not fully understanding the term “peak shift.” I guess that it works for some people and they are thrown into creative frenzy producing some grotesque images that would pass as artistic justice just like the term poetic justice in literature. They have appeal to some people and some are appalled by such grotesque images.


Street art and graffiti
by Anne Batten


“Xmas letter”
mixed media
by Anne Batten

I think your concept also applies to developed styles of street art and graffiti. The sexy intumescence of letterform and layout seem to me especially reflective of the age group of those who usually produce it. Now, there’s a spontaneously developing meme for you.

I follow lettering art from the perspective of graphic design and calligraphy, as a reference point for my comment.





What is ordinary?
by Carolyn Good, Mission, BC, Canada


oil on canvas, 16 x 16 inches
by Carolyn Good

Is there an ordinary?? What is that??? There is stereotype and dim awareness perhaps. When one really perceives from the heart and soul, the act of perception, of inquiring into what is really there… itself opens up to the extra-ordinary. Reality becomes what you are creating it to be. In fact Cezanne would say he was painting what he really saw…

There is a neat book by the author of Seth Speaks… Jane Roberts. It is the essence of Cezanne channeled (World View of Paul Cezanne) — interesting painter ideas — you might want to find it.


Show a different world
by Jeanita Ives, Kansas City, MO, USA


“Twirling Skirts”
manipulated digital photograph
by Jeanita Ives

As a digital photographer and manipulator of color and texture, I have seen what “peak shift” does to the viewer. I didn’t know what the extremes were called before, but instinct told me that I wanted to push the color to the max in several of my photos and the results have become my signature.

Viewers do like to see the common repackaged. They want us to show them a different way of looking at the world. I feel passionate about opening my mind to my internal voices and conveying these messages through my medium.


Peak shifts in nature
by Florence B. Hill

Sunrises and sunsets are “peak shifts” from the normal colors of a day. I think that is why we are so mesmerized by them. Marvelous color grabs our senses for a brief time. I think eclipses of the sun probably fall into this category too. I spend my first hour of the morning writing, usually before sunrise. This morning the water, land and Manhattan on the far horizon were deep blue gray, the sky was a slightly lighter blue gray. Behind Staten Island and the City was a long swatch of soft pink and creamsicle orange pastel that threw the city into complementary silhouette. It sure grabbed my senses, then let go as the sun washed out the contrast.


Primary illusion: need
by Dave Wilson, White Rock, BC, Canada


original painting
by Dave Wilson

It is an ironic distress I experience when conjecture arises about religion, dogma and atheism. I am currently reading the rare work, Communion with God, over 200 pages spoken by God, verbatim, via the ‘listener,’ Neale D. Walsch. God points out the illusions humans have adopted over millennia, and shows how the primary illusion of ‘need’ gives rise to nine other major illusions. I guess the ironic part is that people who have decided that no God is, are hardly going to read a book ‘written’ by He/She/It. And so the madness continues!

“Must you know that yours will be a ‘better’ picture before you pick up a brush and paint? Can it not be simply another picture? Another expression of beauty?” (God, Communion with God)


Repressive Mormon ‘meme’
by Dayle Ann Stratton, Brandon, VT, USA


“Old comfy chair”
pastel painting
by Dayle Ann Stratton

I somehow missed your original post on this, or I certainly would have written to comment on your allusion to Mormons as well. I did understand the point you were making, however, unlike the respondent Diane Williams. As an “apostate” Mormon who left the church happily and with great relief, I found that it did indeed release me to be creative in both my life and work — I am a much healthier and happier human being as a result.

I have come to know many former Mormons. They all have a sense of that release, and many have become artists, writers, or pursue other creative outlets. The Mormon “meme” is repressive, and discourages creativity in our loves. Once free of that (it does take some time), it seems our ability to be creative expands. We have to recreate our own lives, and the joy we find in doing so is something we share — far from the anxiety and depression that is endemic within the church. We broke out of the box big-time, and because of that, find it easy to think “outside the box,” and often make significant — and creative — contributions in areas not usually thought of in those terms.

I do have to take issue with your statement about the “10% who go astray.” The percentage of Mormons leaving the church is far higher than that, and exceeds the number brought into the church by birth or conversion by a considerable margin. That, to me, is a comforting thought.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Peak shift


From: bamdad shahni — Mar 08, 2009






Evening Reflection

oil painting on canvas
by Dirk Hiel, Edmonton, AB, Canada


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 Kelly Borsheim who wrote, “I am a chick who gets excited over red dots as well.”

And also Todd Plough who wrote, “The painting must be more interesting than its source or it will only be a slave. Art, by its nature, cannot abide that. Art is Freedom, nothing less.”

And also Rosalind Lipscomb Forrest of Huntsville AL, USA who wrote, “I have read that Ophthalmologists have declared that a particular eye deformity (or disease?) caused El Greco, Giacomatti, and Modigliani to literally see everything in elongated forms and that Van Gogh’s eye problems caused him to see swirls of light around objects.”

And also Ray Masterson who wrote, “I’m surprised that Botero was not mentioned as an over the top peak shifter.”

And also Steve Banhegyi of Johannesburg, South Africa who wrote, “Have a look at writing about ‘supernormal stimuli’ in biology, as it expands on the Nigel Spivey idea — basically explains why the Vargas Girls had such long legs and disproportionate morphological characteristics as this got more stares.”

And also Pauline Cashman who wrote, “Peak shift is an interesting idea… it explains Anna Nicole Smith and Pamela Anderson.”

And also Richard Nelson who wrote, “Exhibiting artists are not unlike the frenzied chicks who go crazy at the sight of a red dot.”

And also Christie Zwick who wrote, “Your letters are often inspirational, funny and always thought provoking. Thank you for creating something that makes one sit back and lose oneself in thought that does not involve the things of everyday life.”

And also Larry G. Lemons of Nocona, TX, USA who wrote, “Your statement, ‘People don’t need to be bored with the ordinary and they don’t want to see natural beauty nullified,’ was profound. Thank you for reminding me of why I became a painter.”




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