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 hard-wired 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 hard-wired to having the most fun.
This letter was originally published as “This is your brain on painting” on August 14, 2009.
“I believe that the great painters, with their intellect as master, have attempted to force the unwilling medium of paint and canvas into a record of their emotions. I find any digression from this large aim leads me to boredom.” (Edward Hopper)
Relax, enjoy, create!
Photography/watercolors/acrylics/mixed media. Group activity room (floor to ceiling vista). Ghost Ranch Lodging/meals provided. See why Georgia O’Keeffe loved Ghost Ranch. Each workshop/retreat is different. The June workshop leans heavier on all kinds of materials –textiles and dye, printing, painting, pouring and more! The October workshop combines the media of photography, watercolor, ink, acrylic and more — using watercolor paper, clayboard, etc!
Daily demos, slide presentations, door prizes and optional happy hour. The website shows how I work from Ghost Ranch scenes to finished paintings. www.darlabostick.com
Monique Jarry is a Canadian and a graduate of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Montreal.