Mini chaos as an engine of creativity

Mini chaos

mini chaos

Figure 1 : The “Big Bang” (NB. black is a colour sensation made by the eye/brain)

Usually the word “chaos” has the connotation of referring to something rather grand and all engulfing, as in the case of the chaos created by the Big Bang. However, in my books, great emphasis has been placed on a much less spectacular manifestation of it. Namely the mini chaos that occurs when anyone, including artists drawing from observation, makes a comparison. This is because the same/different judgments required can hardly avoid revealing unpredictable differences. Let me elaborate:

My dictionary defines chaos as “a state in which no order can be perceived”. Clearly, this phrase can be applied to any differences discovered by any same/difference judgments, since, at least for the time being, these have no property other than is that of being different. Logically this is equivalent of saying that they can have no order. The only way that they can be given a place in an ordered description is by relating them to something else. It follows that all comparisons, except the rare ones that finds no differences, will bring a mini-chaos in their train.

Figure 2 : You will experience a mini chaos if you catch your attention being drawn to a difference

Since, by definition, lack of order cannot constitute “sense”, the mini chaos produced by any comparison that reveals differences will confront the sense-seeking eye/brain systems with the problem of finding some form of coherence. In other words, something that can only be found by looking at it, either in a different way or in relation to something else. As explained in my book “What the Scientists can Learn from Artists”, the solution requires either the use of analytic looking systems or a transition to other levels or modes of description, where the meaningless difference no longer exists. Speaking extremely generally, this change of levels, which might also be described as a “transformation of context”, can be achieved in two ways, either by going up the system or by going down it.

Going up

Going up accesses higher and cruder levels of description, where details are ignored. Doing so provides a filtering out process that, if allowed to run its course, will ultimately lead to the same seemingly banal outcome, namely that all objects will be perceived by the eye/brain as being identical, undifferentiated lumps, devoid of transformational context. At first sight this might seem a pretty useless outcome but, as explained below, this is far from the case.

Going down

Going down means focusing attention on progressively lower levels of description, a procedure which must eventually lead to the rediscovery of the basic building-blocks of appearances (the visual primitives or their equivalents in other domains of description). Again, the tendency can only be for the system to move in the direction of discovering that all objects are made from a small number of similar components. Looked at in this way, the process is analogous to the physicist discovering that all matter is made up of the same bunch of sub atomic particles.

What we learn from the search for of sameness

As suggested above, it would be easy to suppose that a processes which leads to the discovery that everything is the same as everything is a bit pointless. But for two reasons this is very far from the case:

  • Firstly, the fact of everything being the same, means that everything will be familiar and, accordingly, capable of setting in motion the eye/brain’s analytic-looking systems that are used for dealing with familiarity.
  • Secondly, the eye/brain only arrives at its uninteresting conclusion by means of a sequence of steps that provide a priceless outcome, namely a hierarchy of connections that link a number of formerly disparate “sames”. It can be described as “priceless” because, taken together, the resulting assemblage of links can constitute a powerful characterization of the object concerned. As explained in “What the Scientists can Learn from Artists”, it is such information-containing assemblages that underpin the brain’s capacity for description-building in all the domains of its activity. It is the basis of skill acquisition, including the skills required for thought.

An analogy with mathematics

The value of having a mechanism for searching for that which is the same has something in common with the value of the equation in mathematics. This becomes apparent when we realise that the value of this most basic of mathematical tools is predicated upon its capacity for producing the essentially uninteresting conclusion that two things (the two sides of the equation) that, at first sight look different, are in fact identical. However, the tautological nature of this outcome is only discovered by a series of procedures which, over and over again, have proved their power for generating extremely useful information and highly significant insights.

Conclusion

In sum, the very fact that the eye/brain automatically filters out differences in the search for samenesses, locks its processing systems into activity that is capable of harnessing chaos, and it is the manner in which does so that enables it to become the engine of creative description-building.

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Fast drawing, learning and expression

Is there a connection?

This Post discusses the relationship between fast drawing, learning and personal expression. It is an important subject because there seems to be a connection in many people’s minds between speed and expression. Various questions arise. The most basic one is whether there is any necessary connection at all.

In all my books I assume that personal expression can come in a multitude of ways: fast, slow, passionate, quietly sensitive, and all gradations between these extremes. This Post concentrates on the use of fast drawing.  The main arguments are found in Chapter 8 of my book,“Drawing on Both sides of the Brain”.

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CHAPTER 8 – MOVEMENT, SPEED & MEMORY

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Fast drawing

The questions raised in Chapter 8 provide a means of taking a critical look at the widespread practice of starting life drawing sessions with poses that are so short that they force fast drawing. Those who advocate this practice, believe that their shortness will increase the likelihood of creativity and personal expression.  In Chapter 8, I question this belief.

Chapter 8 and subsequent chapters between them explain how to use accuracy as a means of enhancing information pickup speed and, thereby, to learn to draw faster, with more authority and in ways that foster personal expression.

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NB. In Chapter 8, reference is made both (a) to illustrations found in Chapter 11, and (b) to texts that can be found in “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”. As neither of these is as yet available as a “Post” on this “Posts Page“, I have added them below.

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Texts and illustrations referred to in Chapter 8

Four drawings of pollarded trees on the esplanade, Castelnau de Montmiral, produced by one of my students as the first follow up to the three hour long drawing lesson by which I introduce students to my feeling-based method (there are many other such follow up drawings by other students that could have illustrated the same point at least as well. Indeed the drawings below could be described as a routine outcome of the lesson). They were made in 3 hrs, 30 minutes, 10 minutes and from memory respectively. They are extracted from Chapter 11 of “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”.

fast drawing
On the left: the three hour drawing from observation.    On the right: the 30 minute drawing from observation.

 

fast drawing
On the left: the ten minute drawing from observation.    On the right: the drawing from memory.

 

fast drawing
A photograph of the same trees, but unfortunately the canopy has grown a lot since they were pollarded.

 

A computer controlled experiment: an extract from Chapter 8 of “What Scientists can Learn from Artists”:

This extract comprises a summary of ideas coming from the main experiments and how they led to the computer controlled experiment which showed that preparatory looking helped rapidity of information pick-up:

“These ideas were amongst those that we had in mind when we came to consider the results from the main experiments. In particular they influenced our thought when we reflected upon the revelations of the video-tape record. One result was a hypothesis that needed testing. The argument that gave rise to this depended a variety of factors. If both comparison and the organisation of actions disrupt aspects of visual-memory, then copying must require a longer-term memory-store to guide a coordinated and efficient looking strategy. The superior performance of the skilled adults for drawing familiar objects from memory indicated that this function could be performed by long term memory. However, what about unfamiliar objects or the complex curves which describe the ever changing shapes of familiar ones? As suggested above, efficient visual analysis of these might require the creation of a purpose-specific memory store, structured with the help of longer looks, such as those recorded on the videotape. Thus, our hypothesis was that the function of the longer looks is to create a memory store containing knowledge of what to look for later. The advantage would be reaped in terms of the pick-up efficiency of the inter-saccadic glances. Given that time taken for each of these is fixed, it follows that the learning process enables more information to be picked up in the same time. Such a feat could only be achieved if appropriate, purpose specific memory structures had been created.

The computer-controlled experiment in question was used to test these ideas. A sequence of different two-line RSL models was displayed on a computer screen. At a given time after a model appeared, one of the two lines disappeared and the subjects were asked to copy the one that remained. The time before the disappearance was either one-third of a second or five seconds. When the subjects had completed drawing the visible line, they pressed a button which caused the second line to reappear for either one-third of a second (allowing time for one glance) or two-thirds of a second (allowing time for two glances). The question was whether the information collected in the five-second preliminary look would lead to better pick-up of information by the final glance or glances. The answer was a clear ‘yes’. Without the preliminary five-second look, the subjects were all-over-the-place when doing their best to copy the second line, whereas with it, they performed almost as well as if the image was there in front of their eyes.

This result gave strong support to the hypothesis that temporary knowledge, acquired as a result of appropriately organised looking behaviour, could play a vital role in achieving copying accuracy.”

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Copying photographs

Is copying photographs cheating?

I have met many people who think that copying photographs is somehow cheating. Certainly it can be used as an easy way of sidestepping the challenges (and opportunities) provided by copying directly from nature. But this does not mean that it can never be justified.

The main purpose of this Post is to publish Chapter 7 of my book “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”, which discusses the advantages and disadvantages of copying small, static, two-dimensional photographic images, as compared with confronting the full force of nature, in all its dimensions. Its conclusion is that both possibilities have their place. Rather than condemning the practice of copying photographs out of hand, artists might be well advised to work out what is the best option in the circumstances of the moment.

The chapter also considers an earlier and, for many years, much used memory-based alternative to copying photographic images.

CHAPTER 7 – MEMORY & COPYING PHOTOGRAPHS

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CLAM as a teaching method

CLAM explained

CLAM is an acronym forcontinuously looking at the model. It describes a teaching method, suggested by Kimon Nicolaїdes and popularised by Betty Edwards. However, these authors describe it as “contour drawing”.

Since 1941, when Nicolaїdes‘ book “The Natural Way to Draw” was published posthumously and started its life as the most influential book on drawing published in the twentieth century, his method has proved its value as a powerful teaching tool. However, in addition to its well established advantages, the way Nicolaїdes‘ and Edwards taught it has significant disadvantages. Chapter 6 in my book “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain”  explains both the strengths and the limitations of the method.

 

CHAPTER 6 – CONTOUR DRAWING

 

 

Three example of drawings using CLAM

 

clam
1: A pure CLAM drawing: Within the confusion, a great deal of useful information is to be found

 

clam
2: Drawing by Rodin using a lot of CLAM, made long before Nicolaїdes used it as a teaching tool.

 

clam: Some important errors, but other qualties compensate.
3: One of my early drawings , using modified CLAM. I hope you will agree that, as with the Rodin drawing, the effect of the whole is not too much spoiled by a few serious inaccuracies.

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Negative spaces

Why avoid talking of “negative spaces ” or “negative shapes”?

The title of Chapter 6 of my book “Drawing on Both Sides of the Brain” is “Negative Shapes”. Some people may be surprised to find that I question the widespread use by art teachers of the phrase “negative shapes” and of its equivalent, “negative spaces“. After explaining the reasons for the popularity of its use as a means of bypassing the problems due to familiarity, I argue that it has significant shortcomings. In the light of these, I suggest that there are alternatives which avoid its disadvantages without relinquishing any of its advantages. Perhaps more importantly, these provides better ways of using drawing from observation as a tool for discovering the unique characteristics of objects in the world around us.

 

CHPTER 5 – “NEGATIVE SHAPES”

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Scientific revolution gives artists ideas

Five Scientists and a scientific revolution

Strictly speaking a scientific revolution cannot have either a starting point or and end point. It is always part of an ongoing process. However, two events provide milestone contributions to the scientific revolution in the understanding of visual perception that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. The first was a lecture given by Gaspard Monge in 1789 . The second, the publication of a book by Hermann von Helmholtz in 1867. In between these two dates, various other scientists made key contributions to the science of visual perception. Three worth special mention were Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Michel Eugène Chevreul and James Clerk Maxwell.

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Cézanne falls short

A tiny bit of unpainted canvas

The portrait of Ambroise Vollard by Cézanne, now located in the Petit Palais in Paris, took one hundred and five intense, emotion packed sittings to produce. At first sight, it seems complete. But on closer inspection, we find that, even after all those hours of concentrated effort, there is a tiny patch of unpainted canvas, situated in the area where a knuckle should normally be.

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Cézanne
Figure 1 : Ambroise Vollard by Cézanne

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To assess its significance, let us place scarcely visible area of raw canvas in the context of Antonio Tapies’ comment on Van Gogh’s chair. In the Spanish artist’s view, such an everyday object as a chair would be “hardly worth looking at”, if it were not for the richness of its associations and connotations. What made it such a rich subject for a  painting was that it meant so much for Van Gogh, and because it resonated with our mental picture of him. Similarly, we might be inclined to think that nothing could be less interesting than a tiny patch of bare canvas. How could something so minuscule be seen as anything but a blemish? How could an absence of paint be worth looking at?

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Cézanne
Figure 2 : Ambroise Vollard’s knuckle

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Cézanne asks for forgiveness

Nor would there be any question of excusing the artist on the grounds of it being a deliberate mistake, analogous to the Allah-placating deviations from symmetry found in the designs of the Islamic carpet makers. In a contrite letter to Ambroise Vollard, sent from his home situated hundreds of miles away in the South of France, Cézanne explained why he had not turned up to his Paris studio for the 106th sitting.  Hoping that his patron would understand and forgive him, he admitted that he had fled from the Paris because even he could not face the 100 or more additional sittings that it might take to rectify matters.

Error of judgement

The simple truth that Cézanne had to face up to was that he had committed a serious error of judgement. By leaving this patch to last, he had painted himself into a corner: He would not longer be able to produce a colour for it that would be the right degree of colour/lightness difference relative to the immediately neighbours. The only way of rectifying the situation would  require him to have change these. But that would not be all.  He would then have to change all the colours adjacent to them. Indeed, he would have to continue modifying until every single one of the colours on the picture-surface had been given the right relationship with all the other colours. Only by dong so would he be able to meet his self-imposed criteria of never repeating a colour.

A new significance

As well as being a very human story, Cezanne’s failure to complete his painting provides an insight into the degree of perfectionism and rigour which he brought to his work. When we realise this, the patch of bare canvas takes on a new significance. It becomes a doorway into the artist’s mind and a telltale sign of his lofty ambition. In these ways, it reveals itself one of the most telling and significant patches of colour in the history of painting. Surely Tapies would have seen it in this light?

 

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Tapies advocates looking games

A quotation from Antonio Tapies

In an earlier Post I suggested the advantages of a games-playing attitude as a stimulus to creativity. Due in large part to his pioneering explorations of picture-surface characteristics as subject matter for painting, Antonio Tapies came to be regarded by many as one of the key figures of twentieth century art. He has also proved himself a stimulating writer. One of his literary productions is a very brief essay entitled, The game of knowing how to look”, in which he gives his advice on creative looking. He starts by advocating focusing attention on some simple object, such as an old chair. He elaborates:

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Modernist teaching methods

A paradigm shift

The chapter featured in this Post is about the paradigm shift in artists thought that took place in the latter part of the nineteenth century, and some of its consequences in terms of the Modernist teaching methods that were to emerge in the twentieth century.

CHAPTER 3 – “Arrival of Modernism”

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Feeling as a guide to mark-making

Feeling and the sketch

The chapter featured in this Post tells how, over the centuries, artists changed the way they conceived the function of the sketch. From being a step in the Academic method, by which predetermined elements were organised into a composition, it was used in more open-ended essentially Modernist ways. The chapter also explains what I mean by drawing with the “feel-system” and, in doing so, prepares readers for the crucial role it plays in later chapters. For this reason it is key to the ideas developed in my book.

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Chapter 4 – The sketch and the feel system

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