Monday, 25 June 2012

Art and Illusion No1 - Drawing faces - part 1 Emotion

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Drawing Faces
Part 1 - Emotion

In bygone days well-off families would employ artists to draw or paint members of their family so that later generations would remember them. This portrait of Queen Ann Seymour, one of the wives of Henry VIII, is a good example of the old genre of portrait drawing.

From this sketch we can believe that Ann had a slightly earthy quality and was not a great beauty.  Her tightly pursed lips give her a tense expression.  Holbein, the artist who drew this portrait, was one of the greatest portraitists of the Tudor era, and through his work we get a glimpse of the people who populated the court of Henry Tudor. We cannot know how good a likeness Holbein made, but we are reassured, because even though his subjects wear strange and unfamiliar clothes they look like real people that we might encounter in the street.  Holbein's portraits are convincing, and hundreds of years after they were drawn we feel they contain life-like memories of a generation that would otherwise seem very distant and alien.  Through the art of portraiture we feel the gulf of time and culture that separates ourselves from our remote ancestors has not stopped us still being able to relate to the personalities of the Tudor Court. 
Nowadays families have cameras and photo albums to record big events in their lives, portrait making has been mechanised and there is no more a need to employ someone skilled in painting portraits. Only a few of the very rich employ a portraitist to record their family likenesses in paint.   Perhaps we intuitively believe that photographs are more accurate anyway. It is hard to argue with this judgment, for instance when we look at this photograph of Peter Mandelson we can see how well a good photograph expresses the vanity and intelligence of this slippery politician.
With photographs as good as this, one is left wondering how much more the old style drawings and paintings have to offer.  If Holbien were alive today would he really do anything better?  It is almost as if all the training and thought that went into Holbein' portrait of Ann Seymour can be trumped by a single squeeze of a button on a camera.  Do hand-drawn portraits have any advantages over photography?  In this newsletter I am going to argue that drawing has many differences that can be advantages for expression, and that photography should not be seen as an art form that replaces the drawn or painted image
Part 1 Patterns that convey emotion
I am going to start my argument with a small detour about how patterns stimulate emotional responses in our minds.  Here we have a circle with a dot in it.  We see a pattern but probably it does not remind us of much
But if we add just one more dot we see eyes and a face.  It is as if a switch has been turn on in our brains

And by adding a curved line we see a smiling face.  In fact the pattern is now so powerful that it is near impossible to see anything other than the image of a happy face.
And with very simple changes, such as inverting the curved line, we feel the opposite emotion to happiness; sadness
A piece of paper with black marks on it has no sense of being, no soul to be happy, and there are no spirits in the paper trying to communicate with the outside world.  Patterns themselves have no living self with which to feel emotion, but some patterns have an undeniable ability to project emotion into our minds.  So we say the emotions of happiness and sadness we see are an illusion stimulated by the pattern we recognised. 
As an experiment I took a group photograph and traced the smiley patterns.

These traced smileys look happy, but do not have the uninhibited innocence of The Smiley used in western computer culture.  The stylised smiley pattern has a much broader grin than we ever see in the natural world, nobody has a grin that wide! On more detailed investigation we notice that the shape and configuration of the patterns on the photographed faces are very different from the shape and configuration of the pattern of a smiley. 

For instance if we look at this lovely photograph of a pretty oriental girl, we see that shape of her face is an irregular oval, and is not an idealised perfect round shape. 

The shapes of the components of her face on the photograph, such as the eyes, will vary according to whether she is happy and wide eyed or crying with her eyes scrunched up and full of tears.  The Smiley's eyes are certainly wide eyed, but not framed in almond frames like they are in the photograph.  Other features, such as the slightly raised eyebrows and pearly white teeth, that are contributing a lot of warmth in the photograph are completely absent from the smiley.  Then there is the way the way she has slightly cocked her head to one side and directed her gaze right at us. The conclusion is that the welcoming smile in the photograph is made up of a wide cluster of irregularly shaped pieces, which have been simplified, idealised and exaggerated in the smiley face.  The emotions emitted from the photograph are more comprehensive and the whole image gives us a broad spectrum of emotional information, including feelings of femininity, warmth and pretty girliness.  What a contrast to the smiley which is a one trick horse, emitting just one thing; happiness.
I think this very minor analysis illustrates how Drawing and Photography can provide completely different conclusions about what we see when we look at a face.  The Smiley turns out to be a tiny window on one tiny aspect of the neurological workings of our subconscious brains.  When we look at drawings in future newsletters, whether it be in the context of light and shade, lines, movement, time or emotion, we come across glimpses of how our subconscious minds redefining reality into new ways of seeing, and these redefined realities are reproduced in drawings as patterns on paper that create illusions of movement, substance and emotions.
Welcome to the world of "Mentalese", a word made popular by the Steve Pinker, a Harvard professor of psycholingistics and visual perception, to describe the non-verbal language of thinking that mostly occurs in our subconscious.   We are hardly aware of the existence of this collection of thought processes that occur in areas of the brain that are largely inaccessible and invisable to our conscious minds.  Now and again we get glimpses of their workings; in fact illusions are glimpses of mentalese at work.  All figurative drawings are patterns that appear to be something more than just patterns; they wink emotion, form and movement even though they are just marks on paper.  They do this by speaking directly to our subconscious minds in the largely unknown language of mentalese.   Neuroscientists are gradually unpicking the language of mentalese, and they are often struck that they are walking in the footsteps of previous discoveries made generations of artists.
I believe that as our understanding mentalese grows our perceptions of ourselves will change.  Part of this new perception will be a new meaning for the word Art which will be far removed from the elite commercial world of Damian Hurst and galleries.  The new use of the word will I am going to put forward a view that Art is very relevant to our everyday lives.  Art will come to be seen as an everyday activity that we are all doing all he time and makes us who we are.  It will be seen as a necessary extension of the the non-verbal world of mentalese.
Stage 1 : Seeing and isolating patterns that wink
Imagine if the picture of the oriental girl had been given to an alien, and that the alien had been told to look for patterns and mark them out, what would he find.  As an experiment I have imagined myself into the place of the alien, who had no knowledge of humankind, and traced some patterns from the photographs; this is what I got. 
To the alien's eyes all the patterns would all look equally uninteresting, but to a human there are some that wink faces at you, and one that "winks" happiness.  Some patterns wink more strongly than others, some do not wink at all.  You might think so what?  Well it is remarkable because this one image can be interpreted in a million different patterns, but the brain picks out the pattern it wants to see.  It discarded the million patterns and chooses the one or two it wanted to see. This is what brains do!
Drawing is pattern making. The artist has the opportunity to make drawings that enhance the patterns that wink, and discard the patterns that don't wink.  This is a fundamental of drawing: Pattern choosing, particularly choosing patterns that speak directly to the subconscious.
When you think about it in this way it becomes very obvious that art teachers that plonk students in front of a static model and ask the students to carefully reproduce the outlines, patches of shade and colour are missing the point.  There is a mechanical process for doing this, it is called photography.  Drawing is about finding the best patterns, the patterns that wink most.  (I have to leave this subject for another newsletter on how to learn to draw)  For the moment I want you to notice one thing, the first stage of drawing is to find a winking pattern which contains something that creates a strong illusion.  In our spread of patterns the image in the middle of the bottom row winks most happiness.

Having chosen our winking pattern we now move on to accentuating the wink. The pattern in the middle of the bottom row is winking happiness, but less strongly that a smiley.  Why?  Well I can see three stages that the drawing went through to produce the super happy smiley.
Stage one was recognition of which random pattern winked the most happiness.
Stage two is idealisation; making the pattern simpler for the eye to read.  Smoothing out the lines, introducing symmetry and increasing contrast. We end up with an idealised pattern.
Just making the pattern simpler and more obvious to read enhances the emotional impact
Stage three is exaggeration - Peak Shift
The third stage involves a quite well known neurological phenomena called peak shift.  Peak Shift was first discovered in experiments experiments with rats:
A rat was trained to understand that a rectangular box contained food, and a square box contained no food. 
After the rat had learnt to choose a rectangular box, rather than a square box, the rat was given a choice between and elongated rectangular box and the usual rectangular box.  The rat chose the elongated box rather than the usual shape.  It seemed that the rat's brain had decided that there was a rule; the more rectangular the box the more food would be inside it.
After Peak shift was discovered it was found in many animals.  Baby seagulls respond to an orange blob at the back of their mother's throat.  When the mother opens her mouth and shows her chicks the orange blob at the back of her throat the chicks excitedly ask to be fed.  The chicks even respond to an orange blob on the end of a stick.  The chicks are like the rat with the rectangle box, when they see an orange blob they think they will get a food reward.  When scientists produce a stick which has three orange blobs they get super excited, and chose it rather than the stick with one orange blob.  This is considered to be a peak shift response.
Peak shift is also thought to be responsible for driving fashion to extremes.  In the 1990s in Japan it became cool  amongst school girls to wear their white school socks slightly ruffled round the ankles. Quite soon a trend developed for bigger and more ruffled socks which were thought to be extra cool. The fashion industry pushed this trend to extremes by providing specially made extra-large "loose socks" for the young girls to feel cool in. 

Other obvious examples are legion; Teddy boy hairstyles in the 50s, miniskirts and bell bottoms in the 60s, Mohican punk hairstyles in the 70s and Dallas style shoulder pads in the 80s.  We see this peak shift behaviour all around us all the time.
Peak shift is also thought to drive art towards caricature, (we will discuss this in a later newsletter).  At this stage I want to propose that it also underlies the exaggerated sense of happiness we receive from a smiley face.
Stage three is if we take our idealised smiley and expand the mouth line bigger than in reality and make the eyes bigger, the smiley will look even happier.
And here we have the smiley!  An illusion of happiness that was created through selection of a pattern, idealisation and exagerration (peak Shift).  A flat pattern made with marks on paper, that through the use of our innate knowledge of mentalese, speaks directly to our subconscious selves.
Is it a portrait and is it Art?
I have begun to lay out my stall by introducing you to my ponderings on where the exciting world of Mentalese and Art mingle.  In this world, which is relatively unexplored, there are many really interesting questions to be asked.  I think the answers may change our understanding of Art's contribution to civil society of the future. This will be subject I attempt to developed in a future newsletter titled "Drawing a portrait part 2 - Identity"
Best Wishes



Anonymous said...

Fascinating post. I have enjoyed it enormously.

As a trained engineer and scientist, having practiced as a research scientist for several decades, I have no illusions of becoming an artist and, unfortunately, no talent for it. However, I find that your observations and conclusions on drawing and illusion have strong parallels to the practice of science.

I have frequently said that the art of science lies in making truth obvious. In other words, a research scientist should attempt to demonstrate a point with such clarity and such completeness as to leave no lingering questions in the minds of others.

Over the course of my career, there has been a revolution in the way data is obtained and recorded: digital instruments now capture what used to be taken with manual observations; databases now store information that used to be kept in notebooks. The situation is analogous to the usurpation of the domain of portraiture by digital photography. There is now an abundance of raw information that used to be scarce.

The art of art and the art of science seem very similar. The research scientist cannot be content with merely publishing data. He must study it and sift through it and find out its meaning. To the casual observer, the data is merely data: just so much information without a point. To the trained and reflective observer, the data tells a story. It is the duty of the scientist and the artist to discover the story and to present it in a fashion that others can comprehend and, perhaps, even relish.


Julian Williams said...

Pluck - firstly thank you for being the first to respond to my posts, you are getting the ball rolling for me.

I think it is interesting that humankind has produced Art, Science and Religion all at once. They must be inter-related and reflect something that is innate to our species and contained in us all. I may not be a trained scientist, just like you are not a trained artist, and I may not believe in a supernatural God, but I cannot escape being human. So I end up like every other human being with beliefs, artistic behaviour and expression, and an ability to deduce truth from patterns we find in the world around us.

I was reading this afternoon about superstition, and how it alleviates stress in people. People get stressed up when they are faced with random results in the face of danger, and so they look for patterns to reduce the randomness of outcome in their favour. Here is an example: When a bomb disposal man defuses a bomb successfully he notices he is wearing a blue shirt which is unusual for him, so he links the two and creates a superstition that wearing a blue shirt provided him with a safe outcome. From them on he wears his lucky blue shirt every time he has to face the danger of defusing a bomb.

This is a man looking for patterns, and deducing rules from the patterns he finds. He may be using the scientific method badly, but he is still using the methodology of science. And he gets the outcome he needs - belief that he can reduced the random outcome of his work, which reduces his stress in the face of danger.

I think we are all artists, and you cannot escape that. It is part of your make up. No need to pretend to yourself that Art is something outside your capacity, it is within you and you will be using it all the time (perhaps unknowingly).