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


Sunday, 24 June 2012

Drawing Faces Part 2

Drawing and Illusion No 3 - Drawing faces - part 2 Patterns and Context

Drawing Faces
Part 2 - Pattern Plasticity and Context
In the first newsletter we looked at the Smiley pattern which I said seems to project the emotion "happiness" directly into our subconscious minds, and I suggested this is a pattern that is written in "mentalese", which is the wordless language of the subconscious mind.  For the record I would like to correct an error; the word mentalese was first coined in 1933 by a man called Jerry Fodor.  Steve Pinker popularise the concept of mentalese through his book "The Language Instinct".
You will recall that I thought the Smiley is a one-horse-trick, and very different from photographs of faces which engages the mind with  much broader spectrum of mental responses.   The Smiley seems to conveys only one thing; happiness. 
The Smiley  has no gender or identity, but it is easy to give the Smiley a gender.  To make it a girl we add a "girly" object, such as a bow in her hair.

To make it a boy we add a boyish object (bow tie under his chin)
Something very interesting is going on here; is this the beginnings of a mentalese grammar.

Observation 1:  By adding two patterns together you can make a single new pattern that has the combined emotional vales of the two core patterns.:  For instance a "girly object pattern" added to a "happiness object pattern" combine together to  make a single "happy girl pattern"    It is quite analogous to spoken language, where words that are collected together into a single phrase create the image of one thing.  If you take the word Happy, and the word Girl  we get "a happy girl", and the sentence gives us the single image of a happy girl. 

Observation 2:  Patterns interact with each other, and change their meaning according to their context to other  patterns:  When the bow is under the chin of the smiley it becomes a boy, when it is attached to the top of the head it becomes a girl.  Where the bow is placed on the smiley pattern changes its meaning, from happy girl to happy boy.  In written language the simple re-arrangement of words will change the meaning of the sentence:  "The cat sat on the mat", and "the mat sat on the cat" have reverse meanings.   
Perhaps you are thinking; Gosh, patterns follow grammatical rules, just like language does.  I would ask you to reverse this thought to; Gosh, language follows grammatical rules, just like sight does.  Thought, and the non verbal, often subconscious world of mentalese are awash with grammar which we know little about.  When we look at the grammar in our language we are looking through a window into the the much older and more secret world of mentalese.

In this newsletter I am going to concentrate on Context which is one the most powerful tools at the disposal of artists. 
This image has two patterns superimposed on top of each other:  "A Smiley with Eyebrows" and "A Snake with its Tongue Out" 

Look at the mark that makes the top right hand eyebrow of  "The Smiley with Eyebrows" It is an eyebrow, right?
Now look at the mark which makes the tongue of the "The Snake with its Tongue Out"  It is a tongue, right?
What I am trying to demonstrate here is that this mark can either be an eyebrow or a tongue.  When you look at it in the context of the Smiley pattern it winks back "I am an eyebrow".  When you look at it in the context of a snake pattern it winks back "I am a Snake's Tongue"  You will notice you cannot see it as an eyebrow and tongue at the same time.  In mentalese things cannot wink two things at the same time.  Things can flick from one identity to another, but they only wink one thing at a time. This is famously demonstrated in the duck-rabbit illusion.

With this pattern you can see a duck head or a rabbit head, but never hold both at the same time.  To continue with our lesson about context, we can make the mind more likely to see a duck head by changing the context.  In effect adding a duck's body.

And we can do the same thing in reverse
I hope by now I am beginning to convince you that the visual world obeys rules of grammar and syntax, just like spoken language relies on these rules.  It is often surprising to people that our visual world is interpreted through a mental language that uses grammar.  We think of grammar as being something that was invented by evolution to help us use words, when in fact grammar was always there in the brain, long before man and language evolved.   Mentalese has always used grammar.  Language, when it evolved, was not made from new cloth, it utilised methods of processing information that were already there in the brain.  By looking at Language, and the syntax and grammar that make language work, we can begin to look for clues about how the grammar and syntax of sight might work.  In his book, "visual intelligence", Donald Hoffman has listed about 39 rules about "how we create what we see".  Perhaps in later newsletters we will go through some of these, but for the moment I want to return to context and patterns, and how together they are a powerful but simple tool for making sense of the world.
One of the important features of patterns is their plasticity.  There is a theory that all thought, and learning, are about handling patterns.   The nobel prize winning psychologist Herbert Simon believes that  learning involves the accumulation of easy-to-recognise patterns of all kinds.  Elkhonon Goldberg, in his book The Executive Brain, takes this theory one step further.  His concept is called "the novelty-routinisation hypothesis of hemispheric specialisation" and postulates that the difference between the two sides of the brain are to do with the way they manage patterns differently.  His view is that novel experiences are matched by broad pattern recognition talents of the right side of the brain, but as the mind becomes familiar with the new patterns, and gradually learns them, the job of pattern recognition is passed to the left side of the brain where they are stored as very specific patterns attached to very individual meanings or objects.  This makes the left hemisphere of the brain  the "routinisation" half where Herbert Simon's learnt patterns are stored and used.  In this hemisphere the patterns are very specific, and defined, such as patterns to recognise a friend's face, or a favorite chair.   Goldberg thinks this is why words, with their very specific meanings, are stored in left side. 
The patterns stored in the left hand side of the brain are effortlessly used, as when we meet a friend we do not have to think "who is that guy?".    In the Right hemisphere visio-spatial concepts reside, and broad rough patterns that will decide how to think about a novel pattern are stored.  The first stage of dealing with a novel experience is to ask broad questions, often consciously,  What sort of furniture is this?  Is this an animal, what sort of animal is it?    Goldberg's view of how mentalese chimes with my intuitive experience of how I learn to draw.  Most evenings I do hours of exercises learning to recognise and draw patterns I think I may be seeing on faces (I draw moving faces on television).  I am very conscious that this process gradually translates into remembering, conjoining, storing and then reproducing the complex patterns, often in three dimensions.  Learning to draw, for me, has been a process of investigation of novel unknown patterns which is followed by accumulation of effortlessly known patterns that can later be called up and utilised effortlessly.
Patterns which are well understood and remembered have plasticity.  We need to work on the Smiley face to show you what I mean by plasticity.  The Smiley we ended up with at the end of the first letter was an idealised pattern that has had peak shift applied to it.  In the real world we never meet a Smiley, the pattern it is a fantasy abstraction produced by a process that might be part of making works of "art".  In everyday life, on real faces, we come across real Smiley's that are all sorts of shapes; there are long, thin, round or lopsided faces with long, thin, round and lopsided Smiley patterns on them.  Inside the Smiley patterns there are always two eyes and a mouth that changes shape.  The mind, especially the right hemisphere, can handle this plasticity of pattern.
If mentalese is going to be useful it has to be flexible enough to deal with variable patterns, but weed out patterns that have superficial similarities. Here is a demonstration:
Plasticity is limited by rules.  The mouth cannot be set vertically between the eyes. To be a mouth, has to sit within the context of the ever-changing plastic pattern shapes.  This is how context and plasticity work together, it is part of the grammar of mentalese.
And when we add a new mark to a Smiley many interesting options are available, for instance in this series of faces the same mark has been put in different parts of the Smiley face. 

When it is in the right position to be a nose - it winks back "I am a Nose"  you can even put the mark the other way up, and it still winks back "I am a Nose".   If the mark is to the side of the face the eye becomes confused and does not know what to make of it, it is usually ignored.  If the mark is near the mouth it miraculously starts winking back "I am a tongue licking the smiley's lips".   One really interesting point to note about this demonstration is that the position of the mark seems to be more important than the shape of the mark.  Art classes that ask students to studiously record the shape of things to be drawn really miss the point about how drawings work. 
So the patterns used by mentalese have plasticity as well as rigid rules about context of marks inside the plastic pattern.  Then there is one more layer of plasticity.  The nose itself has plasticity.  It can be big and flat, or small and sharp
Isn't this a wonderful system?; so flexible and yet so rigid.  Drawing is a magic expressive world that lives on the boundaries of the language of recognition used by the mind.
To show you what I mean by the magic expressive world that lives on the boundaries of recognition used by the mind I have made this little stickman illustration.  Look how I am dancing on the magic boundary.  The stickman is the pattern we all know and understand well.  The rules are things like the hands have five fingers at the end of a long rods which are the arms which are attached to the trunk of the body. 
My stickman is running trying to catch a ball, and I have used the allowable plasticity of  patterns to stretch the length of the arms to be much longer than they are in real life.    But to keep mentalese happy I have retained context; the hands, even though they are in a place that would be impossible in real life, are still in the correct context within the plastic pattern.  Even though they are in a place where the hands never could be in real life, by keeping our  mentalese grammar correct, they are still seen as hands belonging to the boy.   So the pattern is distorted beyond anything that happens in real life, like the peak shift Smiley's is grin is beyond anything we meet in real life. They both work because they both obey the rules of patterns that mentalese uses.
It may seem to you that I am not really writing about drawing.  You may say this is all the stuff of cartoons.  So to end I am adding one more drawing of a dancer.  The arms are again extended, like they might be in a cartoon.  Every drawing, whether it is by Michelangelo or your newspaper cartoonist, is dancing on this boundary between the world of mentalese and real life experience

Best Wishes

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