Tuesday, April 01, 2008

In the blink of an eye

coloured pencils on Arches Hot Press 8" x 10"
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

How do you think without thinking? What draws you to one painting and not another? Why does one scene or subject grab you and not another? How do you know when an artist has 'got it'?

More importantly, why does Robert Genn keep writing about things I've been doing? Two weeks ago on March 18th, Robert wrote "Grabbing the Heart"
When you think about it, a couple anguishing over the purchase of a work of art is like a small focus group. Often as not they talk themselves out of it. At the same time, some works just seem to walk out of galleries. Are these works talking on an emotional level to the folks who can't resist them? And what is it about these works that they can't resist? No matter what type of art you're looking at, at the top of the list I'd put "Unusually satisfying pattern
Robert Genn - Grabbing the Heart
In the post Robert references Dr. Robert Knight of the University of California (Berkeley) who does work which traces the emotional roots of decision making otherwise known as "the neural mechanisms subserving cognitive processing in humans"

At the same time as Robert posted I was halfway through reading 'blink' by Malcolm Gladwell, author of 'The Tipping Point: How little things makes a big difference'.

The Tipping Point is about change and why it sometimes happens faster than we expect and in ways we maybe don't expect. That book had a huge impact on me - and enabled me to understand much better why things happen - and how my 'maven' predisposition to gather and share information fits in with all of that.
Malcolm Gladwell used it ('maven') in his book The Tipping Point (Little Brown, 2000) to describe those who are intense gatherers of information and impressions, and so are often the first to pick up on new or nascent trends.
Wikipedia - Maven
I saw Malcom's name on 'blink' and immediately picked it up and tucked it under my arm.

"Don't judge a book by its cover"?

There was no question in my mind that this would be another good read. That, as I found out later, was an excellent example of the main topic of the book - snap judgements.
It's a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, "Blink" is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good.
Malcolm Gladwell - What is blink about?
As I read the book it immediately struck me (in the blink of an eye!) about how his notions on this topic might be applied to art. A week later Robert Genn sent out his letter Grabbing the heart. That's when I knew I had to write something.

'blink' is not about 'intuition' - Gladwell is at pains to avoid using the word 'intuition' in his book. What he's looking for are the ways in which people process information really fast. He says his book is about:
  • blinks - when we think without thinking - when we digest, assess and conclude in two seconds
  • thin-slicing - when our 'adaptive unconscious' part of our brain operates in a 'fast and frugal' mode and creates sensations which tell you what you need to know e.g. about new people
  • "the very smallest components of our everyday lives" and "the particulars of the fleeting moment" -
  • the notion that your adaptive unconscious is an ability which can be cultivated - that our snap judgements and initial impressions can be educated and controlled - for example by learning how to 'read' people's faces.
I'm not going to try and explain it all - firstly because he provides some extracts on his site, secondly because it has a wikipedia page and thirdly because you might want to buy it!

Anyway - I kept feeling the need to try and come up with examples of how our 'adaptive unconscious' works. So what follows is my take on this - feel free to suggest more examples via the comments.

Here's my take on what are some of the ways 'snap judgement' applies to art.

The painting you love before somebody tells you who painted it or how much it's worth.

For example, Lake Keitele is one of the best loved paintings in the National Gallery in London and was painting of the month in July 2004. Its image also adorns an amazing amount of products in the NG shops.
Lake Keitele (1905)
Akseli Gallen-Kallela (1865 - 1931)
Oil on canvas, 53 x 66cm
National Gallery, London

Yet it's painted by a Finnish painter called Akseli Gallen-Kallela, an artist who normally painted figurative scenes and who most people have never heard of. Maybe - as Robert Genn suggests - both artists and the public have a strong emotional response to a satisfying pattern.

The painting which you know is 'wrong' even if you don't know why.

Gladwell starts his book with the story about the concerns relating to the authenticity of the Getty Kouros which is dated "about 530 B.C., or modern forgery" and why certain people 'knew' it was wrong as soon as they saw it.

The painting which calls to you from the other side of the gallery as you walk in

How many of you have had that experience?

I'm wondering whether there are some features about paintings which work for a lot of people - such as a strong value and well designed value pattern.

I have heard, for example, that 'red' sells - but does the shade of red make a difference and does the quantity of red make a difference?

A number of people commented on this in response to Robert Genn's post and he commented further in Visual Triggers in which he suggested that there were four:
  • Precious colour
  • Gradations big and small
  • Something personal
  • Something mysterious
When you are always 'drawn' to a painter or a painting - but you really don't know exactly why you find it so inspirational.

One of my reasons for doing projects about certain artists is to try and unpick the reasons why I'm attracted to their work. I trust in and start with the emotional response but hopefully derive more intellectual understanding as I progress.

The problem which persists is the notion that I might destroy my emotional response if I understand too much about why it happens.

That view which won't leave your brain as you keep walking around 'en plein air' trying to work out what to do.

I've just learned to trust myself on that one - it works!

I've also still got views in my brain from car journeys where I have no physical image to work from other than the one which my cells continue to dish up from time to time.

My most persistent one - which dates back some 20 years or so - is a scene in the Lake District. It's of a a flash of sunshine hitting a field to produce grass the colour of washed out lemon yellow rape surrounded by grey green stones walls against mountains and sky which have gone dark navy blue due to an imminent storm. There are stands of trees on the profiled horizon of the foothills which are olive green with hints of both navy and lemon.

How many of you can now see this 'view' from this description?

The moment you add in something to a painting - without any thought - and it goes 'zing'

I am continuously amazed by the number of times my hand picks up a colour which can't possibly be 'right' and yet it turns out to be exactly right. Like I just 'know' that my cat needs a dose of 'Gentian Blue'!

when you trust your hand to draw what 'feels' right

I can't explain this one, other than to say just as I can now type without looking at the keyboard, I can also draw without looking at my paper. I guess it's learned.

I've also learned not to be precious about the line being exact. The line which suggests the right line - but leaves something to your imagination - often seems to have more power than the absolutely precise line. I don't 'know' what to include or exclude - but my hand does!

Immediately knowing what needs doing as soon as you turn around the painting 'which won't work' which has been turned to the wall

Go on - that must have happened to you too!

Immediately acting on an idea for a painting which just springs apparently unprompted into your head

I'm less persuaded by notions of images which you photograph. I think you train your eye to 'know' when something works or not. Although this fits well with Gladwell's notion that you can train your brain.

However having an idea for a work - maybe on waking and then setting it up and it all works brilliantly just has to be the subconscious at work - doesn't it?

Do you agree? Do you have any other examples?

Now - the question is how do we create the work which enables gallery owners and the buying public to make a 'snap judgement' to show / buy our work?

[Note: 'Birdies' was done last night - and still needs some tweaking but will be one of my entries for this year's SOFA exhibition. I saw my cats on the window ledge next to me and immediately picked up my camera and took a photo - knowing as I went for the camera that it would become a drawing. In the blink of an eye.]



  1. Great post! I do think there are emotional and visual elements in what attracts a viewer to an image and its interesting to explore them.

    I believe that the viewer many times sees something of themselves in a painting that draws them back. It could be a colour, a pose, a setting, an animal, but it is something that is familiar to them in some way and they put themselves in that painting. The power of association is strong in most people.

    The person who bought a cat piece from me said that it reminded him of his cat that had died years ago. Nothing was said about the size, colour, drawing execution, etc. It was simply his association with a familiar animal from the past.

  2. Interestingly, my work which sold at the SOFA exhibition last year 'Pause' was of Polly from behind.

    I did wonder at the time whether it was possible to 'recognise' a cat more from behind than if you could see its face - which naturally relates much more to an individual cat.

  3. Fantastic post, Katherine! I am going to enjoy working my way through all the links. I think one important factor in work that "grabs" you is an image which turns something personal (and perhaps even ordinary) into something universal.

  4. I really enjoyed this post, it was very inspirational. And thank you for the reminder of the book Blink. I learned a lot from that book and I think I need to read it again.

  5. What a fantastic post! I have read the "Tipping Point" and I definitely will get "Blink".

    Your post has really gotten me to think of what makes a painting or drawing one that draws your eye to it again and again. Is it the play with color using complimentary colors, or the use of warm versus cool ones? Is it the composition or the subject matter? Is it the play with contrast...light versus dark? Or is it something else all together.... a "a magical tension with balance" that evokes an emotional and visual response from the viewer...

    My experience with such magic seems to occur easily without thinking. Usually on those rare occasions when something just "clicks" and I seem to be in the "zone", I find that I do not spend a lot of time on the drawing or painting and everything just seems to easily fall into place. I also find that when I struggle with a painting and try to get everything just so that there also seems to be little magic. I am wondering if other artists have had this experience as well.

    I know that from now on I will look at things differently and I can hardly wait to take a look at the new book.

  6. excellent post :>)

    I certainly decide very very fast if a painting draws me to it - for me it's a combination of factors like colour, dynamic lines in the image, the way your eye moves through it, maintaing interest and the marks - from the subtle multiple glazes to the splattering and scratching and pouring of Kurt Jackson.

    Paintings that don't instantly catch me like this tend to be ones where I may admire the skill but there's no connection, no wow factor on a personal level.

    I find that blue is a colour that people are universally drawn to.

  7. I thorughly enjoyed reading through this post today as it combines two loves: art and reading! I read Blink long ago, and never thought to apply it to the creative world. Now I'm pondering the almost physical reaction of delight I get when I see color combinations. In a blink I respond positively to hues and saturations, which explains some truly odd photographs I have stashed in my iphoto files! Thank you for the pause to read your blog today.

  8. Wonderful post. It has me thinking about what keeps me coming back to a painting. I think my first reaction is based on emotion. The paintings I have purchased over the past few years have grabbed me viscerally before I noticed colors, balance, composition, etc. That may be a downside for my own paintings. I am more concerned with the emotional impact of my paintings sometimes. I haven't really tried to sell my paintings yet, so I don't know if that will help or hurt future sales. You have given me a great deal to think about.

  9. Such lovely comments - thanks to one and all.

    I have to confess I saved this post up. I knew I would be writing it as soon as I spotted the potential. However I decided to leave it to marinate in my brain, without thinking too much, in the hope it might come out better. Judging by the comments, I guess that idea worked!

  10. Lots of interesting food for thought here Katherine. thank you!

    I agree there's an unlimimted number of ways a piece of art may attract us (or, a combination of things more likely). My #1 "gotta have" has to be composition of value. To me, it's the framework that supports the rest of the elements to carry on a visual dialog between art and viewer.

  11. Tracy - a strong value design would be high on my list - and it certainly featured very high in the list of features which IMO made for more successful images which I created after seeing a slideshow of all the 2006 CPSA exhibition entries at the CPSA convention in Albuquerque.

  12. For me I think it's colour and/or composition. Composition works on subliminal levels but it's not very well understood I would say. I suspect that's why modern art isn't more popular than it is - because we sense something is not right where the artist uses subject or composition to unsettle for example. It's a worthy aim but we generally don't want to feel that way for any length of time.
    I believe humans have educated their natural instincts away. We learn how to hide feelings, keep our distance, override instinct with logic and therefore our first impressions are not trusted. We are not even capable of reading human expressions accurately which is absolutely staggering, it's our most basic communication tool. Therefore we get confused by the different signals we receive from our head and our 'hearts'. Fashion and art trends are another way we fool ourselves not to trust our instinct.
    Robert Genn is not one for the accurate line and I agree what is left out is also important but for every example to back this up, there will be another to disprove it so it can't be simplified, it's much more complex than that and thank goodness or we would all be producing similar works.

  13. Excellent comment Felicity! I so agree with many of the points you're making.

  14. This post is too rich to absorb at one feast but fantastic food for thought.

    I just have time to say, you were absolutely right about the magic of your two cats poised at the window - planning, we know exactly what! Beautiful texture in their fur too.


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