Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Lines and the Brain, Part 1

“There are no lines in nature, only areas of color, one against another” said Edouard Manet.

Perhaps not. But by the same logic there are no colors in nature, either.

Lines and colors are phenomena that manifest themselves in our our minds. At that level, lines are very real indeed. Perceiving boundaries is a fundamental aspect of our life as visual creatures. It is hard-wired into our perception.

According to neuroscientist neuroscience PhD candidate Carl Schoonover:

“Lines are the bread and butter of our visual experience. They define trees, horizons, the edges of things we don’t want to bump into. Our visual system is designed to rapidly extract this meaningful information in order to make sense of the world. Consequently, the area in the visual cortex that first processes information coming in from the eyes is configured in a manner that reflects this preference for lines.”
Quote from Carl Schoonover in “Portraits of the Mind,” (2010)
Images from:
Vanderpoel, The Human Figure, 1908
Norton,  Freehand Perspective and Sketching

Lines and the Brain Series,
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Part 4


jamie said...

Thank you for this edification – one of the lines drawn in art departments is from folks belittling others works by pointing out “yeah but lines don’t exist in nature.”
Then I usually draw one, point to it and say “there’s one.”

Michael Pieczonka said...

Lines simply don't exist. I think they are a result of our inclination as humans to define objects as we know them as individual objects. Ask a kid to draw some grass and I guarantee you he will draw a few individual blades of it somewhere. I don't understand the statement about colour though? Objects are surely reflecting different wavelengths of light!?!

taylor said...

This is a wonderful explanation of the reason painters of realism have found it more compelling to mimic nature and exclude lines from their work as much as possible, since the act of extracting lines from visual information is so natural (and therefore satisfying) to the brain. Even brilliant line-work depends on weight and rhythm to signify form, involving the brain in supplying information vital to understanding. The involvement of the observer should never be taken for granted when it comes to valuing art.

JonInFrance said...

You want us to argue the opposite, right? Lines are there, the problem is our sense of (acquired knowledge by) touch is stronger than our visual perception, and so we tend to overdo the lines...

Munchanka said...

One of my favorite teachers once challenged me to draw without using line. At first I thought it was some Yoda-ish trick, but then I realized he meant color and tone.

Jonathan Mayer said...

You can't draw without using line. A professor who tells you to do so is just playing mind games.

Drawing, in its simplest terms, is simply mark making. Even if you erase the lines or hide them with areas of contrasting tone, you always start with line. I think it is an astute observation that our minds are designed to delineate shapes and their boundaries in space. Why anyone would force you to work without line I can't imagine.

Richard said...

Some spilt milk - how to render it?
With just lines or color only?
Or both?

Hen or egg: Which came first?

Greg Newbold said...

Whether or not lines really exist in nature is irrelevant. Lines DO exist in art because artists use them. I think the real problem begins when inexperienced artists OVER use them at the expense of other methods that might better describe the subject.I find this to be a significant problem with students as they do not fully understand things like value, contrast, edges and color. The fall back technique is line and therefore is what they use. Lines are merely one tool of expression and should be used judiciously if not sparingly in our effort to capture our subject matter.

Audran said...

I cant agree more with you Greg.
I think there might be a general confusion between edges and lines.
Edges are found at the limit of any physical object, where another object or element start to be visible. The line is a human invention to define boundaries/limits with happen to coincide with edges. I disagree with the color being a human invention. There is various wavelenght and we are sensitive to them. It's helping us defining more shapes and volumes... to more edges.

Marc said...

I have always felt that our brains learn to emphasize boundaries between objects as more important, as well as focusing more on areas of strong contrast. Lines seem to be a graphic representation of our sense of touch and act as a type of symbolic boundary/contrast/tactile sense.

Even "realism" is an illusion. As 2D artists, we are only creating representations of our perceptions that someone else's brain must then
reinterpret to understand.

I remember my father-in-law visited a tribe of people who had little contact with the modern world. He handed a photograph of someone's face to one of the village elders and the man took it from him and continued to hold it upside-down as it had been handed to him and stared at it for a while uncomprehending. Through a translator he discovered that the elder just saw shapes, not a recognizable human face. I wonder if the ability to interpret 2D as 3D, forms in early childhood.

The perception of what is "realistic" may vary much more widely than we even know.

Erik Bongers said...

"Perhaps not. But by the same logic there are no colors in nature, either."

Love this remark! :)

Reminds me of your attempt to visualize the way a dino sees the world. Already in your first book you showed a keen interest in perception science.

To those who don't understand the statement that colours only exist in our heads:
we don't see the full range of light wavelenghts that an object reflects. We don't see UV or infrared, nor do we see radiowaves or microwaves, which are all also a form of "light".
Actually, to be more precise: light is just a very tiny subset of electromagnetic radiation.
What we call "light" is thus nothing more than a small fraction of wavelenghts we can perceive.
Thus "light" doesn't really exist in nature. Light is not what an object radiates. It's what are eyes are able to capture.

Mario said...

"Perceiving boundaries is a fundamental aspect of our life as visual creatures."
It's exactly for this reason that line drawing is more interesting to me. "Value/tone drawing" is the way our retina (or a camera) works, while "line drawing" is closer to our brain and the way it works. Lines are a wonderful creation of our brain, and they more easily "interweave" with our thoughts/recollections/dreams. In a sense, we are more human (or at least "living beings"), less machine-like, when we draw with lines.

This may just reflect my own preference, of course...

David Cuzik Matysiak said...

drawing in line is what you see when you look at your drawing paper
or when the image is transfered from obsrvation to making marks...
its an unconscious event from the eye to the brain to to the tip of the pencil...fretting over lines
existence or not is folly and apt
to cause the eradication of ones
confidence in the creative
process .......

James Gurney said...

Audran and Michael, let me elaborate on what I meant by "color is a phenomenon that manifests itself in our minds."

You’re right, there’s plenty of light of various wavelengths bouncing around out there in the world around us, but color is not resident in objects; it’s a figment of our visual perception.

As Erik pointed out, some wavelengths we don’t see at all (such as infra red and ultra violet). How we perceive the others as specific colors depends on a lot mechanisms going on in our brains, such as simultaneous contrast, color constancy, successive contrast.

We are not objective photodetectors. For example, we can’t tell the difference between a pure yellow light and a mixture of red and a green light (which appears to us the same yellow).

bill said...

This has always been interesting stuff to me. As teachers we often need to simplify. Although there are no colors in reality they are manifested in our brains by our particular way of seeing. So we perceive or "see" those colors. We do not, however, perceive edges in our minds as lines. Line is a graphic construct. So when your teacher says there are no lines in nature believe it, unless you want a whole lecture about light and perception and translation of waves in the brain.

I love line because it is a human construct and yet can have a personality and a beauty all its own.

Max West said...

Lines were the cornerstone of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' artwork - he believed line was very important.

Lines are a key part of learning to draw according to Dr. Betty Edwards and her book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. She refers to lines though as "edges" and it's the first basic skill of drawing known as the perception of edges.

Ian Schoenherr said...

As luck would have it, there's a Howard Pyle anecdote on this topic, via illustrator Walter Jack Duncan (see "Speaking of Pen Drawing" in Scribner's Magazine, November 1920):

"I once had the honor of meeting Mr. Howard Pyle, the best of men and illustrators, at a time when he enjoyed, for a brief season, the directorship of the art department at McClure's. One day, when I went to see him with some pen drawings, he confided to me - with a kindness which I could not mistake - that there were no lines in nature, but only mass. Considering that Mr. Pyle's most distinguished work, perhaps, was executed in line, inevitably put me in mind of Elia's paradoxical cousin James who, often declaring there was no such faculty at all in man as reason, 'enforced his negation,' as Lamb says, ‘with all the might of reasoning he was master of.'"

António Araújo said...

>“yeah but lines don’t exist in >nature.”
>Then I usually draw one, point to it >and say “there’s one.”

I usually enjoy this variation:

"yeah, but lines don't exist in nature - so why are you drawing lines?"

"Fine."-I say-"I won't use lines, then."- (while I keep on drawing lines)

"But...you are still using lines!"

"That can't be! As you said, lines don't exist in nature, hence this thin thing that I have drawn cannot possibly be a line"

António Araújo said...

>Objects are surely reflecting >different wavelengths of light!?!

They are indeed, but what you see is not the spectral decomposition (so much of this frequency, so much of that, all along the visual specttrum), but an arbitrary and human brain-specific interpretation of that spectral decomposition. Why is color 3-dimensional (whether you choose RGB, hue-sat-val, whatever?). It is not. It is just that our eyes and brain reduce the spectral curve (which is in good approximation a real-valued function over a line segment, hence a member of the infinite-dimensional space of all such functions) to a point in a mere 3-dimensional space.

Hence, if you are going to call that sensation (a complex construct of your brain from the spectral input that hits your eye) an objective thing, then a line is in the exact same way an objective thing.

You could argue it was different if a line was just a sophisticated arbitrary creation of the wider brain - of the imagination, so to speak - but research implies that it is not: lines are patterns automatically highlighted by your visual brain, in the same kind of automatic image tratement that allows you to see colours. In fact, the translation of colours that the brain performs seems to me much much more of a massaging of the raw input data than the highlighting of "lines".

Of course, that actual system of representing the "lines in your brain" by thin marks on paper *is* indeed a sophisticated construct of the wider brain, and a conventional device - but so is the process of translating the 3-d colour in your brain to a specific paint patch on your canvas (full of conventions and abstractions to allow for modifications of gamut, incident light effects, etc, etc)

Chris Register said...

The argument shouldn't be if there are or aren't lines. There are lines and they can be beautiful. My problem, teaching drawing, is this. "Why do almost all students gravitate to drawing with outlines, and fall back on them every chance they get?" Black and white make a lousy gray, but I'm not advocating getting rid of either. Just use them with care and knowledge.

And drawing is to mark making what the Gettysburg Address is to making sounds.