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Cognitive psychology and art

I have been reading a very interesting book called “Cognition in Action” by Smyth, Collins, Morris and Levy. It’s a university text for psychology students in the U.S. and deals specifically with the science of cognitive psychology. I am particularly interested in how this applies to my art.

I have never considered myself a realist as a painter. One of my favourite by lines, is “if you need a picture to look real, go find a photographer”. I have always tried to represent my subject, whether it be a still life, a landscape or a portrait. This is perhaps why I like to use palette knives, credit cards, rubber squeegees, printer’s brayers or anything that is not a brush in my art… because it forces me to not attend to fine detail.

My favourite subjects are portrait studies. In a portrait we should be able to not only recognise the subject, but to capture the essence of the sitter. We can do this by adding enough mystery that it forces the viewer to interpret the painting and form an image of the sitter in their own mind.

This is where cognitive psychology comes in. Have you ever experienced recognising someone from a distance, way before any details come into focus. Extract from the above book;

“Person and face recognition must be a matter of achieving a match between a perceived stimulus pattern and a stored representation”.

What I am interested in is how much of the real image do we put to canvas to recognise the subject. Is it minimalist, or can we create an image out of seeming chaos. When I first started painting portraits, I wanted to meticulously recreate an image of the sitter. I spend an inordinate amount of time getting the eyes, mouth and nose “right”. It was excellent training. What I discovered though, was that with a single brushstroke, you could change to structure, the look, the emotion of a face. Just one single brush stroke. I can’t count the number of times I corrected this “mistake” in my attempt to create the perfect reproduction of the subject. Yet I was never happy with the result. I ended up with a stylised reproduction that was never quite right. The errors were not only evident but obvious. The work lacked mystery. It lacked soul.

As I progressed and moved away from brushes towards anything that would spread paint around (my favourite is a 10 inch tilers squeegee), my works became more abstract, yet still recognisable.

My quest is to try and push the boundaries. To create portrait art, where it is obvious to anyone who knows the subject that it is their portrait, yet has mystery and chaos. That is more interesting to look at than a photograph.

I know that I will never be fully satisfied and that I will be continually on this journey, but it’s the journey that counts. It’s the journey that makes it a pleasure to be an artist.

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