Tag Archives: Leonardo da Vinci

Here There Be Dragons: Utilizing Pareidolia in My Art Process

Pareidolia Clouds at Sunset
August 21, 2017; digital photograph
Rabun Gap, GA
© Amy Funderburk 2017 
All Rights Reserved

What do you see in the clouds above?

I see a giant moose. Or someone with a tiny head, sitting back on his heels while flexing his muscles. And a pyramid in the distance.

The Druids practiced such cloud watching as a form of divination called Neladoracht, so for a recent #FolkloreThursday, I tweeted my question with this photograph. Answers ranged from a horse rearing backwards, to a dog with something on its nose or fetching, to a kneeling, bearded old man in various guises. A couple of folks even saw a Xenomorph – the chillingly aggressive adversary from the Alien movie franchise.

For those responders, I could only predict one of two outcomes: a bucket of popcorn with a movie marathon, or a very bad day.

Pareidolia is the impressive sounding word for something I have done all of my life, always recognizing familiar shapes in the natural chaos of the commonplace. Faces, features, and animals emerge out of wood grain, lichen, stone, and smoke, or dance in the sky as clouds. On a metal dresser at my grandmother’s house, finished to make it look like wood, the twisting would-be wood-grain shapes conjured up all manner of faces and forms to my eye. At my childhood home, the bathroom walls were covered in some truly ugly pink marlite, patterned with a thin, undulating, gold line in a feeble attempt to masquerade as marble. Evoking my visual adventures was this interior design nightmare’s only saving grace.

Merriam-Webster.com defines pareidolia as “the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.”1 The ink blot tests of Swiss psychoanalyst and psychologist Hermann Rorschach are another example of this phenomenon.

Along with the primal color red and the written word, the human face gets what I call “automatic emphasis” in an artist’s composition. If you don’t want the viewer’s eye to go right to the figure, you will need to do your best to somehow downplay it, because our eye has the tendency to home in on the human face. I have always wondered if this is because we look at our own reflection, then seek out the familiar, or because we are taught to make eye contact when we communicate, but, as cited on Merriam-Webster.com, “The human brain is optimized to recognize faces, which could also explain why we are so good at picking out meaningful shapes in random patterns.”2

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

~ Edgar Degas

In his November 2015 workshop, Water: Reflections and Translucence, artist David Dunlop recommended that artists utilize a “process of reduction and simplification” so as to exploit the brain’s physiological tendency to make sense out of what he called the “tableaux of confusion”. In other words, just as my brain easily sees animals in the weathered texture of my beloved standing stones or cloud formations, the brain has a tendency to make sense out of textured chaos. Such visual cacophony as you would also find in grass or weathered texture, your mind wants to make sense from that visual information. In this way, the viewer’s brain does part of my job for me.3

This is pareidolia.

I bet most of you have also experienced pareidolia, but you might not know that in his notebooks, Leonardo da Vinci recommended this as an observation and creativity technique to up-and-coming artists. As an artist, inventor, and scientist, da Vinci was a tireless observer of natural forms and forces. In one of his notebooks, he wrote:

“I will not refrain from setting among these precepts a new device for consideration which, although it may appear trivial and almost ludicrous, is nevertheless of great utility in arousing the mind to various inventions. And this is, that if you look at any walls spotted with various stains, or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see divers combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expression of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well-conceived forms. With such walls and blends of different stones it comes about as it does with the sound of bells, in whose clanging you may discover every name and word you can imagine.”

Little did I know that I have been following da Vinci’s advice all along, though usually in a different way. As an artist, it was only natural to take the brain’s inclination a step further. As I work on a drawing or painting, I automatically make correlations between the random shapes that I am depicting and the forms that I see in them when determining how the shapes interlock to create the whole. This is one of the ways I can best conclude how each area relates to the other and if I am successfully transposing what I see to paper, panel, or canvas.

Fictitious Pictish Standing Stone - in progressFictitious Pictish Standing Stone - in progess detailFictitious Pictish Standing Stone - in progress, detail showing pareidolia

What do you see in the detail shots above of my charcoal rubbing drawing, Fictitious Pictish Standing Stone? I photographed the smallest detail (third image) while looking at the drawing upside down, so you would not otherwise have seen the face that I saw as I inverted my reference photograph while working. In other areas not necessary to describing the features specific to this stone, I have had the opportunity to stay much more general, utilizing Dunlop’s “tableaux of confusion”.

Second Sight/2nd Site
diptych, 12″ x 30″
oil on oil primed linen
©2012 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved
The Rollright Stones, King’s Men Stone Circle
Oxfordshire/Warwickshire border, England

I definitely experienced pareidolia when painting Second Sight/2nd Site. When I photographed the stone, I focused first on the subject and then on the background, exploiting limited depth of field with my camera. After printing a reference photograph of the stone the way it actually appears (as seen on the viewer’s left of the diptych), I flipped the other version with the landscape in focus using photo editing software before printing. Once I had both reference photographs in hand, I played with cropping the proportions and the location of the intersection between them until I arrived at a pleasing orientation. To echo the concept of sight, I wanted an arrangement reminiscent of eyes or a mask.

I folded the two reference photos along the guidelines I had drawn, but when I placed the two sides together, I discovered something quite amazing – at the intersection between the two photographs, a perfectly formed swallowtail butterfly appeared at the very top edge of the stone! When painting this, I only had to clarify the bottom forked edge of the hind wing; the butterfly shape was clearly there. Had I cropped and joined the photos in any other way, it would have gone undiscovered.4

I purposefully arranged the diptych to look like a mask or eyes, but otherwise, the butterfly is the only shape within the stone that I intended for viewers to definitely identify. When painting, however, I saw several other forms in the stone that I used for my own purposes of correct pattern placement.

Perhaps you have only looked through the holes or at the butterfly, so take a moment now to look at the stone texture. What can you find? As I painted, I tried to put such things in the left canvas as a fat rabbit with its ears pinned back, an askew skull, and a paw print; and in the right canvas, and a yellow bird, monkey, guinea pig, and a little white ghost, all in their proper places.

Sometimes I intend hidden things to be a visual reward to attentive viewers, but I am delighted when they often find things I didn’t necessarily include. As I look at Second Sight/2nd Site with fresh eyes, I now also see part of a peering kitten and quite a proper dragon on the left. One of my friends sees dragons in just about everything I paint, and now you know how and why. Let me know what you find!

All the best, and Namaste,

Amy


1 “Pareidolia,” Merriam-Webster.com. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pareidolia (accessed December 12, 2017)

2 Ibid., citing New Scientist, December 24, 2011, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pareidolia (accessed December 12, 2017)

3 To read more about my workshop with David Dunlop, please read Say, One Out of Two Ain’t Bad! Tales from my recent art workshops…

4 To read more about the story behind Second Sight/2nd Site, please read Origins of a Painting: Second Sight/2nd Site

Posted in Art Travels, Creativity, Drawing and drawing techniques, General art discussion and philosophy, Inspirational Quotes, Other artists, Painting and painting techniques, Sacred Sites, Travel, Works in progress Also tagged , , , , , , , |

Art’s Purpose

The Wishing Tree mixed media interactive installation © 2012, Amy Funderburk All Rights Reserved

The Wishing Tree
mixed media interactive installation
© 2012 Amy Funderburk All Rights Reserved

“The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” – Aristotle

I often engage in fruitful philosophical discussions about art with my sister, poet Julie Funderburk. During the course of one recent conversation, she wrote:

“Art’s most important purpose isn’t about permanence, is it?

Depending on environmental conditions and the techniques or materials used, the ravages of time can take its toll on even the greatest of the Old Masters. Examples like Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper illustrate this all too well. Painted in the late 15th century, unfortunately the mural has suffered extensive deterioration – yet it remains one of the world’s most iconic works of art.

“A beautiful body perishes, but a work of art dies not.” – Leonardo da Vinci

Perhaps in unfortunate cases like The Last Supper, we can consider the ephemeral “beautiful body” that da Vinci speaks of to be fragile substrate and pigment, while the true work of art is the artist’s surviving conceptual idea.

I could list several other cautionary tales of artists whose works typically suffer from deterioration. Mark Rothko used unbound pigments to create luminosity in his oils. Albert Pinkham Ryder’s paintings, due to the artist’s careless use of his materials, are notoriously unstable.

“It is a widely accepted notion among painters that it does not matter what one paints as long as it is well painted. This is the essence of academicism.” – Mark Rothko

Rembrandt, on the other hand, is considered a conservator’s hero. It was long assumed that he must have used a complex painting medium to achieve his effects. As it turns out, his secrets were simply linseed oil and great technique.1

How does one balance an artist’s drive for creativity and innovation with doing one’s best to foster longevity via the materials and methods employed?

I think the first answer to this question may lie in the intention for the work.

Artist Andy Goldsworthy masterfully uses natural materials such as stone, leaves, and ice, but the way time and elemental forces evolve or disintegrate his elegant works is just as important an element in his creations as the physical components.2

Tibetan Buddhist monks fashion intricate sculptures out of butter as offerings. Their colorful sand mandalas are created and then ritually destroyed.

The purpose of creating the sand mandala is to engender healing and enlightenment. Through its ritualized destruction, the monks then illustrate the Buddhist concept of impermanence.

As an artist who cherishes the ideal of greatest longevity for my work, I purposefully explored the liberating idea of impermanence during the creation of The Wishing Tree installation. Though my team and I coated the pieces of bark with wood preserver, I know the materials will eventually biodegrade. From the inception of the project, I planned to burn the wishes that visitors tie to the removable branches. The ultimate purpose of the installation is community interaction.

Yet despite my initial impulse to explore impermanence, once I had the idea to use the resulting charcoal and ash as a drawing medium to illustrate the participants’ wish categories, I tested the materials for durability prior to making a mark on the first drawing.

I was delighted to find that, once sprayed with a workable fixative, the homemade charcoal and ash seem much more permanent than traditional vine or compressed charcoal.

While artists cannot control future environmental conditions or how a buyer may handle one of our works, if we do due diligence by researching, networking, and experimenting before using new materials, we are doing the best we can to insure longevity.3

If you agree with my sister’s point that art’s most important purpose is not about permanence, however, what do you feel is the primary raison d’etre of my field?

When I asked Julie, she replied:

“Art affects and reflects what is human.”

When she said this, I immediately thought of the title of an old art book: Man Creates Art Creates Man. Despite the gender-specific title, the concept expressed is the same as my sister’s statement.

“Art, like life itself, does not have to be defined or understood to be enjoyed. It must simply be received,” author Duane Preble states.4 “Above all, works of art reflect us.”5

I agree with Julie’s definition. Artists reflect what we – or sometimes our patrons – consider important. We chronicle our environment and what is happening around us in society, politics, or religion.

As Pablo Picasso said,

“Painting is just another way of keeping a diary.”

and

“The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

How would you answer the question, “What is art’s most important purpose?”


Julie Funderburk is the recipient of a 2015 North Carolina Arts Council fellowship. LSU Press will publish her first book, The Door That Always Opens, in December of this year. Her poems appear in 32 Poems, The Cincinnati Review, and Ploughshares. Her chapbook Thoughts to Fold into Birds is available from Unicorn Press. She teaches at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina.


1. Virgil Elliott, Traditional Oil Painting: Advanced Techniques and Concepts from the Renaissance to the Present. (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2007), 98.

In this book, Elliott includes a thorough and enlightening section on Rembrandt’s painting techniques.

2. Andy Goldsworthy, Time. (New York: Abrams, 2000)

3. There are a lot of resources available to artists if you have questions about your art materials, though you may find conflicting information. Art making is sometimes subjective like art itself.

Start by contacting the manufacturer of your materials for one of the very best sources of information. Leading manufacturers conduct rigorous testing of their products. The various technical support representatives with whom I have spoken have all been very thorough and helpful. Networking with other artists who use the same materials is also invaluable.

New technology and conservation discoveries are expanding our field rapidly, so even certain information published a few years ago could now stand to be updated. As a good starting point, however, I highly recommend the following book:

Mark David Gottsegen, The Painter’s Handbook. (New York: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2006)

Additionally, an invaluable resource is a forum hosted by the University of Delaware: Materials, Information, and Technical Resources for Artists (MITRA). Look through their copious extant information, or post a question of your own. I highly recommend this website.

4. Duane Preble, Man Creates Art Creates Man. (McCutchan Publishing Corporation, 1973) 5.

5. Preble, Man Creates Art Creates Man, 7.

Posted in Artists' Materials and Resources, Creativity, Drawing and drawing techniques, General art discussion and philosophy, Inspirational Quotes, Other artists, Painting and painting techniques Also tagged , , , , , , |