Tag Archives: Pictish carved stone

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 , , , , , , , |

Liberty Leading the People: Art Reflects History

Aberlemno Stone #2: The Battle of Nechtansmere, reverse of Pictish carved stone, Aberlemno kirkyard, Scotland photograph ©2012 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved

Aberlemno Stone #2: The Battle of Nechtansmere
reverse of Pictish carved stone, Aberlemno kirkyard, Angus, Scotland
photograph ©2012 Amy Funderburk, All Rights Reserved

As the world watched, there certainly seemed to be no room for a grey area reaction to this November’s US presidential election. It is no secret that this nation finds itself tremendously polarized, resulting in a cycle as pockets of violence born of fear create yet more fear.

In her post-election article, “Dear Artists: We Need You More Than Ever,” Katherine Brooks, Senior Arts and Culture Editor for the Huffington Post, quoted writer Toni Morrison:1

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work.”

Of course, artists have been a mirror for society for centuries, documenting and satirizing historic events. The famed Pictish carved stone from Aberlemno, Scotland shown above depicts a battle, most commonly believed to be the famous Battle of Nechtansmere, an important Pictish victory fought in 685 CE.

Certain dissident artists, including Ai Weiwei from China, are well known for work that is steeped in social activism or political commentary. One look at Guernica, Picasso’s mammoth monochromatic painting from 1937 in which he depicted the brutal bombing of a northern Spanish village, can show just how powerful the voice of an artist can be.

According to legend, during the Nazi occupation of Paris, Picasso’s apartment was raided. After seeing a photograph of Guernica, an officer asked the artist, “Did you do that?” Picasso replied, “No, you did.”

“If I haven’t fought for my country at least I’ll paint for her.”

— Eugène Delacroix

In 1830, the French Romantic artist Delacroix painted Liberty Leading the People. His masterpiece was apparently considered so politically revolutionary that it was placed in storage for years after being purchased by the French government. 2

In sharp contrast to the sequestering of the Delacroix work, Picasso’s Guernica went on tour to raise international awareness for the Spanish Civil War. The artist decreed that the painting could not enter Spain, however, until the country enjoyed “public liberties and democratic institutions.”3

Both Delacroix and Francisco Goya are frequently cited as influences on Picasso as he planned Guernica. In Goya’s stirring work completed in 1814, The Third of May, 1808 in Madrid, the artist shows an emotional event: French troops systematically massacring Spanish freedom fighters.

In juxtaposition to such dramatic imagery of specific historic events, even the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and their followers based certain works on social themes, including the plight of the Victorian woman.4 Through allegory and symbol, these British artists reacted against what they perceived as the societal ills brought about by the Industrial Age.

Art reflects history and preserves it for the future like a time capsule. Art is a catalyst for change, growth, and self-awareness. If you are a fellow artist moved by current events, think about how your visual voice can make a difference.

One of my friends in New York City, artist and photographer Gina Fuentes Walker, told me about the Subway Therapy project, a wall at the Union Square subway station now overflowing with primarily uplifting messages written on sticky notes by passers-by. Artist Matthew Chaves (who goes by Levee) started the community project to give people a place to express their feelings about current events. 5

“I was quite moved by the project because in addition to participating in a collaborative art installation, it was a moment to gather and come together as neighbors and residents of the city,” Gina said. Participants were respectful during their visit to the Subway Therapy wall, she added. “Occasionally the adhesive gave way and a message floated to the floor. Someone always picked it up and reattached the note to the wall.” This is a perfect example of how a simple idea can have powerful results and how art has the potential to make a difference in people’s lives whether they directly participate or are moved by the messages of others.

“Art is one of the most positive reaffirming things we can do in the face of adversity,” says Camille Seaman, who affects change with her stunning photographs of the melting Polar Regions.6 A champion for the issue of Climate Change, her recent works include portraits of the First Nations water protectors at Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.

What is happening now politically has made me examine my own body of work, and what I aim to say through my imagery about the significance of the landscape and human condition.

However you may have voted, we can all make a difference. In my opinion, subjects that benefit everyone like the environment and the arts should be non-partisan. Such things that nurture the soul should be safeguarded.

If you are an art appreciator, now is the perfect time to be a patron for your favorite creatives who give voice to your shared points of view.

If you are a fellow artist, let’s roll up our sleeves now and get to work.

All the best, and Namaste,

Amy

Detail of Aberlemno Stone #2: the Battle of Nechtansmere Aberlemno kirkyard, Angus, Scotland photograph © Amy Funderburk 2012, All Rights Reserved

Detail of Aberlemno Stone #2: the Battle of Nechtansmere
Aberlemno kirkyard, Angus, Scotland
photograph © Amy Funderburk 2012, All Rights Reserved


1 Katherine Brooks, “Dear Artists: We Need You More Than Ever – A Trump Presidency Requires Artists Get Political,” http://www.huffingtonpost.com, November 10, 2016
 
2 Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, speakers. “Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People,” Video, Khan Academy, accessed November 28, 2016, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/becoming-modern/romanticism/romanticism-in-france/v/delacroix-liberty-leading-the-people-1830

PBS.org. “Guernica: Testimony of War,” accessed November 30, 2016. http://www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/a_nav/guernica_nav/main_guerfrm.html 
 
4 Christopher Wood, The Pre-Raphaelites (New Jersey: Crescent Books, 1994) 12
 
Malcolm Warner, The Victorians: British Painting, 1837-1901 (Catalog for the exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, New York: Harry N Abrams, Inc., 1996)

5 “Subway therapy: Artist creates an outlet for postelection venting in NYC,” Yahoo News, November 11, 2016, https://www.yahoo.com/news/subway-therapy-artist-creates-outlet-174618305.html 
 
Michelle Young, “Governor Andrew Cuomo Adds Post-It Note to Union Square Subway Therapy Project,” Untapped Cities.com, November 15, 2016, http://untappedcities.com/2016/11/15/governor-andrew-cuomo-adds-post-it-note-to-union-square-subway-therapy-project/
 
Check out #SubwayTherapy to view examples and learn more about this project. You can find Gina on Twitter @gfuenteswalker and check out her work by visiting www.ginafuenteswalker.com.

6 Currently Camille is seeking sponsorship through a GoFundMe campaign, “Into the Ice: Return to Antarctica.” (https://www.gofundme.com/returntoantarctica) You can discover her haunting iceberg photographs and other works on her website, www.camilleseaman.com. 

 

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