Hummingbirds and Kingfishers
Let’s clear up the most obvious question to begin with: have I painted a Hummingbird or a Kingfisher? The answer is no – I haven’t set out to paint either. Abstracting two bird species was never on my agenda or part of the plan.
But interestingly this is how things can develop sometimes. To be honest with you all I set out to do was create a square painting with lots of white space and a generous paint application in the centre. I knew I wanted to feed in a little drama from the corner and have two very thin paint applications that never actually meet.
And that was the basic premise on which the painting was created. I had no intention of creating an abstraction that resembles birds but for many people this is exactly what they will see.
Hey, that’s okay. I get that.
There’s nothing wrong with making something out of nothing. Our brains are hardwired to make sense of the world around us because it’s a basic coping and survival strategy. We need to know what everything is so that we can work out what everything does and whether we need to do anything about it.
And it’s that reason that you look for familiarity in shapes and colours because it allows you to make a connection to it, irrespective of the subject matter. We need to do this to make our way and survive in the world otherwise we’d never be able to recognize the difference between a dog and a cheeseburger (and I know which one I’d rather be taking for a walk!)
The like and dislike bit
So we’ve learned that having the ability to react to something (and instantly reassemble the parts into something tangible) is an inbuilt mechanism and is pretty standard. However, whether we think something is good or bad is largely down to tour life experiences and this is where your likes and dislikes appear in the process.
We all like different things and we are all unique. Our likes and dislikes are as singular as our fingerprints. This is the part of our empathic brain that allows us to attach an emotional connection to something based on our experiences since birth.
For some that may be a love of pink or a fear of open spaces, for example. In fact it can be a billion subtle nuances that have shaped our tastes and desires over the years. This is the point you decide if you like something or not. That will seldom be based upon the quality or execution of something but based on a plethora of experiences and outcomes. This shapes our response mechanisms. It’s the reason why you might like popcorn but your kids may hate baseball. Somewhere in life an experience has shaped that response.
And that’s exactly what happens when we stand in front of a work of art. When we can’t make sense of it it can be hard to connect with it. Generally speaking, the things we don’t understand we don’t tend to bother with.
But there is an answer!
This is about going beyond the fact you think it’s like a Hummingbird or a Kingfisher and letting the smaller and more detailed parts of the painting take your attention. Get your nose in close and look deeper.
Being able to focus on small parts of an abstract enables you to disassociate yourself from the sum of the parts. Small areas of focus can change perceptions very slightly and that can help diffuse the whole thing when you step away from it.
Try covering the pink bit with your hand and then see what your brain does; it’s not a Kingfisher anymore is it?
This technique (the getting in close but rather than they eye covering bit) does two clever things: it cleanses your visual palette and allows you to forget that it looks like a bird and it also allows you to associate relevance to very small parts of it – just as the way you may have done when you thought that the whole thing looked like a Hummingbird.
Practice makes perfect
Our brains are remarkably clever but also incredibly stupid. Step two feet forwards and it looks totally different, step away and it redefines itself – yet twenty seconds ago it was still a bird right? Practice this a few times and you’ll see I’m right.
Not all abstract paintings will let you do this and many are created to mess with your head so that you can’t make any association to the real world with them. That’s okay too. But if you really want to be able to get the most out of anything that isn’t figurative then this is a good technique to learn. I promise you will get so much more pleasure form an art gallery trip because of it.
Step in. Look, step away again. Repeat across different parts. The step away again.
Let me know how you get on.
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