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I believe that art enriches and informs our lives everyday in many positive ways. Sharing those experiences, whether as an artist or as an appreciator, is part of the pleasure. I welcome your comments and hope you find something of value: a laugh, an insight, a new idea or just a happy moment. Enjoy art!

Friday, August 9, 2013

Muscle Memory

I recently began thinking about the role of muscle memory in painting. Muscle memory plays a large part in the execution of a painting; knowing that the touch or feel of the brush to canvas is correct for instance.  But it also plays a huge role in how we view what is on the canvas.  Several conversations this month led me to think about this. 

I am thinking about that huge, powerful muscle we call the brain.  It is trained in so many ways we take for granted that to think about it as a muscle is often hard.  When we first begin to paint, or learn to view a painting, the muscle in our brain is not trained to see. We tend to want to replicate every detail onto the canvas.  So many art teachers find themselves cautioning students not to obsess about the detail of the flea on the tail of the dog....when students haven't even mastered painting the dog.  But our untrained brain wants to tell everyone that there is a dog, he has a tail and on that tail with a zillion million little hairs of fur sits a flea about this size and color.  As the student progresses and becomes more confident in their execution they don't feel the need to point out that flea, trusting instead that something else in the work will lead the viewer to that conclusion.  An excellent example of brain muscle memory is when we spot a yield sign in the distance.  Just by shape or color we know what it will say and mean even before we are close enough to read the word on it.

I confess to wanting to provide way too much information.  Sometimes I do not trust myself to convey the gist without detail or, worse yet, I don't trust the viewer to see what I hope he sees.

 Here is a piece of a painting I am currently working on.  Do you know what it is?  Does your brain muscle fill in the details that you cannot see and give you the entire picture?  And why is it important that you see what I see?  I'm not sure.  These are things I must ponder now.  Do I have to tell you where I am for the integrity of the painting or is it ok if you think this is rushing water seen through the holes in dock planking?

Here is more of the piece.  I still think that perhaps I have shortchanged the viewer by providing too much information.  The less detail I give you about where exactly this path is, the more likely your memory will be jogged and finish filling in the details for you.  Then you will know where this is; it will be where you want it to be, NOT a poor representation of a place I was, or a place neither of us recognize but feel that we ought to.  Does this make any sense?

Forgive me if it does not.  But at this juncture I am struggling with the issue, never mind the execution, of exactly how much information (detail) I want to provide the viewer.  Enough to help him enjoy the view but not so much that he notes the flea has too many legs on it to be a credible representation.  This painting has a long way yet to least in mental exercise...before complete.

As you enjoy art this week try to be conscience of what role your brain muscle plays while looking.  Does it rush to fill in the details of what you don't see?  Does it jump to a pleasant memory?  Does it wander down the path imagining what might be around the next bend?  I think the artist has a tough job harnessing the muscle memory of others...but I also think that is an important part of our work.



  1. Cindy, thank you for this post!
    This is a tricky question that I have been dealing with myself lately. I am of the mind, like you, that the less detail there is (to a point), the more the viewer's mind is engaged with the painting. IF the viewer is fairly knowledgeable about art.
    I say that last little sentence as a caveat because the feedback I get from "the general public" - and also from my teenage kids and husband (so I can use them as a "voice" for the general public) - is that it looks "sloppy" (as compared to my detail work) and it looks like I didn't take enough time or care with it. They have this opinion of pretty much any looser style of work - not just mine.
    So, given that each artist must paint according to what she finds beautiful, meaningful and expressive of her message in each painting, what are your thoughts on loose = sloppy/uncaring vs tight detail = more care & attention (and therefore more valuable in their eyes)?

  2. It really comes down to a matter of taste...and of confidence. Some people must have detail in a painting to enjoy it at all. Some are insulted by it. I think, in truth, it is incumbent upon the artist to discover what they are most comfortable with and learn to perfect that style of painting. Either way you will never please all of the viewers all of the time. So choose what you are comfortable with and learn it well. However, it is my observation that those who have the most convincing loose style can usually paint very realistically if needed. Enjoy your journey!


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