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.
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 go...at 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.