This article about the brain’s recognition of movement in drawings has got me thinking.

We understand that man is an animal, an extremely complex biological machine, built piecemeal over many millions of years of evolution.

We know that incredibly complex and unpredictable systems can be generated by very simple rules, but we don’t currently know in detail the rules behind the seemingly indeterministic nature of the human mind. The fact that the human body is a machine evidently does not stop it from having mysterious properties like consciousness, and we’re constantly confounded by the apparently irreducible and immaterial nature of these properties.

Art (for the sake of clarification, I’m going to limit myself to figurative drawing here) is much like a reflection of this conundrum. It’s a skill to be learned, involving the interaction between subject (the observed and the imagined) and object (the created drawing), but the nature of the drawing is as complex, nuanced and mysterious as the human that creates it.

It’s so easy to slip into the mentality that whilst drawing, something magical and inexplicable goes on in the human mind. How easy it is to let that make us lazy: if the process is some indefinable thing, then it can’t be taught, and we should let people achieve the informed and fluid quality of an accomplished artist by themselves. But in reality, there are differences between each individual, how naturally some pick up this quality, and how each person responds to different levels of attention and different types of instruction. Some people will pick it up without any formal training, others need teaching or don’t make any progress at all. Teaching or learning art can seem as irreducible as human consciousness!

There’s no denying the problem, and there’s no easy answer, but in my opinion we can choose to see this two ways. We’ve established that the act of drawing is as complex as the mind and body which draws, so either we resort to mysticism and assign vagaries or fiction to the parts of the mind/drawing that we don’t yet understand, or we can remember that the human mind (and so, the act of drawing) is part of the human machine. It may be difficult, but we can attempt to reduce anything that operates within a universe that we understand is deeply lawful and internally consistent, even when it is vastly complex and unpredictable.

So how do we go about doing this when drawing? Humans are a social animal, we often take mates for life, live in groups, work together, coordinate communities, and we have a higher social and cultural order which operates on many different levels. Understandably, a very large proportion of the brain’s activity and development is given over to receiving and interpreting social signals, inevitably involving other humans. When we see a human body or face, what we are doing is a conscious or unconscious analysis of every facet of the person: age, gender, race, attitude, expression, posture, we extract large volumes of meaning almost instantly. Thanks to a recent discovery, we know the physical process that underlies this natural empathic ability. Mirror neurons are neurons that fire both when we make a particular action and, remarkably, in exactly the same way when we perceive that same action, so to a certain extent, we literally “live” the things we observe. We understand many things intuitively from birth, from the way in which momentum acts on objects, to the shape of a face. I believe the experiences that we collect in this way, and our instinctual knowledge of physical reality are employed constantly in the act of drawing. If you are an artist, how many times have you caught yourself pulling the facial expression you’re currently sketching, or feeling faintly the emotion your character is expressing?

Our mind is constantly evaluating everything we see, anticipating what will happen next, and empathising with the people around us, so for a drawing to look “correct”, it must meet all the same unconscious standards that we expect life to conform to. Facial expressions look certain ways, posture indicates certain things, a movement follows gravity just-so. The position of every bone, muscle and sinew in the human body goes towards making up a snapshot of any given moment that is “correct” simply because it follows all the patterns within nature; physical, social or otherwise. The challenge an artist faces when depicting something on paper is no less than recreating all the chaotically complex systems that would make up that moment in reality. This is a staggering task, nothing short of writing onto a 2D surface a result derived from an equation including all the laws of creation, without even directly contemplating the equation itself. None the less, it’s a task that the human mind is literally, “well adapted” to, because it has developed alongside these systems, evolving to interpret them in order to better survive and operate under their influence.

It’s my suggestion that a drawing with that perfect “quality”, that “it” or “gesture” that artists often recognise instantly and try so hard to define is a result of the mind’s instinctual knowledge of when something in reality “looks right”, translated into the representational world of a two dimensional drawing. This “rightness” need not apply to realism alone, it can translate equally well for simplified or stylised drawings, as long as every element that the drawing contains indicates consistency with the corresponding elements from reality. We’re pattern-recognising animals, we’re so good at recognising and interpreting faces that two dots and a line will do the job, so any information that is absent in a drawing is automatically filled in. Implied lines or shapes can’t be “wrong” as long as the existing lines are self-consistent.

Furthermore, the variance found within human minds might go some distance towards explaining why it’s so hard to pin down the nature of quality within figurative drawing. Quality is not always recognised by all people, nor recognised as the same thing, and it is recognised especially by artists, whose minds must have developed both instinctual habits and principled opinions that effect their judgement. However, as long as the art remains representational, and the principles remain grounded, the same underlying factors govern any decision about the quality of artwork. We are all human animals, and our brains all share the same biology. The variation we find from person to person is real on an individual level, but averages out into an understandable whole when all people are considered.

My first reaction the article I linked at the beginning of this post was to imagine what the results of the study might have been like if a range of drawings of varying quality were tested. I think that drawings like Hokusai’s have that “quality” that’s so tricky to define, a fluidity in which every element of the drawing supports the feeling of movement that the whole portrays, but that’s a rare thing to find in art. Since it’s been demonstrated that a drawing of a person in repose doesn’t activate the same area of the brain as a drawing of a person moving, it must be true to say that there must also be a drawing that’s supposed to depict movement, but is poor enough quality not to be recognised in the same way.

Might we be able to create a “map of quality”, if we carefully chose a range of drawings and subjects? The drawings could consist of varying accomplishment, style and culture of origin. The subjects might vary by profession, with control subjects from non-arts professions, and various other groups from different visual arts.

Post-modern deconstructionism might say that there is no absolute quality, that it depends utterly on the subject in question, and their cultural background. However, I’m willing to bet that a large, representative group of human subjects form an object with plenty to say about our species and our art.


  1. aqws says:

    I’ve always enjoyed the idea that no drawing is “incorrect”, only “ineffective”; That the connection with the reader and the purpose of the drawing is paramount over all. If you can capture the gesture, and communicate the meaning of the pose/ expression/ etc. The anatomy, perspective, & construction are barely even noticed as being “wrong”. Conversely, if you miss the gesture- all the accurate drawing in the world won’t make that person look like they’re actually “doing”.
    ooh, Goya, you so preeety.

  2. I think that was what I was trying to say. Accuracy is more than just knowing structure, it’s knowing movement. A still image should convey the frames “before” and “after” it because they’re implied by the accuracy not just of anatomy, but of posture, weight and movement. The mind places emphasis on the cultural and emotional meaning of a posture, not on the spacial relationship between joints, that’s not what the average human pays attention to. So postural accuracy is more important than proportional or anatomical accuracy to the observer, and you can be sloppy in the latter whilst being succesful in the former.

    The pitfall I think, is to think that there’s some variable that’s “undefinable”, or “unteachable” that goes into making up gesture. I really don’t believe that’s the case.

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