Friday 1 August 2014

Can Psychology Help Us Draw?

This is a copy of the page I've just put up at Art Science, which has some thoughts about how psychology might be useful in helping people draw.

I'm interested in two things. First, using psychology and psychological software to improve my own visual memory, so that I can draw better. In particular, so that I can sketch people faster and more accurately. Second, using psychology and psychological software to teach drawing more efficiently. By analogy with "sports science", I'll call this "art science". The teaching of drawing has changed little in the past 100 years, and apart from a bit of pop science about left brain versus right brain, ignores psychology altogether. But I'm convinced that it has huge amounts to contribute. By the way, some examples of how it could do so can be seen in the articles I've linked to about improving musical performance, which have been written by musicians who are also neuroscientists.

In the rest of this page, I've listed some ideas of my own, stimulated by things I've read or problems I've come across while learning to draw. They fall under these headings: improving visual memory; improving attention; transcranial stimulation; blind drawing; mindfulness; divided attention; and psychological software. I've also added a note at the end about a psychological phenomenon I've experienced, in case it's not known.

Improving visual memory

Could the phenomena and methods below help? Are there any others?
  • Chunking

    This is the way we learn to remember things as entities in their own right rather than as collections of smaller units. For example, remembering words as words rather than as sequences of letters. So could I train myself on, for example, visual patterns often found in faces, and hence learn to remember faces in terms of these few chunks?

  • Flashbulb memory

    That is, the way that emotion and interest in an event make memories of it more vivid and hard to forget than "normal" memories. The deaths of Kennedy and Diana are famous examples. If I could find a way to arouse suitable emotions when looking at a subject, would that make it easier to memorise?

  • Tachistoscope training

    A tachistoscope displays images to a subject for a very short time, often for experiments on memory. There are anecdotes about lab assistants who, after a year or three preparing such experiments, found that they were better at remembering the tachistoscope images than they had been originally. I don't have references, but I seem to remember that some of these had been experimentally verified. So might tachistoscope practice help me?

    I found a blog posting "Exercise V - Tachistoscope - Don't sight-read and chew gum at the same time!", which describes tachistoscope exercises to improve sight-reading for piano players. It's from the blog Advanced Sight Reading Piano Music by Cynthia Irion, an expert pianist and a neuroscientist and psychologist. (She writes about many studies on the psychology of sight-reading. I'd love to see psychology applied in the same way to drawing.) I also found an article by Edward Godnig on "The Tachistoscope, its history and uses" which describes tachistoscope use for training memory and other visual skills.

  • Dreams

    I see vivid images in dreams. Some are vivid enough that I could draw them after I woke up. How can I make myself visualise that intensely when awake?

  • Symbol memory

    Although my visual memory is weak, I don't have trouble learning new alphabets, and even Chinese characters. Why is there a difference? Can I exploit my symbol-learning skills to improve my visual memory?

Improving attention

It seems reasonable that if I pay more attention to something, I'll memorise it better. Artists use several techniques for improving attention, which I explain under the first two headings. The third heading refers to some experiments on a phenomenon which I think might help. Can anything else?

  • Negative space

    This is a technique in which artists concentrate on the space between objects rather than the objects themselves. For example, when drawing spectacles, you look at the shape not of each lens, but of the space between the face and the frame. Art teachers justify this by saying that when you look at an object, the brain is tempted to substitute common and often cartoonish symbols, such as two circles for a pair of glasses. Looking at the space between objects stops it doing this, because it has no symbols for that space. Here are some short articles about it: "See Like an Artist: negative space" by Jay Alders; "art stuff - negative space and the left brain" by Kathy Hebert; and "Hand Drawing Demo #6: Reviewing Left Brain/Right Brain" by Anne Bobroff-Hajal.

  • Inverting glasses

    I've come across drawing exercises which recommend copying inverted images. As with negative space, this is to make the brain concentrate on actual shapes instead of its symbols for objects. Here are two typical articles about this: "Upside down Drawing and Contour Drawing" by "Davy"; and "Day #031 - Drawing Picasso’s Igor Stravinsky Upside Down" by "Neelima".

    Inverting spectacles have been used in some famous experiments on how subjects adapt to seeing the world upside down. Could they help artists pay more attention to shape? Nowadays, one could probably use Google's computer-in-a-pair-of-specs Google Glass to run a program that inverts images as you look at them.

  • Cold water in the ear

    I found the paper "Spatial- and verbal-memory improvement by cold-water caloric stimulation in healthy subjects", by D.Bächtold, T.Baumann, P.S.Sándor, M.Kritos, M.Regard, and P.Brugger. They say that putting cold water in subjects' left ear sped up their recall of object locations, while water in the right ear sped up recognition of words. They suggest that the stimulation somehow activates structures in the opposite hemisphere, speeding up cognitive processes there. Could this be useful?

Transcranial stimulation

Transcranial direct-current stimulation changes brain activity by applying weak electric currents to the brain; transcranial magnetic stimulation changes activity by inducing currents via magnetic fields. As I've said, I want to improve my memory for briefly-seen images, so that I can better sketch people passing in the street. There have been a lot of experiments on using these techniques to enhance cognition: could they help me?

A remark of V.S.Ramachandran in his book Phantoms in the Brain about the effect of cold-water stimulation in the ear (I don't have the book to hand, but it may have been a reference to the study cited above) made me wonder whether transcranial stimulation could help artists pay attention to the images of objects, by inhibiting object recognition. I've already said that artists do so via negative space, but transcranial stimulation ought to be easier. It wouldn't need so much practice.

Also, many vision researchers believe that the brain has some kind of low-level representation of what it sees, containing amongst other information, that about edges. In other words, a kind of line drawing. If this is so, is there any way to give the "drawing" parts of the brain direct access to it? Drawing something accurately can be very tricky, needing much estimation and comparison of line lengths and angles. However, if the brain does keep a reasonably faithful line drawing of a subject, copying it ought to be a relatively simple neural process.

Every artist would love to have such an ability. It has been suggested that this is how the savant artist Stephen Wiltshire manages to draw scenes such as the Houses of Parliament from memory after only a brief glance at them. So I was excited when I read that Allan Snyder in Sydney claimed to have enhanced drawing by using transcranial magnetic stimulation. Here's a quote from New York Times journalist Lawrence Osborne's article "Savant for a Day":

Two minutes after I started the first drawing [of a cat, under transcranial magnetic stimulation], I was instructed to try again. After another two minutes, I tried a third cat, and then in due course a fourth. Then the experiment was over, and the electrodes were removed. I looked down at my work. The first felines were boxy and stiffly unconvincing. But after I had been subjected to about 10 minutes of transcranial magnetic stimulation, their tails had grown more vibrant, more nervous; their faces were personable and convincing. They were even beginning to wear clever expressions.

I could hardly recognize them as my own drawings, though I had watched myself render each one, in all its loving detail. Somehow over the course of a very few minutes, and with no additional instruction, I had gone from an incompetent draftsman to a very impressive artist of the feline form.

I would love to be a subject for such experiments, including on retaining the ability once stimulation ceases. I mailed Roi Kadosh at the Cohen Kadosh Lab in Oxford about these. Unfortunately, he didn't know anyone with the necessary expertise.

Blind drawing

Blind drawing is drawing without looking at the paper. Some artists use it to improve hand-eye coordination, or (as with negative space) to make themselves aware of what's actually seen rather than some symbolic stereotype for it. The following two articles explain these: "Blind Contour Drawing: A Classic Drawing Exercise" by Helen South; and "Blind Contour Drawing: Drawing by Touch" by Carol Rosinski.

I like blind drawing because it produces interesting and sensitive lines, which have more character than if I draw while looking at the paper. "Character" is hard to define, but means, amongst other things, that the line weight and curvature vary more, making the lines more informative and interesting to look at. The drawings also have more lines giving information about three-dimensional shape. For example, the rim of a cheek, as in the woman's face at the bottom right of the first image on the second row below. Here are some of my blind drawings:



By the way, the first image was somebody on the train to London; the next five are customers waiting at the counter in the Summertown Costa Coffee; and the last is competitors in the Wolvercote Midsummer Festival 2013 dog show. The first image was blind except for the right-hand side of the collar, which I drew blind after glancing at the paper to position it.

I have two questions. First, what psychological techniques could make blind drawing more accurate? There is a tale of a caricaturist who used to attend functions at which he wasn't allowed to draw, and so would draw surreptitiously on a notepad he carried in his pocket. Eventually, his drawings became very accurate. Could the "Templar Cross" software I mention below help? Are there any methods for teaching the blind to draw which might help?

Second, how can I get the same quality of line in drawings where I'm looking at the paper as in my blind drawings? Does psychology have anything to say about this?

A related question is that of copying. Artists often say that their first rough sketch of a subject is more "alive" than a final copy made from it. Again, this is because the line in the original has more character. How can I train myself to make the same kinds of line, i.e. the same kinds of movement, when copying as when drawing the original?


The second row of images shown above, from the Summertown Costa, are from an exercise where I spent one and a half hours blind-drawing one morning. It was intensely relaxing, and left me with an inner glow that lasted for the entire day. I've had similar feelings before. Once when I was blind drawing from memory in Cornmarket, I felt an intense buzz as though I'd swallowed a chilli, followed by an intense calm.

Why? Would blind drawing be useful to those who teach mindfulness? I often feel relaxed after blind drawing, and I'd like to know why that is, but the episodes above were unusual. Whether or not there's any correlation with my ability at the time, it was very pleasant, and I'd like to know how to repeat it. It's better than beer!

Divided attention

In his book A Cure for Gravity, musician Joe Jackson writes about the ability that good pianists develop to play different music with their left and right hands:

To keep both hands going, without either playing bum notes all over the place or losing the steady rhythmic feel, demands a kind of split consciousness, each hand independent but still under a centered, Zen-like control.
Is this relevant to drawing? One needs to pay attention to both the paper and the subject, but the paper diverts attention from the subject. What can psychology tell us about the optimum way to divide attention between the two, and how to learn to do so?

An analogue to the kind of study I'd like to see is described in "Hands Together". This is a posting by neuroanatomist and piano teacher Tara Gaertner in her blog Training the Musical Brain: a neuroscience perspective on teaching and learning music..., in which she discusses whether it's better to teach piano pieces hands-separately or hands-together. Amongst the factors she considers are the effect of dividing attention on learning, the need for a hand to learn not to mirror the movements of the opposite hand, and the kinds of practicing behaviours that learners used.

Psychological software

Here are some suggestions for software that might help with learning to draw:

  • Chunk-display software

    By this, I mean software that helps one learn to chunk the components of common objects. The software would display an image, and then highlight some part of it that we want to count as a chunk. It would then invite me to memorise and draw this part.

    Because artists need to pay attention to the relation between objects, as well as the objects themselves, some of the chunks might straddle what we'd normally consider to be two components. For example, software for helping one chunk the parts of a face might display the bottom of the nose and the top of the mouth.

  • Tachistoscope software

    That is, software that implements a tachistoscope.

  • Software for enabling one to see images as line drawings

    I want to be able to look at a subject, particularly a person, and "see" it as a line drawing done to a certain stylistic convention such as those below from Len Doust's book Sketching From Life:

    Musicians can hear scores as music; can artists be trained to see subjects as line drawings? Imagine a program that displays many paired images. The first image in each pair is a photo. The second is a line drawing of it made either by an artist or by software such as that in Mario Costa Sousa and Przemyslaw Prusinkiewicz's paper "A few good lines: Suggestive drawing of 3d models". Could this train my brain to learn associations between parts of the photo and their line-drawn counterparts, so that I can then mentally switch from one to the other?

  • Blind-drawing the Templar Cross

    Here's a Templar Cross:
    A Templar Cross.
    Imagine this painted on a graphics tablet, or displayed on the screen of a a tablet computer. I trace it with a stylus, without looking at it. The program works out where my stylus is, and if it has wandered from the cross, sounds a tone whose pitch or volume depends on how far it has wandered. Would this teach me to blind draw more accurately? One artist I've spoken to thinks it would, and would be worthwhile.

Visual attraction

This is the phenomenon I mentioned at the start, which I said I'd describe in case it's not known. I sometimes practise blind drawing, and drawing from memory, in the street. A lot of the streets and pavements are surfaced with asphalt, which has a grey or black grainy surface like this.

When drawing from memory, I try to remember the subject in detail before looking at the paper. Sometimes, I find myself doing so with sufficient intensity that I'm not really aware of my surroundings. Then I'll suddenly "come to", and find myself looking at a pattern in the asphalt which looks similar to what I was thinking about. It feels bizarre, as though I've created the pattern by force of intense concentration. But presumably what's happened is that I've unconsciously directed my gaze towards some region of the asphalt that looks similar to what I was thinking of, and I've only then become aware of it.