Thursday, February 24, 2011

How the Human Brain Looks at Art (Part 1): The Law of Peak Shift

"Aerosol Abduction" by Grandlarsen
How does the human brain decipher art?  Renowned neurologist, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran claims to have the answer.  Ramachandran has developed a set of “Universal Laws of Art,” which attempts to explain what role evolution and survival instincts play in how the human brain deciphers art. 

Art and Survival

Humans use their visual abilities to detect what they need to be aware of for survival.  However, they only use a certain amount of mental attention on the most important elements of their physical surroundings.  This is the basis of Ramachandran’s first law, “peak shift.”  Due to evolutionary developments of the human brain meant for survival,  human beings find it stimulating when an artist depicts distorted or exaggerated features of a subject matter.

For example, when eating a steak, a person will use most of his or her mental attention on the important elements needed to accomplish the task.  These elements include the steak, fork, and knife.  If the person put equal visual attention to everything in the environment, eating the steak would be difficult.  The steak, fork, and knife would blend into the environment.  The person would have difficulty discerning the difference between the table, floor, dish, napkin, knife, fork, and steak.  The person may even try to eat the napkin or the fork. 

Peak Shift and Representational Art

Many artists use peak shift in their representational work by only depicting essential elements necessary to decipher subject matter.  For example, most stencil artists, such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey only use a silhouette of the subject matter.  In Faiery’s “Obey Giant” only the essential elements of eyes, nose, mouth, and hair are represented through contrast with background color.  The fine details of the skin texture and color are absent.  This technique is effective because it allows quick comprehension of subject matter without having to decipher extraneous information.  This also makes stencils especially effective street art tools.  

Multi-Layered Stencil Art

Some stencil artists have taken the medium to another level by using multi-layered stencils, which add more detail to the depiction.  Some of these artists include San Diego artists Keemo and Grandlarsen.  These artists have been featured in various Thumbprint Gallery exhibitions and have created stencil art using as many as ten layers.  However, due to the stencil medium’s limitations, only so much detail can be added.  Therefore, Ramachandran’s law of peak shift is still in play no matter how many stencil layers are used. 

To a certain extent, all styles of representational art are limited in capacity to depict detail.  Therefore, all styles of representational art use Ramachandran’s peak shift law to a certain degree.  Neither the most sophisticated camera nor the most skilled artist could replace “real” life. 

Part 2 coming soon.

You can view and purchase works by Thumbprint Gallery artists at our online store. Check it out here.


A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness by V.S. Ramachandran, published in 2004. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Spray Paint: From Industrial Tool to Fine Art Medium

Since the New York graffiti movement of the 1970s and the rise of Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s, spray paint has become widely accepted in the art world.  However, spray paint was first invented as a commercial and industrial tool.  The first uses of spray paint have been traced back to the 1920s and possibly earlier. 

Bombing with Aerosol

The first portable spray paint can was shaped like a 19th century fuse bomb, which earned it the name “aerosol bomb.”  The body of the can was made of heavy-gauge steel.  Known as the “ZACO can,” the first spray paint emitted a foul-smelling oil.  Unlike the spray paint cans of today, the nozzle was turned on and off by screwing a brass knob clockwise or counterclockwise. 

World War II and Aerosol

World War II not only shifted the international power structure, but it also furthered the advancement of aerosol technology.  American troops were falling ill to Malaria and other insect-borne diseases.  In response the government created a push-button spray can, which was used as an aerosol insecticide. 

Aerosol in the Domestic Realm: The Rise of Krylon

The push-button spray can was eventually used in the domestic realm for pesticides, car wax, household deodorizers, and various other products.  In 1947, Krylon began using the push-button spray can for a clear acrylic spray fixture that was used to protect artwork and print advertisements.   Krylon eventually became the leading innovator in the aerosol industry.  In 1952, Krylon adopted a lightweight, two-piece aerosol can with no side seam and no top seam.  This design, adopted from Crown Holdings Inc., became known as the modern day push-button aerosol can.  

Spray Paint in Fine Art

Today people not only use spray paint for commercial and industrial uses, but also for artistic endeavors.  Spray paint is now a popular medium for not only street artists, but also artists found in contemporary fine art galleries.

"Heavy Vapors" by Miguel Godoy

Thumbprint Gallery has featured several artists who frequently use spray paint, including Eric Wixon, Monique Jenkins, Grandlarsen, Keemo, Isaias Crow and Maxx Moses.  Interestingly, Miguel Godoy’s upcoming solo exhibition at Thumbprint Gallery is based upon the actual medium.  The opening reception of the show, titled “Venomous Revelations Through AeroSoul Vapors,” will be held on February 4 from 6pm to 10pm.  

Check out more lowbrow and urban artworks at Thumbprint Gallery’s online store here.

“History of Spray Paint” by Ian Sattler and Darrell and Ben Chapnick, published in Swindle Magazine.