Pareidolia or why good representational art is abstract.

Pareidolia or why good representational painting is abstract.

This talk was given as part of the Art Walk South Granville at the Pousette Gallery on 16 June 2016.

When looking at a room full of strangers, some looking interested, some looking confused, some who look bemused, you don’t remember verbatim the talk that you prepared.  The preparation is the outline and the talk is about riffing with the people who are real and standing in front of you.

The best way to think about what is written here is that it is the book version of the movie.

Prefer the movie? the talk was streamed live on Periscope.  Head over to the app and follow me: @leannechristie or click on the image below.  The mic did not kick in so the sound is not the best but once the room quietens down the audio is OK. (I am not sure how long the link will be active for so I apologize if you find nothing there)

Leanne Christie on Periscope

Goal of painting: Relationship and engagement. Passive to participant ► find a way to start conversation ►subject matter that is familiar is powerful doorway but too literal = uncanny and repulsion, too suggestive = confusion and alienating ► Solution to bypass = Pareidolia.

The following is from Da Vinci’s notebook Precepts of the Painter: “A WAY TO STIMULATE AND AROUSE THE MIND TO VARIOUS INVENTIONS

“I will not refrain from setting among these precepts OF DEVICES FOR PAINTERS a new device for consideration which, although it may appear trivial and almost ludicrous, is nevertheless of great utility in arousing the mind to various inventions. And this is that if you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills. You will also be able to see divers combats and figures in quick movement, and strange expressions of faces, and outlandish costumes, and an infinite number of things which you can then reduce into separate and well conceived forms. With such walls and blends of different stones it comes about as it does with the sound of bells, in whose clanging you may discover every name and word that you can imagine”. (MS. 2038, Bib. Nat. 22 v.)

This new device to arouse the mind which Leonardo refers to is Pareidolia, that psychological phenomena that leads us to perceive familiar patterns such as images and sounds in random stimuli.  Familiar patterns where no pattern exists.

The sibling of this phenomena is Apophenia. An important word to remember the next time you are at the Roulette table or about to engage in another activity which has a random outcome.  Apophenia leads us to perceive meaningful patterns in random data.  We have a strong tendency to give meaning or to see patterns in events which are random and it is wise to be aware of this as the results of our decision making based on it will be lucky at best.  ” I won 10 times in a row so I am going all in because I am on a roll!” or ” I won 10 times in a row so let me change the option because it is not probable that the same choice will keep winning”

We must look a little silly with all of our misguided perceptions but for a painter, this is a wonderland of magic and an idea which is more important than the basic how to’s of painting.  Pareidolia and Apophenia reveal a profound secret: we are highly sensitive to pattern recognition and make snap judgments.  The 2 sides of this coin are that we can play with our pattern recognition to create a positive and a potentially engaging reaction in the viewer or we can use it to create a negative reaction.

Why Care?

Playing with pattern recognition to bore, confuse, frustrate or disengage the viewer is a topic we cover under the banner of concept and one best explored in studio sessions.  Today in the context of a gallery talk, let’s think about the use of pattern to stimulate Pareidolia, or to suggest and provide just enough stimulation to the viewer so that they move from passivity to active participant in the painting relationship.


Before thinking about moving the viewer from passive to participant and why we should care, let’s make a little stop at the Uncanny. It is the desire to avoid the uncanny  while engaging the viewer that leads us to consider pareidolia as a tool.

You know that uncomfortable feeling when you think that a person looks like someone but doesn’t quite?  When you think that you understand or are familiar with a situation but there are things that are a little ‘off”?  You know the feeling when you wake up in a dream and think that it is something but it’s not and suddenly it’s a nightmare?

The feeling even at it’s mildest cannot be described as relaxation, nor is it pleasure, it is uncomfortable and maybe at it’s extreme it is confusing or repulsive.

In robotics a place exists called the ‘Uncanny Valley’, this is the valley on a graph that measures our reactions to robots who are designed to look increasingly like us.  There is a point in the process when the robot looks very similar to us but there is that something which is a little off, it is here on the graph that the upward slope that measures our pleasure, stops moving upwards.  We are repulsed or disgusted by the object because it is so close but not quite – uncanny resemblance to us.  So starts the valley as the pleasure line falls but eventually reaches a plateau and slowly starts increasing again as the appearance of the robot continues to be refined and it renders a more and more realistic resemblance to a person.  We move from pleasure in anthropomorphizng the robot, to repulsion when it’s appearance hits the uncanny and back to pleasure when it becomes almost indistinguishably human.

I first noticed uncanny in painting when looking at very realistic work which renders faithfully to nature without considering the myriad of tools which painting lends itself to.  The final image is to be congratulated for its drawing skill but there is something uncomfortable in it and at it’s worse there is even repulsion as your eyes avert their gaze.

Is this the uncanny? Has the painting stepped into the uncanny valley – so realistic but something is off.

Thus enters Pareidolia.

Not true, what about avoiding the uncanny through abstraction?

Relationship is the framework for this line of thought and if you accept the premise that painting is communication and relationship then you will end up looking at pareidolia.

Painting is relationship between the viewer and artist and the painting itself is the communication in that relationship.  So when painting it is important to think about the person who is standing on the other side of the canvas, who are they, how do they understand the world, what are the mechanics of their thinking, what is it that makes them feel and in what way do they feel and what is your story, what is your concept? This applies to common human traits as well as those developed on a local level.

As in face to face conversations, in the painting relationship it helps to introduce a topic familiar to the other person when starting the conversation. Using recognizable subjects is a powerful starting point.  But here’s the landmine for the painter because the recognizable subject can fool you into believing that this is actually what the painting is about but it’s not, it is only that entry point and staying there is the road to uncanny.  The representational painting uses the recognizable as a gateway to the abstraction of the painting: brushsroke, colour, contrast, concept and complexity.

Abstraction as a subject was a was a wonderful mental exercise but if painting is relationship and communication, abstraction as a subject can flip the coin on pattern recognition and instead of creating an opening, it can create distance and we end at the opposite end of uncanny with the climax of pleasure somewhere between the 2.

Pareidolia on the other hand opens up the abstract to the painter, gets the creative imagination of the viewer flowing, moves them from passive to active and makes them a fundamental part of the completion of the painting but it also keeps us away from slipping into the terrible zone of the uncanny.

So you’ll buy a lb of the importance of pareidolia but now what?

Well it depends on whether you are a painter or a collector or a lovely combination of both.  As a painter if you start to think about pareidolia a world of deeply satisfying abstraction not as a subject but as a tool, opens up to you.  In fact this talk could probably also have been called ‘An introduction to understanding why representational and abstract paintings are not genres’.  Accepting painting as relationship will raise your respect for your viewer, open your thinking about what you are doing and pareidolia will spin you on a path of discovery about brushstroke, colour, concept, contrast and complexity in your work.

As a collector, understanding beautiful use of pareidolia in painting will help guarantee that the work that you are collecting has the potential to grow with you.  An artist aware of pareidolia is signally that they understand that you are an important element in the completion of the work, that your role as viewer is as vital to the work as the brushstrokes.  In painting where there is some mastery of the language of painting, you will find that there is more chance that the painting that’s attracting you will not only fit into your life today but will also reveal more of itself as you grow because you are an evolving element in the piece.

Having said this, as with any good illusion the idea is not to get caught creating the illusion or not to show the sausage factory.  The slight of hand should not be seen.  If you are aware of the artist’s manipulation of pareidolia, everything collapses.  It is being caught in a lie in the trusting relationship.  A simple example is to google ‘clouds that look like something’ and instead of pleasure you experience irritation and frustration at the photos which have more than a passing familiarity with photoshop.

For both the artist and the collector, a step in understanding how to artfully use pareidolia in painting is to think about what makes a painting as an art form unique to other forms.  The most distinguishable characteristic is that as a 2D art form it is tactile and visceral and has the ability to puncture 3D space in a way that other 2D arts are not able to.  In a world where photography is in everyone’s pocket and where painting has been released from the burden of being the only way to record visual images, the strongest asset that painting has is it’s visceral quality and it is this which can most easily be used to start the imagination.  The visceral qualities of painting are most easily translated through the quality of the paint applied and most importantly, the brushstrokes.  Brushstrokes are the soul of the painting and sensual brushstrokes speak more loudly than any other abstract element in the work and can carry the secondary role as tools of pareidolia if they are placed minimally and suggestively.

In buying your pound of pareidolia as a painter, use it as a tool to navigate how we understand pattern and how it makes us feel and think when you are about the use of directional, descriptive/emotive, focal and unifying brushstrokes in your work.

In buying your pound of pareidolia as a collector, use it as a guide when thinking about that work you are contemplating collecting.  Is there consideration of you as an element in the painting through the artists use of pareidolia? Is the slight of hand the only thing you see or is it satisfyingly woven into the painting? How do you respond to the brushwork, is it congruent with the concept? Has the painting moved beyond the representational and the abstract as subjects into the abstraction of the language? Answering these questions will not only give you insight into your own feelings towards the painting and whether your romance will be an enduring one or not but it also gives you insight into the painter and their ability to grow and innovate their work.

Pareidolia: the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful, image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern

, , , , ,

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply