Artistic in the District, Part Three: A Colorful Mind

“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” ─Edgar Degas



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Do artists truly have the ability to see things differently than the rest of us? If we could take a sneak-peak inside the mind of an artist, what might we find? Ever evolving, scientific technology offers some new insights via studies in eye movement and brain scans.

In a study published by Stine Vogt, Ph. D, and Svein Magnussen, Professor at the University of Oslo, Norway, researcher’s came to some fascinating conclusions.

In summary, their study of “eye movement patterns” including eighteen participants, nine artists and nine “artistically untrained” who were all shown the same 16 pictures, revealed differences in “recall memory” and viewing preferences. Vogt and Magnussen concluded that the non-artists preferred the pictures of “objects and human features”, while the artists focused on those of a more abstract nature. In addition, the artists out-scored their non-artistic counterparts in their ability to remember more features within the pictures they viewed., (Expertise in pictorial perception: eye-movement patterns and visual memory in artists and laymen published in Perception Vol. 36(1) pps. 91 – 100).

Perhaps artists are correct to say: “I was born this way?” ─Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga photo:

Even for the artistically gifted, how much of a role does training play? Regardless of the medium, raw talent will only get the artist so far. Like any other human skill, it seems logical that with practice, training, education, and experience, talent may become expert ability.

In a different study, published by Rebecca Chamberlain, PhD Student, UCL Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, researchers found a correlation between drawing ability and grey matter in the brain.

In summary of the Abstract:

There were “structural brain differences…in visual perception, spatial navigation, complex motor skills and musical ability.” The study, used brain scans of 44 participants, “post-graduate art students” and laypersons combined, who completed “drawing tasks.” Researchers evaluated grey matter density in different parts of the brain in correspondence to artistic ability. Furthermore, the study suggested that participants with artistic training showed even more “enhancement of structures pertaining to visual imagery.” (Drawing on the right side of the brain: A voxel-based morphometry analysis of observational drawing, Rebecca Chamberlain, NeuroImage, 2014)

 “No great artist ever sees things as they really are.

If he did, he would cease to be an artist.”─Oscar Wilde

So then, if you are not born artistically inclined, it may well be possible to ‘train your brain’ to think like an artist and train your eyes to see like one.

So how do artists see?

A search through the ‘world wide web’ seeking answers to this question led me here:, to a blog post, “How Artists See,” by Ryan Finnerty, an artist who lives in Seattle and teaches painting, drawing and art history.

“Even when I’m not painting, my mind is finding relationships, colors, shapes and proportions. During a conversation, I’ll be making broad generalizations about patterns and structures in your face.”─Ryan Finnerty

Painting by artist Ryan Finnerty


I asked Mr. Finnerty if he thought a person could train their mind to see the world as an artist does.

He said, “the brain is a physical instrument of the mind, (so) it makes sense that the brain will change as the mind changes. Seeing is physical. Perception is of the mind.”

As a teacher, Finnerty teaches his students about perception. “The tasks of drawing and painting require a way of looking, a focus, and a seeking of information that is way outside our normal patterns of looking at the world. What we do with our hands and tools is secondary,” he says.

I also inquired at what point in a person’s life does he think artistic ability begins, whether it is innate.

“Our default way of seeing involves a few basic skills: recognize important things, notice changes, ignore everything else. We learn this in our first few years of life,” Finnerty said. “The artist has to perceive large patterns, values, shapes, and colors. (He) has to control the flow of visual information and make sense of it- ignoring most of (his) instincts and preconceptions in order to see rightly. This becomes more and more instinctual with practice.”

As for nature versus nurture, Finnerty added: “Our knowledge…language, culture, and experience shape what we see, what we notice, and what we remember.”

If man is truly capable of changing his way of thinking and seeing the world, and if he studies the mechanics of painting, does he then become an artist? Viewers and critics may judge, but who really decides?

I know what I like as an art enthusiast and as a collector. I studied art history for a time but by no means would I consider myself an expert. I do think that I have an ‘eye’ for recognizing talent in others and maybe that in and of itself is a talent.

Just as a writer can learn the craft of writing, and become skilled and artful in his prose, readers and critics judge what they believe is ‘literary’. Writers stand with our artist brethren, often misunderstood and unseen.

“Were I called on to define, very briefly, the term Art, I should call it ‘the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul.’ The mere imitation, however accurate, of what is in Nature, entitles no man to the sacred name of ‘Artist.’”─Edgar Allan Poe


Thank you for reading and keep writing and creating!


Artist/writer quotes from:

For more information on artist Ryan Finnerty please see:

Reports and research reviewed for this article:


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