Sunday, 17 November 2013

Visual Grammar - Chapter 4 - Humpty Dumpty's Plastic World of Oneness


Links to Other Chapters in this Series

Chapter 1: A First Lesson in Drawing
Chapter 2:  Introducing the Dynamic Workspace
Chapter 3 : Words - Plastic Facts
Chapter 4 : Humpty Dumpty's Plastic World of Oneness
Chapter 5: Nature's Boundaries of Well being and Selfhood

Visual Grammar - Chapter 4 - Humpty Dumpty's Plastic World of Oneness

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master—that's all."
In this chapter I am going to work through the issue of how an Active Drawer places patterns on paper (the dynamic workspace) in a way that represents objects from the outside world.  We are now entering into the world of visual nouns.  

If you have been reading earlier chapters you will know that I have described an Active drawer as someone who is skilful at speaking in the unreachable language of the subconscious.  As a start to understanding how an Active drawer does this we have to understand how "an object" is being represented in the subconscious mind. This may seem a question that might have a simple answer, but there is a problem, the problem is with the word "an". 

"An" implies the mind sees an object as a single thing.  We have already discussed how scientists are besotted with oneness, for instance they have a rigid definition of what a bird is which is related to their bloodline and genes, and a thing is either a bird or it is not a bird. The mind has a similar fixation with oneness, but for the mind oneness is a very plastic concept.  The mind's concept of what a bird is has no borders, it can include bees (chapter 3), but it also can be super-restrictive and exclude flightless birds like ostriches as not being proper birds.  As Humpty Dumpty so eloquently pointed out, words mean what the speaker chooses them to mean.

The mind loves to pull things together and make them into a group, and then label them as a single object.  This is done to facilitate fast and accurate thought. .  For the mind oneness is a convenience of thought that helps the subconscious mind  quickly classify and predict the behaviour of things in the outside world in a useful way. Only after the subconscious mind has done its work is the conscious rational mind of the prefrontal cortex allowed to comment and amend.

A stool can be a table, and a table can be a stool. We have a choice when we come across a piece of furniture that might be a table or a stool: If we choose to think of the object as a stool we sit on it, if we see it as a table we put food on it. The non-rigid way the mind sees the furniture enabled us to use the object in a multude of useful ways.  Plasticity is built into everything Nature makes, which is quite different from the products of science which are designed and built for specific purposes and are not expected to adapt to new circumstances.  Aeroplanes are built to fly people across continents, they have a rigid use and will never be used as submarines, but a flying bird has the possibility of change because built built into its DNA is the plasticity to evolve into a penguin if that is where its future lies..

The Plasticity of Oneness

We must always be on our guard when in our thoughts come across the word "one", the mind might be using the word in an illusive way for convenience.  We might intuitively believe in the oneness of an object but the oneness may not exist in reality.  An example is when we try to define of the oneness of our personality, our soul and identity  When we try to catch the shape of these "unified" things we find they have no fixed shape, the oneness we feel intuitively seems to slip through our fingers like fine dry sand.  The same thing happens when you try to find the oneness of everyday objects.

We think we know exactly what we mean when we speak of one sheep


and we are familiar with collective nouns, where 11 sheep become one flock

But already the oneness of a sheep has become the oneness of eleven sheep.  Suppose the farmer sells one sheep, we are not left with "a flock of sheep less one sheep" ?  No, the farmer still has a flock of sheep.  Collective nouns have plasticity, we all know about this from experience.

It gets really interesting when we look at complex objects like Noah's Ark.

There were of course two of every animal on Noah's Ark, but we do not see them all in this picture. There are no sheep, but in our minds we know they are there, they are often just hiding somewhere in the boat.  This is similar to knowing about the the eye and wing on the other side of the bird (Chapter 3).   They exist somewhere out of view, out of mind whilst still remaining in our minds eye. Noah's Ark is a single object made of many, many different things, some of which are in our mind's focus and others that are in some sort of lobby of the mind; there but out of mind.

If Noah asks the sheep to leave the ark it still remains Noah's Ark, but without the sheep, which was in our mind's lobby, out of sight and out of mind anyway.  So when the sheep do leave we do not notice anything has changed.  Unless it is brought to our attention it makes no difference to our image of Noah's Ark whether the sheep are on board or not.

When the animals are all together in a single menagerie on the Ark  they all share a common destiny.  If the boat drifts westward the giraffes go westwards, and the elephants go westwards, and the sheep go westwards.  So it really makes sense for the mind to lump all these different objects with a common destiny into one thing - like we do when we have a lot of sheep in one field and call it a flock.  In this unique case we have no collective name for a boat load of animals, so we give the collective object a unique name: Noah's Ark.  Oneness is extremely convenient because when Noah's Ark goes westwards all the things that make up Noah's Ark go westward too. 

So is Noah's Ark a single object?  How about after the floods subside and all the animals get off the Ark and the tigers go to the jungle in India and the sheep to graze on the hillsides of New Zealand. The object has disintegrated into parts with different destinies, and the Ark ceases to exist in the real world, unless you change the meaning of Noah's Ark to mean an empty ship lying abandoned on the side of mount Ararat.   Perhaps in our imagination it lives on as it used to be when it was floating on the water with all the animals on board.  

There is only one Noah's Ark, but the oneness of Noah's Ark is very plastic; sometimes it is floating on the water full of animals, sometimes it is lying abandoned on the side of a mountain.  When Humpty Dumpty says "Noah's Ark" he decides which way he is using the word.  Alice has to guess how he is using the word.


Active drawing, like conscious thinking, is never independent of the workings of the subconscious mind.  By definition Active drawing reflects the activity that goes in  the subconscious before it arrives in our conscious thoughts.  If the world of subconscious thought is plastic and without rigid definitions, then so will the drawings created from its processes.  Drawing does not see objects like science, unless informed by the rationality of science it has no knowledge of the bloodlines of birds.  The objects created by Active drawing are plastic and this plasticity of objects is reflected in how we draw an object.

 Implications of Plasticity for Active Drawing

All I have written about the plasticity of oneness is uncontentious.  It is largely information we are aware of, but perhaps have never given much thought to.  Looking at these mechanisms of thought have big consequences for the Active drawer because the Active drawer does not imitate the raw data that arrives in their eye, instead they make marks that reflect what is going on in their heads.  If you want to Active draw it is a good idea to be super-aware of how things are being organised in your head because knowing this information will improve your drawing technique.  I am now going to demonstrate how these mechanisms affect the outcome of a drawing.

Generally speaking Active drawing is quite impulsive and fast, whether the drawing is completed in one minute or two hours, it is a fact that time passed whilst the drawing was being constructed.  In terms of thought processes 60 seconds is a very long period of time, much longer than we are ever capable of remaining focused on one idea.  Our thoughts do not stop to let us get the drawing down, a stream of thoughts is always there having something to say and contribute to the drawing as it progresses.  The inspiration with which the drawing was started will be quite different from the thoughts that are happening as the drawing is completed. 

Suppose we are drawing Noah's Ark.  The normal starting point would be to create a boat shape, so whilst drawing the mind thinks of the shapes of boats and hulls floating in water. This provides the platform on which to place the animals.

The next stage is to add some animals, usually the larger animals would go in first, maybe a pair of elephants, rhinos, tigers, or pandas.  The choices are plastic, one day you may decide to choose a panda, the next an elephant, a common choice would be to have two giraffe heads sticking out of the window.  Sometimes the rhino will go at the front end, other times the back. Which animals are where on the Ark is very much in the gift of the moment, and what was going on in the artist's head as they reached that point in the drawing.  When I came to the second window it came to my head to add Noah and his wife looking out (I would have liked to make them wave like they were leaving on holiday but this idea was not included because I did not have space).

As the space on the ark becomes restricted the opportunities for adding new animals becomes restricted.  There are all sorts of animals still not added, how about a monkey, where shall I put the monkey?  Answer I will add a mast.  Now I have a mast I can add two birds which I had forgotten to include. And if I add more windows in the hull of the ship I can get even more animals into my picture

And then the drawing is nearly complete, but the composition has areas where the white space is dead (white space is a big subject for later). The artist might add some clouds, the sun, birds in the air and fish in the water.  Once I think of fish my mind starts racing again; how about an octopus? and a sword fish and two sharks fins?  This is not sea water, but my ideas are plastic and they sort of add fun to the picture.

Throughout the process of the drawing my ideas have flowed and ebbed.  The construction was a sort of interaction with what has already been written on dynamic workspace.  The window stimulated some subconscious memories of old films of holiday makers waving as they left on steam ships for America, which is why Noah and his wife are in that space. Some of the choices were influenced by things that might have happened in the real world whilst I was making the drawing; some riders passed my house which caused me to put horses looking out of the window on the lower deck.

The end result of a drawing will always be unique because they tell a story of what was going on in the mind of the artist whilst the drawing was being made.  Every time an artist starts a drawing they cannot  quite know where it will lead because they cannot predict the thought processes of their subconscious minds.  Every drawing starts with blank workspace and ends up in a unique collection of ideas.

The Role of the Viewer 

The image was of course made to be seen by an audience, people to whom the artist will show your drawing.  A good drawing should include a visual path through which the image can be read.  In the case of the Noah's Ark it goes something like this.  The immediate impression is of a boat floating on water, this is very quickly  followed (maybe instantaneous) by the realisation that it is Noah's Ark.  The viewer then looks for interesting features, and their eye will pick out the biggest most well drawn features which are the larger animals, after digesting this information they might go on to look at the fine detail, such as the little animals squeezed into the windows which were an afterthought.  Some artists include little pockets of interest, jokes and sub-plots, which are a sort of reward to viewers that are kind enough to give the image more time.  In my case I have made teh water around teh ark shark infested and added an octopus. 

Drawings are often designed to be read like sentences.  Time passes as the artist creates the picture and time passes as the viewer is lead around the picture.   If the artist is skilful the structure of the image will follow a path taken by the artist while they were constructing the picture, the net result is that the viewer shares an emotional journey already mapped out and experienced in the head of the artist.

This is an engraving by Rembrandt, the eye is directed to the main subject of the picture which is an old man receiving a messenger 




Did you look at the picture long enough to be led round the picture and rewarded with a sub plot and joke? 

The Porous Boundaries between complex objects

We think of a cat as one thing, and in the physical world it is one thing, a bit like a word is one thing.  Very often, especially when a cat is not the main subject of a picture, the drawing of the cat will be little more than an iconic shape.  The cats on the back of this envelope are sub-plots; iconic black cat shapes


But like with words our internal images of what a cat is has a lot of plasticity.  Humpty Dumpty said words "mean just what I choose", can artists make similar claims about the images they make of things? Let us look at the plastic oneness of cats.

A cat is like Noah's Ark, it consists of many objects: four legs, two eyes, twenty claws, five hundred whiskers, a tail, a nose, thirty teeth, fur, head.....and there are conceptual things to be added to the objects that cats are made of; they purr, hunt,  smell and make cat noises.  The list can go on and on.  You may say "but they are all part of the singular thing we call a cat, it is not like the animals on Noah's Ark who after the storm was over could leave the boat to go and live independent lives.  A cats leg can't go walking off on it's own!".  This might be true in the physical world, but in the world of our subconscious all these elements have independent lives and identities.  Remember how lips of the dead in Emily Dickinson's poem go on talking until they are finally sealed with moss, the subconscious mind has no problem imagining the lips still talking after the bodies to which they belong have been laid to rest.  In the Humpty Dumpty world of our subconscious minds two cats legs can go off for a walk without the rest of the cat, this is not a problem for our imaginations because legs are entities in their own right, and we associate them with walking and moving as well as with cats.   If your imagination fails you here is a drawing of such an event.

Making this drawing took very little imagination.  The image, like Emily's talking dead, of walking cats legs seems sort of natural.

The list of things that are needed to make a cat are plastic too.  Components can be added and subtracted, yet the meaning of the object still remains "cat".  This is true both in the real world and in the mental world, but in our mental world there is even more plasticity.  My wife's Manx cat has no tail, but it is still a cat.  African lions have manes but no stripes or spots, but they are still cats. 

In the mental world of our subconscious mind, where anything can happen, the boundaries are even more plastic.  Looking for images of cats on Google images I came across this cartoon from 1949 that I enjoyed very much.


This picture is a masterly.  In the centre of the picture is the biggest eye pulling wink, the artist has taken a lot of care to make the mother cat look and walk like a cat.  Because the artist has made it the first thing we see we are immediately told that we are observers on to the world of cats.

Having got us into the right frame of mind the artist lets plasticity rip, the errant father who is the major sub plot, is a half human lout half cat creature.  He is a cat mixed with loutish human personality, but we hardly notice the transition from a picture about cats to picture about human behaviour (the father even winks in a knowing loutish way).  The mini sub plots, and last thing we notice in the picture, are the kittens which are drawn almost carelessly.  The artist is capable of making the kittens look kittenish but he does not need to.  The last kitten looks like a half kitten half sheep creature, but the artist knows this will not bother us.

I would guess this image was drawn in the same order that we view it as observers.  I also believe the journey we experience, as we travel along the pathway so carefully constructed inside the structure of this image, is the same pathway experienced by the artist as he made the drawing.   This path is what creates compelling narrative, as if the artist were with us telling us about what was going on in his head when he had this idea in 1949

This is another Cartoon I found in Google images.  

The two animals are so similarly constructed,  there is no difference between a cat and dog foot or nose, but we recognise immediately which is which.  We look at the cat with just two whiskers on one side of his face instead of fifty on each side, and with an uncatlike striped back and know it is a cat.  The dog with floppy ears and patch on its back.   What is interesting to me is that by changing just few critical objects on almost identical scaffolds the artist can switch a drawing of cat into a drawing of dog.  

Singular Objects

Science has a rational idea about what an object is, our minds have a plastic idea, they are very different from each other.  Our mental images of objects feel like they are singular things, but in reality they are ever variable concoctions of mental experiences. The boundaries between mental objects are porous and mingled with concepts shared with other objects.

Active Drawing belongs with the plastic world of the mind which is far removed from the objective and rational reality of science.  To draw even simple objects involves a dialogue between a stream of mental experiences that go on whilst the drawing is taking place and the activity happening  on the dynamic workspace where the image is being constructed. 

In the next lesson we will sail into interesting water where we will begin to explore how the concoction of mental experiences are drawn together within porous boundaries.  Before we move on I want to reassure you that whilst we may be talking about techniques used in childish drawings of Noah's Ark and Cartoons on rude 1940's postcards, which some snobs do not regard as high art, these same methods were understood and embraced by the greatest artists in history.  This is the image by Rembrandt I was looking for earlier.


This image illustrates many of the ideas I have introduced in Chapters 1 - 4.  The image is built around a stern faced Smiley with a strong nose and clearly directed gaze out of the picture (gaze is another big subject) .  The face is the super strong wink that dominates the image and says "I am the face of a strong personality with deep thoughts". The character of the smiley is further enhanced by the strong drawing of the hat and collar which are sub plots that tell us about the lifestyle of the owner of the face, and to a lesser extent the front of the doublet, which looks as if it is made of sturdy material, is another sub plot. The further you go from the face the more the image disintegrates; if you are tempted to look at the hands you will be disappointed, they are either not there or a meaningless mess of blotches, and as you move further down the figure everything that seemed so solid dissolves into nothingness  (what happened to his legs?).

This picture has a very strong narrative; "Look at my face, keeping looking at my face, don't look away from my face" It is a figure that seems to be of such solid singularity, but it is a oneness that is  merged with the outside world.  One wonders if perhaps this is how Rembrandt experience the presence of this man whilst he drew him.














Post a Comment