Art is Always Design

Last week, I reposted an article from months ago, entitled “When Design is Art”, citing examples of design so eloquent in their movement of shapes and color that they became art. Today I‘m flopping that mindset.

Ever think of art as design? It is, always. Painters paint with motion of the brushstroke and movement of the paint on canvas, but also from emotion. That emotion is evident in the shapes they create and the color they use. But it‘s all design: shapes and color, dark and light. The painting doesn‘t have to depict a realistic form. In abstract art, it doesn‘t depict anything other than itself. It‘s pure design.

In art school, we learned two-dimensional design using abstract shapes as subject matter. Those exercises taught us how shapes relate to each other as well as organization of those shapes in a design. In another course we learned color and how to manipulate it to create tonal flow in a composition.

But in those respective classes we skipped something. Although we were taught how to design using shapes and how to modulate color within a composition, we did not touch on emotion, the passion of the painter and the reactive element of the viewer.

And that‘s been in the back of my mind for weeks. You know, there‘s been a lot of talk about AI lately—artificial intelligence—and how our lives will be impacted by its use and replacement of human input in mechanical, or repetitive, situations. But what struck me about it was a few things I‘d read that told me how it could be taught to recognize emotion.

According to psychtastic.com, abstract art contains shapes and color that create feelings in the viewer‘s eye and mind immediately: negative feelings brought about by dark and irregular shapes, and positive feelings brought about by bright colors and simple or regular shapes. This is no real surprise.

How often do you sense foreboding in a movie whereby we follow the camera moving through a dark and dingy house (The Silence of the Lambs)? Or the sense of joy when we see Julie Andrews atop a bright meadowed hill (The Sound of Music)? This is easy.

So I kept searching for connections between AI and emotion and hit on a study by the University of Trento (in Italy). In that study, computers were fed the reactions of 100 people looking at abstract paintings of various colorations. Afterward, the same computers were fed scans of new paintings not from the original focus group. The computers were able to predict, with roughly 80% accuracy, the reactions of the same group of people.

And answers began to appear as to why a dark blue blob of paint evokes sadness, whereas red squiggles evoke anxiety.

Not totally revolutionary, but it certainly looks like AI will eventually get there.

The thing about shapes and color is this: it‘s all based on associative experience. As human beings, we learn from our surroundings, our falls and injuries, our taste of sweet or bitter food, our hearing of music or screams. Happenings can be pleasant or jarring. And all of those experiences are felt as colors and shapes within the mind‘s memory, socked away in our subconsciousness. This is why all of us, when shown an abstract piece of art or design, either like it or dislike it.

It can be a painting or just a simple doodle. It has things in it that remind us of something buried in our experience, no matter how simple.

I‘m not a psychologist, but what else would explain it? If you were doing an abstract painting, how would you depict serenity on a canvas? Would you choose pastel colors with smooth brushstrokes? What about violence? Would you use bold dark colors applied with slashing brushwork, maybe thrown paint?

This is art, designed for emotion.

 

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