How Our DNA Influences Landscape Painting
by Laurie Carlson
Eating a Paleolithic-style diet is popular now, based on the idea that we still haven’t evolved enough to thrive on modern processed food. Certainly there’s nothing wrong with eating wisely and Stone Age people had no problem avoiding junk food and the health problems it creates. But beyond our food and our bodies, our Paleolithic roots affect us in other ways, too, and surprisingly one is our choice of art images.
Researchers studying the new field known as “neuroaesthetics” are trying to figure out why we’re attracted to particular images in art. Believe it or not, it’s pretty much in our DNA to enjoy landscapes and florals, and our Paleolithic life-style explains why.
Three Stages in Selecting a Home Turf
According to habitat selection theory, there are three stages in how humans and animals select an environment. All three stages must be met before it becomes a home territory for any period of time. Otherwise, keep migrating till you find something more ideally suited for both survival and rearing young.
1. Are there resources such as food and water, as well as shelter and safety?2. Is exploration possible? Can you cross the terrain to see what’s out there, as well as return if it doesn’t work out?
3. The final stage is the decision to stay, to settle and embark on activities such as finding food, building shelter, and making it a temporary or long-term home.
Research in the field of evolutionary psychology shows that our tastes in imagery harks back to East Africa’s savannas where humans began. That savanna-type habitat reappears now when we look at landscape paintings and photographs. Studies show that the most appealing images are of habitats that are similar to those savannas–grassy flat land dotted with clumps of deciduous trees. Since the nineteenth century, successful landscape painters have followed a style that embraces that design. Wide grassy fields or meadows, with a towering oak tree or clump of maples. Foggy, fading mountains in the distance lure our gaze to the far horizon.
Scientists explain it as our selection bias for survival: we like terrain that offers food and water resources as well as safety. Once we’ve entered that type of habitat, we seek to explore it and wander across the expanse. That means we need to see a pathway or passage that also allows us to return without getting lost on the way back. Even better, we yearn to look over the scene from a safe vantage point. It was all crucial for our survival back in the day when we wandered great distances, hunting and gathering as we went. Before settling down with agriculture, our ancestors were on the move and continually assessing the environment to decide whether to reject and move on, or explore and stay a while.
So it’s no surprise that vast grassy areas where large mammals could graze–and could more easily be hunted for dinner–were more desirable locations than dark forests where most of the animal action took place high in the dense canopy. Hunter-gatherers found more food in expanses of grass and bushes, where game animals browsed and grazed. Gathering fruits, nuts and berries was easiest in open meadows and along streams or lakes.
The Landscape Looks Promising
So, theorists reason that since people were attracted to such landscapes in the distant past, we have evolved our likes and dislikes around our response to the environment. Because the savannah-type environment more easily provides us with what we need: food, trees for protection from sun, and long, unimpeded views to the horizon, it’s a landscape we are innately attracted to. After all, that type of landscape has been imperative for our survival during much of the past.
Researchers presented subjects in a range of ages from 8 years-old to over seventy, and after viewing five different landscape types (desert, tropical forest, deciduous forest, coniferous forest, and East African savannah), respondents preferred the grassland savannah over the others. No one had ever been to such a location, but even young children preferred it. Going a bit farther, University of Washington researchers found that we respond to tree types, as well. Respondents in a study chose trees with moderately dense canopies and low-branching trunks (like oak or maple trees) to any other type. Least attractive were trees shaped like palm trees or our typical cone-shaped, densely needled, Christmas tree.
Ultimately, how did our longing for such landscapes affect art? In the nineteenth century, painters began painting landscape scenes for their own aesthetics, rather than simply as backdrops for scenes depicting people and activities. Landscape paintings became large spacious vistas, with grassland, meadow or pasture fading to mountains or overlapping hills in the distance. Trees were mostly deciduous and shown singles as a vertical line to draw the eye to the focal point or trees scattered in clusters across the grassy terrain to create a feeling of distance. And, because we are innately drawn to large grazing mammals, a holdover from our hunting background, artists sprinkled landscapes with deer, cattle, or horses.
Such landscapes both attract and please us. As artistic techniques and styles changed, the basic elements continue to catch the eye of the viewer and stimulate the work of the amateur and professional artist.
The Next Step: Exploration
If the environment looked promising to our hunter-gatherer forbears, they took the next step to enter the area and explore it more closely. Before doing that, though, they had to figure out if they could easily and safely return if things didn’t work out. From a vantage viewpoint, overlooking the grassland below, an animal trail or natural pathway–even a meandering stream–that wound into the distance, allowed them to follow a route they could return along. Sort of a rough GPS system or map, to be sure they didn’t get lost (which could mean death) when they tried to back-track to the point where exploration began.
This need for a visual route across the terrain remains with us as viewers and painters. We are drawn to images that include a road, pathway, or stream that meanders and disappears in the distance. It allows us to mentally enter the scene and follow the line to the horizon. Few paintings or photographs succeed with a horizontal path across a canvas. We want a vertical, meandering pathway we can imagine ourselves moving along. We want linear perspective as viewers and artists. Many of us painted horizontal roads and fences across our first paintings, later learning why that didn’t feel right, and it didn’t help us “enter” the scene at all.
The horizon in a painting can also stimulate exploration, because it appeals to our imagination and the desire to find out what’s over the hill or beyond the distant tree line. It can be desirable to situate ourselves (the viewer) slightly above the scene, from a viewpoint looking out over the vista. Other artistic elements that help with wayfinding such as pathways, streams, fence line, borders, or edges of a field, appeal to our desire to enter the scene and explore beyond. It creates a cognitive and emotional experience in the viewer.
Naturally, anything that gives us a sense of danger is a turn-off: snakes, spiders, darkness and actual storms aren’t inviting and very seldom included in a painting.
Environmental Cues We Can’t Ignore
Changes in the environment around us can mean hazard or opportunity–even in today’s world. Our body and senses are designed to alert us to changes in the intensity of light–so we know it’s getting to be sundown (time to seek shelter, we can’t see in the dark), or a storm is brewing. We react when gray clouds break up into sunshine and even rainbows, giving us a boost and a smile. Anytime we experience a changed intensity of light or darkness, we respond. The greater the intensity, the greater our response.
Constable and Turner, some of the greatest landscape painters, used clouds to signal the viewer’s attention. The earliest landscape painters portrayed skies as bland backgrounds–nonthreatening and placid. It was the rise of English landscape painters like Constable and Turner, who paid great attention to skies, detailing the sky and using color and volume to add immediacy to the clouds overhead. Clouds in the scene could create a positive or negative mood, stringing emotions of the viewer along a continuum depending upon the artists’ goal. Constable studied clouds extensively, and his paintings reveal a detailed knowledge of weather patterns and cloud formations. His landscapes included weather as one of the elements.
Not only weather changes, but time of day and season are part of landscape painting. Strong, even brilliant, light and color patterns are used to render sunset and sunrise scenes, which impact us because lighting affects us so strongly. Just because we aren’t good at seeing in the dark means our bodies alert us to dimming down of natural light. Strong patterns of lengthy late-day shadows catch our attention more than mid-day scenes where the sun is overhead–and many more hours of daylight remain. Flat lighting of mid-day doesn’t alert us because we have no need to change our behavior in the next few hours. There’s still plenty of time before darkness falls.
Morning lighting, on the other hand, is usually warm and yellow-hued and gives us a lift to start our day. Scenes featuring lighting before 11:00 a.m. give us a feeling of potential, opportunity, and optimism. Just as natural morning sunlight does.
Adding Animals to the Scene
Large mammals are integral to a savannah environment, and part of the attraction for us as humans. We want to see large grazing animals such as deer, bison, or elk–they mean food for hunters. We continue to respond, enjoying landscape paintings with a few cattle or horses, too. Large mammals can also mean danger, so we also pay attention if a bear, cougar, or wolf is in the scene instead of a bucolic pasture of grazers. Those earlier landscape artists sprinkled domestic livestock or wildlife such as bison or deer across their landscapes, to catch the viewer (or buyer). Pastoral or nature scenes have been significant factors in creating conservation efforts to preserve the countryside from encroaching development, or to create and continue national parks. Thomas Moran’s nineteenth-century paintings of Yellowstone led directly to the creation of that national park.
All cultures include rituals to respond to seasonal changes. One of the main elements is flowering plants. Flowers signal that spring has arrived, and food resources will follow. Flowers signal gatherers that particular locations and plants will have berries, fruits or nuts at a later time. Interestingly, women enjoy floral still life paintings more than men do, and women were the gatherers while men were the hunters. Our fascination and appreciation of flowers remains to be explored through research, but it’s easy to see why we are attracted to painting and viewing art that includes flowers.
What Can the Artist Do?
Realizing our attitudes and artistic preferences can be influenced by our ancient past, how can an artist or photographer use this knowledge to create artwork that has greater appeal, both to the creator and the viewer?
First of all, artists face the problem of overcoming the limits of two-dimensional art, so must address aerial and linear perspective and creating volume and distance. Those elements are essential to learning composition. Once those are tucked away after a few beginning art classes, the rest of the work of creation is about selecting what to portray and how to present it.
To create an image the viewer wants to look at again and again, it must have features that evoke an immediate positive reaction. Do that by framing and cropping the scene (composition here), then using shadows to invoke fleeting time-of-day emotions. Include cloud formations over the terrain to signal potential changes in the time of day or weather. A sunset or billowing storm clouds capture the viewer immediately, saying artfully “time is of the essence.” The overall image doesn’t need to beckon to us as much as it should command our immediate attention.
If the artist wants to pull the viewer to the second phase, exploration, then devices that signal ease of movement through the landscape (along with ability to return to where you start if needed), safety, and evidence of abundant resources. Remember, the visual image of resources is the reason to become interested in the habitat in the first place. Resources include bodies of water, large mammals, or indications of prior human presence, such as a house, old barn, or roadway.
To really capture the viewer, though, a sense of mystery must be present. The idea that there is more to be learned just over the bunch of grass, or hill, or horizon creates expectations in the viewer. Despite looking at the painting over and over, it never grows boring. We remain curious about what’s not quite evident. The winding road that disappears over the hill or behind the trees has had excellent appeal to viewers for centuries.
While you munch on nuts and berries, enjoying your Paleo diet, try including some elements in your work or art collection that harken back to earlier times. The waving grassland teemed with animal life, waterways glistened in the slanting sun and a swelling violet storm cloud swept overhead (well, you don’t have to include everything in one painting)–those elements so intrinsic to humanity and environmental aesthetics still beckon to us.
Stop, consider, explore, imagine. That’s how a compelling landscape painting affects us at our most primal level.
Paintings by Laurie Carlson (c)2018