Art & Paleo: Landscapes in our DNA

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.

Painting by Laurie Carlson (c)2018

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.
Seasonal Changes
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.

Painting by Laurie Carlson (2018)

Paintings by Laurie Carlson (c)2018

“Evolved Responses to Landscapes,” by Gordon HY. Orians and Judith H. Heerwagen, in The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, John Tooby, editors. Oxford University Press, 1995.

Creating Art: Let Yourself Be Distracted

Painters know the fear of the blank canvas. What to paint?? Or, is gessoing canvas really art?
Finding a way to let my thoughts wander, as I relax in the sunlight and spring grasses. Insights begin exploding as I let my mind unfocus.

by Laurie Carlson

As makers, we often think about creativity and how we can increase or improve our ability to find new or better solutions as we work. But creativity isn’t a singular process, it’s a combination of several things.

First, imagination is created from insights. Creative ideas evolve from sudden splashes of thought that occur when we least expect it. We can call it serendipity or the muse, or just plain luck. But there is a biological process to how we expand and open our mind to new ideas. When we are relaxed and not focused on the details–or on the problem–our ability to experience insights and solutions increases. When we are under pressure to find a solution or work out all the details, our brains balk and we are mystified

Alpha Waves
The way our brain works, a flow of alpha waves moves from the right hemisphere of the brain to the left, and causes us to experience a sudden insight into a problem. These mysterious brain waves happen when we are relaxed and happy. Or at least not worrying so much about stress. Like when our mind is wandering as we hand wash dishes or drive down the freeway.

In experiments, people who didn’t have a flow of alpha waves moving across the brain couldn’t solve a problem, even when given hints. No insights happened because there was no alpha wave movement.

Remain Positive
A positive mood is essential to problem solving and creative thinking. Researchers link that sort of brain performance to mood, finding that happy people solve 25% more insight puzzles than those in a gloomy mood.

Daydreaming is Good
One study found that students with ADHD had greater creative achievements than others, largely because being able to NOT focus allows the imagination to arrive at insights. Daydreaming is key to creative thinking because it’s so unfocused.

Even better, is to daydream in blue. The color blue relaxes us, and as we focus less on what’s in front of us, “we become more aware of possibilities simmering in our imagination, ” according to John Lehrer, author of Imagine: How Creativity Works.

Find Joy
Since being in a happy state of mind expands our ability to think out side the box, we need to seek pleasant experiences and feelings. Studies found that after viewing a short funny video, people had more epiphanies than those shown boring or scary videos. Jerry Lewis fans were on to something, it seems. Discover what makes you laugh and include it in your life as often as you can. Stand-up comedy, funny animal videos, cartoons–whatever it is, seek and enjoy it. As Lehrer explains, “even fleeting feelings of delight can lead to dramatic increases in creativity.”

Early Morning
It’s probably no surprise that the best time of day to experience creative idea-making is in the early morning just after you wake up. Your brain is still floating, unwound from focusing on any particular problem or activity. In that state it’s open to all sorts of unconventional ideas and because the right brain hemisphere is unusually active at that time, insights come easily.

Don’t Force It
Trying to force an insight can actually prevent creative thinking. If you relentlessly focus on the problem you are trying to solve or the work of art you expect to create, you can inhibit or prevent the flow of alpha waves which are necessary to figuring out a breakthrough solution.

Using stimulants to help focus the brain, such as caffeine and ritalin, actually shift the brain activity away from the right hemisphere, in order to facilitate increased focus. That’s a no-no if you’re trying to daydream a solution.

Be Distractible
Just relax and indulge in distractions–the insight will appear when you stop looking at it. “According to scientists, the inability to focus helps ensure a richer mixture of thoughts in consciousness. Because these people had difficulty filtering out the world, they ended up letting more in . . . the creative person seems to remain in contact with the extra information constantly streaming in from the environment . . . the normal person classifies an object, and then forgets about it. The creative person is always open to new possibilities,” according to Lehrer.

So if you’ve got artist’s or writer’s “block” or are trying to come up with a fresh creative viewpoint, distract yourself from the problem at hand. Take a drive, wash some dishes, scrub a floor, work in the garden. Let your mind wander, keeping a sketch pad at hand to record those fabulous (and often fleeting) insights as they come your way.

Your Brain on Art

Laurie Carlson Art

Wow! That’s my first response when I finally got back to this blog. It has been frozen because I have been in suspended animation of sorts for months. I’m thawing out now. I put the post up July 4, 2018. Three days later Terry told me he was getting divorced. It was a 45-year long marriage, and I was sixty-six years-old. So, I was hit with a PTSD situation that was arduous. It is now mid-April, nine long months later. I am ready to share with the world again. Yep, vision repaired with cataract surgery, hair loss regrowing, alcohol craving subsiding–as in, no more whining while wine-ing. I am painting again, and finally able to write something besides a personal journal.

As I write this, I am also working on a manuscript about recovering from such an experience. That’s another story, however.

Art is the topic here today. Discovering how art changes lives has become my new mission. It changed me. It changes you. Creativity–making things from ideas in our heads–is what makes us human. The brain-hand connection is mysterious and powerful. What we see visually impacts us emotionally. Just viewing art made by someone else can boost our serotonin and impact us cognitively. Yes, it can make us happier and smarter.

So I am bringing you along on my exploration as I figure out exactly how art affects us and what we can do to bring about greater self-actualization (remember Maslow’s pyramid, where creativity reigns at the peak?). What we can do to bring not only joy, but bliss, into our lives.

Join me as I bring my new project, Your Brain on Art: Making Sense of Making Art, to life. Click to join the Facebook page where you can share your experiences, too.

It’s a beautiful world.  As they say, “no grit, no pearl.” Let’s create pearls from our lives.


Photo Bomb Today

I realized summer was moving ahead quickly and I need to get lots of photographs to carry me through the next winter’s painting.  Sort of like getting all the fruit made into jam and cucumbers pickled. So Terry went with me to Baskett Slough (is there any where else?) with our three cameras and we began foraging for beautiful landscape reference photos.

The grasses are mature now and different wildflowers are thick everywhere — summer is very different from spring. The oaks were stalwart as ever, no change in their color for a few more months.

At one of the ponds we found a hardworking heron, busily hunting whatever looked delicious. His mate was nearby in the thick grass, probably watching the young. As he worked the pond from both sides I suddenly noticed in the viewfinder that I’d been snapping photos of a quiet doe passing through the scene. Nice to have a deer and a heron in the same shot!

Here are some of my pickings today. Now I can look forward to winter–sort of.

Painting in the backyard today

It was a lovely day but I didn’t have time to drive off somewhere to paint plein air, plus the roses in the back yard were calling. We planted the roses last year — they are called Amanda Lambert rose, and they are really fantastic. So many blooms. The painting is only 8×10″ so ships easily — click here for information.