Neuroesthetics. I have a hard time pronouncing this word. When I do, they all make me repeat, spell out, clarify. I am still working on a convincing elevator pitch. Instead I find myself giving examples of studies of neuroesthetics. Like the pigeons who are able to differentiate the paintings of Monet from Picasso and make us question the specificities of the human artistic brain; or Mona Lisa whose lips appear to be smiling or not depending on whether we use our peripheral or central vision to look at her mouth.
However I don’t do pigeons nor do I work on retina. What I do instead is trying to merge my whole experience as an artist with my neurology knowledge. When I started to be seriously involved with experienced artists, I was surprised by their ability to describe visual phenomena or concepts, using a vocabulary foreign to me. Initially I thought it was a gap in my own English vocabulary (English not being my primary language). But it soon appeared to me that they had in fact developed their own vocabulary to describe their own complex and mature visual experience. I could easily understand some of these notions, for example “analytical” versus “intuitive”. But they were also using unusual terms like “sensate” instead of “sensory”, which was confusing to me as a neurologist. They were questioning contraries like “abstract” versus “representational” work, while I initially thought I kind of knew what it meant. They were also describing with a lot of assertiveness certain subtle nuances like “object identity” versus “imagery”. With a bit of training I was able to grasp and adopt all these terms in my own vocabulary, and link them to my own knowledge of how the brain works, it was just a matter of translation, at least initially.
Then, as I was becoming a dedicated artist myself, I experienced and felt these concepts in a much more personal way. I played with them when practicing, extending my intuition, refining my analysis, or developing my personal sense of color, manipulating hues and values. I ended up understanding what they meant better, and learned how to read and speak the visual language.
I am convinced that painting needs a brain. I am with Prof Zeki on that. Eyes, limbs and fingers can help too but without the brain they are useless. Even the most emotional or intuitive phenomena originate at some point from the nervous system. Observing and listening to painters advance our understanding of how the nervous system works. I also think that a certain degree of neurological awareness can inform the painter. That is why I am now focusing on neuroesthetics, and I do it primarily from an inspiring place: as a painter.