Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Aesthetics of Information

So, my job involves a very strange set of science-related skills: I need to know a fair amount about every branch of science, I need to be able to communicate this knowledge in an easily-understood way, and, very importantly, I need to never (or almost never) make a mistake - I need a hair-trigger alarm for what I don't know.

What, you thought I made a living from art?


Ha ha ha.


No, my friends, I most certainly do not make a living from art.

Be that as it may, my per se job provides an excellent opportunity for refining an understanding of the aesthetics of information. I don't literally know most of what I functionally know about science. Rather, I have a pretty good understanding of what scientific knowledge looks like. Each branch of science has its own texture. For instance, biology is the science equivalent of the English language - delightfully large in vocabulary and full of irregular verbs. It is a field composed as much of examples as of principles. Unless you are certain of some biology fact, you cannot assume it is true; the molecule that carries oxygen in humans is not the same as the one that carries it in horseshoe crabs.

Hemoglobin versus hemocyanin. Who knew, right?

In classical physics, on the other hand, you can re-derive a fact given a surprisingly limited number of principles. The kinetic energy of a falling brick is not noticeably different from the kinetic energy of a helium atom.

One wants a sense of the aesthetics of information, both to maximally extend what one knows, and to have a sharp sense of the boundaries of one's knowledge.

Now, how do you extend what you know to make almost completely reliable guesses about what you don't know? You take advantage of a grasp of the aesthetics of the body of information - and then you form an analogy. A does X, and B is like A with regard to the relevant factors, so B probably does something very like X in the same situation. Identifying the correct relevant factors is the key - that's a matter of aesthetics. One gains a sense of aesthetics by tasting a huge amount of information, even if much of it is eventually forgotten.

A basic example to illustrate the point: fluorine bonds with one atom of hydrogen. Bromine is in the same column on the periodic table as fluorine. Elements in the same column have similar properties, and columns toward the edges of the table (like that of fluorine and bromine on one side, and hydrogen on the other) don't have multiple bonding ratios. So probably bromine bonds with one atom of hydrogen as well.

Spoiler: it does.

This is analogical thought, and it is very powerful for extending your functional knowledge, as long as you keep in mind the difference between what you actually know and the considerable volume of smack you're claiming to know.

I personally suspect that it is also a characteristically Jewish way of thinking. There's a reason for this. Judaism, among its bewildering variety of definitions, is a system for living. This system for living is defined by an extensive written body of law. The law, however, cannot possibly be as detailed as the universe. In referring a potentially infinite variety of real-world situations to a finite body of law, it is necessary to extend what is known (the law) to what is unknown (how to behave in a given situation). This scaling-up of the law to match unanticipated situations occupies a great deal of classical Jewish scholarship, with extensive recorded disputes about the applicability of various points of given law to new situations.

Rabbis disputing until morning

Case in point: it is possible to derive the implicit anti-abortion position of Jewish law despite a lack (so far as I know) of a specific prohibition on abortion. How? Because the laws regarding murder specify that the murderer of a pregnant woman shall be tried for the murders of two people. This is analogical reasoning at work:

A (murderer of pregnant woman) does X (goes on trial for murdering two people).

B (abortion) is similar to A with regard to the relevant factors (termination of a fetus).

Therefore B does something like X (abortion constitutes murder of a human being).

Most contemporary Jews do not sit around arguing points of Talmud with one another. But I run across this kind of thinking disproportionately among Jews, and have therefore concluded that the pattern of thought persists in the culture even though the instigating practices have long since receded into the background.

It is interesting to note, as long as we're discussing the topic, that there are two other major modes of reasoning (that I've mused on, anyway). There is also:

Syllogistic reasoning, which derives new knowledge from the premise "All A are B," a much more demanding and rigorous approach than "A is like B."

Revelatory reasoning, which derives new knowledge from the premise, "Aha! A and B are the same!"

I can reason syllogistically when I can be bothered to put in the effort, and when I'm on fire, I can reason revelatorily. But I am primarily an analogical reasoner. My friend Chris is a syllogistic thinker, which means that winning an argument with him is a bitch, because of his tendency to point out that you're talking a considerable volume of smack. My wife Charlotte is also a syllogistic thinker. Chris's ancestors were Italians, and Charlotte's were Scots. So they gave us the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, and therefore we'll let them off the hook for being such fussbudgets about strict proof.

Leah, subject of the Blue Leah paintings, is a typically well-educated secular Jew, whose ancestors no doubt came from the next ghetto over from mine in Ukraine. Leah reasons analogically.

Blue Leah #1, oil on canvas, 24"x36", 2011

Alley, subject of Her, is of Swedish descent, and reasons revelatorily.

Her, oil on canvas, 36"x36", 2010

I don't know if that has to do with her being Swedish or not. I don't know anything about Sweden except for that Liv Ullmann is a babe.

Liv Ullmann

Believe it or not, all of this has something to do with art. It has to do with the old problem confronted by everyone serious about figure drawing:

Should I draw what I see or should I draw what I know?

Arguments about this topic go all over the goddamn map, and frankly they're not very interesting, because the map isn't very big. But I think I can lay claim to a diverting wrinkle in it, so here we are.

As you possibly know by now, my own history with figure drawing divides roughly into an early craptastic period:

life drawing, 2001

And a later shockingly-awesome period:

life drawing, 2011

The border between these periods is 2001-3, during which time I was involved in cadaver dissection at Santa Monica College, under the guidance of Dr. Margarita Dell. It was a period of two years during which I spent as much as 40 hours a week drawing my own personal anatomical atlas:

you don't even want to know what that is

So you'd think that I would bloody well be on the side of the draw-what-you-know camp. But you'd be thinking wrong.

Here's an interesting twist: because I'm lazy as all hell, I didn't ever memorize the names of any structures. Not one muscle, not one bone. I see artists going around saying, "Yeah, and there's the iliac crest," and I'm like, "If you say so, dude."

We fix this kind of explicit detail in our minds with words. So if you asked me to draw you a diagram of the muscles of the body, I would have large regions known as "getting it wrong." Same deal with bones. No way could I draw you that mess of bones in the center of the foot, even though I picked them apart and drew them more than once:

So what did I learn from two years of formaldehyde headaches? I learned the aesthetics of anatomical information. The body is a chaotic grab-bag of things. There are two fundamental modes of making sense of it: explicitly learning all its structures, or looking at it long enough that you get it. I did neither. I retained the aesthetics of its structures, and I applied that knowledge to looking at it.

What does this buy me? I can't tell you where a muscle starts and stops. But I know the insertion of a muscle when I see it. I can't tell you the standard distribution of fat depths beneath the skin, but I can see the difference between muscle and fat. And I can't tell you all the points where bone typically stretches skin, but I know its shine when it's there, so I see its shape as well.

What I know is so partial that it is flexible. I don't have a systematic approach to the body - I am constantly thrown back on direct perception, as ignorant as a child. But I also have a sense of the aesthetics of the body. This helps structure my perceptions just enough to lead them to anatomical accuracy. Consider Leah's left shoulder in Blue Leah #5:

Now consider the same phenomenon from the perspective of explicit knowledge:

That bulge just to the right of Leah's armpit, catching a bit of light, is her teres major, overlaid with an adorable shot of yellow adipose tissue (fat). The region between the left dink and the right dink is her infraspinatus. We're not seeing the edge of her trapezius because it's relaxed and not as well developed as one expects in, say, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The next bright line we see, moving right, is the medial border of her scapula.

I didn't think of any of that stuff while I was painting it. I thought, "bright spot, dink 1, dink 2, shoulderblade."

I think it's very, very difficult to draw the body accurately on the basis of looking alone. On the other hand, I think it's next to impossible to draw the body realistically in the context of medical-grade anatomical knowledge. Why? Let me deploy another analogy.

Early in the history of Assyriology...

Assyriology is the one with the cuneiform tablets

...scholars drawing copies of tablets tended to draw what they saw very accurately. Why? They weren't so sure as they are now what was meaningful and what wasn't, so they instinctively took down everything so as not to miss something that might turn out to be important.

W. M. Flinders Petrie, published 1894

Try copying something in Chinese sometime, and you'll see what I mean.

Later, once cuneiform was better understood, typical renderings of tablets became more idealized:

Possibly Hans G├╝terbock, after 1960

By this point, scholars were drawing symbols, not things. They knew what was essential, and they threw away the non-meaningful idiosyncrasies of the tablets in front of them.

This is the danger of total anatomical knowledge. Once you learn what is "meaningful" anatomically, you automatically subtract what is accidental to the person actually in front of you. The living model becomes a story written in physiological letters, in the inflexible syntax of anatomy. Just ask Prud'hon:

Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, Study for La Source
c. 1801, Black and white chalk, 21 3/4 x 15 1/4 inches

And this is something I oppose (although I like Prud'hon quite a lot). My work looks much clumsier than the paintings of many of my classically-figurative contemporaries. The anatomy is accurate, but it is not a given. I want the sweat to show. When I build up to a figure, I don't want that figure to fall into place as if it were always so. I am not - just now - painting the Human who lives in the sky. I am painting the particular people in front of me.

I learned the aesthetics of information in this field by learning its knowledge and then forgetting much of it. This allowed the course I prefer - depending on the aesthetics of information to help me organize what I see. I didn't want pure empiricism to make me incapable, and I don't want knowledge to make me blind.


As always, take this with a grain of salt. I am describing here the exact method I am using right now. And I have a tendency to think that every little thing I do is not only right, but inevitable. When I change methods tomorrow, I'm sure I'll have a clever reason for my new method being ever so perfect. So please, please remember that this is an advocacy for one of many valid procedures.


  1. It is an omentum. Probably the greater.

  2. Right neighborhood! It's a chunk of small intestine, with that flappy thing that attaches it to the back of the cavity, that has the anastamotic loops that come off the superior mesenteric artery.

    See, e.g.

    I don't know what the flappy thing is called (it's not the greater or lesser omentum), but once you've seen one, it ruins zombie movies for you, because they're all like "nom nom nom" on the small intestine, and you're like, "Not so fast, my decomposed friend, first you must slice through the flappy thing."

  3. Very interesting thoughts.
    Ideally I guess what you know should let you understand what you see and what you see should illustrate what you know. Understanding what you are seeing is what makes you a better artist.

  4. I actually agree totally with this - this is huge statement.

    Personally, I don't have a textbook understanding of the figure either, but I know I've understood it at one time, and understand what I'm seeing when I look at it - and extrapolate an aesthetic "understanding" of the greater thing.
    Everything you've seen, learned, practiced - whether you recall it at a conscious level or not - permanently shapes your aesthetics and informs your understanding. (sometimes this causes you to act like you know more than you really do, ha - which is a minor point I believe you made here).

    This is also the reason I don't want to know too much about the method of painting - I want there to be an awkwardness in the process and to make the struggle visible, as you said.


  5. Pavlos -

    I think we're mostly agreeing, although I use lots more words to do the same job. Thanks for adding this formulation to the pot.

    Steve -

    Did Earth's magnetic poles reverse or something? We *never* agree about anything. Now I'm suffused with pride that I came up with a thought that you also happen to subscribe to. Yay me! I agree that one's hand (i.e. actual muscle memory + unconscious) never forgets anything entirely, and that the texturing of the hand is a great part of skill. And I also agree that I act like I know more than I really do. Google has, if anything, made this worse, because I can pretend I'm an expert in two or three minutes.

    Interesting application of the concept to the technique of painting itself; I know I've skipped learning certain procedures on the basis of this and sheer cussedness, although of course our outcomes are totally different.

    Thanks for reading the post!


  6. There is so much to which to respond! Its impossible to select any particular part of your discussion. All fascinating. If you get a chance, pick up Kurt Wenner's Asphalt Renaissance. Although the book is heavy on his start and rise to fame as a street painter, he is a Master Artist and as such he has drawn some interesting conclusions about drawing classical figurative work and about the historical significance of aesthetics/observation. I, myself have witnessed "drawing memory." Having observed construction of the human form and drawn it, it is then committed to memory. THEN, it is up to the artist to ascribe their idea of divine proportion and apply their individual/unique sense of aesthetic.

    Relating this to Judaism, is more a function of the "kind" of religious practice: "orthodox" is fixed and reformed is "changing." There are beliefs that are fundamental (literal) like Hassidim, and beliefs that are mystical like Kabballah. Analogously speaking, it the same ideas in diversity of approach to "practicing the religion" as there is for "ways" to be an artist drawing the figure. Its all an illusion for "practicing" ones spiritual or artistic practice. (maybe that's a metaphor? lol)

  7. Although I've never dissected a cadaver, I have been fascinated by the study of anatomy, but I never saw any need to memorize the names of everything, and I draw much more from what I see than from what I know. I think you make a good point in suggesting that those who draw from learned knowledge tend to standardize or idealize their figures, whereas those who work from direct perception capture more individuality.

    Structural knowledge is much more helpful to someone who draws figures out of their imagination than it is to one who works from a model. I sometimes try drawing figures from my imagination and find I'm not very good at it, even after many years of life drawing sessions. That may be because I always worked from a perceptual approach rather than a constructive one.

    You might make a distinction between "information", such as the names of all the bones and muscles, and "knowledge" or "understanding" that might be at a deeper level. For instance, I have had some experience with massage and bodywork, and I think that experience informs my figurative artwork at a deep level, because my sense of the body is tactile and three dimensional, and have a strong sense of the differing feels of the various lumps and divots one sees on the human body. There is no question that influences how my hand moves when I'm drawing or painting.

  8. All I know is that I like the rendering of the shoulder, dinks and all, and I love the flow of the essay too. It all reminds me of the way history is recorded as well. Its precision and details seem to ebb and flow.

  9. What I find fascinating is how well comic book artists can draw the figure, anatomically correct and in any pose, quickly. They know all the muscles (whether they know the names or not), how they relate & move - something, with all my experience, I'd have fair difficulty doing. In that respect, those guys are more like Renaissance masters than most figure painters.
    I like assholes like Bacon and DeKooning, so for me figure painting has a lot to do with things not about anatomical mastery.


  10. Was that snarky? That wasn't supposed to sound snarky. :)


  11. Not at all - I'm just busy painting. :)

  12. Hi Daniel. I was surprised to come across this post doing my daily Google search for references to Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. But I really enjoyed it!

    I have two questions for you, joking aside.

    I imagine when you were doing your cadaver studies, you knew *that* it would be important to your art, but probably not *how* it would be important. Hmm, that's not a question. Did you anticipate this informational aesthetic approach to figures while you were in the cadaver studies? Or did you go into it thinking you had to memorize the names of everything and then it changed along the way as you put the knowledge into practice? Does that make sense?

    And, speaking of shoulders, when I look at the back of your latest in the Leah series, I wonder how many poses sessions are involved in painting that back. And how difficult it must be for her to bring her shoulders back to the perfect degree to replicate all the muscle and bone and light and shadow that were there the first time you started painting it. And then this post made me wonder if some of the information you derive from later sittings is influenced by what you know is there from previous, slightly different sittings.

    As always, I'm not sure if I'm making any sense. But the thought you put into thinking makes me think how much I look forward to sitting across a coffee table with you just talking.

  13. (Also the foot skeleton drawings are pretty cool!)