Friday, August 19, 2016

Thinking in Pictures

There's a body of information today that suggests there are several ways of thinking. Some people think in words, some in pictures, some in both, if the science is accurate. There seems to be some disagreement about the percentages of people involved. Some say only 30% think in images alone while others say the same about verbal thinking. Temple Grandin, the famous writer and professor, who is autistic, wrote that she originally could only think in images and that verbal communication is a second language, in a sense. But beyond verbal and visual thought there are reportedly other kinds of thought, namely musical, kinesthetic, and mathematical. One supposes that Beethoven was a musical thinker and Newton a mathematical one, but perhaps not.

"Five Lincolns from memory," charcoal & sanguin 2010
For most people it's likely quite difficult to imagine oneself thinking in a different way. I can't imagine, for example, my mind as a thicket of numbers and numerical relationships or musical notes rather than as a silent stream of words in my head. Nor can I imagine thinking purely in images. Maybe there really are some pure visual thinkers (not necessarily autistic) who can't hear words in their mind at all.

My thoughts are almost completely verbal. Even so, I can remember broad aspects of many images that are seen repeatedly, like a plume of smoke from a tower of the World Trade Center, or Abraham Lincoln (probably one of the world's most commonly seen faces), and for many of them I can manage a fair representation. But most of the thought involved is verbal, in my case.

A useful trait for an artist is owning a lot of mental images in a kind of visual library or vocabulary. That kind of visual memory has to be cultivated by most people, seems to me. For me to remember images even sketchily at a later date, the best way is to fix as many details in memory as possible at the time. Even then I forget a lot. Sketching is one of the most useful tools we have to fix a scene or a face in visual memory. Sketching allows the mind to regard the object in space, it's defining characteristics, it's tangible reality at that moment and somehow convert the whole into a nonverbal memory. But even then details are blurry or lost eventually. It's an excellent reason to take reference photos. Memory also provides emotional content so photos are endlessly useful to trigger those, at least in my hands.

"Rosa Mae," oil, 6x8, 2015
Sometimes an old photo, any kind from the 19th century or early 20th, stays in my memory until it's resurrected years later. Most of these works are small and sketchy, of course.

It's intriguing to ponder the way that some of the great artists of the past thought as they did their work. Were they visual, or verbal? Did Michelangelo think only in pictures? Or did Hiroshige, the great Japanese, wander in personal mental landscapes? What of van Gogh? Are those coarsely-painted images what he actually saw in his mind's eye, or was his mental vision--as thoughts--distorted? And what, if anything, about the thought processes of abstractionists of the past century? Do they see patches of color or maybe incomprehensible nests of lines, or perhaps simply distorted images or sur-reality? Perhaps we'll know some day, but most likely not.
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