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The Thinking Process of the Visual Artist

Their use of language reveals the different ways painters, sculptors, and architects conceptualize space.
Artist Salvador Dali, pictured here in 1963.

Artist Salvador Dali, pictured here in 1963.

A quick experiment: Glance out of your nearest window and describe the scene. If you could leap through it and explore the environment, where would you go? And what would you like to change?

The answers you give, and the descriptive language you use, will be very different depending on if you are a painter, a sculptor, an architect, or none of the above.

That's the conclusion of a newly published study, which finds members of those three professions conceptualize space differently from the rest of us, and from each other. What's more, that difference is clearly reflected in the words they use.

"There is a profound link between professional training or daily professional activity (in these fields), and a particular type of spatial awareness," writes a research team led by psychologist Hugo Spiers of University College London. "This awareness is so deep that it is revealed through systematic conceptual and linguistic differences, even in a simple picture description task."

The study, in the journal Cognitive Science, featured 64 participants, including artists, painters, and sculptors. All had at least eight years of experience in their profession, including training. They were paired against a control group featuring people with no artistic background, and no occupation requiring spatial ability.

Each participant was presented with three horizontal images: "A Google street view shot of an urban outdoor environment; a painting of the interior of St. Peter's cathedral; and a computer-generated virtual composition of superimposed indoor/outdoor environments."

"If the brain changes with professional experience, this should affect our thinking in rather profound ways."

After giving their best description of the image, they were asked "How would you explore the space in this image? Where would you go?" and "How would you change the environment in this image," given the opportunity?

The interviews were open-ended; the visual professionals typically spoke for a half-hour or longer on each image, while the non-professionals ran out of things to say after 10 minutes. More tellingly, the words the artists used reflected the varied ways they conceived of the images.

"Painters focused on flat geometry to a high degree," the researchers write. "They conceptualized the depicted spaces in images simultaneously as two-dimensional pictures and three-dimensional spaces. Architects focused more on the materiality of the depicted spaces, and easily explored and mentally transformed them consistently, as if they were real-world three-dimensional spaces. Sculptors fell in between these two groups."

The researchers noted one striking variation in word choice: Painters regularly referred to "the back" of the work, while architects consistently used the term "the end."

While this likely reflects "the basic mechanics of producing paintings," the researchers argue that the words have very different connotations, as "end" is conceptually related to time (the end of a journey), while "back" refers to a static location. In a sense, the architect is walking through the image, while the painter is perceiving a plane.

It all suggests musicians are clearly not the only creative artists whose brains are shaped by their training. And "if the brain changes with professional experience," the researchers write, "this should affect our thinking in rather profound ways."

With that thought, this piece comes to an end. Or, if you're a painter, the back.