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  • August 2010
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Creative Biology

Claude Monet’s exquisite sensitivity to light, color, and detail was central to his work. He once said, “I am pursuing the impossible. I want to paint the air.” If you are not familiar with Monet, he is commonly known as the father of impressionism (and is one of my all-time favorite artists, much to the chagrin of my more modern artist family). In many of Monet’s paintings, repetitive patterns like leaves or ripples of water provide the illusion of three-dimensional volume.  This illusion of depth is created by a confused matching process involving the brain and our retinas (the light-sensitive tissue layer at the back of the eye that acts like the film in a camera). When we look at Monet’s repeated (but non-identical) patterns, the brain tries to match them, gets a little confused, and ends up with a perception of volume or depth even though you are looking at the flat surface of a painting (a rather complex process you can read more about in Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing) .

Unfortunately, many of the world’s great artists (including Monet, Degas, Rembrandt, Mary Cassatt, and Georgia O’Keefe) endured eye conditions later in life that negatively impacted their work. Monet wrestled with depression as his worsening cataracts blurred his vision and caused a general yellowing of his color perception. “Monet must have struggled mightily as he looked out into the murky yellow-brown garden and tried to decide what subtle impression to create on canvas,” according to Michael Marmor, MD, a Stanford University ophthalmologist.

If you are interested in the intersection of science and the creative process, check out these books:

                   

Sara Dora, CLP-Hazelwood

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