A Weird Thing I Worry About

A little bit of nothing?

A little bit of nothing?

Vision depends on context. At a basic level, what you see depends on what’s around what you see. This is essential in drawing— just take a segment of one of my favorite drawings by Van Gogh.

What is it of? Dots? Boredom? Nothing?

 Put back at home in the lower right corner of a drawing of a cottage garden it’s – ta da! – a pebbly path.

Vincent van Gogh, Cottage Garden, 1888. Reed pen, quill, and ink over graphite on wove paper, 24 x 19 ¼”.     [1]

Vincent van Gogh, Cottage Garden, 1888. Reed pen, quill, and ink over graphite on wove paper, 24 x 19 ¼”. [1]

Ebbinghaus Illusion. Although the two orange circles are the same size, the one on the left appears smaller due its context.     [2]

Ebbinghaus Illusion. Although the two orange circles are the same size, the one on the left appears smaller due its context. [2]

In Psychology 101, perception is often explained through optical illusions.  For example, the Ebbinghaus illusion presents two circles, one surrounded by larger circles, the other by smaller. Although the two central circles are the same size, the one surrounded by the little circles appears larger. It’s a context effect, and it breaks my heart every time. If even simple stuff like this is warped in my mind, how can I hope to see anything truly?

The Ebbinghaus Illusion is a textbook example, but context effects in early visual processing are something we experience all of the time. Walk out of a dark theater on a summer afternoon and you will be blinded by the sun. The colors you perceive in the evening are different than the ones you perceive in the morning, as Monet captured in his series of the cathedral at Rouen. In the Ebbinghaus Illusion, you can measure the circles and verify that they are equal, revealing the truth that ought to be perceived. But what’s the true color of Monet’s cathedral?   Your experience in place and time inevitably affects the information you get from your environment.

Composite of Claude Monet’s paintings of the cathedral in Rouen, 1892 – 1894.     [3]

Composite of Claude Monet’s paintings of the cathedral in Rouen, 1892 – 1894. [3]

Context effects are an issue that extends beyond early visual processing into every level of perception and cognition.  Working at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain, I assisted with research on the relationship between visual attention and visual working memory. Experiments documented that the context of vision isn’t just visual information. It’s also experience. The things we pay attention to enter our memory. Memory, in turn, guides attention. You know what you see. You see what you know. It’s a chicken or the egg kind of thing—context effects mean there’s never a clean start.

 History is full of examples of the ramifications of context effects. For example, during the 19th century cholera epidemics, physicians saw their cholera patients’ symptoms through their experience with poisons. Patients, afflicted with vomiting and diarrhea, looked like they were trying to get a poison out of their body, so physicians gave them substances to further encourage the exit of fluids. The patients nearly always died. Now, with our contemporary understanding of the disease, we see that they were killed by dehydration.

During the epidemic, one physician went against all accepted thought and gave his patients something to drink. The death rate plummeted. Thrilled, he called his colleagues to report his results. When they arrived and saw the healthy patients they said, “If these people had really had cholera, they would be dead.” They couldn’t see the cure. Their context was blinding them.[4]

To not be blinded by context, we must become aware of it. Malcolm McCullough writes in his book Digital Ground, “‘[C]ontext’ is not the setting itself, but the engagement with it as well as the bias that setting gives to the interactions that occur within it. ‘Environment’ is the sum of all present contexts.” [5]  To avoid being blinded by context, we must understand our environment, and the biases guiding how we are informed by it. But how?

 Understanding context requires understanding our place in the world. Knowing means knowing how what we know shapes what we know. Nothing is alone. Nothing is simple. Not a fact, not a thought, not a mark.

[1] http://artcritical.com/gelber/images/gogh1.jpg

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebbinghaus_illusion

[3] https://rmankoo.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/tumblr_m55ieg9rx81qzorveo1_1280.jpg

[4] Sonia, Shah, Pandemic (New York, NY: Sarah Crichton Books, 2016).

[5] Malcolm McCullough, Digital Ground: Architecture, Pervasive Computing, and Environmental Knowing (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 48.


Before I knew I was an artist, I was proud to be neuroscientist, memorizing molecular pathways and anatomical structures. Today, I couldn’t pass a quiz on the specifics I studied—but I remember one thing that was true. Above all else, being a scientist taught me the power of contradictions.


Vision, our dominant sense, is particularly full of contradictions. Standing in a field, our two eyes take quick snapshots of the patterns of light in the environment. By some miracle of the brain, these little pieces build one coherent picture. The field looks like a field, not a confusing collection of shadows and angles. We perceive it as whole.

And yet, that whole is just a fraction of reality. There is an unfathomable amount of visual information that we simply can’t take in. Compared to a hawk, we are painfully nearsighted. Compared to a bee, we are basically colorblind. I can’t look to my left and my right at the same time. I can’t inspect a pebble while I gaze at the clouds.

This paradox of vision-- its splendor and fallibility-- is at the heart of my practice as an artist.  For me, this contradiction provides a powerful description of not just how I see but also how I know. To know something, like to see something, can feel certain, but it’s never the full picture. Knowledge, like vision, is constructed and limited. Moving from the realm of science, to the realm of the studio, drawing provides a visible way to explore the link between seeing and knowing. Drawing also brings awareness to the contradictions within each act.

 Antony Gormley put it this way: “Drawing is not so much a mirror, or a window, as a lens which can be looked at in either direction, either back toward the retina of the mind, or forward toward space. You could perhaps not look so much at drawing as through it.” [1]

That drawing has these two abilities—to be a lens looking out into the world or back toward the mind-- reveals drawing’s own contradictory power. It’s what makes it well suited to thinking about seeing and knowing.  

Drawing is searching, gathering.

Drawing is complicating, generalizing.

It’s abstracting, obscuring, clarifying.


Drawing is a summoning.

It brings to the surface.  It calls to mind.


It’s a line going for a walk.[2]

[1] Antony Gormley, 1979. Quoted by Anna Moszynska, (London: The British Museum Press, 2002), p. 5.

[2] “A drawing is simply a line going for a walk.” – Paul Klee