Dr. Bevil Conway, Wellesley College - Art and the Neuroscience of Color

Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Bevil Conway explains how the brain creates color and reveals methods artists have used to compensate for the shifting color palette of human perception.

Bevil Conway is the Sidney R. Knafel Assistant Professor of Neuroscience at Wellesley College and a fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. His lab investigates the neural basis for color and motion perception using single unit electrophysiology and functional magnetic resonance imaging. Conway is also a published visual artist who has contributed to multiple exhibitions in the United States and Canada. He holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University.

About Dr. Conway

Dr. Bevil Conway - Art and the Neuroscience of Color

In some sense, paintings are the product of our brain's neural machinery, which has been sculpted during evolution, and modified by cultural exposure and development. By examining artists' practices, my goal is to discover hints to how the brain works, and gain insight into the impact of artists on culture. I'll describe an example focusing on color.

The retina has three types of cone cells which are responsible for color, but the brain does not mix cone activity like a painter mixes primary paints. Instead, our brains calculate color by comparing cone activity across the visual scene. This explains why red appears redder on a green background, but it poses a challenge for painters because it means that the color of the marks they make will actually change as they paint. The color of the apple in the still life might seem perfect when the background is incomplete, but then appear radically and unpredictably wrong when the background is filled in. Artists have developed clever strategies that overcome and actually take advantage of the neural machinery for color.

Paul Cezanne, for example, used a dynamic process developing the entire canvas more-or-less simultaneously. As a result, the color of the distributed patches could evolve in response to visual feedback. Henri Matisse used a different strategy: he left regions of unpainted canvas between the various painted regions. These white spaces, or "breathing lines", protect against color contrast so that the colors Matisse used when he first made the painted marks appear the same as they do in the finished painting. To fully understand the influence of these artists on art history, I argue that we benefit from knowledge of the neural mechanisms of color, which themselves are better understood in light of historical, cultural and philosophical considerations of color.

Academic Minute Home