Throughout the ages artisans have danced their messy fingers along the cutting edge of health, often without scientific understandings of why they do so. This is clearly seen in how artists all over the world, in primitive to advanced cultures, have consistently created images of oceans and waterways because, we assume, it makes them feel good to do so. Now we have the science that explains why this attraction is healthy as well as mesmerizing.
In his book “Blue Mind,” Wallace J. Nichols discusses the recent scientific research that explains why humans are attracted to live, work, and play near water. He explores the reasons that artists might feel a pull to depict water, and also why art collectors love to hang natural scenes on their walls.
Within the last 10 years there have been major developments in mapping the human brain using MRI and scanning devices. Human emotions, previously impossible to explain in physiological terms, can now be seen to follow scientifically distinct neurological and chemical patterns. Through this brain mapping it has been discovered that the “feel good” aspect of humans wanting to hang out near water is tied closely to “happy chemicals” within our bodies. In addition, when our brains are near calming waterways they have a tendency to zone out in peaceful ways that can lead to new neurological growth and expansion of the ability to think creatively.
Two seascapes by Doriane Heyman
Scientists have discovered that while being physically present in nature creates the healthiest highs, viewing photographs or paintings of nature can stimulate healthy highs as well. This is why art collectors often buy landscapes that remind them of locations they have visited in the past. Interestingly, if water is in the scene, this can create a higher feeling of wellness in the viewer than a landscape without water.
While water paintings in general connect on a high plain with viewers, plein air works (paintings created on site out of doors) generally have a higher ability to trigger that mysterious “happy chemical” response in the viewer than those artworks created in the studio. That said, the mindful studio seascape artist who paints from a photograph, but also uses experiential memories of the site to relive the scene while painting it, has a very high chance of creating a resonating scene for the viewer. In addition, if a water fountain with a pleasant trickling sound is placed near a painting of water the pleasure quotient rises significantly.
Seascape III by Ruth Waters
Abstract artworks that have curves incorporated within the designs can also achieve this positive response in viewers. It has been proven scientifically that curves pleasure the mind into open and creative thinking while straight and rectangular forms reinforce rigidity. Our subconscious minds have been deeply imprinted by visuals of water, and curves have become a symbol of sustenance for survival, health, and creative expansion. Basically we view the curves, feel our tensions fall away as we unleash ourselves into the flow of our thoughts, and this spatial sense of freedom allows in new ideas. Similarly, the color of water stimulates a subtle high, blue being the overall most popular color throughout the world.
Pondering Wallace Nichols’ findings, I asked the studio artists at PMA to say a few words about their experiences with water imagery. Doriane Heyman (studio 23 and the harbor paintings, above) responded by speaking about her lifelong fascination with water: “It must be my Dutch background that makes water such an important subject matter in my paintings. I am attracted by the mystery of it, the depth, sometimes revealing a lot, sometimes opaque, not giving anything away, always evoking a myriad of moods. Water is never the same at different moments, depending on so many factors; I cannot get enough of looking at canals, rivers and lakes, especially when there are reflections.”
Greta Stapf Waterman (studio 14) says of the above painting: “I tried to capture the energy of the water… the deep blue sea thrashing about. I find it exhilarating! I created the piece because I am enthralled with the sea. This is a plein air painting of a scene that I am fortunate enough to have right in front of where I live. But it seems I have always been drawn to full time living in a beach driven resort area, be it New York, Florida or California. I have always felt water gives off some form of tranquility and have always been soothed by it. However, the Pacific is an enraged swirl of sea. Tremendous energy and force. That is what has influenced me and what I try to convey on the canvas.”
Linda Salter (studio 1) speaks of the influences of nature and how it can affect the way a painting is created: “[Below] is a very recent pastel (9 x 12") on sanded paper that I did over the 4th of July weekend when I went to the Sierras. It is much more abstract than the rest of the plein air pieces I did over that visit because I was being eaten alive by bugs!!!! (In spite of being covered by clothes and lots of bug repellant…) Anyway, the bug attack forced me to work very boldly and I like the result.
She adds, “I often look for water for my plein air paintings. I particularly like to get reflections which allows an easy balance to the composition and invites the light color of the sky to appear again at the bottom of the painting. Also, it provides repetition, but not an exact copy since the reflection is usually more abstract and streaked with highlights on the water's surface.”
Ruth Waters (studio 13) says of her large redwood wall sculpture (3rd image above in this essay): "Seascape III evokes memories of floating in the surf off Magnolia Bluff (on Puget Sound, Seattle), rocked by waves.” The piece not only evokes the spirit of water, it also warms us with the sense of beauty and strength experienced in our native redwood forests. Happy chemicals in action.
Waves II by Kevyn Warnock
Kevyn Warnock (studio 25) is a frequent visitor to Sea Ranch on the Pacific Coast and enjoys creatively exploring the question of the ocean’s shifting moods. She states: “After many years of trying to replicate water in my paintings, I finally started adding color to the water simply to relieve the blue it appears to be. While water is clear for the most part, its color is the reflection of the sky, land, and what it covers below. In my paintings, the more color I added, the more dynamic and realistic the water became.”
While the artists listed above may not knowingly have the specific science of Wallace Nichol’s “Blue Mind” book egging them on, they are remarkably in sync with its scientific findings. Of course they are… that’s the point of the book: We are all in blue mind mode when we are happy and healthy and in the flow with enjoying and protecting our waters.
To find more information about the book, check out the Wallace J. Nichols website and learn why a blue marble means the world to so many people. Thanks for reading, and the next time you gaze at a water painting, why not also drink down a refreshing glass of water. Send your happy chemicals sky high!
“PAI on My Mind” contains the personal observations of the artist in Studio 26, and not necessarily those of PAI as a whole.