Lifelong Learning

art, bottles, brain plasticity, Children, Creativity, flowers, Imagination, mystery, nature, Painting, renewal, vision

Leonardo da Vinci is the ideal Renaissance man: a supremely gifted painter, scientist, inventor and polymath. Da Vinci has been widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest minds, whose extraordinary talents included painting, mathematics, architecture, engineering, botany, sculpture, and human biology. He once said,

There are three classes of people:
Those who see.
Those who see when they are shown.
Those who do not see.

When small children draw, they first make experiments with whatever medium they have in hand. They’ll put their whole body into it, cover the entire page, and sometimes even eat the materials. Even though they’ve been given a limited arena to explore, such as a sheet of paper, if you turn your back, kids will want to see how the crayons or paint work on a wall, on their bodies, or on the family pet. Parents think of this as more cleanup work, but it’s just another learning experience for the children. The pandemic may have brought this lesson home to roost in more than one home.

Family and House

Later on, children make symbols for the objects in their world. This is why all early grammar school art looks very similar: the blue line across the paper’s top represents the sky, the yellow sun blazes in an upper corner, a house has exactly one door and two windows, and the ground is green grass. Once a child is 9 to 11 years old, they begin to draw realistically, and over the next few years a child will develop their eye for accurate color and detail.

Sometimes children get the idea they have no artistic ability, and develop a bad case of the “I can’t do this-itis.” When I taught art, I had kindergartners cry when they couldn’t cut out a snowman perfectly on the fold. “Oh, sweetie, no one cuts it perfect the very first time! The first time is just for practice. Let’s see what you were doing that got you two pieces instead of one.”

I knew they were holding the cut side, rather than the folded side, when they made made their cut, but they needed hands on instructions to get the lesson. “Oh, look, you need to hold the fold in your hand, and cut on the flappy sides. That’ll give you the whole piece. Try that while I watch.”

It’s just amazing what happens when the scales fall off their little eyes! In the book of Acts (9:17-18), Ananias laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. When we find the magic key to unlock the storehouse of hidden knowledge, all the possibilities of the world beyond us seem to be close at hand. It only takes a few successes to gain confidence.

Once young people get up to middle school age, they begin to sort themselves into “groups.” Those who think they’re Michelangelo’s and Leonardo’s heir apparents often think they only need to do a minimum of work, since their native abilities exceed the best efforts of the less talented students. In mandatory art classes, everyone needs to work under the same grading system. Otherwise systemic structures would always prefer and rank higher those students who had the benefit of prior training, cultural experiences, and native talent.

I always leveled the playing field by grading on heavily on the work ethic, the amount of improvement, and then gave the finished product only 25% of the overall total. This meant if Michelangelo goofed off, but dashed off a winning project, he’d most likely fail the first grading period. His parents would get his mind straight and then his art works would begin to improve by leaps and bounds.

Jasper Johns: Order and Disorder.

Likewise, the students who never had a chance at succeeding in art class could give their best efforts, seek to solve the assignments, and discover they could improve! It was as easy as A—B—C—Attitude, Behavior, and Consequences. If we began with a positive attitude, we made positive actions, and got good grades and improving art works. Plus we began to feel good about ourselves. If we kept a negative attitude, we wouldn’t try, we’d goof off, be slow to improve, and get a bad grade. Why feel bad about yourself when everyone else was having a good time in art?

The fancy name for this process is brain plasticity. Our brains can form new information and structures, not only when we’re young, but also as we age. The brain is a muscle, which we can exercise. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we don’t just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. You might ask, “How often must I practice tennis, guitar, or math to keep on top of it?” This is the question about brain plasticity, since you’re asking how frequently you must practice an activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another. The simple word for this is “Use it or lose it.”

Today we live in a world in which many children don’t get to explore a wide variety of interests. Some of this is because our schools have focused on teaching just the basics, so art and music get shuffled off to the outermost edges, or dropped if finances get tight. We live in a more structured world than fifty years ago, so children don’t often interact with their environment unless they’re camping or on a field trip. Many don’t play sports because teams are competitive, time consuming, and don’t allow children to have outside interests. I’m not sure why we want children to become professionals too early in life, when they could be exploring the world in all its vast wonder instead.

Maybe this is why as adults we come back to discover our true selves and take up a hobby we never thought we’d ever try. We have to drop our preconceived notion that our abilities and success in one area of our lives will mean we’ll quickly progress in a new field. Some have said we need 10,000 hours of practice to attain excellence, but others say it depends on the field. Deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures. In tennis, chess, and classical music, the rules never change, so you can study up to become the best. If we were to start up a brand new business , we might need to break some of the rules.

Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his notebook,
“Shadows which you see with difficulty, and whose boundaries you cannot define… these you should not represent as finished or sharply defined, for the result would be that your work would seem wooden.”

We sometimes see with difficulty, and our hand isn’t yet fully connected to our eye, so the boundaries of our shapes don’t match what we see, but we find joy in the act of painting. We keep looking ever more closely, increasing our powers of observation, and training our hand to follow our eye. Some of this is keeping a memory in our mind long enough to put the image on the surface, and the other part is to still the mind of extraneous thoughts so we can hold that thought for the few seconds it takes to make the line.

Leonardo was a lifetime learner.

We do this for our mental health, to keep our neurons fresh and our brains challenged by the problems of representing color, shadows, light, and space. We approach our art work as if we’re little children eager to discover a new way to describe our world. Each time we set brush to canvas, we grow, if only in humility.

Gail brought us some beauty berry bushes. Unlike nearly every other fruiting shrub in North America, beauty berry flowers and fruits in clusters along its stem at the leaf joints, rather than on a separate fruiting stem. Flowers are clustered sprays of pinkish-white tiny blossoms that appear in mid to late summer. Berries are a bright, intense purple, tightly packed in balls of fruit along the stem. The berries are edible when they’re deep purple, but they require lemon juice and sugar to make a good jelly.

The leaves can be used in nearly every way to fight insects: you can crush them and rub them on yourself for a quick fix, you can make an infusion and dip your clothes in it, you can distill out the essential oils and combine them with other plants to make a bug spray… it all works. And it’s not just folklore, either. In 2006, scientists at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service working at the University of Mississippi isolated three chemical compounds from beauty berry leaves— callicarpenal, intermedeol and spathulenol. All three proved highly effective as repellents for mosquitoes, biting flies, ticks, fleas, and other pests. Later studies confirmed their findings, and actually proved callicarpenal to be more effective than DEET at repelling insects, without the harsh side effects. The last hurdle is making the process financially feasible.

Very nice Beauty Berries

I brought another of my antique 1930’s glass vases from my grandmother’s house. Filled with water, the stems appear distorted underwater and don’t line up with the stems above water. This proved more difficult to paint, so I suggested to Gail a way to simplify the leaves. If the basic yellow shape were filled in first, then the shades of green could go next, leaving thin streaks of yellow for the veins. This is easier than painting a thin yellow line. A thin red edge could highlight certain areas to get the shadow. This takes a steady hand and controlled breathing. Hurrying to get somewhere fast won’t get it done. She paid close attention to the berries and their highlights.

Mike had an errand of mercy to attend to, so he made an appearance and left to help someone who was in trouble. Trouble is just another word for the opportunity to be the hands of Christ in the world. Anytime I had interruptions in my daily plans, I always knew God’s plans were superseding my well planned calendar.

Sunlight on an Antique Vase of Beauty Berries

My little still-life has all the autumn colors. Gail brought in a variety of branches and a red sumac also. We only have about 90 minutes to paint after I show some examples and have time to cleanup afterwards. Therefore, I choose to simplify the subject before me. I decide what is most important and necessary to convey the image, to set it into the space, to give it a mood, and to let it speak. If there’s an air of sadness about it, it’s because I painted it on the anniversary of my daughter’s death. If there’s a mood of mystery within it, the changing season is one of harvest and celebration. The earth gives forth its bounty, then goes into a form of rest, until it rebirths itself in the springtime.

If we’re going to paint not only the subject before us, but also share our true selves in the finished work, we need to become as little children who put their whole selves into their work. Although I’d hope we would have learned by now not to eat the paint.

Next Friday we’re going to make decorations for the harvest season. Mike is bringing in leaves, branches, and spray paint. I’m bringing a drill, glue guns, wire cutters, and wire. If you’re coming to make a wreath or mantle piece, bring your “autumn stuff,” as well as a wreath or log. Please wear a mask.

Until next time, Joy and Peace,

Children’s Art Stages

Edible Beauty Berries

The Brain That Changes Itself—brain plasticity
Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science NORMAN DOIDGE, M.D.