Posts Tagged ‘artistic technique’

Head knowledge vs. experiential knowledge

Monday, July 1st, 2019

We learn through both head knowledge and experiential knowledge.  But there’s a vast difference between them.  What are the benefits and limitations of each?  How can they be combined to optimize our understanding and appreciation of art?

We begin our lives with experiential learning—primarily through cause and effect.  When we cry we get attention; when we touch something hot it hurts.  We remember these lessons well.

As we get into school, a higher proportion of our learning is through head knowledge—being told something and being expected to remember and apply it.  Difficulties arise when we “learn” (by rote) information for which we have no experiential understanding to which we can relate it.  To a young child, what real difference is there among the dates 1492, 1776, and 2001?  They were all so long before a child was born that they seem to be only random numbers and therefore must be memorized along with their significance.  And what is their significance?  The child is too inexperienced yet to fully understand.  For this reason, pure head knowledge is more difficult to retain.

On the other hand, our life experiences can be so complex and overwhelming that we don’t know what specific lessons we should be looking for or learning from.  Have you ever been somewhere with someone who keeps saying, “Did you see that?  What do you think about that?” while you were looking at or thinking about something else entirely and have no idea to what they were referring?  Each of us notices those things to which we are already attuned but tend to overlook those things to which our minds don’t immediately relate.

This is why, when we have been shopping for a specific model of new car, for instance, we tend to notice similar models on the road more readily than before we began car shopping.  Our eyes become attuned to it and easily pick that model out of the mass of traffic around us.  Suddenly it may appear that “everyone” is driving that model!

But how does this apply to art?  Art is like the traffic, whizzing past us this way and that–every vehicle from bicycles to 18-wheelers, junkers to Maseratis.  Some feel comfortably familiar; others may seem like our “dream cars,” while others feel intimidating.  Yet each serves someone’s transportation needs.  Each of these vehicles needs certain elements to be effective.  If the engine doesn’t run or the bicycle chain disengages, the vehicles won’t get very far.  If an expensive car doesn’t garner the admiration the owner was hoping for, it may soon be replaced with a different model.  Similarly, if a piece of artwork fails to fulfill its purpose it will probably not gain much of a viewing audience.

But what is the key that makes the difference?  What should we be looking for?  This is where head knowledge comes into play.  By having been told what to look for, it’s easier for us to recognize the answers when we see them.

Perhaps the most important element of head knowledge to look for is the purpose.  What is the car/art trying to accomplish?  A simple, quick sketch is like a bicycle—minimal fuss, but it gets the artist /rider where it’s going.  A fancy, expensive gas-guzzler may be on the road more to declare the driver’s taste and wealth than to provide efficient transportation, just as an expensive piece of art may be chosen to display financial success in a corporation’s executive suite.  Like a Flower Child’s rusty, daisy-covered VW, another piece of art may express the artist’s whimsical sense of humor or political stance with no pretense of refinement.

What appeals to one person’s needs/taste/desires will not necessarily appeal to everyone else’s.  But understanding the elements that makes a vehicle – or artwork – appeal to you will help you recognize why one option will serve your purposes better than another.

Understanding the specifics of what appeals to you (as either an artist or a viewer) is a matter of experiential knowledge.  Recognizing the mechanics of design elements that fulfill a specific purpose is a matter of head knowledge.  We need to develop understanding in both areas to make the best possible choices, not only in appreciating and selecting artwork but in creating it.

To reinforce my own head knowledge, and to share with others some of what I have learned through experience, I include in my monthly newsletter, “Around and About,” a critique of one of my artworks to review how certain design elements or techniques may or may not have been successfully applied, and in what ways the composition might have been strengthened.  See the sidebar signup form to receive Charlotte’s newsletter, “Around and About.”