Enjoy this article from Artists Network TV instructor Gigi Chen on pareidolia
— or seeing things in things. It’s a creative idea with fun exercises to get your creativity, imagination and artistic skills working together. Enjoy!
Seeing Things in Things
As artists we are all looking for a fresh way to make art. Seeking new perspectives and seeing the world in a different way allows us to make our art in new ways.
So here we go…
Our buddy Wikipedia tells me this ‘seeing faces in objects’ is called pareidolia.
Pareidolia (/pærɪˈdoʊliə/ parr-i-DOH-lee-ə)
A psychological phenomenon in which the mind responds to a stimulus, usually an image or a sound, by perceiving a familiar pattern where none exists.
Basically it’s when you see pigs chasing a pirate ship when you are gazing dreamily into the clouds. Or when your bed sheets look like they are winking at you.
We all have this experience. We crave familiarity and also the bizarre, and sometimes we start to see them! Our minds trick us but we can use that to our advantage.
This is not a new idea. And I am not a scientist. Like you, I am an artist. And also like you, I am always looking for my next thing and hoping to be original. Even though not everything we do can always be original, our visual perceptions are still our own and can be used to steer our way towards originality.
Over the last few years, I have used the world around me and the phenomenon of pareidolia as a source of visual inspiration.
A New Way of Looking at the World
Looking, as opposed to seeing…
Looking is a passive activity. We look and then walk away. But as artists, we need to see. Seeing is being present and in the moment. Seeing gives you the chance to be an active participant in the world around you. By seeing, you can react, either by taking out your sketchbook or snapping a photo for future reference. Hopefully this discussion of “seeing faces in things” or pareidolia will encourage you to notice more in your day to day and to take action.
A New Creative Momentum
Like so many of you, I get into artist blocks and have trouble maintaining my creative momentum. To break that cycle of art and then block, I try different approaches. Like the gym and yoga and reading. But the best thing I have found is to change my scenery.
I grew up in NYC, which is rich in culture but can be overwhelming and can easily distract you. Over the last few years I discovered nature (!) and I started going on long hikes. There were fallen trees and roots sticking out and texture texture texture.
So to keep track of things, I started taking pictures because on hikes I would prefer to keep walking and could not always stop and bust out my sketchbook. I also needed to take the time to concentrate and I like to go-go-go when I am outdoors. Meaning, I would look (not see) and I took photos in order to study and see better later.
Nature is wild and unpredictable. The leaves fall and a branch can trip you up. Moss grows in unexpected places and creates tiny visible and invisible ecosystems. You look up into the sky to watch the trees sway and to smell the air… and then it starts to rain. Ha!
Spending time out in the woods allowed me time and space to really observe. And I started to see things everywhere. One of my favorite activities when I go hiking is seeing faces and animals in the bark of a tree. The phenomenon of pareidolia was everywhere! And it started to change my work. I began incorporating natural elements, textures and animals in my drawings and paintings.
Pareidolia before and after…
Here are some examples of what I saw when I was out on my hikes and the pictures I took. Then below that is what I went into the studio and created with these pareidolia images in hand!
What my eye saw…
What I drew…
The pic and what I saw…
…and what I drew.
An angry-looking bird!
The pic and what I saw…
…and what I created!
A platypus thing!
The pic and what I saw…
…and what I drew.
Like a weird scrunched-up bear face!
More Pareidolia-Inspired Art
Here is a wooden tree stump. Poof! It’s a turtle!
Urban pareidolia! We are all aware of these little guys on city streets. My best friend and I used to go up to standpipes and pet them like they were little creatures.
For fun, I started making art about them. They would each have personalities. Maybe they were royal standpipes!
Eventually, I also started designing patterns from the folds in my sheets. I designed a pattern that incorporated facial images right into the patterns. I would then incorporate them into my drawings. And eventually, they would make their way into paintings.
Seeing More Things — An Exercise!
So everything can be a source of visual inspiration. A bump on a tree can lead to new character designs for your sketch or painting or video game project. That drip on your window could lead to your next surrealist masterpiece. You will never look at the world the same way.
We can be super self conscious about creating things. For this, I want you to keep this in mind: Everything you see is your own. And the way you translate it is your own. That is what makes this exercise exciting.
Even if two people see the same “monkey” or “bee” in a photo, neither of you will see it the same monkey or bee, and neither of you will translate it the same way. There will be infinite kinds of monkeys! So let’s be weird and free.
Tips and Strategies for Making Pareidolia Work for You
1. Turn the page and look at it from different angles.
2. Zoom in and out and turn it around. If its a physical photo, look at it far away and also close.
3. One image can have more than one pareidolia image.
4. It can look however you want. In any style.
5. It can be amorphous. Maybe you just like a certain shape and you want to emphasize it.
6. It can be weird and a fantasy creature or object. It does not have to be something immediately recognizable. It just has to make sense to you.
7. Try using different mediums to translate the image.
8. As a friend or neighbor what they see. It can start a fun conversation.
9. Embrace the texture of the existing picture. Or use the shape as a guide.
10. Or… crumple up what you are looking at (if it is a photo on a piece of paper) and use that crumpled ball of paper as your pareidolia guide!
About the Instructor
Gigi Chen is a notable contemporary painter working in New York City. She is one of our Artists Network TV art instructors. Her latest instructional video is Fresh Perspective on Drawing. Stream it now!