The Artful Brain: An Exploration in Neuro­-aesthetics

by Sarah Breckenridge, 11 December 2015

From a neurological standpoint, the effectiveness of art is measured by the degree to which the artist activates perceptual processes in the brain that are responsible for the “aesthetic experience”. Derek Russell is one such artist who achieves the aesthetic experience in his colorful expressionist portraiture, by eliciting a wide range brain activity. When viewing his art through a neurological lens, it is evident that his bold use of color massing in specific orientations stimulates not only regions of the brain tied to form, but also those tied to emotion and facial recognition. This diverse activation ultimately fosters an aesthetic experience, combining top­down recognition and bottom­up perceptual observations (Cupchik, 2009). In his work, Derek Russell uses color in various orientations and shades to create recognizable facial form in an ultimate effort to elicit an emotional response. His work’s capacity to tap into a wide range of brain regions is arguably responsible in fostering an aesthetic experience in the viewer.


The dominant feature of Russell’s style is his bold use of color. He captures emotion through bright tones that are generously applied to the canvas. This artistic choice activates the smaller receptive fields of midget ganglion cells, who relay signals to parvocellular layers in the Lateral Geniculate Nucleus—specifically layers three through six. This portion of the visual cortex processes color, luminance, and detail; the magnocellular layers of the LGN, specifically one and two, also process luminance. Most notably, Russell’s work activates V4, forcing the viewer to interpret complicated arrangements of color.

Throughout this process, brain signals remain segregated from the receptive fields all the way to the various LGN layers. This concept appreciates the idea that some informational visual aspects, like luminance, depth, and edge position, are independent of color. Color’s independence in the brain allows Russell to play with his pallet without affecting the viewer’s ability to recognize the object depicted in his work. His portraits of famous faces can hold almost any color Russell chooses, without denouncing the figure’s iconic look.

That being said, luminance, brightness, and contrast of color does have a role in recognition, creating form and depth on a 2­dimensional canvas. In other words, whether Russell paints a nose green or red, does not matter — what matters is the shade ( light or dark) that is responsible for creating the form of a nose. Darker shades are painted around the nostrils and in shadow, while lighter shades go on the bridge and tip of the nose, creating highlights. If translated into black and white, it is evident that form is achieved without that presence of color. These luminance changes allow Russell to create form while preserving his colorful style.

Color­ - Facial Form

Russell’s style, void of line drawing, communicates facial form through the massing of paint in specific orientations with contrasting luminance to create depth. The orientation of brushstrokes is key in creating form, because each edge of color, defined by its ability to contrast with the adjacent color, registers with cells in the visual cortex sensitive to line­orientation. Furthermore, area V2 contributes in processing boundary ownership specific to form, combining information received from orientation­sensitive receptive fields and perceptual luminance changes.

The influence of color in figure and shape formation is addressed in Baingio Pinna’s 2009 research article, “The Role of Chromatic Wholeness and Fragmentation.” Pinna performed an experiment in which participants viewed visual stimuli with complicated colors that forced them to either recognize fragments or recognize a whole. They then were expected to verbally state what they were seeing and were also asked to “scale the relative strength or salience of the stimulus” (Pinna, 2009). Pinna’s results concluded that the multifaceted role of color is to favor “the emergence of a whole object,” elicit a “part­whole organization,” and break up the whole to favor the “emergence of single components” (Pinna, 2009). These results apply to Russell’s style and the neurological perception of his art because they highlight the ability of color to induce wholeness while simultaneously encouraging fragmentation.

The ‘Principle of Correspondence Between Roles and Spatial Locations’ agrees with this idea, stating that, “the whole color and the roles of other colors are determined by different specific spatial locations within the object” (Pinna, 2009). For example, in Russell’s portrait of Abe Lincoln, it is evident that his beard is a part of the facial form, even though it is a different color than the face. This is due to the location of Abe’s beard under his chin, instead of some other unnatural location on his face, like the middle of his forehead. If the beard were depicted on Abe’s forehead, it would not be perceived as a beard, but as a separate form disconnected from the face. This concept highlights the importance of color location to avoid fragmentation, preserving the whole.

The ability of Russell’s art to spark the brain’s process of recognition lends itself to the idea of diversity in brain activation
contributing to the aesthetic experience. If he used conventional colors and a naturalistic approach, the brain would not have to deliberately digest parts to the whole, it would just see skin as one color and recognize a face. But, since Russell uses many colors in the face, the brain must experience the whole, despite differences in shade that risk fragmentation, which is a more complex and involved task.

Color­ - Emotion

Russell’s work elicits an emotional response through the use of bold color. Not only does this add to the variety of brain activation provoked by his style, but it also defines the aesthetic experience related to each work separately. By employing specific colors to capture specific feelings, Russell communicates something different in each work. According to a 1995 study done by Terwogt & Hoeksma, “specific colors are tied to specific emotions” (Terwogt & Hoeksma, 1995). The authors used a series of preference scales and ultimately found that participants had a variety of emotional impressions related to color. They hypothesized that highly preferred colors were tied to highly preferred emotions, and their results showed that participants liked the color blue best, followed by red, then green, white, yellow and then black. This suggests that in that same chronology, “good” emotions are related to blue, red and so on—while “bad” emotions are related to darker colors, like black (Terwogt & Hoeksma, 1995). Russell’s work uses a heavy amount of red, which Terwogt & Hoeksma argue elicits positive emotional responses to his works.

Furthermore, a 2001 study done by Michael Hemphill also investigates color­emotion connections. Hemphill concluded that brighter colors like blue and yellow are more positively associated, while darker ones like black and grey are more negatively associated (Hemphill, 1996). Similar to Terwogt & Hoeksma, Hemphill found that blue elicited the highest positive response, followed by green and then red. Blue was commonly linked by participants to the ocean or the sky, seen as “limitless, calm, or serene” (Hemphill, 1996). Red was found to be associated with excitement, green with the environment, and yellow was seen to be bright like the sun (Hemphill, 1996). Hemphill found grey to be the most negatively associated color, giving off a bleak and unwelcoming impression. When looking at Russell’s work, there is an abundance of red variations and blues, with little to no grey. Furthermore, all of these emotional reactions are rooted in the brain’s amygdala, yet another region activated by Russell’s style, contributing to the viewer’s aesthetic experience.

Facial Recognition

Along with plenty of activation related to the perception of color pertaining to form and emotion, Russell’s work also stimulates regions on the brain responsible for facial recognition. His ability to create recognizable faces lends itself to the appeal of his work because a well­known image depicted in such a unique style is of interest to the viewer. With this, the artist taps into a network of face­sensitive areas in the brain, spanning the occipital, temporal and frontal lobes (Axelrod & Yovel, 2015). A 2015 study done by Axelrod & Yovel discusses activation of this network and the recognition of famous faces in the fusiform face area. Using an MRI, Axelrod & Yovel were able to link the identification of famous faces to the right fusiform face area, therefore acknowledging that there is a distinct location in the brain where facial recognition takes place. This idea ties into a topic discussed by Belke & Leder known as the fluency theory: an argument that “easy processing might be pleasant because it indicates the availability of appropriate knowledge structures to deal with a current situation” (Belke, 2010). The ease at which viewers are able to recognize and process the forms depicted in Russell’s work, is directly related to their liking of it. If his figures were only slightly recognizable attempts of well­known faces, they would be less aesthetically pleasing. However, because Russell is able to accurately portray famous faces, the viewer can process the image fluently, and have an aesthetic experience. The right fusiform face area is responsible for this process, adding yet another brain region activated by viewing Russell’s work.


All of the aforementioned factors involved in processing Russell’s art highlight the artist’s ability to activate a wide range of brain regions, ultimately creating an aesthetic experience. These factors also appreciate the underlying relationship between cognition and perception, relating to Russell’s subject and style respectively. Cupchik’s 2009 study considers this relationship and attributes the aesthetic experience to a function of “the interaction between top­town orienting of attention and bottom­up perceptual input” (Cupchik, 2009). This idea suggests the separation of these two processes but also their function together in creating an aesthetic experience (Cupchik, 2009). The top­down perspective, which considers prior knowledge applied to the observed stimulus, allows the viewer to recognize a well­known figure depicted in Russell’s work. Meanwhile, the bottom­ up perspective, focusing on perceptual input, enables the viewer to process Russell’s style and raw use of color. The collaboration of subject and style contributes to the aesthetic experience of his work, and achieves activation in multiple perceptual and cognitive areas of the brain.

Related to the discussion of cognition vs. perception, a study done in 2013 by Helmut Leder investigates the degree to which “style and content affect aesthetic liking” (Leder, 2013). Leder’s third study was restricted to portraits, and ultimately showed that style is more important than content. Especially for abstract paintings, style was the strongest predictor of liking (Leder, 7 2013). This suggests that the viewer didn’t like or dislike who was depicted, but rather the how the person was depicted in the painting.

This idea sheds light on Derek Russell’s key to success in his expressionist portraits. His ability to develop an intriguing style is arguably responsible for eliciting a positive aesthetic experience. When reviewing multiple works by Russell, it is clear that he sticks to this particular style because it is successful no matter who, or what he paints. This is because style is separated from subject, and perception is separate from cognition. Therefore, the power of perceptual input in the aesthetic experience outweighs cognitive input. That being said, although Russell’s style is consistent, his subject matter is important in the work’s emotional impact.

As aforementioned, color plays a large role in this effort, and facial expression is influential as well. Ultimately, the interplay between style, content, and other neurological factors like emotion and facial recognition furthers the idea that Russell’s ability to access a broad scope of brain regions evokes an aesthetic experience in the viewer.


A hypothesis arguing that there exists a positive relationship between the amount of brain activity and the level of aesthetic experience can be easily tested using a mixed group of participants, an MEG machine, and a collection of artwork that varies in both style and content. This experiment would begin with a group of 30 participants, ages ranging between eighteen and sixty, all with different backgrounds in art. Some may be experts, some novices, and some with a mid­level knowledge of aesthetics. The participants would each individually be hooked up to an MEG machine, a non­invasive way to measure the magnetic fields produced by activity in the brain. The distribution of these magnetic fields ultimately contributes to an anatomical image of the brain, providing information of where and when activation occurs. Once hooked up to the MEG, participants would view a sequence of paintings—each different in style and content, from unrecognizable abstraction to extremes of realism—and rate them on a ten point scale indicating aesthetic beauty. A rating of one indicates no aesthetic experience at all, and a rating of ten would indicate a high level of aesthetic appreciation.

As the participant rates each work, the MEG will measure the amount of overall brain activity elicited. Finally, after each participant views the entire collection, and rates each work accordingly, researchers can compare the level of aesthetics experienced by the viewer with the amount of neural activity. Ideal results would match high activity with high ratings of aesthetic appreciation. This would then confirm a positive correlation between the two.

Conclusion and Discussion

Derek Russell’s expressionist portraits succeed in eliciting a wide range of activation in the brain of the viewer. His color use ties into emotion and form, activating areas in the amygdala and orientation­sensitive receptive cells in the visual cortex. Meanwhile, Russell’s work is successful at targeting the right fusiform face area, which is responsible for recognizing the famous faces that he so accurately depicts. Finally, his integration of cognition and perception facilitates the top­down and bottom­up methods of processing, imposing his style on familiar content to illicit an appealing reaction. Ultimately, Russell’s capacity to achieve multi­faceted activation of brain regions is responsible for the overall aesthetic experience of his artwork. Further experimentation to support this idea would be useful in not only investigating Russell’s work, but also other works of artists past and present.

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