An artist-turned-scientist gradually understands her mother's message.
FOR A GRADE SCHOOLER, learning how to color within the lines is an
important academic milestone, just as significant as mastering subtraction
or learning how to write in cursive. Being able to color neatly shows that
you're in control. You're not a baby anymore. A picture colored
tastefully, with no stray marks, communicates a sort of worldliness,
achieved only through experience with a well-worn box of Crayolas.
By the time I was eight years old, however, I still hadn't mastered this
skill, and it caused me a great deal of anxiety. I realized my
incompetence one day in the third grade when I dropped off a coloring
assignment on my teacher's desk. I caught a glimpse of the work done by my
classmates, and my heart sank. Their pictures looked as if they had been
colored by professionals: the black outlines traced in a thick, dark
ribbon of crayon and each shape filled in with light, parallel strokes. My
picture, on the other hand, resembled the immature scribblings of a
kindergartner. My cheeks flushed. My classmates obviously had a
competitive edge over me.
For the rest of the year, I tried to imitate the two-part technique of my
more skilled colleagues. I got the tracing down fine, but for some reason,
I could never make my crayon strokes behave and stay within the black
lines. Many times, I would be coloring away, concentrating, brushing the
stubby, paper-wrapped wax stick across the paper, carefully stopping each
stroke at the border. But then suddenly -- inevitably -- a spasm would overtake
my hand and the tip of the crayon would leap across the great divide.
Frustrated, I would revert to my former omnidirectional technique and
scrawl out the rest -- anything to fill up that empty white void.
Looking for a scapegoat, I silently blamed my mother for my woeful lack of
ability. A former art teacher, my mother didn't let me have coloring books
when I was young. She said they discouraged creativity. Clearly, I was at
a disadvantage. How was I supposed to know how to color within the lines?
I was too young to know anything about developmental psychology, but I was
sure the explanation lay in early coloring book deprivation.
When it comes to lines, there actually is evidence that during a short
window of time, the brain can be trained to see some lines and not others.
In 1964, two psychologists, Colin Blakemore and G.F. Cooper, conducted a
kind of feline virtual reality experiment. They fitted two newborn kittens
with two different pairs of goggles: one showing black vertical lines on a
white background and the other horizontal lines. The kittens spent the
first five months of their lives wearing these goggles, gazing at what must
have seemed to be a very strange world.
The psychologists then removed the goggles and tested the kittens' ability
to move through two different boxes, each containing a series of obstacles.
In one box, horizontal poles stuck out from the sides at various heights,
while the other had a forest of vertical poles running from top to bottom.
The kittens acted like they could not see the lines that they had not been
exposed to. The kitten who had seen nothing but vertical lines its whole
life couldn't move through the box with horizontal poles, and the opposite
was true of the other kitten. Although I don't believe I suffered as
severe a fate as these kittens, I felt vindicated by the story.
Fortunately, by high school, I recovered from the coloring book trauma and
signed up for a drawing class. But here, the concept of lines eluded me
again. My fellow students and I would often spend the class time sketching
the contours of still lifes planted in the middle of the tables in the
room. The radio would murmur in the background (to stimulate our creative
right brains, I suppose), and my teacher would stroll around the room,
peering over our shoulders and dispensing advice on how to capture the
subtle shadings of the forms in front of us.
Most of her words washed right by me as I concentrated on moving the soft
charcoal pencil across the paper. But one day she said something that
caught my attention: "Remember, class: lines don't exist in nature." I
raised my head from my paper and looked at her. What did she mean? Of
course they exist -- just look around -- they're everywhere. She explained that
lines only represent a contrast between a light area and darker area, the
boundary between the two. She was trying to get us to see the forms, the
shapes that filled the space, not the space in between. She was trying to
cure us of the coloring book mentality of drawing an outline and then
filling in the rest -- a way of looking at the world my mother had hoped I
wouldn't develop in the first place.
My art teacher probably borrowed her insight from a 19th-century painter
named Thomas Eakins, who said, "There are no lines in nature...there are
only form and color. The least important, the most changeable, the most
difficult thing to catch about a figure is the outline." Eakins liked to
paint human beings in motion -- especially lean, muscular rowers in their
sculls, slicing through the calm waters of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River.
Eakins focused on capturing the substantive flesh of his subjects with his
paintbrushes, rather than their ephemeral outlines that shifted with every
Another more modern artist, Barnett Newman, specialized in painting what
he called "zips" -- vertical stripes that ran the length of his canvases. Yet
the space around the zips were the real subjects of his pieces, not the
zips themselves. "Instead of using outlines, instead of making shapes or
setting off spaces, my drawings declare the space. Instead of working with
the remnants of space, I work with the space," he once said. Newman was
interested in what was on either side of the lines rather than the lines
Artists have the luxury of thinking about lines in any way that suits
them: as a concrete element of a figure, like Eakins did, or as an
abstract concept, like Newman. But the way the eye physically sees objects
also supports the idea of lines as artificial things created by humans.
The retina of the eye is a dense carpet of light receptor cells called rods
and cones. When light reflects off of an object, enters the eye and hits
the retina, it switches on chemical reactions in the cells which then fire
off electrical signals to the brain. The brain interprets these signals as
an image and sees the object.
The lines that seem to be all around us in nature actually are coded by
the eye as a contrast between light and dark, just as my art teacher said.
The rods and cones continually send signals to the brain, spontaneously,
even when there's no light to stimulate them. When we look at something
with a sharp contrast, like the border of a white square on a black
background, the white square causes the receptor cells to fire at a rate
over the spontaneous level, which the brain registers as a bright area.
But the dark background on the other side of the border doesn't stimulate
the cells at all, and the rods and cones continue firing at the same level.
No brightness there. Instant contrast is created, and you have a line.
Furthermore, the eye itself actually enhances the contrast at the border.
With a process called lateral inhibition, the cells stimulated by the white
square actively cause their neighbors to decrease their firing rate. On
the white side of the border, away from the middle of the square, the cells
are inhibited by only half as many of its neighbors since they're next to
the dark area. The white side seems brighter. The cells on the black side
of the border get inhibited by the cells on the white side without any
direct stimulation of their own. The black side seems blacker. The eye
itself creates the contrast -- the line -- rather than reflecting what is
I find it easier now to appreciate my mother's distaste for coloring
books. I see that she wanted me to ignore the lines, the restrictions, and
to create my own pictures. Though I haven't picked up a crayon or a
charcoal pencil in years, the lessons taught by my mother and my art
teacher have given me another, much-loved hobby: going to museums, staring
at the paintings and not seeing the lines in them. I'm grateful, too,
because in art as in nature, there's so much to look at in between.