Pareidolia in Abstract Art

Pareidolia in Abstract Art

Pareidolia is 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.  Classic examples might be seeing a face in the full moon, or imagining that cloud shapes represent a dragon or dolphin.

Cloud-gazing sounds so good today!

Cloud-gazing sounds so good today!

I think that we are hard-wired by our survival instincts to identify subject matter in abstract shapes. Who hasn’t imagined a shadow in the woods to be a bear or some other predator? This subject came up in two of my recent workshops about abstract art. Viewers often ‘find’ subject matter that the artist did not intend. Once an image is identified, it is hard to ‘un-see’ it.

It Happens to Us All

Pareidolia is natural, but a sophisticated art-viewer knows that it is more acceptable to ask questions than to volunteer what their imagination has come up with. For example, a viewer might ask the artist “Am I meant to see a figure implied here?” If the artist says yes, great! You can discuss what you see, what it means etc. If the artist says no, an appropriate response is to keep your perception to yourself and discuss the artist’s intentions further. Viewers can follow up with another general question such as “What was your intention for the work?”

Interpreting art is a delicate balance between the artist’s intention and the viewer’s response. Both are important, and sharing our viewpoints can be mutually satisfying. In fact, artists love it when viewers are interested enough to ask about the work.  Share your experience: does pareidolia inspire or frustrate you?

The internet has many good articles about understanding abstract art. The Collector’s Corner of Art Mine summarizes it this way:

The most important thing to understand about abstract art is that it does NOT have to have a meaning, narrative or even a singular explanation.

The main purpose of abstraction is not to tell a story, but to encourage involvement and imagination. This art form is mostly about providing its viewers with an intangible and emotional experience – more often than not, the experience is completely different for every individual depending on their personality and state of mind.

Therefore, it is really up to the viewer to decide whether the painting in front of them has any meaning or provokes any emotion. As we mentioned, abstract art is all about freedom.

That’s a fitting subject for Independence Day!

Further Reading:

Click here to read the whole article from Art Mine. You’ll also find a list of Do’s & Don’ts for discussing abstraction. I’ll have another vocabulary post coming up soon. Watch this space! New workshop listings coming soon too! I’m always interested in your reaction to new work. Leave me a comment, and don’t forget to share with friends.

"Sediment" ©Ruth Armitage, Acrylic on Paper 15x22"

“Sediment” ©Ruth Armitage, Acrylic on Paper 15×22″

“It is not that the meaning cannot be explained. But there are certain meanings that ar lost forever the moment they are explained in words.”                -Haruki Murakami

I Became a Maker

I Became a Maker

I became a maker by following the example of my mother. She is well-known for making beauty out of what is on hand. Her friends marvel over her knitting, sewing, cooking, gardening and decorating. I love the following quote, because it exemplifies what I think most creative people feel:

“People are creators. But I doubt that many realize this. We are not meant to go out into the world and find flawless things, we are not meant to sit down and have flawless things fall into our laps. But we are creators. We can create a beautiful thing out of what we have. The problem with idealistic people is that they see themselves as receivers instead of creators, they end up hunting for the flaw in everything in order to measure it up to their ideals. Now, when you see yourself as a creator, you can look at a chunk of marble and see the angel within it. Then you carve until you have set that angel free.”
– C. JoyBell C.

The creative process requires us to solve problems, overlook imperfections and visualize success. It requires faith, perseverance and tenacity. I learned all these things from my mom, and I’m still learning them. Watching the persistence she employs to tackle a long term project is inspiring. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her say “I can’t.”

This week, I received a beautiful gift from Mom. She created the rug pictured below from 1/4″ strips of wool, hooked into a backing of burlap. Over the course of the last 8 months, she’s worked on it almost daily. I’ll always treasure it, as a symbol of all the hours of labor and love that she’s invested in it, and in me.

Hand-Hooked Rug

Hand-Hooked Rug

Doesn't It Look Beautiful

Doesn’t It Look Beautiful?

Mom Giving another Hand-Made Gift

Mom Giving another Hand-Made Gift

My friend, Margaret Godfrey, made a wonderful hand-painted turntable for her grandkids. You can read about her project here. What is the best hand-made gift you’ve ever made or received?

Avoiding Fear: Painting with Digital Exploration

Avoiding Fear: Painting with Digital Exploration

Fear can derail our creativity.

One way I work at avoiding fear is using digital exploration in my painting process. Using my IPad to try out changes before I make them in paint removes the fear of failure that I see many students encounter. If you’re reading this post on email, you might want to hop on over to the blog and view this Ted Talk about failure by Ken Robinson:

One reason that many of my demonstration paintings are successful is my habit of putting on a ‘brave face’ when I’m demonstrating. I want to be an example of a painter who will try anything that pops into my head. I’m not painting by rote habit: I’m exploring. I know that I may fail and I continue experimenting anyway. This leads to exciting breakthroughs in front of my students.

I’ve written about dealing with fear before (see a few examples here & here.) So have some of my favorite authors: David Bayles – Art & Fear and Steven Pressfield – The War of Art.

Avoiding Fear

I help students learn how painting without fear leads to more creative work. Digital exploration with works in process helps students avoid fear by allowing them to experiment in a ‘sandbox’ using the Apple Pencil, IPad and Procreate app. Below, I have a painting that I feel could have gone a bit farther in creativity if I hadn’t ‘played it safe.’ (The painting is sold, so it is an easy one to experiment with – I know I won’t have to take it out of the frame and change it!)

Golden Shore ©Ruth Armitage, 2016 15x11" Acrylic on Paper

Golden Shore ©Ruth Armitage, 2016 15×11″ Acrylic on Paper (sold)

Finishing an abstract work can be particularly challenging. The artist often risks taking something good to a state that’s over-worked. That’s when digital experimentation can be extremely valuable. Without changing the actual work, the artist can try out different ideas. For instance, below I’ve added a blue with more temperature contrast, to see if I like the work better.

Digital experimentation with color temperature and direction

Digital experimentation with cropping, color temperature and direction

You can learn how to be more fearless in your painting. Join us for Painting with Digital Exploration at Creative Arts Community at Menucha: 

August 12-18, 2018

at Menucha Retreat Center, Corbett, Oregon

This special place is the ultimate art retreat. Small class sizes and up to 7 workshops filled with creative people fill the camp with energy. Delicious meals are provided, so all you have to do is paint and enjoy each others’ company and the inspiring setting.

See what I mean in the photos on Menucha’s site, and sign up before it’s too late! Many of my workshops fill quickly.

The View from Menucha

The View of the Columbia River from Menucha

Inside Historic Wright Hall

Inside Historic Wright Hall

Happy Artists

Happy Artists Return Year after Year

pool at menucha

Relaxing Outdoors

"Menucha" means Tranquility

“Menucha” means Tranquility

Communal Meals

Communal Meals


  1. If I already have an IPad, will it work with ProCreate? – Yes. You will need the newest version or an IPad Pro to use the Apple Pencil, but a regular stylus and an older IPad will also work.
  2. Is there a program that will work with my Windows based tablet or computer? You may find a similar app or program, but this workshop will focus on using ProCreate for ios. I think it is one of the best out there!
  3. Will we be printing our finished digital creations? No. We’ll be learning to use the tool as a way to sketch out ideas and applying these ideas to works in progress. The class will divide its time between learning the tool and painting on paper or canvas in water based media.
  4. Is this class suitable for artists working in landscape, portrait, still life, abstraction, etc? Yes! Whatever you’re interested in painting, this process will help you to make braver, more creative decisions.
Kick These 5 Bad Painting Habits

Kick These 5 Bad Painting Habits

Kick These 5 Bad Painting Habits

"Singer" Watercolor on Paper 10"x10" ©Ruth Armitage SOLD

“Singer” Watercolor on Paper 10″x10″ ©Ruth Armitage SOLD

I’ve just spent the last month taking and teaching art classes, and it is surprising how often I see artists hampered by these bad painting habits.You may find yourself frustrated if you don’t kick these habits asap!

1. Leaving Your Brushes in Water or Solvent

This weakens the glue that holds brush bristles in the ferrule and damages the paint sealing the handle. Eventually the ferrule (the metal part holding your bristles) gets loose and wobbly. Working with brushes that are damaged is frustrating. When you rinse your brush, make it a habit to dry it and lay it down flat. Avoid storing the brush with the handle end down until the water or solvent is completely dried.

2. Thinning your paint too much

Watercolor artists are notorious for using very thin washes. I’ve observed many artists having a difficult time mixing a dark enough paint because they rinse between colors, adding water each time. Watercolors tend to dry lighter than they appear when wet. Your work will look freshest if you apply your washes at the proper value on the first pass.

3. Working constantly at close range

I, myself, am guilty of this one! We tend to get so absorbed in our painting that we forget to view it at different distances. Cultivate the habit of stepping back frequently. Giving yourself the perspective of your viewer is important. Work is rarely viewed at very close range.

4. Using your reference photo or drawing to make all your decisions

Part of the attraction of art is seeing how the artist uses their imagination. Translate your subject through your own design ‘filter’ to allow viewers a glimpse of your creativity.

5. Starting without a plan or value sketch

I often hear artists saying ‘I’m just playing’ when they talk about planning. Planning can also be playful… actually more playful than trying to make a painting work without a plan. Quick sketches are the sandbox of playfulness. Enjoy the process of trying out different ideas before you actually start painting. Sticking to a plan is easier if you jot down your ideas for dominance, color and values.

I hope these tips will keep frustration at bay for you! I find myself constantly reminded of them during my painting. Here are a few new images I’ve been working on recently. Do you have other suggestions of bad painting habits that need kicking? Let me know your thoughts.

"Whistling" Watercolor on paper, 10"x11" ©Ruth Armitage $295 unframed

“Whistling” Watercolor on paper, 10″x11″ ©Ruth Armitage $295 unframed


"Rocky Shore" Mixed Media on Paper ©Ruth Armitage 6"x6" SOLD

“Rocky Shore” Mixed Media on Paper ©Ruth Armitage 6″x6″ SOLD

Upcoming Workshops

August 12 – 18, 2018 – Creative Arts Community at Menucha, Corbett, Oregon: Painting with Digital Exploration:

Learn how digital painting can expand your creative process. Students will use the ProCreate app and and IPad to plan and alter works in progress. Learn to use this inexpensive app to try out ideas before you execute them in paint. A few spots remain: Click here to register

September 24-28, 2018 –ISEA Exhibition and Workshop, Newport, Oregon

October 22-24, 2018 – West Texas Watercolor Society, Lubbock, TX


Art is Gathering – Workshop Announcement

Art is Gathering – Workshop Announcement

Gathering – “What matters is the gathering, the pockets filled with remnants of the day evaporated.”

-Nina Bagley

I’ve decided to start a new series of posts called “Art Is.” As a kid I loved the comic strip “Love Is…” It was corny, but so true.  So each post in this series will explore a different facet, inspired by different quotes about what Art Is. If you’re not subscribed to updates by email, this would be a great time to add your name to the list on my contact page or in the sidebar on my site.

Workshops are for Gathering

I think of workshops as opportunities to spend time gathering. I’ve had the opportunity to teach a few art classes recently, and I’ve also enjoyed being a student.  I found myself as a student making detailed notes about everything the instructor said. I even asked a friend to write down the instructor’s thoughts during the critique of my work. When I teach it is gratifying to see students writing down the thoughts and methods I’m introducing.

But, I think the most important part comes after a workshop. This period when an artist is incorporating the ideas they learned into their art practice is crucial.  I’m struggling with that a bit right now. My workshops with Skip Lawrence and Fran Larsen gave me a chance to take a look at adding more realistic images to my work. I’m still debating with myself about whether that feels like a good fit for me. I’m sure time will tell. One thing I do know, I must paint to please myself, not any instructor.

It can be tough to rise above the urge to please an influential teacher. My goal is to balance what I’ve learned with what I want to do in my work.

Do Not Hesitate

“Do Not Hesitate” Watermedia on Paper 11″x14″ ©Ruth Armitage

In other news, my work is ‘gathering’ awards and recognition! My painting “Do Not Hesitate” earned an Award of Distinction in the Watercolor Society of Oregon’s Spring Show. I’m honored thanks to juror Fran Larsen! Also, I’ll be sending off “Gene’s Fiddle” to the Red River Watercolor Society show, which runs June 18 – August 4, 2018 in Moorhead, MN. Thanks to juror Mark Mehaffey!

"Gene's Fiddle" ©Ruth Armitage 2018, Watermedia on Paper 22"x15"

“Gene’s Fiddle” ©Ruth Armitage 2018, Watermedia on Paper 22″x15″

Here are a few photos from my most recent workshop in Springfield and one from the workshop with Fran Larsen. She was energetic and inspiring as a teacher.

Fran Larsen Workshop

What a great group of painters!

My Demonstration for SWA

Fran Larsen Workshop

This week and next I will have the opportunity to jury 2 local art shows: Lake Area Artists and Society of Washington Artists. It will be good to keep in shape for the big job of jurying the 27th Annual International Society of Experimental Artists Exhibition. I feel honored to be asked to jury this fantastic exhibition. They have a lot of prize money to give away! Entries are due June 1st on the Cafe’ Entry System. You can register here for the symposium and workshop that will be held September 21-28, 2018 in Newport, Oregon.

Additional Summer Workshop:

Finally, I’ve decided to offer one more workshop this summer. Demand has been high! Most of my classes have been filled with a waiting list, so if you are interested, register today.

Moving Toward Abstraction – All Media June 28, 29 & 30th, 2018

Join Ruth to explore taking your paintings to a more abstract level. You may choose to work in Watermedia, Oil or Dry Media. Ruth will demonstrate in Oil & Watermedia. Held in Ruth’s Oregon City Studio: Class size limited to 8. $325 Register on my workshops page.

Register Today!

Spring Workshops and New Artwork

Spring Workshops and New Artwork

This past few weeks I’ve been busy creating new artwork in several workshops.

First, I took part in a wonderful workshop held in Santa Barbara with Skip Lawrence.

Skip Lawrence workshop participants

Skip Lawrence workshop participants

Some of my new artwork

"You're So Sensitive" ©Ruth Armitage, Watercolor on Paper 11"x11"

“You’re So Sensitive” ©Ruth Armitage, Watercolor on Paper 11″x11″

Skip Lawrence has been a mentor for many years and has seen me through quite a few changes in my work, from still life to figurative to abstraction. I always value his input and am inspired by his instruction. Here are a few more new pieces that transpired from the workshop.

"Autumn Migration" Mixed Media on Paper 11"x11" ©Ruth Armitage

“Autumn Migration” Mixed Media on Paper 11″x11″ ©Ruth Armitage

"Haunted" Mixed Media on Paper 22"x30" ©Ruth Armitage

“Haunted” Mixed Media on Paper 22″x30″ ©Ruth Armitage

"Thresher" Mixed Media on Paper 15"x22" ©Ruth Armitage

“Thresher” Mixed Media on Paper 15″x22″ ©Ruth Armitage

"Attic" Mixed Media on Paper 22"x22" ©Ruth Armitage

“Attic” Mixed Media on Paper 22″x22″ ©Ruth Armitage

"Evening Vista" Mixed Media on Paper 15"x20" ©Ruth Armitage

“Evening Vista” Mixed Media on Paper 15″x20″ ©Ruth Armitage

3 Whites for Watercolorists

Next I taught my own workshop: Three Whites for Watercolorists. My friend Ruth Ellen Hoag hosted me in beautiful Santa Barbara. I neglected to take many photos, but trust me when I say that my students did fantastic work. If you follow me on Facebook, you’ve seen some of them posting their beautiful paintings. Here are a few of my demonstrations:

"Sundown" Mixed Media on Paper, 7"x11" ©Ruth Armitage

“Sundown” Mixed Media on Paper, 7″x11″ ©Ruth Armitage

"Night Flight" Mixed Media on Paper, 8"x10" ©Ruth Armitage

“Night Flight” Mixed Media on Paper, 8″x10″ ©Ruth Armitage

"Silent Wings" Mixed Media on Paper 7"x11" ©Ruth Armitage

“Silent Wings” Mixed Media on Paper 7″x11″ ©Ruth Armitage

Cold Wax and Oil

Finally, this week I held a 2-day workshop featuring Cold Wax and Oil painting at my neighbor’s beautiful Studio on the Knoll. Here’s a group shot of most of the class at the end of the workshop:

Satisfied Participants

Satisfied Participants

Art Buddies signed up together :)

Art Buddies signed up together 🙂

And one of my demonstration paintings

"High Water" Oil & Cold Wax on Panel 12"x12" ©Ruth Armitage

“High Water” Oil & Cold Wax on Panel 12″x12″ ©Ruth Armitage

Next up, one more workshop on Oil & Cold Wax at Emerald Art Center next week!I love teaching and taking workshops because it provides me with lots of painting time, feedback and friendships. I hope you’ll join me for a future class.

Leave me a comment and let me know which is your favorite new artwork!


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