Dark Moments…Great Painters

Ever wondered why we are fascinated and confused by beautiful paintings that have ominous images?

Brain researchers in the field of Neuroscience have increasingly turned their eyes on art in an effort to understand how we see these works of art.

There is a deep portion of the brain, the amygdala, which triggers BOTH negative & positive emotions.  So when we see a frightening image surrounded by beautiful bright complimentary color, the brain is perturbed. We hate it but we love it!  What’s a brain to do?!

Paul Gauguin and Egon Schiele perhaps unconsciously combined the beautiful with the sinister.

"Spirit of the Dead Watching", 1892
Gauguin (1848-1903)

Gauguin was a brilliant artist who is called The Father of Modern Art.  He was also a pretty nefarious character deserting his wife and children so he could live in “ecstasy, calmness and art” on the island of Tahiti.

In the above painting, notice the sinister figure in the background.  Kinda scary, huh?  But, oh, what gorgeous color!


"Wally with a Red Blouse", 1913
Egon Schiele (1890-1918)

A melancholy eccentric, Egon Schiele (Austrian), often drew his models from the top of a ladder looking down capturing unusual, arresting compositions.

Look at the contorted, twisted figure in Egon Schiele’s drawing.  The expression on the face is…confused?  Angry?  Sad?  Yet the figure has a certain innocence and the combinations of color are thrilling!


"Stranger in the House", 2010
Kirby Kendrick; charcoal, ink, pastel,
acrylic, spray paint on paper

A less noted artist (readers laugh!), your devoted blogger also discovered some sinister figures in her past work.  See the threatening dark figure in the upper right-hand corner?  Where did HE come from?  What’s HE doing?

We know what the neuroscientists have to say about our brain and why we like these dark/light images; do you have any thoughts on why these images fascinate us? Leave a comment below.

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  1. Melanie Villela June 13, 2012 at 6:21 pm - Reply

    I totally agree. I LOVE artwork that is sinister in nature but has pops of colors added in. It sort of balances it out in my mind.

    • kkeditor June 14, 2012 at 2:19 pm - Reply

      Balance…a very good way to put it!
      Thx for comment, Melanie.

  2. Carolyn Bussard-Lamb June 13, 2012 at 6:45 pm - Reply

    Kirby, I love your piece “Stranger in the House”.

    • kkeditor June 14, 2012 at 2:18 pm - Reply

      Thx, Carolyn! It was fun to paint.
      Muchas Gracias for your comments!

  3. Lydia Pettis June 13, 2012 at 6:57 pm - Reply

    As usual, art is about life. Seems to me that everything you just wrote, Kirby, could be said if a person were talking about life in general and not just about paintings and what the painting incorporates. I believe people fascinated by the dark and the light, because they unconsciously “know” that is the truth about themselves and about all the complexities of life. They deep down crave to find the balance between the dark and the light, and yet that tends to be so hard sometimes. It’s a relief to see the truth told with such creativity and color and living energy. You DO make me thing!! Thanks! L

    • kkeditor June 14, 2012 at 2:17 pm - Reply

      there’s that word again….truth. It is indeed hard to find the balance.
      Thx for comment.

  4. Diane Rudy June 13, 2012 at 7:09 pm - Reply

    Wonderful Kirby,
    You take us to a place where art and life live together. The haunting images that you’ve chosen move us from our feeling of being safe to a place of vulnerability.
    Thanks for your stimulating and beautiful blogs.

    • kkeditor June 14, 2012 at 2:16 pm - Reply

      Your comments are always thought provoking, D. Thx.

  5. dede schuhmacher June 13, 2012 at 8:58 pm - Reply

    I think what the scientists think. The dichotomy of dark and evil in the paintings is as agitating as the beautiful and ugly, peaceful and horror, etc. in real life. These dichotomies are hard to understand, leaving us always perplexed as to why.

    • kkeditor June 14, 2012 at 2:15 pm - Reply

      Dede. Do you think an example of your dichotomies would be beautiful, cultured Mexico and the drug cartels? Thx for insightful comment.

  6. Mark Turner June 13, 2012 at 9:57 pm - Reply

    One aspect is probably the element of mystery which we feel compelled to clarify. The shadowy, or undetailed, is the unknown we fear, but sense that we can confront and unmask. Art can call the viewer to investigate further, to seek revelation. There is always more; more to see; more to realize . . .

    • kkeditor June 14, 2012 at 2:14 pm - Reply

      but yet we know we can never really unmask the mystery! thx for astute comment.

  7. Vic DePratti June 14, 2012 at 1:09 am - Reply

    Kirby. The amgdyla is blamed for everything. Neuoscience is evolving from the era of anatomy to biochemistry, but suggest that it does not have clear answers to your question.
    Also, I see Schiele painting as erotic rather than confusing, at least not to me.
    Your topic is great and your question is probably without answer. But, do we need an answers to what attracts?

  8. Margo June 14, 2012 at 3:14 am - Reply

    That Roberto over in the corner is so-o-o sinister! !

    Egon Schiele has always been one of my favorite artists. I never thought about his colors, he’s just so sick that it’s fascinating. Maybe that makes me sick too. . . then why can’t I paint like Schiele?

  9. stephen dunn June 14, 2012 at 11:49 am - Reply

    Art and the human mind is a fascinating thing–like why do people slow down,rubber-neck, and gawk at car accidents? In hopes of seeing some awful vision that could haunt them forever??
    That being said I am a designer and the most difficult challenge I have with clients is reading what kind of art appeals to them. That is a whole other realm that is so related to what moves them and the mystery of that emotional draw.
    I’m not totally clear why I respond to one piece of art and not another–but as we all know there is a definite “pull” that only you can feel….

    • kkeditor June 14, 2012 at 2:10 pm - Reply

      Fascinating subject….yes, why do we gawk at car accidents? Perhaps because we know it could be us and we must face it at some point. We feel safe confronting the darkness whether it be a car accident, mortality or other misfortune from a distance.
      Thx for very insightful comment.

  10. Juanita June 19, 2012 at 3:15 am - Reply

    I’m drawn to art that disturbs the silent, hidden or forgotten part of me that resides deep in psyche. And yes, it is a relief to see it (shadow being whether depicted as a dark figure or beguiling expression) outside of its internal room. I can stare at, acknowledge it, have a conversation about it or to it. What’s better yet, the knowledge that I am not the only one. If a connection is made, however emotionally felt, a shared intimate experience happens. I hope to at least present that opportunity to some with my own art.

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