Why We Draw, Paint and Photograph

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 26, 2015

I’m taking a community education course in beginning drawing and it’s making me think about why we draw, paint and photograph. I took the course to do something with a friend and learn a few drawing skills, but the class is making me contemplate the nature of art. Most people now carry a camera with them at all times because of smartphones. Why learn to sketch, when a click of the camera can capture any image far easier? Yet, before cameras, why did we want to draw what we saw? The urge goes back to our earliest days as cave dwellers. Did drawing skills precede language skills? Often, whenever we want to explain something complicated to another person, we draw a picture. The hot new trend in journalism is infographics. And, there’s that old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”

cave art

My efforts to draw what I see has been extremely frustrating so far. I can draw a table that allows someone else to say, “Hey, that’s a table.” What frustrates me is I can’t accurately draw the table I see. I know I can’t become a human camera, but I do want to sketch with a level of accuracy that teaches me to see the abundance of details I’m currently ignoring. When I think about art, I wonder if I’m missing the point. Until we had cameras, artists strove to accurately record reality. Paintings were physical memories of what they saw. Artists also did more. They tell stories and create beauty. And, of course, they wanted to make a living, and maybe even become famous. Since I don’t need to earn money from drawing, nor do I care about fame, that leaves me with beauty, story and memory.


Right now I’m struggling to make smudges on paper that capture what I see. I’m picking objects that look easy to draw. But eventually I’ll want to record something I really want to remember, and something that I’m seeing in a more powerful way than how I look at things now. Ultimately though, I want to create something that’s beautiful. That’s the special quality of art. Art creates something that doesn’t exist in nature but competes with nature for beauty.

Right now I have absolutely no idea of how to create something new and beautiful, but I get the feeling that’s where this path leads. My teacher seems to know that’s where we need to go, but also knows we’re going to quickly get lost, and give up. Most people are artists when they are kids, but they lose their way. Maybe when we get old, we try to return to that way of looking at the world, like when we were young.


I doubt I’ll ever become an artist, or even create something beautiful, but that doesn’t matter. Trying teaches me about the nature of art more than just admiring works in a gallery or studying art history courses. It’s like programming computers, there’s lots of procedures, subroutines and techniques to learn. There are tools to master, and coding languages to memorize. I’m surprised by how many technical tricks are involved in drawing. Talent might be involved, and it might not either. My guess is it’s mostly practice and work, and picking up skills and tricks from other artists.

Anyone can draw a picture or snap a photograph. It’s the why that matters. What do we want to remember, what story do we have to tell, can we capture beauty we discover in reality, or can we add something beauty to reality? I hope I can develop a daily habit of drawing, and it become a routine like exercising. It’s really hard to start doing something totally new late in life, but I think it will be good for me. Just the little effort I’ve put out for this class hurts my brain in a way that lets me know how artistically out of shape I am, and how artistically fit some of my friends are in comparison.


I use John’s Background Switcher to display random photography as wallpaper on my desktop. Every ten minutes I get a new scene capturing a beautiful instant from somewhere in the world. These photos are memories, stories and beauty. I’m astounded by the artistic visions that photographers find, often in locations other people would call ugly. Other times I have John’s Background Switcher randomly go through famous paintings. Every ten minutes I’m reminded of the amazing diversity of what’s possible to imagine that’s not in reality. These paintings and photos transcend time and space, and they tell a relentless story.

Table of Contents

Are Young Women More Artistically Beautiful Than Other People?

If we were robots, with video camera eyes, everything in our visual field would be of equal value.  So, why do our brains light up when we see flowers, sunsets and young women?  Will we ever be able to program a robot to have a sense of beauty?

And if biology is the basis of beauty, why isn’t food and potential mates the only things we see as beautiful?  How did a sense of beauty evolve in our minds?  Does it serve a purpose?  Isn’t a sense of beauty one of our most motivating qualities?

I love looking at photographs.  I have a dual monitor setup and use John’s Background Switcher to display 8 photos on my desktops every 10 seconds, chosen from sites like 500px, Flickr and others.  This way I see scenes from all over the world, nature, animals, forests, oceans, lakes, mountains, stars,  buildings, bridges, and sometimes people.  What’s strange is for some sites, when they show people, 95% of the time it’s a young woman, probably age 18-25.  Now these are supposed to be art photos, not sex photos.  Why are young women more artistically appealing than other people?  Is there a reason other than sex?

Photographers do like taking pictures of other kinds of people, but even then the range is limited.  It’s cute kids, or very old people with tons of wrinkles.  (I assume wrinkles are very artistically inspiring, especially in black and white.)  But statistically, young women are the dominate subjects for photographs of humans.  Why do young women trigger the neurons that define beauty in our brains – more than any other object in reality?  I don’t know how woman and gay men rate the beauty of young women, but I often hear them talk about beautiful women, so it isn’t just us guys brainwashed into seeking sex objects.

It’s not news that young women appeal to photographers, but I’m wondering why.  Is it just sex, or are young women more aesthetically pleasing than other types of people, or even natural objects?  Can we ever see young women without our brain being distorted by sexual programming?  Aren’t flowers, sunsets, old cars, dogs and cats just as beautiful?  And if artistic photographs were mainly about sex, why aren’t women photographers uploading pictures of young men in equal numbers?  And what explains heterosexual women preferring to look at young women?  Why aren’t women’s magazines, and their ads, showing an equal distribution of women of all ages and sizes?

If you follow photography you eventually realize certain subjects are more popular than others.  Today’s amateur photographers are just amazing, equal to the best professionals just decades ago.  Just look at a site like 500px.com.

The annual Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue just came out, and it gets a lots of attention.  Why does it only show young women in swimsuits?  Why not older women, or men?  Sure sex sells, but why don’t we have a wider range of sexual stimulation.  It’s often said we are a youth oriented culture – is that because we define beauty by being young?  Is it possible to culturally reprogram ourselves so old men and women in skimpy bathing suits would be beautiful?

I think the photo above of Anna Bella is beautiful because of the woman, and because of the photographic composition, but could not a sixty-something woman have posed for the picture and the photo been just as beautiful if the picture had been composed for artistic reasons?  Or is lustrous hair and fair skill absolute aspects of beauty?

I think the picture of the pug dog below is beautiful.  I have no sexual attraction for dogs, and think pug dogs are ugly, but I think this photo is artistically beautiful.  However, most of the photos I think of as stunningly beautiful at 500px either have gorgeous nature scenes, or they are of young women.  However, if I put the picture of the woman above on the wall, my wife will think I’m a dirty old man, but think nothing if I put up a picture of a pug.

Even though I think pugs are butt-ugly, I think they are beautiful to look at.  What explains that?  Is cuteness an aspect of beauty?  It would explain all the pictures of puppies, kittens and kids.  How do we explain sunsets and flowers twisting our beauty sensors to 11?  How much do bright colors figure in our sense of beauty.  Think of fall trees.

Photography sites have billions of images of animals we find beautiful.  What makes them beautiful?  Not all animals are beautiful either.  Puppies are cute, but a mangy dirty puppy isn’t.   What makes one tiger stand out over another?  Why are flowers so beautiful, or rolling hills?  I’m sure there are thousands of books devoted to defining the philosophy of beauty, but shouldn’t it be obvious?  Can beauty be scientifically determined?  Or is it always something in the eye of the beholder?  How many things do we find beautiful?  Is it endless?

What moves us?  That tree on the bare hill has impact, especially against the spectacular sky.  What about the women below?  The picture is beautiful, but there’s something beautiful about the woman too, as if her rich life experience shines out.

Photograph Wharf Lady by James Nielsen on 500px

I’d like to know about the science of beauty.  If we ever built robots with artificial intelligence that were self-aware, and conscious beings like ourselves, will they have a sense of beauty?  And if they do, will what we think as beautiful overlap?  Has there been any studies trying to find out if animals have a sense of beauty?  Do dogs looking at people think some people are more beautiful than others?  Are their favorites young women?

And is beauty just visual?  Aren’t some smells wonderful, and others stinky?  Are some sounds lovely and others ugly?  Even textures and tastes have their aesthetics.

I keep an extra monitor going, not to have room for work windows, but to be constantly stimulated by beautiful scenes.  Every ten second I see four more images on my left that inspire me about this world and reality.  Lately, I’ve been most inspired by pug dogs.  I’m not a dog person, I’m a cat person.  But these weird little pugs have caught my attention.  By the way, I like the gray woman below not because she’s beautiful, but because her grayness contrasts beautiful with the dirt and rocks.  How can we possible explain why black and white is often more beautiful than color?  Whatever beauty is I haven’t a clue to explain it.

left screen1

JWH – 3/7/14

Being the Peacock

It is the male peacock that wears the fancy dress and struts his finery to attract the less flashy lady peahens.  In the animal world it generally appears to be the male that gets all dolled up to catch the female, so why in our species are the females the disciples of Vogue?  With animal courtship the males do all kinds of crazy things to show off because it’s the females who get to make the final decision.  Human females also get to make our final decisions on mating, but it also appears they get to do all the gaudy displaying too?  Or is that true?

Males of our species do show off by making money, showing strength, doing dashing deeds, while only using a modest amount of flashy color and huge tail feathers.  Hell, suits are in by the young men again.  You can’t get less flashy than a suit.  Last night I saw a rock band all wearing black coats, white shirts and dark ties.  Their looks were dull but they were making a big noise to attract women.

In our species it appears that the males are still the ones that show off, but somehow the role of preening was giving to our ladies.  From fashion runways to Vegas shows to Miss America pageants you can see the extremes of female plumage.

I think this biological programming has had a tremendous impact on female behavior and psychology, making women very different from men.  Okay, I can hear all the protests now.  Yes, I know some men love to show off their costuming and some women don’t.  But I think this programming subroutine goes far deeper than outfits.  Women are a thousand times more concerned about their looks then men.  Why is that?

Let me give an example.  Among my lady friends, and I’m mostly talking about women in their fifties, I’m starting to hear the same story repeated independently from all of them that makes me worry.  They all hate to see themselves naked.  One friend said she holds her hand in front of her eyes when she gets out of the shower to shield her vision from the image of her naked body in the mirror.  When she says this I’m thinking I’d loved to see her step out of the shower and towel off, so it’s not that she’s bad looking.  But why has she become so hideous to herself that she won’t look at a mirror until she’s dressed and ready to hide her face in makeup?

If this was an isolated comment I wouldn’t have much evidence for my case, but I hear stories like this over and over again.  We’ve reached an age where my women friends are horrified by their bodies but I’m not, not by mine or theirs.  I still want to look up their dresses and down their blouses to catch whatever glimpses I can.  And another common thing I hear from these women are gripes about men wanting younger “firmer” women.

They seemed obsessed with the word “firmer” too, because they say it with such resentment.  And no matter how much I tell them I’m still physically attracted to women my age and even a bit older they don’t believe it.  They say I’m an oddball and 99% of normal men only want to look at twenty-something women.  Sure we like looking at younger women, but I’ve talked to my fellow boomers, and the consensus is older women can be just as hot.

Women may blame their resentment on men, but I’m starting to wonder if the problem isn’t theirs.  Sure there are men obsessed with sweet young things, but none of my pals are like that.  I think a lot of men have to chase younger women because as they get older the females of their generation stop wanting to be caught, forcing those guys to go further afield to hunt.  But this isn’t the point of my story.  I want to focus on the psychology of being the peacock.

I think both sexes are cursed by their biological programming.  Personally and culturally we’re possessed by the drive to reproduce.  This is understandable from a biological point of view, but why doesn’t the sex drive shut off when the baby making years are over?  When women go through menopause, why don’t they suddenly wake up and think, “Gee, I feel great.  I don’t have to preen anymore for those goddamn males always chasing after me.”  And then relax into a new lifestyle.  Why should women hate their bodies just because the sign “Great Babies Made Here!” gets turned off?

From the male side of things I wished my thoughts weren’t constantly befuddled by my cells urging me to go make babies.  Obviously, the reason why I still want to see fiftyish women get out of the shower is from residual programming to reproduce.  I’m already hearing all those people thinking, “Well men can make babies until they die.”  Just because we can, and just because we have the drive, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.  Evolution designed us to live long enough to reproduce and then die.  Our brains helped us beat those plans and  we live much longer than evolution planned.  At a certain point in both the lives of men and women we get to an age where babies aren’t wanted.  But the damn baby making programming inside of us doesn’t shut off.

Woman feel angst about losing their younger bodies and men feel angst about not getting laid as often.  It appears that the women who looked the best in youth hate themselves the most while aging.  Of course this is well illustrated by Hollywood starlets pursing plastic surgery till they have faces that look like rigor mortis of death.  The nature of women playing the peacock was well illustrated in an old movie I saw the other night, Mr. Skeffington, with Bette Davis as a beauty obsessed woman constantly courting marriage proposals even after she was married.

I feel sorry for my women friends.  Why can’t they accept wrinkles and sags?  Firm tits and ass are only signs that say, “I Make Babies.”  Why can’t old guys understand that the urge to chase young women is your cells tricking you into fatherhood?  In the end, I think the burden of the peacock syndrome on women is far harder than left-over horniness in men.  I don’t hate my body because I can’t get laid.  Being a peacock when the feathers fall out must be painful and pathetic.

I have a long running argument with one of my lady friends.  She says who we’re attracted to is mental, and I say it’s biological.  Well honey, I think if it’s mental you would be able to rationalize yourself out of the peacock syndrome.


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