Gurney Journey | (page 1 of 627)


Gurney Journey

This daily weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You'll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums.

Does Language Constrain The Speed of Thought?

Does Language Constrain The Speed of Thought?
Here's a question: Are our thoughts limited by having to move at the speed of speech? 

And a bigger question: How is our mental life constrained by speech altogether?

These questions elicited a lot of lively discussion on my Instagram account. To the broader question, Rosemary reminded me of the truth and limitations of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, also known as linguistic relativity, which argues that our thought is shaped by language we speak.

One problem with such a theory is that it tends to assume that all thought is verbal. Artists, musicians, architects, and engineers know otherwise. We can form purely visual or musical ideas which surely qualify as a form of thought or reasoning. If you've ever had an artistic encounter with another artist with whom you share no spoken language, you know that those visual ideas can be shared between people no matter what languages they speak.

Regarding the first question about the speed of thought, it occurs to me that when we are speaking, our language necessarily places upper limits on the pace at which we can roll out ideas, a problem for human-computer interfaces. An artificial intelligence can generate paragraphs in milliseconds, but it takes us a lot of time to type or say a series of ideas. 

Sometimes I have the opposite problem, where my brain works a little too slowly to articulate a sentence fluently, so the result almost sounds like aphasia. I believe that for most people, our receptive capacity for language by timing how fast you can read, or while listening to an audio book by doubling or tripling the normal speech velocity. You can demonstrate this on YouTube or your favorite podcast app by increasing the speed settings on audio playback. 

Certain non-linguistic modes of thought don't seem to be limited by velocity of expression. For example, the thought that goes into solving a Rubix cube seems almost like an instantaneous pattern recognition, and the act of puzzle solving appears to be limited only by the neuro-muscular action of the hands.

To me, the limitations of language become clearest when trying to translate a memory of a dream after awakening. Rendering a dream into words is like trying to taxidermy a jellyfish. The act of trying it makes me realize how words can do violence to certain kinds of non-logical ideas.

Exhibit of 19th C Drawings and Watercolors

The Albany Institute of History and Art recently opened an exhibit of plein-air drawings and watercolors called "Hudson River School Journeys: Watercolors and Drawings by William Hart and Julie Hart Beers."

Exhibit of 19th C Drawings and Watercolors

The featured artists are a brother and sister pairing, with a large room filled half with William's work, and the other half with Julie's. 

Exhibit of 19th C Drawings and Watercolors
William Hart, white pine, watercolor

Both of them traveled throughout the northeastern USA, sketching in watercolor, gouache, pencil, and pen. 

Exhibit of 19th C Drawings and Watercolors
William Hart, First Snow, Grafton, Maine, watercolor and gouache

The small image was painted on September 30, 1867 by William during a trip to Maine, as an early snow fell while the autumn colors were at their peak. One reviewer from the time said "It was a strange meeting of two seasons."

Hart's sister Julie Beers frequently went sketching with her brother, and she often brought her friends and students. Her children were artistic too, and the show includes intimate glimpses into their joyful moments, with sketchbooks, photos, and illustrated letters and postcards by her daughter Marion Robertson (Beers) Brush. 

Most of Julie's works are generously being loaned to the exhibition by her descendants.  In the photograph below, Julie is standing amidst her students. She's the one holding a brush behind the central seated woman. 

Exhibit of 19th C Drawings and Watercolors

William Hart's ink wash composition (below) displays "the artist's masterful handling of washes and dry brush application of India ink to create a scene that captures the luminosity of soft sunlight fading in advance of an approaching rainstorm." 

Exhibit of 19th C Drawings and Watercolors
Keene Valley, New York, William Hart, 1873, India ink on paper

William Hart said, "The picture, indeed exists primarily in black and white. The first thoughts of all great pictures are simply beautiful bits of chiaroscuro." 

Exhibit of 19th C Drawings and Watercolors

It's a rare treat to see a whole exhibition of original drawings and watercolors. Curator Doug McCombs quotes from contemporary reviewers in the captions, giving a sense that American society at large was keenly interested in regular updates about the travels and creations of these artists.

Mr. McCombs will be giving an in-person curator talk about the exhibition on April 16, 2023, and you can sign up at this link.
Exhibit of 19th C Drawings and Watercolors

While you're there, be sure to go up to the top floor and check out the large room of Hudson River School oil paintings. Also, don't miss the adjoining exhibition of costumes called "It's a Wrap: Two Hundred Years of Outerwear." 

It's all at the Albany Institute of History and Art in Albany, New York through August 6, 2023. 


Illustration by Balliol Salmon

A.J. Balliol Salmon (1868-1953) was a British illustrator who painted high-society subjects using pencil, watercolor, gouache and pen. 

Illustration by Balliol Salmon

Various drawing and painting media were used in early 20th century illustration: "There are very few technical limitations in general illustration. You may use charcoal, chalk, pencil, wash, oil-colours, line and tone combined—practically anything which will reproduce effectively. The minor periodicals use pen and ink, chiefly because the paper on which they are printed isn't suitable for tone work, but your readers want, as far as possible, as complete a representation of a subject as they can get, and full tone or colour can of course be suggested more easily by the tone mediums than it can be by line."

—Percy Bradshaw, quoted in the Artist MagazineAug. 1932, p. 248. Thanks, James W.

BAM Logo

While I was a college student at UC Berkeley, I got a part-time job as a designer and paste-up artist at BAM magazine. BAM was a music magazine in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was kind of like the Rolling Stone of California.

BAM Logo

They asked me to redesign their logo. Back then designing a logo meant using ink pens, T-squares, compasses, circle templates, photostats and waxers. The gradient tone was made with Zipatone, a pre-printed grid of black dots on a self-adhesive clear plastic sheet. I would stick it on the pen drawing and cut away everything outside of the design.

BAM Logo

BAM used my Broadway-on-neon-style logo for a while, but it really was too complex for a magazine logo, so they  adapted it to a simpler design. 

Etching by Callot

 Etching by Callot

Beggar with Pot, etching by Jacques Callot, 1623

Wikipedia says that Callot "made more than 1,400 etchings that chronicled the life of his period, featuring soldiers, clowns, drunkards, Gypsies, beggars, as well as court life."

'I'm Done with Girls on Rocks.'

After painting dozens of successful calendar illustrations, Maxfield Parrish felt that his subjects were getting stale, and he wanted to paint pure landscapes for his own pleasure.

'I'm Done with Girls on Rocks.'

"I'm done with girls on rocks," Parrish said in 1931. " I've painted them for thirteen years and I could paint them and sell them for thirteen more. That's the peril of the commercial art game. It tempts a man to repeat himself. It's an awful thing to get to be a rubber stamp. I'm quitting my rut now while I'm still able."

He continues: "Magazine and art editors—and the critics, too—are always hunting for something new, but they don't know what it is. They guess at what the public will like, and, as we all do, they guess wrong about half the time. My present guess is that landscapes are coming in for magazine covers, advertisements and illustrations...."

"There are always pretty girls on every city street, but a man can't step out of the subway and watch the clouds playing with the top of Mount Ascutney. It's the unattainable that appeals. Next best to seeing the ocean or the hills or the woods is enjoying a painting of them."


From Associated Press, April 27, 1931, quoted in the book Maxfield Parrish by Coy Ludwig, page 129.

Does Language Constrain The Speed of Thought?Exhibit of 19th C Drawings and WatercolorsStereo Audio CaptureShadows and LightIllustration by Balliol SalmonPainting in GardensBAM LogoEtching by Callot'I'm Done with Girls on Rocks.'

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