Why Art and Emotion go Hand in Hand


Ever wondered why art and emotion are linked so strongly?

“True art lies in a reality that is felt.”
– Odilon Redon

Why are art and emotion linked so strongly? Whether we know it or not, we make emotional art every time we pick up our pencils, dip our brushes in paint or start chipping away at rock or wood.

However, what’s really going through our minds when we work?

Throughout history, artists have sought to connect with their audience through many different channels. Whether using particular colors, representing certain scenes or communicating symbols that work on a subconscious level, each work of art is designed to convey a message to the viewer as seen through the eyes of the artist.

In the past, research has suggested our emotional and aesthetic responses to art were based on a basic stimulus. However, recent research by Pinchas Noy and Dorit Noy-Sharav has found our responses to art run much deeper than that.

These fresh theories suggest that when we view art, we’re drawing on associations that date back to the early days of human evolution.

Why We’re Hard-wired For Subject Matter

Have you ever seen those online posts showing tomatoes cut in half to reveal an image of Jesus or cups of coffee that seem to depict a human face in the froth on top? Humans are hard-wired to look for recognizable features in everything, so it’s no surprise we make the same associations when we look at art.

When we first look at an image, we’re using different parts of our brain to process the information before our eyes. There are three stages to this. The first is a state of confusion as we attempt to work out what this piece of art represents (is that a landscape? Is that a figure?).

The second is when we identify what the image represents and feel a sense of relief as the pleasure centers of our brain are triggered. The final stage is when we assign meaning to the image and get an emotional response to the piece of emotional art on show.

So far, so good. However, this is when things get really interesting. According to some new research, what’s actually happening here is that we’re drawing on some of the same emotional responses as our ancient ancestors.

In fact, it looks like art and emotion have always had an unbreakable link to each other.


Humans are programmed to look for symmetry everywhere –
even in someone’s facial features

Symmetry And Emotional Art

Symmetry has often featured prominently in art for a very good reason – we’re programmed to look for it. Whether avoiding predators, chasing prey or finding a mate, our cave-dwelling forebears looked for symmetry (specifically what’s termed bilateral symmetry) to help them make certain decisions.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise some of the world’s most beautiful people are also those said to have the most symmetrical features.

Wide Open Spaces And Happiness

Whether standing at the top of a mountain or taking a solitary walk on the beach or in the country, most of us feel a deep sense of calm when we’re in wide open spaces.

We know art can inspire similar emotions too, but according to new research, the reasons for this link between art and emotion also go back to our prehistoric roots.

Put simply, our ancient ancestors knew having a clear, open view was good. It meant they could travel safely on foot without being pounced on by predators. It meant there were no threats lurking in the shadows.

In the same way, bright paintings with a sense of open space elicit similar feelings of relaxation or contentment in viewers, while dark, more oppressive works of art cause people to feel more anxious.

When looking at a piece of art, we’re effectively seeing through the same eyes as our predecessors.


Lamentation of Christ, by Andrea Mantegna, 1478 – an incredibly moving and emotional painting

Deep Emotional Reponses To Art

Of course, most people’s responses to art run far deeper than simply feeling happy or anxious. When we connect with a painting, drawing, sculpture or installation, we’re doing so on a complex emotional level, or experiencing what some researchers have called ‘meta emotions’.

What are these? They’re when several different emotions are triggered at the same time. They’re when a work of art manages to convey both complexity and technical skill. They’re when we truly engage with the emotional art before us.

For example, an expertly-painted image of Christ on the cross will satisfy our need for symmetry, but the emotional impact of this image will also affect us on a deeper level.

However, imagine if the image of Christ wasn’t so well painted – say, for example, the anatomy was clearly incorrect. Would it still get the same response?

Research says not. It seems everything has to be perfectly combined in order for a work of art to produce meta emotions in us.

Interestingly, the same applies to a technically-perfect depiction of something that lacks emotion. Can you remember the last time you were moved by a technical drawing?


The connections we make as children (such as with pets) can often influence our emotional response to things as adults

Perceptual and Conceptual Changes

When we’re infants, we make connections in our minds to grasp simple concepts. And it’s here that the link between art and emotion is often established. For example, we know the family pet is a dog or a cat, and we soon learn that food lives in the kitchen cupboards and the refrigerator!

However, as we develop, these connections become more conceptual as we begin to associate certain images with emotions. For example, we might come to associate a sunny day with playing in the park etc.

These conceptual associations in our brain play a big part when we make or look at art. Every mark you make, every color you use, every image you see is triggering a whole load of different responses in you.

Some of these emotional responses to art can be unique to you as an individual, while others are more deeply rooted in a universal human consciousness.

“The emotions are sometimes so strong that I work without knowing it.”
– Vincent Van Gogh

What Happens When You Make Art?

When you make art, you’re making some deep connections. You’re combining your own emotions and conceptual associations with your technical knowledge. You’re trying to share your own experiences of life with those of your viewers. Whether you know it or not, you’re making emotional art.

In doing so, you’re calling on the subconscious parts of your mind when making decisions in your composition, subject matter and the colors you use. Think back to our ancient ancestors – does that landscape you’re painting actually have a much deeper meaning than you thought?

Learning how to translate these subconscious emotions into art and communicate them to others takes time. It’s part of becoming an artist. There will be many times when others don’t see what you were trying to portray.

Being able to learn from this and develop – to truly combine art and emotion – is to embark on a fascinating journey that began centuries ago.

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