Kevin Burns

Cog Art 



I explore Art from a Cognitive perspective, to understand HOW Art works in the minds of artists and audiences. My interests include: (1) Assumptions by audiences when they view art. (2) Exaggerations by artists in order to make art. (3) Interactions between artists and audiences.




The Meaning of Line 

In Cog Art I make sculptures and sketches, exploring ambiguities and assumptions that lead to interesting illusions.

Here (right) is a photo of one sculpture. The 2-D picture is perceived as a symmetric pyramid with a square base, and even the 3-D sculpture is perceived like this when viewed from certain angles. But the 3-D sculpture is NOT symmetric and the base angle is NOT square - and in fact the vertical edge is NOT convex (like the outside of a pyramid) but actually concave (like the inside of a pyramid)! 

The interesting illusion is that people still "see" the 3-D sculpture as a symmetric pyramid, even when they "know" it is not one - as long as they view it from an angle where it "could" be one. The explanation is that minds make assumptions in order to resolve ambiguities, and these assumptions are often but NOT always correct. 


In Cog Art I also make sketches where the mind's assumptions ARE effective in resolving ambiguities. These sketches shed light on the cognitive connections between artists and audiences that make art "work". 

In a sketch (left), audiences must make assumptions in order to read between the lines that the artist has drawn. These assumptions are the code by which artists and audiences agree (at least somewhat) on the meaning of line. My Cog Art explores the rules of this code, to help explain HOW audiences perceive sketches and HOW artists produce sketches.

"Four Folks". Ink sketch on paper, 9"x12".



Capture the Essence 

How does an artist capture the essence of someone or something in a painting or sculpture? The theory is that he or she does so by making "exaggerations" relative to "expectations". 

In a phenomenon known as the "peak shift" effect, a laboratory rat that has been trained to respond to an elongated rectangle will respond even more vigorously to an even longer rectangle. Some scientists suggest that the same effect can help explain human responses to art

In practice, the process of exaggeration depends on a cognitive connection between artist and audience. That is, both the artist and audience must have similar expectations against which they measure exaggerations. 

In Cog Art I focus on faces and figures, trying to capture the essence of people in portraits. I work from photos, which provide objective information, as well as sketches, which provide subjective impressions. The former help me establish expectations and the latter help me explore exaggerations.

"Lightning", 1993. Jigsaw puzzle print on paper, 12"x18".


The process of painting is an iteration - from perception of a model, to painting on the paper, to perception of the painting, etc. The iteration continues, by trail and error, until the painting captures the essence of a subject or a scene.

I often print colored shapes (above) or black lines (left) from hand-cut woodblocks - rather than painting or drawing directly on paper. The woodblocks capture the structure of the painting in closed shapes (above) and outlines (left), which are the critical components of effective exaggerations. With the structure held constant, I can then explore more subtle variations in the color and texture of the shapes between the lines.

I also use woodblocks because cutting the blocks imposes constraints, like a "closure constraint" where all lines in a puzzle print (above) must be closed contours, and a "line limit" where the raised portions of a carved block cannot get too thin (left). Such constraints, like the rhyme in a poem, pose creative challenges to the artist who produces art. The constraints also pose constructive challenges to audiences who perceive the art.   

"First Day of School", 1996. Woodcut print on paper, 8"x12".


I also perform more calculated studies of exaggeration by computer

This pack of dogs (right) is the result of running one program. As input, the program takes a reference image (column 1) and human drawings (column 2) made freehand from the reference image. As output, the program creates a caricature along the lines of each human drawing, using either a little exaggeration (column 3) or a lot of exaggeration (column 4).

The details of this program are documented in paper titled Creature Double Feature, which was presented at a conference on Artificial Intelligence.

Note that this Cognitive Art is different from other Computer Art because here the computer is being used for two things: (1) To create Artwork. (2) To explain HOW Art works in the minds of artists and audiences. 

"Doggie Drawings", 1997. Computer generated.



The Games People Play 


Besides visual Art, I also explore the verbal Art of guessing games. Like all art, mind games "work" on the basis of cognitive connections between artists and audiences. These cognitive connections are the fundamental forces that give rise to responses like "tension" as the audience contemplates a riddle and "resolution" when they finally get the answer. 

The theory is that "fun", which comes from struggle and satisfaction, is based on the probabilities of various possibilities in "mental models". The struggle is hard when the mind has a large set of possibilities to explore, and/or when the answer hinges on a critical connection that is blocked by "mind sets". Satisfaction comes when the struggling mind finds the missing link. A good game is one where people can "get it" without too much or too little thinking.

Below are examples of two guessing games. One involves wordplay I call "Dub-Alliterations" and the other involves jingles I call "Ad-Verses".  Can you guess the answers? HOW do you get the answers? HOW much do you struggle and HOW much satisfaction do you get? 



An alliteration is when two words start with the same letter-sound. In Dub-Alliteration you are given an alliteration like "wordy water" as a riddle. The answer is a more common alliteration with a similar meaning but a different letter-sound. 

For example, the answer to "wordy water" is "babbling brook". Below are more Dub-Alliterations for you to try. To see the answer just click the riddle.


enormous explosion


conjuring crayon


prancing pebble


naval nourishment


brush blaze


perspiration polo





There used to be an advertising gimmick called the "Burma Shave" jingle. Of course, the audience usually knew the product that was being advertised (Burma Shave), otherwise the advertisement would have been a waste of money. 

Here I take the game one step further by forcing the reader to guess the product. Each riddle is an Ad-Verse like this:

When you get
a bad boo-boo
try us we will
stick on you

The answer is the product to which the jingle refers. For example, the answer to the above jingle is "Band Aid". Below are more Ad-Verses for you to try. To see the answer just click the bottom line.

When you're thirsty
ask your wife
if she'll pour
a cold high life

Ouch Chihuahua
this is fun
eating out
without the bun

Holy cow
exclaimed the Pope
now I'm cleaner
than with soap

Burgers sold
by Dave her daddy
prob'ly should have
named her Patti