Psychology of Art

This course was an elective 3SH on-line summer course in 2006 and 2008 in the Psychology Department at St Joseph College in W Hartford CT.  Students used Blackboard to access the course content.  (Sorry no longer on Blackboard.)

Like many people, I have enjoyed art in its many forms my whole life- on walls at home, taken to concerts, plays, lectures, recitals, and endless churches by my mother.  My father painted and sculpted as a hobby, and he enrolled me with his art teacher.  I showed little talent, but enjoy the creative process still.  He designed our home after Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style, and built it on the Illinois prairie. I have taken  art history and studio courses, befriended artists, sung, danced (badly), and directed dramas.  Much in my grandmother’s footsteps, I have collected Hopi kachina dolls and Navaho rugs, American impressionists,  fabric sculpture, large edition lithographs, old steel engravings, op-art, ceramic wall sculpture, dance films, and garden sculpture.   My wife’s family collected seriously in the 1960s through the 1980s in Boston, and I learned much from them and their  collection and their association with the arts generally in Boston.  We have a number of their pieces  in our home now. Their engagement gift to us was a stunning impressionist seaside landscape by a talented British woman, the centerpiece of her first one-woman show.

My PhD from the University of Chicago is in biopsychology, what today would probably be called neuroscience.  I have a strong background in the visual system and other sensory systems.  My undergraduate degree from Chicago in Philosophical Psychology exposed me to a broad range of psychology, including psychoanalysis (Freudian-based psychology), and particularly interpretations of psychoanalysis- in theology, symbology, literature, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, visual art, poetry, drama, music, and even psychology.  So at one extreme, I view art from the reductionistic view of our sensory systems- especially eyes and brain.  On the other hand, I see art broadly as anything artificial, that is to say, man-made.  But especially we think of art as a deeply human endeavor, delving into the richest and most mysterious aspects of our nature.
As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I started to collect art made available at student prices, with a large edition Miro lithograph.  I took a philosophy course by Ted Cohen titled Aesthetics.  As a graduate student, I did research and clinical work for ten years in Daniel Burnham’s Palace of Fine Arts for the 1893 Columbian Exposition, now the Museum of Science and Industry.   I studied art history and took studio courses at Roosevelt University for six years while teaching there (free tuition for faculty). Most of my art history courses were with Susan Weininger, who also took me gallery-hopping in Chicago’s art districts on Wednesday afternoons.   Susan was especially expert on women artists, especially the surrealist ones.   The connection of surrealism and psychoanalysis was an obvious pursuit, even though I was teaching scientific psychology.  We taught in Sullivan’s famous Auditorium Building,  with Picasso, Miro, Calder, Dubuffet, Oldenburg, and Chagall sculptures competing for our attention with Chicago’s famed architecture.
I took a few studio courses, without much talent but gaining an understanding of different media.  I like to construct abstract sculptures in wood and metal, sometimes mobiles.  Nobody but me admires my wire sculpture of my ex-wife pregnant with my oldest daughter. I visit art museums with my family joyously.   I watch movies about art, and of art (music, dance, sculpting, painted film).  I spent some time for several summers at Chautauqua with a premier dancer in the New York City Ballet, and he and I discussed teaching methods.
I took courses with Barry Bauman who was assistant conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago.  I learned to clean and reline oil paintings  (including some of my own collection) and build engaged wood and plaster gold-leafed frames. Doing conservation you not only learn about the media, you spent a great deal of time with every bit of a work of art, often delving into the artist’s intent and purpose.
I taught my human sexuality course in an art therapy program, and learned a lot about how that field views itself distinct from psychology.  I sang for a half dozen years in the chorus of a professional opera festival, exposing me to the confluence of music, dramatic, and visual art of which opera is often considered the pinnacle.  I never understood  “ars gratia artis”- art for art’s sake- when clearly art is for our sake.  It helps (they help) us to understand ourselves and each other, enriching our lives, helping us cope, filling us with beauty and goodness and warning us of ugliness and evil.  Art and psychology go hand in hand.  Here is the catalog description:

Psychology of Art–  Art is both a product of behavior and mental activity,  and art often reflects on human activity with brilliant analysis. Visual arts are emphasized, with references to music, dance and other arts as student interest demands. My background in art history and my lack of talent as a studio artist informs the lectures. Texts include Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, Arnheim’s Art and Visual Perception,  Seckel’s Masters of Deception, Churchill’s Painting as Pastime, Kandinsky’s, Concerning the Spiritual in Art and Csikszentmihalyi’s Creativity.

I also use Richard Gregory’s Eye and Brain as an astounding introduction to how  the eye works in conjunction with the brain for vision to work.
I strongly recommend William Ivin’s Prints and Visual Communication which covers the progression in history of methods for making prints and the importance of images, not just words, in communication in both the arts and the sciences.  He was curator of prints at the Met in NYC.   Like me, he was interested in the science of seeing and how art progressed to present realistic images, to convey both scientific clarity as well an emotional mystery and human experience.

Here is the syllabus for 2006 and 2008 ;  also printed out below

Here are some of my “lectures” presented as Word docs to my on-line students.
Lecture 1 Three Arts
Lecture 2 Art as Communication and Creativity
Lecture 3 Representation
Lecture 4 Features and Configurations
Lecture 5 Perception of Humanity
Lecture 6 or 8 WHere is Love
Lecture 7 Sublimation and sex
Lecture 8 Intimacy and Identity
Lecture 9 Psychology of Art

Here is the text but not the paintings that illustrate later editions of
Winston Churchill’s Painting as A Pastime

Painting as a Pastime text

On-Line Summer II Course   Summer 2008   St Joseph College

Psych 245 Psychology of Art      Instructor-  Rick Rayfield

Art is a big subject, and this course will barely dent the many approaches psychology can take to the arts.  The course will focus on visual arts, especially painting, with so many images available on-line and in reference books.  Sculpture, dance, music, and architecture will be addressed.  We will consider creativity in general, and not just the output of professional artists.  We will spend a fair amount of time on op art, understanding how the visual system operates.  We will ask what is created and why it was created.  We will examine theories of representational systems, art as not just a medium but a language of expression and communication. We will look at the use of art for psychotherapy.  We will look at the “psychology” of the art world, from galleries to auction houses. How do artists depict themselves?  Why do nonartists look at art?

The course will combine reading and looking at lots of art from a psychological perspectives.  It will include on-line lectures with images, readings, discussion boards, and weekly short papers and other written assignments.   Blackboard and Turnitin.

Instructor:  I am an art collector, and I studied art history (classes and gallery tours) with Susan Weininger, whose doctoral work was on the American surrealist Gertrude Abercrombie. With my background in biopsychology,  I am especially interested in how we perceive.  But I am also interested in ancient art, and amateur art, as well as the classic movements and masterpieces.  With only a few studio courses, my own artistic output tends to be conceptual- abstract copper and aluminum sculpture,  painting snow banks with weed sprayers,   church windows murals (see, and mobiles.  I sing frequently- recently in a professional production of LaTraviata, and play a large number of instruments badly.  I took a year of ballet lessons at age 40.  As a behaviorist, I am delighted to address the complexities and subtleness of artistic concepts without a particular theoretical filter or paradigm.  This course should appeal to the psychology major interested in art,  the art student interested in psychology, and the liberal arts student interested in both.


Required  Reading/Reference (not as much as it looks)

Arnheim    Art and Visual Perception 0520243838   U Cal Press  $25.00

New version 1974,  not First version 1954   THE classic book in psychology of art,  how we see, why we see, why we depict.

Freud    Leonardo Da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood 0393002490 Norton $9.95

Freud’s brilliant but a bit over-reaching psychoanalysis of the inventor and painted of the Mona Lisa and other masterpieces.  Thin.

Csikzentmihalyi  Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention  0060928204  $15.00  Harper

Contemporary data-based study of what produces the peak experiences called “flow”, and how creativity is related to flow and other variables. Bestseller. Fast read.

Gregory   Eye and Brain: Psychology of Seeing 0691048371  Princeton U $22.95

An updated  classic-  clear text and diagrams on how the visual systems of the brain operate.  Beautifully integrated and small. Lifetime reference

Kandinsky  Concerning the  Spiritual in Art  0486234118  Dover 5.95

An Expressionist painter talks in this slender book about the depths of humanity in his abstract work.  Compare to Wolfe below.  Thin.

Phaidon  The Art Book   071484487X  Phaidon $24.95 (Optional purchase)

A grand collection of great art, beautifully reproduced.  500 items by 500 artists. A-Z,  It will function as the class’s universal catalog for assignments and discussions.  You will be able to see the needed images on-line, but my experience is that these reproductions are still superior. You may wish to also purchase ANY art history textbook to get more text on why these pictures are considered important from art’s point of view.

Wolfe   Painted Word   0553280656 Bantam  $14.00

Tom Wolfe skewers the abstract art movement. He claims it’s a fraud by people who never learned to paint.  Even if you disagree with him, the stories of how and why people paint abstractly are fascinating. Thin.

Churchill   Painting as a Past-time

Out of print. I will probably have to post text of this essay by Winston Churchhill on why creating a painting is a great avocation.  He was not a brilliant painter, but museums have his work. Very Thin.


      Halprin  The Expressive Body in Life, Art and Therapy 1843107376 Jessica Kingsley pub. $24.95    A nice short introduction to dance and movement as a form of therapy,  or just why we love to dance.  Some very practical movement plans and exercises for connecting whole body sense to emotional issues.

McNiff Art Heals  15903011668  $16.95   A good overview of art therapy by a former president of the Art Therapy Association, examining how art can function therapeutically.

Seckel  Masters of Deception  1402705778  Sterling $24.95  This delightful coffee table book includes the greatest and some of the most recent artists who mess with your visual perception to make their creative statements.  Notably Dali and Escher, but others not as great but with inspiring diversity.

Wolfe  From Bauhaus to Our House 055338036X  Bantam $14.00  Tom Wolfe is at it again,  this time taking modern and contemporary architecture to task for boxy ugly buildings that are built with grand but small theories of minimalism.

COURSE REQUIREMENTS–  I will post twelve lectures, leading you through the reading,  and I will post weekly self-graded quizzes which you may treat as study questions..  I will suggest discussion board topics, and expect discussion on-line asynchronously.  I will assign a series of short papers, mainly asking you to analyze a piece or pieces of art from a psychological perspective. These will be the main basis for your grade, and you will turn them it at  You will have some leeway in choice of psychology models and the art.  You will have the option for several assignments to visit a museum, gallery, or studio. Your grade will be based on the short papers and class participation.

Reading schedule and lecture list to follow