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Symmetry, Asymmetry & Activating The Canvas- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Symmetry, Asymmetry & Activating The Canvas- Nancy Hillis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Symmetry, Asymmetry & Activating The Canvas


Just a couple of weeks ago, an artist wrote to us asking why it was necessary to “activate the canvas” instead of just starting with a blank canvas. It’s a good question, and I didn’t have a ready answer.

Not surprisingly, especially if you’ve been reading this blog for any period of time, the question brings up parallels in the natural world.


Spontaneous Symmetry Breaking


In physics, activating the canvas is related to the concept of “spontaneous symmetry breaking,” which we’ll call SSB for short.

What that mouthful of a concept means is that asymmetric results can be obtained from symmetric setups. 

To make this idea more relatable, imagine a mixing bowl with a round bottom set upside down on a flat table. Set something round as close to the middle as possible and let it go.

Unless you’re very lucky, it will roll down the side of the bowl onto the tabletop instead of standing still on top of the bowl. If you do this experiment a lot of times, it will roll down via many different paths before it rolls under the refrigerator and you can’t find it. 

The mixing bowl is symmetric—you can rotate it on the table top and it looks the same. Gravity is symmetric, it’s the same all around the bowl. But letting a marble go on top results in SSB. 

We have generated an asymmetric result from a symmetric situation!


The World Is Manifestly Asymmetric


The world around us is manifestly asymmetric, even though the physical laws that it obeys are symmetric on a microscopic level. This is a conundrum at once profound and obvious. 


If you do the bowl experiment many times and keep track of what paths the marble took, it will start to look symmetric in a statistical way, even though each experiment is asymmetric. The ball will roll North about as often as it rolls South.

So “activating the canvas” turns the symmetry of a blank canvas (white in all directions) into an asymmetric situation, which then constrains and illuminates the set of next possible steps.

You have introduced bias into the artwork, and that bias makes it easier to create the next mark(s). 


Boats & Bias


Another example of the simplifying role of bias comes in the form of trying to bring a boat up to a buoy to tie up. 

If there is no current, you steer right at the buoy and hope to get close enough to snag it. If you miss, you have to turn around in a big loop and try again. You might back up if you’re good at that and aren’t worried about sucking the buoy into the propeller.

Now imagine that there is a slight current, an asymmetry in the situation. You approach the buoy as before, so that you’re going against the current.

If you overshoot you do not have to turn around or back up. You let off the throttle and you drift back with the current until you’re even with the buoy.

Then you increase the throttle to stay even with it and use a bit of rudder to move left or right. You never had to turn around!

A little current made things easier, not harder! The fine print:  If the current is faster than your boat can motor, you shouldn’t be tying up there anyway.


Boats moored on buoys in harbor


Another aspect of the boat mooring situation above is that what seems like adversity and a complicating factor can actually be turned to your advantage with the proper strategy.

This concept came up dramatically very recently. An unprecedented windstorm struck the UK last week, resulting in extensive damage. A gentleman parked himself off one of the runways at London Heathrow to observe and document the interaction of asymmetry and an airport.

He got millions of followers in a few hours. Big jets had to crab sideways in the 70 mph wind to land, which often required multiple tries. Unlike the buoy example, you couldn’t just let off the throttle and drift back to the runway. 


A Nail Biting Situation


Our daughter, currently studying Art History and Ancient History at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, had a childhood friend flying into Heathrow from San Francisco at the height of this storm. We watched the YouTube broadcast with bated breath as a Boeing 777 from San Francisco was approaching the runway.

After seeing dozens of aircraft yaw and roll wildly before abandoning landings, we bit our nails to the quick as we saw our plane approach.

We figured it was a Navy pilot because s/he pasted it down like s/he was landing on an aircraft carrier with no second chances. In our imagination, we decided this was a Top Gun pilot relishing a challenge on his/her plum San Francisco/London route for British Airways.

The pilot definitely made the most of symmetry breaking, which in this case was made harder by the wind current, not easier.

With a catastrophically failed landing, you can’t just gesso over it like a catastrophically disappointing painting. So the penalty for exploration in art is much lower than in aviation.


Activating the Canvas- Nancy Hillis

Activating the Canvas- Nancy Hillis



Nancy’s studio being activated


Too Many Choices


The concept of SSB also brings up parallels in the psychological world, namely that there are many situations where making a move matters more than which move you make. This applies particularly when you find yourself in a confusing environment with too many choices.

The adjacent possible means that new steps are illuminated by the act of taking a step, and that initial step is not all that important, but if you don’t take it, the next steps won’t reveal themselves. They will remain the Adjacent Impossible.


Engineering Luck, Opening To Surprise


In a previous blog post on luck and the adjacent possible, we discussed how you might “engineer” luck, to put yourself in a rich environment for discovery and learning.

An example given is to walk to work via different paths on different days. This is a form of symmetry breaking and it opens you to surprise.

You’ve just increased the chance of something unfamiliar introducing a new element into your life. Your days are no longer all the same, symmetric from one to the next, Groundhog Day forever. 

I submit that activating the canvas is the current in our harbor, the new way to walk to work.

You might even ultimately produce the same artwork from different possible “activations,” but they served their purpose by getting you going without too much premeditation or planning. They are a way of making starting easier and less threatening.

Some artists have no trouble starting, and if that’s your case, more power to you!

But if the blank canvas strikes fear in your heart, activating the canvas is your secret weapon.


With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce



P.S. If you enjoy this blog, pair it with The Artist’s Journey & The Adjacent Possible books:


The Artist's Journey & The Adjacent Possible books

The Artist’s Journey & The Adjacent Possible books available on Amazon


The Artist’s Journey: Bold Strokes To Spark Creativity

The Artist’s Journey: Creativity Reflection Journal

The Adjacent Possible

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