Drawing Up the Uncanny Piedmont

Seventh mansion of the moon
Originally uploaded by anselm23

Via Flickr:
There’s a concept in digital art called the “uncanny valley” in which a piece of CGI looks like a cartoon human… but then, as it approaches looking totally human-like, it crosses into a realm in which humans who look on the CGI ‘human’ feel caught up in a bit of psychodrama — the CGI image of a human doesn’t look human enough to excite our empathy.

I think something similar happens during drawing. As I was drawing this image of the seventh mansion of the moon yesterday, I had students shouting out what they thought it was, and the responses ranged across a broad spectrum of ridiculousness, with each response funnier than the last. I drew the frame, and then the components of the image from bottom to top, and I heard all kinds of explanations, from “Mermaid” to “folded cloth” to “pile of… of stuff.”

But then I added one line, somewhat near but not on the face of the kneeling man… and suddenly, one of the kids in my Latin class said, “Oh! It’s a man praying.”

Keep in mind. Eighty percent of the image was already finished. The hands were there. The rough outline of the face was there. The little altar-incense-burner thing in front of him was already there. The banner over his head was already there.

But something as simple as the line of the ear — which is the line that I added which caused this girl to react in surprise — helped her cross from being confused by the image to being completely certain what she was looking at.

So, the “uncanny piedmont” also exists: the long slope up from having no drawing at all, to having a drawing that works because people recognize what it’s supposed to be. And you have to go a good long way up that slope before you get anywhere near the peak of human-ness in a drawing and start sliding into the uncanny valley.

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