Sandoval Signpost
An independent monthly newspaper serving the community since 1988
  Featured Artist

Steve Palmer

Steve Palmer in his studio
Photo credit: —Oli Robbins

c. Steve Palmer


c. Steve Palmer


c. Steve Palmer

liquid color

Signpost featured artist

Vision, perception, aesthetics: The art and science of Steve Palmer

—Oli Robbins

Placitas resident Steve Palmer spent his decades-long academic career at Berkeley unveiling new findings in visual perception. Towards the end of his professorial tenure, he began investigating aesthetics—conducting research-based experiments on color and space. That he would eventually become an art-maker in addition to an aesthetic theorizer seems quite natural.

His mastery of the visual world is substantiated by years of scholarly groundwork, partially summarized in his 1999 seminal tome Vision Science: Photons to Phenomenology, which he wrote for more than a decade in response to the then-budding development of vision science. Vision Science offers an interdisciplinary approach to vision—gleaning information from various disciplines including psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, and anthropology. But when it comes to Steve’s artistic outputs, he trusts that he’s “guided more by an aesthetic instinct than by scientific stuff.”

He believes that artists possess an advanced understanding of vision and perception. Says Steve, “Artists are light years ahead of the kind of thing that I’m studying scientifically. All they have to do is make the art. And the scientists may come by and a couple hundred years later decide they want to understand it in a more formalistic way.”

Steve spent his first 18 years in Westfield, New Jersey. In school, he enjoyed and did well in art classes, but never considered pursuing a career in art, since he was encouraged by his parents and teachers to travel the academic highway. He completed his undergrad at Princeton, where he majored in pre-med until witnessing cutthroat, selfish behavior from his peers. He then settled on psychology and chose to specialize in memory.

As a graduate student at University of California, San Diego, he found the field of perception to be even more captivating. “When I look back on it, it’s called an attractor in chaos theory. It just drew me in. Once I got into this thing about vision, it was like “oh yeah!”—it just really grabbed me. And it turned out I was good at it.” After graduate school, Steve landed a job at Berkeley, which spanned the course of his career.

Unbelievably, Steve’s current artwork—textured glass paintings created with a bevy of acrylic materials —is the result of a mere six months of experimentation. While Steve the painter is still in his infancy, Steve the photographer has a few more years experience under his belt. In 2002, Steve acquired a new camera, which was, for its time, state-of-the-art. Says Steve, “you could set your depth of field so that you could blur background and make the foreground in focus.” This camera launched a reciprocal relationship between his photography and scientific theories. His photographs opened his eyes up to different subjects (like “sharp versus blurry focus and how the visual system separates things in terms of one object and the other”), and sometimes his theoretical projects (on color preference and spacial composition, for example) would inform his photographs.

Says Steve, “I developed a course called coloring consciousness, and it was the best course I ever taught.” In it, he and his students considered color from many different perspectives. They tackled philosophical color issues—“Is the red you see the same experience as the color I see as red?”—as well as phenomenology and the experience of color, how scientists measure color and how the brain treats color. This eventually led to the study of emotion and aesthetics, a discourse that lacked significant scientific evidence when Steve entered it.

Until recently, Steve had been sharing his time between Berkeley and Placitas, where he now lives with husband Avi Kriechman. Steve’s relocation to Placitas generated his present artistic identity. Not only did he finally have the time to create, he was also surrounded by a community rich with talented artists.

“I became inspired and more prolific once I moved out here,” says Steve. At first, he played with the relationship between color and ground, then began working with acrylic on wood panels, eventually discovering that plexiglass is a superior support for his technique and style. The acrylic glass works harmoniously with his acrylic materials, transforming and amplifying light and color (much like stained glass).

In his paintings, which he refers to as “Liquid Color,” he aims to achieve interesting textures, as well as vibrant colors, and often employs acrylic gels to do so. His standard process involves mixing a pouring medium, which is honey-like in consistency, with acrylic inks, using separate cups for each desired color. The colored mixture is then distributed around the center of the plexiglass, which is then tilted in every direction so the compound spreads and provides full coverage, blending and swirling as it disperses. The colors can also be shaped with some kind of stylus before or after the tilting process. Just this month, he tried modifying the technique slightly, applying the pouring medium over the entire surface, adding drops of color after and only fusing the colors with a palette knife or his fingers.

Steve’s later academic career in aesthetics included research on synesthesia. But Steve explains that “even an everyday experience for regular (non-synesthete) people is that all the senses are connected. Your brain—when you see an object and feel an object, there’s information coming in. How do you know what’s going on? Your retina and your eye are related to what’s going on at your fingers. We’re wired to be these multimodal kinds of creatures who understand the world in terms of multi-sensory interactions. One of the things that I’m doing now is trying to explore multi-media cross-modal interactions.”

Says Steve of his current work, “You don’t have that much control over a lot of this stuff. I’m just starting to figure out how to get space happening, and shape.” His recent creations include multi-part pieces using a band saw, which allow the viewer/owner to play with their own visual field by arranging and rearranging the shapes.

Contact the artist by emailing him at You can view a selection of his work at Hoot Art Gallery in Placitas. To learn more about Steve’s scientific color studies as well as his research on the relationship between color, music and emotion, watch his distinguished faculty lecture from around minute 53:00:

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