Gorichanaz, T. (2020). Understanding and information in the work of visual artists. Journal of the Association for Information Science & Technology, 71(6), 685–695.

Abstract. To better account for information behavior in everyday life, the field must more fully explore information phenomena in the lifeworld, i.e., information experience. This paper shows that one way to do this is through the concept of understanding. Visual art is identified as an illuminating domain for an initial foray into such research. This paper presents findings from a phenomenology-of-practice study of the information behavior of visual artists. Seven local artists documented their experiences creating self-portraits, and semi-structured follow-up interviews were conducted. The findings show how these participants built understanding with information in their work of creating individual self-portraits. These understandings fall into two categories: of the self and of the artistic process. Many forms of information, traditional and novel, contribute to these understandings; examples of the latter include memories, the lived environment, profound experiences, and online browsing. These findings extend the literature on artists' information behavior, connect everyday information behavior to information experience, and illustrate a method for studying understanding empirically in information science. The paper closes by discussing the meaning of these findings for the future of information science, suggesting that the kinds of information employed by artists might be recognized and appreciated more widely throughout society.


The field of information behavior seeks to account for all the ways in which people interact with information, including needs, seeking, use, creation, etc. In information behavior, the understanding of what qualifies as information has expanded in recent decades, just as the field has moved from considering only specific groups of people to investigating quite complex and diverse populations (Case & Given, 2016; Ford, 2015). Over the past decade, scholars have demonstrated the importance of studying information behavior in everyday life contexts (Savolainen, 2010) as well as from the perspective of first-person, lived experience (Bruce, Davis, Hughes, Partridge & Stoodley, 2014; Gorichanaz, 2018b; Gorichanaz, Latham & Wood, 2018). Further progress in these areas requires that we recognize the breadth of phenomena that are informative, rather than limiting our investigations to those sources that have traditionally been considered informative in information science (Ocepek, 2018). For example, a traditional study in information behavior may not show how taking breaks and reflecting on one's memories can be informative (see Gorichanaz, 2019). Such insights may be brought to bear on the design of information systems, much in the spirit of the human-centered design (Norman, 2013) and value-sensitive design paradigms (Friedman & Hendry, 2019) that are flourishing in the field of human--computer interaction.

In this paper, I argue that the perspective of information experience presents a way to overcome the limitations of earlier conceptualizations of everyday life information behavior and illuminate new avenues in the design of information systems. In turn, the study of information experience can be characterized as the study of understanding, which can be done effectively through narrative research methods. One such method is phenomenology of practice. The present study exemplifies this discussion through a study of the information behavior of visual artists. The findings show the ways in which visual artists build understanding with information in their work---in this case, the creation of a self-portrait. Thus, in a nutshell, this paper demonstrates the empirical study of understanding in information science through a phenomenological investigation of the information behavior of visual artists. Though the focus here is on the visual arts, this paper offers a methodological lesson for further research in other domains of interest to information science.

Literature Review

Everyday Information Behavior and Information Experience

In the 1990s, everyday life information behavior emerged as a research area. Over the past decade, this has opened the door for research in information experience.

The interest in everyday life in information science has roots in the "user turn" that the field experienced in the 1970s (see Case & Given, 2016), at which time Bates (1974) identified "life information" as a research area for information science. The term everyday life was first used in information behavior by Savolainen (1995), and it was conceptualized as "nonwork information seeking"; thus "everyday life" came to be defined in contrast to "work."

In the past two decades, technological and theoretical developments have complicated this picture; for one, the boundary between work and nonwork has blurred across many dimensions (see Rodeheaver & Zafirovski, 2017). Likewise, the scope of everyday life information behavior has broadened. Still, scholars such as Ocepek (2018) argue that much "everyday" research still largely limits itself to studying the forms of recorded information that have historically concerned information behavior, such as formal publications.

Most research in everyday life information behavior has been centered on everyday life information seeking (Case & Given, 2016). Indeed, historically, information behavior in general has historically been predominantly limited to information seeking. To be sure, the information professions have long been interested in ensuring access to information, and information seeking is closely tied to access. However, information providers should also take into account what is to be done with the information that is sought, for when people judge relevance they do so with respect to a task at hand (Hjørland, 2010). Thus, information behavior scholars are beginning to recognize the importance of studying other aspects of the information--communication chain (Robinson, 2009). To date, however, it seems that most research in everyday life information behavior is still limited to seeking.

Because of the focus on seeking, much research in everyday information behavior is concerned with identifying information sources (e.g., Agarwal, Xu & Poo, 2011), not looking at what happens after information sources are encountered. This seems to presume that if a person comes into contact with a piece of information, then they reliably gain the associated knowledge. Of course, reality is not this simple; information behavior researchers should also be concerned with people's becoming informed (Tkach, 2017). To move the field forward, "the everyday" should be broadly understood as the world of lived experience, or the lifeworld (Gorichanaz, Latham & Wood, 2018).

Happily, in the past decade the research area of information experience has emerged, which explicitly examines information in the lifeworld, though it does not yet seem to have been explicitly connected to everyday life information behavior. To be sure, the study of information use and outcomes dates back to the 1980s (see Case & O'Connor, 2016), but researching in-the-moment engagement with information---what Kari (2007) has called the "internalization of information-as-thing"---is far newer. Information experience has been described as the "complex, multidimensional engagement with information" (Bruce et al., 2014, p. 4), the study of which examines

the way in which people experience or derive meaning from [and] engage with information and their lived worlds as they go about their daily life and work. This goes beyond how they make meaning from an objective entity identifiable as information, to consider what informs them and how they are informed. (Bruce et al., 2014, p. 6)

According to Bruce et al. (2014), information researchers and system designers must study information experience because individuals are the ultimate users of any information system, and a system that is designed with their experience in mind will be a more usable and effective system. To this end, research in information experience can help realize Ford's (2015) argument that information behavior researchers should "produce findings of greater relevance to practice by focusing on information outcomes [including] whether and how information is used, and what impact it has on the user and others" (p. 240). *More deeply, the field of information experience respects what philosophers have described as the irreducibility of the subjective and objective points of view (Nagel, 1986), and it avoids making the specious distinction between work and nonwork that has historically characterized everyday information behavior. *

To help move forward the project of information experience as a research area, in the present work I contribute a theory of understanding, which I see as the central epistemological concept of interest in information experience (and, consequently, everyday information behavior). This theory describes how understanding is built from information and how understanding can be studied. The theory is based on an epistemic framework for information science that highlights understanding as an epistemic aim (Gorichanaz, 2017a), as well as the concept of information constellations (Gorichanaz, 2018a), which provides a method for concretely exploring understanding as information experience.

Understanding and Information Constellations

Epistemic aims are goals related to knowing (see Gorichanaz, 2017a). Recent discussions in information science have suggested that focusing on the epistemic aim of understanding may be more fruitful than focusing on, say, information or knowledge (see Bawden & Robinson, 2016). For more grounding in the epistemological aspects of information science, see Furner (2010) and Ma (2012).

I have previously proposed an epistemic framework centered around understanding that builds on these discussions, as well as other research in phenomenology and philosophy of information (Gorichanaz, 2017a). In everyday speech, we use the term understanding in several senses; I suggest that these senses can be grouped into two categories: ontological understanding and ontic understanding. This distinction was inspired by the philosophical work of Heidegger (1927/2010), for whom ontic refers to states of matter (e.g., beings), while ontological refers to relations (e.g., being). Ontological understanding is the way of being (of human beings in particular) through which perception and mentation happens. Thus, ontological understanding is an ongoing background mode that is a matter of an agent's conscious and experiential engagement with their environment---in short, it is one's making sense of their situation. Over this background, ontic understanding is made. Ontic understanding can be defined as a coherent and self-transparent network of knowledge that has been constructed by a conscious agent through ontological understanding. It is ontological understanding under discussion when we say, "I am trying to understand x"; while when we say, "My understanding of x is..." we are discussing ontic understanding.

In understanding (both ontic and ontological), the first step is becoming informed: Differences are perceived (data) as always already bundled with meaning (i.e., action in context) as information. This information becomes knowledge when it is accounted for in a satisfactory way (which often involves gaining additional information), and this accounting-for puts that information-cum-knowledge into a network, as pieces of information/knowledge account for each other. This network of knowledge is ontic understanding, and the process of "accounting for" is ontological understanding.

To give an example, a person may come to have an ontic understanding of the American Civil War. This ontic understanding is a network of statements regarding particular people, events, places and the like; these statements are pieces of knowledge that support each other. One such statement might be, "The Civil War broke out in April 1861," and supporting statements might include, "Confederates attacked Fort Sumpter," "Abraham Lincoln was elected President in 1860," and "Northern and Southern states had differing views on slavery." Finding the connections among these statements is made possible by the person's ontological understanding.

Notably, this framework of understanding is consonant with Floridi's (2011) network theory of account for knowledge (where my ontic understanding is the term for his network) and the data--frame theory of sensemaking (Klein, Phillips, Rall & Peluso, 2007), which articulates how agents make cognitive elements fit into an explanatory structure in building understanding. Additionally, it resonates with a recent articulation of holistic epistemology "beyond the brain" for information science (Weissenberger, Budd & Herold, 2018). Indeed, an important virtue of the concept of understanding is its holism. Elgin writes:

Understanding, as I construe it, is holistic. Suppose our objective is to understand the wrongness of lying. This might mean a variety of things. We might want to understand why lying is wrong, or what makes lying wrong, or when or to what extent lying is wrong. These are all legitimate and important questions. But I am after bigger game. I want to understand how lying's being wrong is woven into the fabric of human life. Satisfactory answers to all of the foregoing questions will supply part of the answer but, I suggest, only part. (Elgin, 2017, p. 83, emphasis hers)

Holism is approached in this framework by the potential unboundedness of accounts of ontic understanding. That is, many different forms of knowledge may play a role in a given example of ontic understanding, such as bodily know-how, biographical memory, physical objects, and lived experiences; ontic understanding is deeply embedded within a person's lifeworld. For the purposes of analysis, discrete cases of ontic understanding may be identified, but ultimately all ontic understandings may be connected. As an aside, the legitimacy of these various forms of knowledge may, of course, be challenged by others, but the point here is that the conscious agent in question takes them to be knowledge; James (1902/2002) wrote that mystical experiences often have the force of knowledge, what he called their noetic quality.

Next, understanding is experiential. Ontologically, understanding is a process undergone by a conscious agent from that agent's perspective. Ontically, it is built and justified by an agent with resources from that agent's lifeworld. Because understanding is experiential, I suggest that it can fruitfully be considered as the basis of research in information experience (understood as a research area within information behavior). Additionally, recent work in everyday life information behavior has examined the creation of information (e.g., Thomson, 2018); in light of the present discussion, the creation of understanding would also seem to be a valuable avenue for information behavior research to follow.

As I conceptualize it, ontic understanding is downstream from knowledge. This means that studying a person's understanding may reveal ways of coming to know and forms of knowledge, and consequently information sources (and ways of seeking and encountering information), that otherwise go unnoticed and have yet to be widely acknowledged in information behavior. This is because information behavior research typically begins upstream, first identifying particular information sources and then studying them. (To be sure, there have been exceptions; see Gorichanaz, Latham & Wood, 2018.)

So how can understanding be studied empirically? I previously proposed the concept of information constellations, which are clusters of information (now knowledge) linked together by narrative (Gorichanaz, 2018b), for this purpose. Narrative is a way of exposing one's knowledge network (ontic understanding) through the details that surface in the narrative, and the way they hang together (Polkinghorne, 1988). For instance, a person's childhood memory might be taken to account for some belief. Such constellations can be gathered and analyzed through narrative-based research techniques. To give an example, a rich methodological toolkit that I have used for such research is phenomenology of practice (van Manen, 2014), which, fittingly, is described by its author as the study of understanding. This methodology is exemplified in the present paper. I report on findings from a phenomenology-of-practice study of artists' building of understanding in their project-related information activities. The domain of art has been little studied in information behavior, yet it is of great importance, as will be discussed in the following section.

Art as a Research Domain

Garfield (1989) wrote about the art--science connection, observing myriad ways in which art and science overlap. For instance, Garfield remarked upon the structural similarity between the work of artists and scientists: Both are impatient with social niceties, work in relative solitude, are driven by curiosity, engage with nature, and present their work to others.

Even so, information scientists often look at the work of scientists, but less often artists. When art is considered in information science, it is predominantly only in terms of its communicative potential and aboutness for the purposes of classification (e.g., Smiraglia, 2001). To be sure, these are worthy contributions, but this narrow focus overlooks not only the cultural importance of art but also its deeper relevance to information science (Day, 2008).

There are several reasons for information science to contend with art. First, art presents a rigorous test case for our theories of classification and meaning, given its nonverbal nature, and thus it can provide a critical perspective to information science (Day, 2008; Goodman, 1976). That is, artworks can be fruitfully considered as documents (Gorichanaz, 2017b; Kosciejew, 2017). Next, information science is concerned with the production and circulation of understanding throughout society (Egan & Shera, 1952), and so art ought to be studied in information science insomuch as art contributes to a society's understanding. That art does contribute to a society's understanding has been argued convincingly by Briesen (2014), Elgin (2017) and Johnson (2007), inter alia. In short, art challenges assumptions and furthers inquiry in many fields, and it provokes new perspectives on taken-for-granted phenomena. Other fields, such as media studies, have recognized art as a form of recorded human knowledge and called for the development of literacies around it (Mirzoeff, 2015), and information science has the potential to contribute to these efforts. Moreover, such research on art may help bring art back into the commons, as discussed variously by Dissanayake (1992), Foucault (1997), Heidegger (1971, 1977) and Scruton (2014). These scholars assert that, while today art sits on an "experts only" pedestal, relegated to white-walled galleries and museums, this has not always been the case, and indeed art works best when it is integrated into a people's everyday experience. A recent contribution in this regard is Winters' (2018) essay on the separation that has emerged between art and the everyday and modern artists' attempts to erase it. As Winters contends, art is a matter of drawing attention to those aspects of everyday life that would go unnoticed, which feeds forward into further everyday life experiences. At its best, art is conversation with Being.

There has been some research on art in information behavior, though this work has not yet been linked to everyday information behavior. As relevant to the study at hand, the focus here will be on the information behavior of visual artists, but some research on other types of artists exists. Cobbledick (1996) was the first to directly explore artists' information seeking, paving the way for a number of other research studies. Hemmig (2008, 2009) provides a review of this work, drawing the following conclusions:

  • Artists need information for five main purposes: inspiration, specific visual reference, technique, marketing, and art world trends.

  • Artists frequently need information on subjects unrelated to art (e.g., for inspiration and reference), so art libraries generally do not serve them well.

  • Artists' information behavior is idiosyncratic, just like information behavior in general.

  • Artists have a strong preference for visual information.

Since Hemmig's review, there have been some further studies of artists' information behavior (Mason & Robinson, 2011; Régimbeau, 2009; Robinson, 2014), but Hemmig's findings still stand. Notably, this research has focused on information seeking rather than other stages of information behavior.

On that note, it is worth relating in some detail the work of Cowan (2004). In a phenomenological case study, Cowan interviewed one practicing artist and uncovered five main sources of information in art-making: the natural environment, the work itself, relationships with one's own artwork and with other artists and works, self-inquiry, and attentiveness. Cowan's key observation is that the artist did not view her work as involving information seeking or needs; rather, it was a joyful process of dialogue and perception. Cowan (2004, p. 19) remarks that the artist's "processes are fluid, interrelational, dynamic, and creative; they rely on the action of creating understanding, rather than finding pre-existing information." Thus Cowan was, I believe, the first information behavior researcher to point out "creating understanding" as an activity, and this observation further suggests that a research focus on understanding is well-placed, particularly in the domain of art.

Though this body of research offers a coherent view of artists' information behavior, as mentioned above it only addresses information needs and seeking, rather than use or creation. To this end, I would mention a study not reviewed by Hemmig (2008): the unpublished PhD dissertation of Tidline (2003). In her work, Tidline explored the information behavior of artists, seeking to establish the ways in which art can be informative. Tidline has provided a foundation for further research on how artists engage with information in their work of creating further information. In the present study, I seek to build on that foundation.

The Study

The study described here was part of my doctoral dissertation, Understanding Self-Documentation, a project exploring the artistic self-portrait as a document genre and the information activities involved in self-portraiture (Gorichanaz, 2018c). Underlying this exploration from the start was an interest in understanding as an epistemic aim and the contemporary phenomenon of self-documentation. This project involved both conceptual and empirical work. In another publication (Gorichanaz, 2019), I have presented some of the outcomes of that project, including a theoretical model for considering documentation from the first-person perspective and some of the themes that characterize the first-person perspective of art-making. The conceptual discussions cited earlier, on understanding as an epistemic aim (Gorichanaz, 2017a) and art-making as documentation (Gorichanaz, 2017b), were also part of this project. In this paper, I report only on the aspects of that project relevant to how artists build understanding with information, which was the fourth and final research question in my project.

Research Question

Under the framework devised by Robinson (2009), research projects in information science entail a component of the information--communication chain, a domain-analytic approach, and a context. In the present study, the components are information creation, use and understanding; my approach is empirical user study; and my context entails a scale of a lifeworld and the medium of the artwork. Within this framework, the present study responds to the following research question:

RQ1: What understandings are built when artists create art, and how does information contribute to these understandings?

This is meant to be a holistic question, following Elgin's (2017) conceptualization of understanding, quoted above, as a way to uncover how understanding is "woven into the fabric of human life." Such a question, which is open-ended, qualitative and exploratory, can be addressed through phenomenological research (Smith, Flowers & Larkin, 2009; van Manen, 1990, 2014).

In another publication (Gorichanaz, 2019), I investigated the research question, "What is the nature of the lived experience of self-portraiture as a kind of documentation?" Responding to that question involved developing narrative accounts with my participants. For the research question at hand in this paper, those same narratives were subjected to further analysis, as described next.

Methodology and Methods

This study engages in phenomenology of practice, an empirical methodology at the intersection of the social sciences and the humanities that draws from the philosophical tradition of phenomenology (van Manen, 2014). In phenomenology of practice, a researcher examines the experiential accounts of small groups of participants who are engaged in some practice (e.g., teaching, nursing). Phenomenology of practice is a form of interpretive, radically qualitative inquiry that attempts to see more deeply into phenomena that have been taken for granted. As such, it "is primarily a philosophic method for questioning, not a method for answering or discovering or drawing determinate conclusions" (van Manen, 2014, p. 29, emphasis his). That is, the value of phenomenology-of-practice findings is not in the concrete facts they apportion, but rather in the questions they spark, and the ways they reveal new research directions and provoke readers to think and act in new ways.

In this study, I recruited seven local artists to create self-portraits. I selected the self-portrait as the genre for this study in part because it allowed me to recruit participants working in a range of media and styles. In phenomenological research, such diversity in the participant group is a boon (Smith et al., 2009). I did not define self-portrait in the recruitment materials, thus allowing the participants to bring their own definitions to the project, and there were no requisite criteria for inclusion beyond being at least 18 years old and living locally. That is, the artists need not have made a self-portrait before and did not need to identify themselves as "an artist." I recruited participants through my personal network and by contacting local artists whose information I found online. I used purposive sampling to assemble a diverse group of artists---they ranged in age, gender, professionality, artistic medium and experience. Though most artists do self-portraits at one time or another (Hall, 2014), the artists in my study were not necessarily portraitists; in fact, one never before created a self-portrait. Further detail on the participants is given in the following subsection.

A brief comment on research ethics: In our initial meeting, I discussed the project with each participant and attained informed consent. All the artists elected to be identified in this study; though this is unusual for human-subjects research in general, it is typical in arts-related research (Savin-Baden & Wimpenny, 2014). They also gave permission for their images to be shared in publications such as this. The consequences and potential issues around this were discussed in depth with each participant, and they were given time and space to come to their decisions. This project was developed in collaboration with and was ultimately approved by the institutional review board at my university.

The artists individually worked on their self-portraits over a period of several months (the artists were only given a soft deadline), and visual and verbal empirical material was collected throughout. At the end of each art-making session (the length and nature of which was determined by the artist), each artist recorded their answers to a series of questions, a technique inspired from the think-aloud technique. After each piece was finished, a semi-structured follow-up interview was conducted. All the material from each individual artist constituted one lived experience example, or case.

Analysis was a multi-stage process that began with open coding and a phenomenological theme analysis (van Manen, 2014) as an entrée into the empirical material and to see the general features of each example. This led to the development of narratives (see Gorichanaz, 2019, for further details), as is typical in phenomenology of practice research as well as other qualitative research methodologies. These narratives were then analyzed with respect to the concept of understanding as follows.

The building of understanding, as described above, involves a person's grasping of a coherent web of information. This may not be readily observable from the outside or at any given temporal state. In my analysis, I was concerned with how the participants changed throughout and after making their self-portraits. I sought to identify any ontic understandings that were built and then attempted to trace how those understandings came about with information throughout the process of self-portraiture. Doing so involved returning to the themes and examples with a phenomenological reflective analysis (van Manen, 2014). This "is not a rule-bound process but a free act of 'seeing' meaning that is driven by the epoché and the reduction" (van Manen, 2014). Epoché and reduction are phenomenological terms of art; van Manen (2014) defines the epoché as involving "wonder, openness, concreteness and approaching" (p. 223) wherein the researcher is challenged "to be receptive and awakened to a profound sense of wonder" (p. 224); the reduction is the return to the phenomenon (from the Latin reducere, or to go back to), which involves comparing the phenomenon to related but different ones to better understand the phenomenon of interest (van Manen, 2014, pp. 230--236).

In this analysis, I read the examples individually several times and took notes, considered questions such as: What understandings were built in this example? How? Was building understanding intentional or accidental? Was it attributable to any particular actions or ways of relating to information? I compared and contrasted the examples at hand, considering whether there may be multiple paths to the same form of understanding. In all this, I had an eye toward what elements of self-portraiture were contributive to understanding. Along the way, I worked to organize the forms of understandings that came up in the narratives into themes, which provides the organizing principle for the presentation of the findings in the following section.

Initially, each participant's experience was analyzed individually, but cases were also compared to each other in order to more fully draw out what made each case unique (and what they shared). The visual material was not analyzed in itself, but it was referred to during analysis in order to clarify or bolster my understanding of the verbal material.

As implied above, a study like this is not statistically generalizable, but it can be valued for its analytical generalizability---that is, its transferability to other cases and contexts (Yin, 2014). One might be tempted to think that the fewer participants a study has, the smaller its possible contribution. This is not necessarily true; a single-case study can reveal significant theoretical findings (Yin, 2014). Likewise, another temptation is to think that interpretative work is hopelessly subjective and contingent. In the face of these temptations, one must remember the intended contribution of hermeneutic phenomenological research: "to be able to act practically in our lives with greater thoughtfulness and tact" (van Manen, 2014, p. 20). Thus, studies such as this one should be assessed according to the principles discussed by Yardley (2000): context-sensitivity, philosophical commitment, transparency, coherence, and importance. Moreover, van Manen (2014) suggests that a phenomenological study be assessed in terms of its providing and provoking contemplative wonder, questioning attentiveness, descriptive richness, interpretive depth, experiential awakening, openness and inceptual epiphany.


As mentioned above, all the participants chose to be identified using their real names. Here I provide a brief introduction to each artist and the project they created for this study. Hereafter, participants are referred to using their first names, as is typical in discussing qualitative research participants.

  • Brian Jerome is a young professional abstract, multimedia painter whose work explores the difficulties of communication. For this project, Brian created a mixed-media piece, incorporating oil and graphite.

  • Brianna Ballinghoff is an undergraduate art student majoring in illustration. She is also a body piercer and tattoo apprentice. For this project, Brianna created an oil painting that depicted herself naturalistically on a red background.

  • Britt Miller is a hobbyist artist who paints in acrylic. Her paintings exhibit bright colors, bold outlines and stylized forms. In her career, Britt works in IT.

  • Emily Addis is a hobbyist artist who engages in many forms of art-making. For this project, she created a set of polaroid photographs along with an oil painting. In her career, Emily is an education and outreach coordinator at the Barnes Foundation, an art institution in Philadelphia.

  • Jeannie Moberly is a woman in her 60s who has worked as an artist her whole life. She recently retired from a career in fashion, and now dedicates herself to painting surreal and environmentalist scenes in oil and mixed media.

  • Justin Tyner is a professional stained-glass artist whose work explores the power of color and light as a form of communication. For this project, Justin created a large, circular piece with a painted image of his face in the center with kaleidoscopic rays emanating outwards.

  • Tammy Hala is an aerial acrobat, painter and photographer. Most of her paintings are abstract "flow pieces," as she calls them, where she intuitively applies and blends colors without forethought.


As mentioned above, the study described in this paper is part of a larger project of inquiry at the intersection of self-portraiture and information science (Gorichanaz, 2018c). A major element of the findings from this project were the narratives expressing each artist's experience. Those narratives are not reproduced here, but they can be found online at http://selfportraiture.info, along with images of each finished self-portrait and more images from each artist's process. In this paper, I report on the understandings built by the artists, both to furnish a look at information behavior in the domain of artistic practice and to illustrate how understanding can be studied in information science. As described above, "understanding" refers to both a process and an object;

ontological understanding is the process by which a person builds ontic understandings.

In this section, I describe some of the ontic understandings built in the participants' creation of their self-portraits. They can be organized into two groups: self-understanding and understanding of the artistic process (summarized in Table 1). As understandings can be conceptualized as information constellations, I also describe some of the pieces of information that contributed to each instance of understanding, offering a view into each artist's ontological understanding.

Table 1. Understandings developed through self-portraiture.

+---------------------------------------+----------------------------------+ | Self-Understanding | Artistic Process | +=======================================+==================================+ | Comparing past self to present self | Developing a new method | | | | | Experiencing a watershed moment | Noticing environmental influence | | | | | Coming to terms with mental conflicts | Learning not to force it | | | | | Differences between self and others | | +---------------------------------------+----------------------------------+


One of the ways self-understanding was built was in terms of comparing the past self to the present self. Brian, Justin and Tammy all built this form of self-understanding. For Brian, it came about chiefly through the processing of memories. As Brian worked, he reflected on living in the city versus the country, and conversations that have stuck with him since his childhood. Brian processed these memories by giving them external embodiment as marks on his canvas, and this allowed him to visually link certain memories together, cover up and re-reveal them, etc. (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. Brian covered part of his past in white paint and then scratched through it, re-revealing the past.

Justin's case also involved the processing of memories, but a watershed in his experience was his hiking trip to Colorado partway through the project. The trip was a major test of his physical endurance, and he experienced, as he described in our follow-up interview, "this crazy self-esteem and self-confidence. It's still kinda twinkling." This sense of self-efficacy went beyond physical fitness; Justin said he found himself more confident in his abilities as an artist, a husband and a father. Other information leading up to this understanding include: his enlisting his wife and son to critique his drawing; his thinking about his 18 years of experience doing stained glass; and his current interest in symbology. Similarly, Tammy also experienced self- understanding as renewed self-efficacy. For her, this was an artifact of successfully drawing a face, which has long been challenging for her. Information involved in her case of self-understanding include her memory of doing a draw-one-face-a-day challenge several years prior, her browsing face drawings on Instagram for inspiration, her failed attempts at drawing faces early in her process, and the drawing itself. Central to both Justin's and Tammy's cases of understanding was willingly taking on a difficult challenge.

Another form of self-understanding was coming to terms with mental conflicts. This is not as stark a change as sensing oneself to be different now than in the past, but it is a felt difference in self-understanding all the same. In Jeannie's case, she had been conflicted about helping her sister on the farm. As Jeannie describes in one of her session interviews:

It makes me feel like I'm dealing with the whole issue of wanting the farm, not wanting to go help my sister on the farm, wanting to go help my sister on the farm. Somehow, when I'm working on this project, that sort of settles. It's kind of like stirring a boiling pot. If you don't stir it, the bubbles will pop out and go on the stove, but if you stir, you keep it more calm... It is a therapeutic project.

Indeed, Jeannie explicitly set out to achieve this sort of understanding through the project, as she told me in our follow-up interview. The information involved in Jeannie's understanding includes the physical practice of drawing, arranging and painting the various farm elements as she considered the memories of her grandfather's farm, the memories of her parents' differing views of farming, and her estimations of the role of farming in American history and politics. Central to this case of understanding was spending a lot of time on the project.

Finally, Brianna came to understand that she sees herself differently than other people see themselves. In her self-portrait, she depicted herself with bare midriff. In our follow-up interview, she mentioned that other people said, upon seeing the portrait, that they wouldn't have been comfortable enough to portray themselves in that way. Describing her portrait, Brianna said:

It definitely shows how comfortable I've become with myself. I don't think I'd ever before think it was okay to show so much skin and being comfortable with whatever... It's definitely something I was comfortable doing... It shows comfort and a willingness to do this style that I want to do and use colors that I want to use. I think it also shows what I want to do as a whole. I love painting like this... This embodies my style, like what I want to see myself as. Just embracing everything, being able to add all my clothes, and my tattoos. I got---I was like, "Wow, I have tattoos now. This is crazy." I've wanted to look like this forever. And I finally achieved---I feel comfortable with how I look, and I guess that's a good mark of success.

Indeed. In one of her first session interviews, Brianna mentioned feeling insecure because she was working at a tattoo parlor but did not, at that time, have any tattoos. The information involved in this understanding included the goal she had for her self- appearance, memories of how she used to look and discussions with others. Central to this understanding was talking about her artwork with others.

Artistic Process

A second form of understanding built in the examples of self-portraiture in this study was about the participant's artistic process. Each artist had a typical process that they developed over the course of their career, and all but Tammy followed that typical process in this project. These processes are not set in stone; rather, they evolve each time the artist goes to work. The artistic process is defined in its doing. To be sure, the process of even the most accomplished artists is subject to revision. In my project, three of the participants built new understandings regarding their processes.

In her project, Britt developed a method of painting on a projection. In recent years, she began using a projector to help her render the under-drawing more quickly. She set out to do that in this project, and while she was drawing the lines she was struck by the colors of the image and got the idea to paint directly over the projection (Figure 2). She did so, and it worked out so well that she used the same technique on her next painting. The information involved in this case of understanding included the method of using the projector for the linework and seeing the colors of the projection. Central to this case of understanding was being open to new ways to do something, even while doing it.

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Figure 2. Britt's projected photograph.

Emily, who works at the Barnes Foundation, came to understand the impact that her viewing habits have on her work. In our follow-up interview, she said that her painting reminded her of something by Matisse, and she suspected it had to do with her job at the Barnes Foundation, where she sees works by Matisse every day. She recalled a painting she did years ago that resembled Degas' works, at a time when she "was looking at a lot of Degas and I really was interested in what he was doing." Commenting on this, she said, "We're creative, but artists are always piecing things together from other people's ideas, because that's how we learn." The information in this case of understanding included Emily's memories of works from Degas and that prior painting, works by Matisse, and her painting in progress. Central to this understanding was seeing those aspects of the environment that can easily be taken for granted.

Finally, Tammy came to understand that some things in art cannot be forced but must happen naturally. To begin her process, Tammy engaged in several "flow pieces," as she called them, in which she freely puts colors down and paints shapes without any planning or intention. One of these pieces seemed to resemble a face (Figure 3), and she hatched the idea to do her own self-portrait in that style. Try as she might, however, consciously attempting to do so did not work. For this reason, she abandoned her typical style and sought to render a realistic self-portrait in pencil. As described above, that effort ended up being successful in its own way. The information in this case of understanding included the accidental face painting and the attempts at recreating it. Central to this understanding was the willingness to abandon something that is not working and the openness to try a new challenge.

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Figure 3. One of Tammy's "flow pieces," an inadvertent face.


This study has shown some of the understandings built in the artistic process of self-portraiture. These understandings have been described as information constellations that show how heterogeneous information comes together, bound by narrative structure, in the building of ontic understanding. This information includes memories, the lived environment, profound experiences and social media browsing, among others. These aspects of life can be informative and contribute to understanding, i.e., the experience of being informed. It is striking that the diversity of information that bears on self-portraiture goes far beyond the sorts of sources that the field has traditionally considered to be informative, even in "everyday" research. Moreover, this study has gone beyond merely identifying information sources to show how these sources are actually informative in a person's lived situation as elements in the building of understanding. In my view, this demonstrates how the perspective of information experience and the concept of understanding can help achieve the aims of the research area of everyday information behavior.

To be sure, this study furnishes only a preliminary look at these phenomena, with the intent of establishing their informativeness. More work can be done, not least linking up these discussions with other research in information behavior and allied fields. For instance, research has been done on online browsing, though to my knowledge this work has not yet discussed how browsing itself can be informative---though the work of Feinberg (2017) could be interpreted in this way, and likewise with discussions in learning science of "searching as learning" (Vakkari, 2016). Still, this discourse has not been connected to information behavior, but in light of the present study, perhaps it ought to be. Additionally, latent in this study is the finding that information activities always seem to involve information encountering, at least in the form of memories and associations, and all this information contributes to the resulting understanding. Information encountering has been identified previously as a facet of information behavior (Erdelez, 1995), but the present study shows an even deeper pervasiveness of information encountering than has previously been acknowledged.

To speak of the ramifications of this study for our understanding of the domain of art, this study fleshes out what Cowan (2004) briefly mentioned: that artists seek to create understanding through their work. For the artists in this study, this understanding was both introspective and communicative; that is, they sought to create not only understanding within themselves, as described above, but also within their viewers. Such communication has been described as part of the artistic impulse (Dissanayake, 1992). There is much room for further research in this regard, for example investigating the creation of other forms of artwork from the perspectives of understanding and communication, such as music and theater.

What's more, these discussions can provide lessons even beyond the artistic domain. For example, all the artists in this study experienced some measure of tension or struggle in their building of understanding; this was not experienced as a defect or something to be done away with, but rather it was part of the process, and perhaps a vital one at that. Following Becker (1982), we know that artists may not be different from other sorts of workers; art is just the work that some people do. What does this mean for those who wish to build information systems that support understanding? It may be the case that making things too easy is self-defeating. This is a question that further research could take up.

Finally, this study demonstrates how the concept of understanding offers a way to explore human epistemology in a holistic way, going beyond the knowledge-contributing information sources that have been typically studied in information science. As defined above, ontic understanding is a coherent and self-transparent epistemic network that is constructed by a conscious agent over a background of ontological understanding. This study has borne some examples of ontic understanding in the domain of art. Crucially, these examples were allowed to emerge naturalistically in this study, essentially by casting a very wide net (i.e., by not limiting the scope of "information" a priori). Approaching the topic in this way allowed previously unseen aspects of existence to be recognized as informative that may otherwise not have been seen. This is because understanding is downstream from knowledge, and so studying understanding may be a way to uncover forms of knowledge and aspects of knowledge that go unnoticed in other approaches. Thus, the present study has offered a useful methodology for studying understanding in any domain. With more research, perhaps typologies of understanding and a deeper understanding of different kinds of information sources can be developed. This provokes information science to further develop ways to recognize the breadth of phenomena that are informative in human life.


In this paper, we have seen how understanding is built through information in the experience of creating a work of art, specifically a self-portrait. It was found that these understandings involve self-understanding and understanding of the artistic process. This study provides a methodological lesson for conducting research on understanding in information behavior, which has been a critical lacuna in the field.

Life abounds with information. I would contend, then, that if information science is to participate meaningfully and positively in the future, it must become attuned to the informational nature of life as lived. Historically, information science limited its scope of concern to particular sources, or forms, of information. That is, information has been conceptualized as something that has been formed. As the artist Paul Klee wrote in his notebooks, however, "Form is the end, death. Form-giving is movement, action. Form-giving is life" (Klee & Spiller, 1973, p. 269). Consonantly, the potential of research in everyday information behavior is to understand not just information forms, but of information form-giving---to look at information as a process, rather than just a thing. That is, to look at information experience: the lived experience of creating information by putting other information to use and of building understanding therein.

Art, indeed, is an exemplar of form-giving (despite our penchant for conceptualizing it in terms of forms). This is because, in a sense, art is always in the process of being made. Elgin (2017, p. 287), for example, writes, "The picture is inexhaustible. There is always more to be found." This study has explored the work of artists from the perspective of information behavior, and its findings prompt us to ask: Where else can we see artful lived phenomena such as memories and profound experiences serving as information? Foucault (1997, p. 261) asked a similar question: "Couldn't everyone's life become a work of art? Why should the lamp or the house be an art object but not our life?" Surely, we have an opportunity to apply these ideas much more broadly across the various domains of human life.



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