Do you think artists see the world differently?
Take a moment to consider how you see the world around you. It’s possible that you, like me, look in awe of the beauty everywhere, something I like to call the ‘artist’s sight’.
These thoughts came to me while I was reading a book called Crashing Through. A fellow named Mike May lost his sight at the age of 3 from a chemical explosion. Later, they replaced one of his eyes with a glass one because of an infection.
May never let his blindness stop him from grabbing life by the horns though. He holds the world record, which he set in the late 80’s, for the fastest downhill blind speed skiing – reaching 65 miles per hour. He worked for the CIA for a couple of years and he started his own business creating GPS mobility devices for the sight impaired.
Then 43 years later in 2000, he had cornea stem cell surgery that restored his sight.
Sounds amazing right? May went from blindness to comparatively perfect vision almost overnight.
Researchers who tested May in 2003, and again in 2015, discovered that the eyes are a smaller part of the equation then they had expected. ‘Sight’ is primarily accomplished in the brain, which requires early childhood development.
20 years following his surgery May can see colors, motion, and some simple two-dimensional shapes, but he can’t distinguish 3-D forms, faces, objects or scenes from one another. He can’t tell the difference between a male and female face, and if he’s walking across a street and comes to a sidewalk that doesn’t have a significant shadow or difference in color, he can’t tell it’s there.
Recent research suggests that the part of the brain that processes 3-D recognition is not developed fully until we become adults. So, those who lose their sight at a young age never have a chance to develop that crucial part of the eye-brain equation – what scientists call experience-dependent plasticity.
That means that our ability to clearly see all the nuances of life is made possible by our brain. Human eyes are like a camera’s lens – if that camera was sending the information to a super computer rather than a simple sensor.
20/20 Vision vs ‘Artists Sight’
You might be thinking – what on earth does any of that have to do with the arts?
I believe that the ability to recognize beauty in the world is a developed skill. But, unlike Mike May’s 3-D processing problems, I think it can be developed at any age.
The first Spring after Kristie and I moved to Muncie we came home from a lunch date and saw some neighbors out on their porch. We walked over to meet them.
We learned that our neighbors had lived in that same house for more than 30 years and were now retired.
We told them that we had just moved from the beautiful arid mountains of Colorado. We loved the Colorado landscape, but it was very different from the humid Spring plants of Indiana. Kristie and I were overwhelmed by the profusion of blossoming trees and flowers that surrounded us in our new home.
Kristie asked one of them “is it always this beautiful here in the Spring?”
Their reply – “well you know, I guess it is beautiful isn’t it. I never noticed before.”
Our neighbors’ eyes worked perfectly. They had the opportunity to see what Kristie and I were seeing. But somehow, over a span of 30 years, they failed to see the beauty around them.
So, I wonder – do artists see something others don’t or can’t see. And if so, is ‘artist’s sight’ something we are born with or can it be developed?
My hypothesis is that artists have a different view of the world around them and that it is something anyone can develop at any age. I think it’s our job as artists to help the world see how beautiful it is.
Would you choose Switzerland or Television?
One of Kristie’s family members married a wonderful lady from Switzerland. The bride’s grandfather kindly paid for the whole family to come visit Switzerland for 8 days to enjoy the wedding.
After 16 hours of flying we were driven to Hotel Zürichberg. None of us had been to Switzerland before, and as we got out of the vans that took us to the hotel, Kristie and I marveled at the postcard perfect scene in front of us.
After dropping off our luggage, we went on a walk to explore our incredible new surroundings. It was an awe-inspiring experience, and one that Kristie and I will never forget. What was most surprising to us though, is that we found out it’s not uncommon for visitors when they first arrive, rather than head out to enjoy the scenery, to instead stay in their rooms, turn on the TV and watch a show in a language they don’t understand.
While there may be a host of good reasons others choose to rest instead of explore (like jet lag, anxiety, etc), the fact is that as an artist nothing could stop me from stepping outside as soon as possible. There was just too much beauty in the real world for me to spend time in front of a digital one.
Up on a hill overlooking Lake Zürich, we sat on a bench and watched hot air balloons drift gracefully across our view while accordion music played softly nearby.
We both looked at each other and asked, “are we in a movie scene?” It all seemed too perfect.
We felt that way the rest of the trip!
Some of you may be wondering what pushed Kristie, a cowgirl from a small town in Colorado, to immediately run outside and appreciate Switzerland’s beauty with me.
Kristie tells me that she sees the world differently since we got married. She had no real interest in paintings before meeting me and she didn’t ooh and aah over the landscape.
Now she calls me when she’s driving through town and tells me to run outside to see the clouds, moon or a setting sun. She has also become a master at critiquing paintings – finding the fatal flaws in my work when my brain develops blind spots.
She has developed an ‘artists sight’.
What about you? Would you choose to run outside and explore, or rest inside with a television?
Next week I’ll share some ways to gain, or further develop, an ‘artists sight’.
See Part 2 – How to Acquire Artists Sight (Part 2 of 3)
Learn to Paint Your Own Masterpiece – On The House
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I so agree with you about an artists sight. I found it happening to me when I first stated painting and have seen it echoed in my painting students. They suddenly start noticing how the light hits the trees of the form and values of the the clouds and will comment to me how they are suddenly seeing so much more.Its never too late to develop an artists eye.
Driving into Philadelphia with my parents when I was a kid, I used to wonder why I could see beauty in a pile of old rusted automobiles that most people would see (and ignore) as an ugly blight – I was fascinated by the nuance of muted colors. Maybe I do see the world differently, even if I don’t/won’t call myself an artist, just a struggling wannabe.
I enjoyed this post and especially the images of Zurich. Your article may answer the question of why so many artists want to travel: they want to see something with fresh eyes. Being too familiar with a place seems to lead to jaded viewing.
We ,ads our first trip to Portugal in Movember. The vivid hot colours of the cliffs against the ocean kept me mesmerized for hours. I had to immediately grab my camera and sketchbook and head outdoors.
I agree wth this sentiment. A child sees everything new for the first time and I feel that I am excited about seeing something new and fresh for the first time, even if I have lived with it for the past 60+ years. There can be beauty in absolutely everything, what differs is how we choose to ‘see’ it. Colour, light, reflection, how it sits, how it feels, how it smells, the list is endless. The challenge is to capture and share that moment of appreciation and awakening, that something that touched your soul.
I agree that “artist’s sight” exists and can be developed at any age. It is perhaps the most remarkable impression that I recall from 40+ years ago when I first discovered oil painting. I have also noticed this reaction in students who “get it”, those who comment on the beauty of their surroundings that they had not noticed before. I always feel like I have failed those who never seem to reach this “vision” and aren’t able to progress on their own. Maybe I am just not the right instructor for them at that point in time. I don’t find that familiarity diminishes ” artist’s sight” because every season, every day, every hour changes the possibilities.
I was an army air brat and traveled all over the US. In my adult life I traveled to Europe and South America and Canada. Mom and Dad exposed us 4 kids to the beauty of all places. From the breathtaking views of the Rockies and the Grand Canyon, to the calming Appalachian Mountains, to the mysteries of the various caverns in the west, east and Midwest and south. I became an archaeologist because of all the places I visited. The interest in what was hidden and then what I could expose to others to see and learn, which is exactly how I feel about my painting. When I hiked the Andes in Ecuador and lived with the indigenous peoples for a short time, I saw colors of the earth and food pulled into the colors of the clothing. My dad and I loved to watch a storm come in over the Gulf, how the water changed colors and the clouds rolled in. The smell of the ocean even changed with the storm, you could smell the rain as it mixed in with the salty air. And then after the rains how green the trees and grass are. Many people see it so much when they stay in one place that they forget that at one time it was beautiful in their eyes too. I love the live oaks in my city. I work in the capital and all round us are 100 + year old live oaks with Spanish moss. Right now the city is bright with red buds, Japanese magnolias, azaleas, roses, tulips, wild flowers. The crepe myrtles have begun throwing out their green leaves and will begin blooming in May. So many places and so many things to paint. Oops just realized I was writ8g an essay!😁
I took up doing art again a couple of years ago, and definitely find myself looking at the world differently in terms of form and colour and light and shadow, especially during the times when I’m spending as much time as I can painting. I’ve made a rule for myself that I’ll only paint from scenes that are around me. I can take a photograph because plein air painting just isn’t feasible for me at this point in time, but I’ve got to paint from a photograph I’ve taken myself. Beauty is everywhere!
Yes nice letter (:
Somebody said: ” .. it is relatively fast that we can learn painting materials and technics ..
But it take years to develop artistic eye ”
I guess art is a source for artists to express his/ her feelings of surroundings, time & places.