I became intrigued with the concept of ‘artists sight’ a few weeks ago and decided to write a post to share my thoughts, but as I continued to study the subject it became clear that a single post just wouldn’t cut it.
So, are you ready to continue exploring this fascinating idea with me?
These three posts work together to answer questions we all have about how artists learn to see the world – and then paint it. Last week we discussed what artists sight is and next week we’ll explore how to hone and apply it to painting.
If you missed last week’s post then be sure to check it out, and then watch your inbox for next week’s enlightening conclusion.
- Part 1 – Learn what artists sight is. Do you have it?
- Part 3 – Dive into the interactive nature of artists sight, and find out how to hone the skill and apply it to painting. And is painting from life as important as it’s hyped to be or are photos good enough?
Today we’re going to discuss the nuances of artists sight and how we can begin to acquire it. I’ll teach you what I’ve learned about recognizing faces and how that applies to developing ‘artist’s sight’.
The Relationship Between Our Eyes and Brain
To understand the concept we need to talk a bit about how the brain and eyes work together.
I’ve often wondered why the arts seem different from other fields when it comes to the time it takes to master them. The extra time needed can often discourage beginners because of the extended painting-mastery-learning-curve.
This will make more sense as we discuss how we learn to see, and then we’ll talk about how to develop an ‘artist’s sight’.
Learning to See
Much of what we know about the way we see is still a mystery. The brain is complicated. Research really took off in the early 60’s and is still far from any finite conclusions.
Even when our eyes are healthy, we’re not born seeing the world in perfect clarity. We don’t open our eyes and BOOM – there’s the world in all its glory. We ‘learn’ how to see – and some things take years of practice.
Have you ever been crestfallen when you went to visit your grandchild for the second or third time and they ran away crying when you tried to give them a hug. You might have said something like “don’t you remember me, it’s Grandma?”
There’s a reason they might not recognize you.
Our ability to distinguish one face from another is a skill we gain by experience. Even at 5 or 6 years of age we are still learning how to recognize faces. Through the course of childhood we eventually become experts at seeing faces, but it takes years of practice.
The Millimeter of Difference
Most faces are essentially the same. There may be only a millimeter of difference between the size of one person’s nose compared with another. Yet that one millimeter can dramatically alter how one person looks to us compared to someone else.
The same holds true with animals.
I’ve seen thousands of sheep in my lifetime. When I look at a herd of sheep I see a bunch of animals that all look alike. When a shepherd looks at his flock of sheep, with a quick glance he can recognize each one individually.
How does he do it?
Intense practice. He spends everyday of his life learning to really ‘see’ the sheep. They become his friends.
He sees the millimeter of difference.
That same phenomenon holds true with people from different ethnic groups. Mongolians, Americans, Africans or Indians – we all have as many differences in facial features as any other group, yet we often hear one group say about another that “they all look alike.”
That’s true – at least to someone who is not practiced at ‘seeing’ them.
Is it a malfunction in our eyes – or some kind of prejudice? Of course not. We don’t really see with our eyes. We see with our brains.
We See What We Train Our Brains to See
Our brains simplify and lump things together to save us time and confusion. When a culture has strong defining facial characteristics that are different from our culture, our brains lump things together.
Once we gain experience seeing the subtle differences – the one millimeter – they no longer ‘all look alike’.
The same principle holds true with any object or complicated shape – fish, trees, clouds, bees, leaves, rocks – it’s all in the brain. The more we study the nuances of objects the greater our knowledge pool and the more our brains instinctively see the differences.
Have you ever listened to an artist describe “that bit of warm reddish lavender on the side of that bush” and thought to yourself “what lavender, I don’t see any lavender – it’s a big green bush”?
Is the artist making it up? Or are her eyes stronger than yours? No, not at all. That artist has simply put in the intentional study and time needed for the brain to see the lavender.
All of those nuances are needed if we want to add more life to our paintings. And be patient, you will learn to see them as well.
Can Artists Sight be Taught?
A quick Google search reveals how hotly contested this subject is. Are you born an artist or are you taught how to become an artist?
While I think some are born with natural creative inclinations and abilities, I emphatically believe that anyone can learn to become an artist. It takes effort and a lot of really hard work, but I have no doubt that it can be learned.
Hand in hand we can teach one another artist’s sight – it can be learned and you can start at any age.
Kristie’s Artistic Adaptation
Kristie was riding a horse before she could walk, and she set a state record in high school Little Britches for pole bending. She has a true rodeo heart and mind.
If she looks at a herd of horses that are all the same color and height she can quickly recognize the horses as individuals. When I see them, I just see a bunch of horses.
She trained her brain to see the millimeter of difference – in horses.
Growing up in Woodland Park, Colorado she was surrounded by miles and miles of public forests – with an incredible view of Pikes Peak. She rode through those woods all the time and saw the trees and the mountains from the back of her horse almost every day.
However, she simply saw them as a place to go riding. She never looked at them through the eyes of an artist – wanting to capture the unique identity of each tree. The trees ‘all looked alike’ to her.
Our brain needs to know what we are looking for, so it can create pathways. Those pathways take time and repeated effort to build. They eventually lead to the stores of accumulating knowledge that will help us see the unique quality of individual objects like rocks or trees.
Now that Kristie and I have been married for 30 years she’s gotten tuned into what I look for and how I see beauty everywhere – like in the texture of bark on a tree. She’s also become used to my missing highway exits because I was studying the light on the trees ahead of us instead of the road signs.
Through repeated experiences and concentrated effort she sees more fully the abundant beauty that surrounds each of us. Today, Kristie can see the subtle differences in a landscape almost as well as she can a herd of horses.
The same thing happened with our children as well.
Tawnymara and a DC Sunrise
While in high school our daughter Tawnymara was blessed to go to a Youth Leadership Conference in Washington D.C. The participants were all young leaders from schools across the nation and they got to visit with and learn from government dignitaries.
Early one morning they hopped on buses to go see some of the sites and monuments. She was strongly affected by the things she saw and read, especially at places like the Holocaust Museum.
One of her biggest surprises, however, came during the bus ride there.
She was talking with students around her when she suddenly noticed the sunrise and exclaimed to everyone to look at how beautiful it was.
They all looked at her as if she were odd. “It’s just a sunrise” they said.
It seems Tawnymara had a different view than everyone else on the bus, even though they were looking at the same scene. But why?
In essence, she was trained to see the beauty.
She went with me on painting trips and heard me describe why I chose spots to paint. She watched Kristie and I plant flowers and trees and stop suddenly during hikes or trips for breathtaking views. She went camping often with our family.
And she listened over and over to the phrase “look how beautiful that is”.
So again, can artists sight be taught and nurtured – Yes, I think so!
How Can YOU Gain Artists Sight
What intentional things can be done to help us learn to see the beauty around us and the subtle 1 millimeter difference?
For our family, we get outside and enjoy nature often. We go camping, hiking, sitting out under the stars and taking walks together.
You might be thinking “So. How does that help? Lots of people do that and they don’t see the millimeter difference in trees or clouds.”
Yes, but do they discuss how the light reflects off the water at a certain angle depending on where they’re standing?
Those are the types of conversations and observations we make together as a family. We don’t just walk – we observe, analyze, and question.
Here’s a short clip showing an example of the conversations our family has during outings. This is from a trip Kristie and I took last fall.
These are the types of conversations we have all the time with each other and with our kids. We are always learning new things.
The next time you go for a walk take time to really look at the trees and analyze them.
Study the shadow on the side of the trunk of a tree and notice how the edges get broken up by the values of things in the distance. When something is brighter behind the tree the shadow line looks stronger and has a harder edge, but when something in the distance is dark the shadow line seems to disappear, or the edge gets softer or lost altogether.
Or watch the way light bouncing off a metal sign reflects differently across water when it’s barely moving compared to ripples, waves, or rapids. You will see how that reflection gets longer and longer the choppier the water gets as it skips across the tops of the waves.
As you practice and your artist’s sight grows, new ideas, insights and understanding will begin to flow to you. The tiny nuances will stand out to you with such clarity and force you will wonder how you ever missed seeing them before.
It’s obvious that learning to see the millimeter differences and subtle nuances of color, value and shape will give us more information to draw from when we’re painting. Which in turn will make our paintings much more interesting to look at.
But couldn’t we simply use the internet to do the same thing? There are gazillions of photos from people around the world that we can look at.
Heck, with a little research we could probably find information about everything we’ve talked about here.
Is there really any advantage to seeing nature in person, or can we get the same understanding from photos?
That’s what we’ll be discussing next week!
You’re gonna love hearing about the fascinating sight experiment involving kittens and what that has to do with painting from life.
So, next week we’ll tie everything together and show how we can use artist’s sight to master oil painting.
The world needs to learn about artist’s sight. This earth is a magnificent place even if some of our brothers and sisters haven’t learned to see it yet.
Let’s spread the word and help the world to see just how beautiful it is!
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