So often we think that learning new techniques, getting new (and better) materials and signing up to the next course will help us get better at our art. And hopefully some if it will help. I sure hope my courses are helping out my students. But increasingly I realise that so much of it comes down to seeing.
We all know this really. Learning to see is the mantra of many art courses I believe. And those teachers are right. Teaching students to ‘see’ is the real transformation we should be teaching.
But seeing what?
Seeing Potential Paintings
This one is probably the easiest to develop. As soon as you start painting as a regular activity, you will notice you start to see paintings in everything. That bend in the road starts to look quite picturesque, those cooking ingredients would make a nice painting, and the way the light falls on your granddaughter, ah, but she’s moved already. Seeing potential paintings in the world around you is something that starts to develop automatically (I hope) when you start to think like a painter. No longer are you painting that holiday snapshot, but you are playing around with old jugs and dead flowers, you go out to take a picture of that view from the corner shop, and even your holiday photos start to include a suspicious amount of old doors with paint flaking off.
Fresh eyes is a familiar term for all painters, I imagine. We are all after ‘fresh eyes’ so that we can spot the mistakes in our work. This is one of the hardest things to achieve though. How often have you worked on a painting for a long time, thinking you nailed it, only for your spouse to come and tell you that you forgot to paint the ear in the portrait! Well, maybe it wasn’t that obvious but you know what I mean.
After working on our paintings and drawings for a long time we start to lose sight (excuse the pun) of what we are seeing. We get closer and closer to our canvas, until our noses touch it, and only when we finally step back we realise the painted nose is all wonky. Or, and this happens so very often, it takes many days (or even weeks) before we see the mistakes. We put a painting away, and get back to it much later to find lots of mistakes we had not spotted before.
We tend to apply all sorts of tricks to try and get ‘fresh eyes’ (the eyes of someone who sees your painting for the first time): we look at it in a mirror, we turn it upside down, we take a photo and look at it on our computer, we ask our family members to ‘be our eyes’, we put the painting away (facing the wall) and only take it out weeks later. And it works! Very often mistakes pop out at us when we get back to a painting after a time away. Very often our friends or colleagues can spot the mistakes we failed to see for weeks on end.
Very often we stare at our work, knowing ‘it is missing something’ but we don’t know what. Only ‘fresh eyes’ will help us now. Only with ‘fresh eyes’ will we find that the composition needs something else, the values are off, or the colour harmonies dull.
Learning to ‘see’ these things is hard. Whether you are trying to find an exact likeness and are looking for minuscule adjustments to the corner of a mouth, or whether you are looking for that missing element in your composition, ‘seeing’ the ‘fault’ is difficult.
Learning to See
I might never learn to see: if I would always know exactly what my painting needs, where I’ve gone wrong and what is missing, I don’t think I would be creating art anymore. It would become a filling-in task where I can just follow the steps, put in all the elements, and, voila: done.
Art doesn’t work like that. ‘Seeing’ that you needed to put that extra flowerpot in your composition and moving it around to find that perfect dynamic is what makes creating art exciting and rewarding. There are some, but not many, rules about what a composition needs, or a colour harmony, or even a portrait likeness (although a bit more so). ‘Seeing’ it is the art of it all.
You can develop and improve your ‘seeing’. That is for sure. Master artists might not always get it right in one go (and also enjoy the journey and the struggle!) but they will have more experience in knowing where that flowerpot should go. And they will have played around with colour harmonies that are exciting, challenging, or beautiful before, and know what does what. But coming from a place of experience only prepares them for the next challenge: to create something new and dynamic, unexpected and interesting. ‘Seeing’ is never achieved.
If you are not that master artist exploring new visions yet, but just want to get that portrait looking remotely human, then again, ‘seeing’ the mistakes can be tricky. So often I can point out the wonky noses and droopy eyes to my students and they cry out ‘why didn’t I see that!’. I experience the same regularly in my own paintings too. All we can do is continue to step back from our work and try to look, really look.
Use the familiar tricks (mirrors, photography, turn it round, etc) in order for you to see that you drew one cheek twice as wide as the other. Practice seeing all the time. With every drawing or painting you create, you will be practicing. Be critical and step back. Compare the shape of that cheek with the shape of your model’s cheek. Compare the colour of her jumper with the colour you painted. Compare the expression in her eyes with your work.
Step back and look at your painting, just your painting. Don’t consider your painting as a reference-photo-copying-exercise, but consider your painting as a work of art that stands on its own. Is the composition working? Are the colours working together within the painting? Does it look dark? Light? Too pink? Too muddy? Too colourful? Is the mouth looking alright? Try and ask yourself lots of questions and avoid the ‘something is wrong but I don’t know what’ as that won’t help you further. Make the questions much more specific and ask lots. Learning to ‘see’ is what we’re all here for and the journey will never end.