Nicholas Baxter

Blog posts tagged “clear seeing”

On The Mechanics of Seeing

A long time ago on this blog I touched upon the brain’s instinctive practice of limiting the amount of visual information we tend to perceive. The point of writing about this was that it applies directly to the practice of painting from life, and really, to all methods and genres of painting. But in particular, representational realism, because obviously this genre is so closely tied to the science of seeing.

As opposed to passively looking, actively seeing something means thinking about it as we look, with intention, to analyze and deconstruct what is happening with light, shadow, value, color, form, dimension and so on. The more intimately we understand all those criteria as artists, the better equipped we’ll be to recreate on canvas what we’re seeing in real life (or our reference material), both in terms of accuracy and emotional expression–that unquantifiable sense of awe and magic that occurs when viewing the best or most powerful art.

The paintings that have both–an uncanny sense of believably as well as a profound sense of feeling–are in my opinion the very best, and are of course what I strive towards whenever I pick up a brush. I feel that in order to even begin to have a chance at achieving one or both of those goals, an artist needs to understand what the eye-brain feedback loop is doing, and why.

“Greer’s Ferry Lake Sunset”, 5×7 inches, Oil on Panel, 2018 (painted en plein air)

In short, our brain instinctively wants to find the shortest distance between two points. Without us telling it to, it sifts through all the billions of points of visual data our eyes take in, then selects the most important of that data to help us navigate the environment and make choices on how to act. I’ve found this phenomenon to be most apparent, and challenging, in the genre of landscape painting. When gazing out over a forest of trees, each with millions of leaves and hundreds of branches, all bathed in a haze of atmosphere, that view usually gets condensed into a clumpy horizontal band of olive-y green so that our brain can free up computing power for anything else that may be of more pressing concern. Overriding this instinct takes intention and a conscious choice in the moment. In doing so we can then bring our awareness slowly to each and every minuscule aspect of the scene in order to pick and choose what we will emphasize, subordinate, or omit entirely.

Being an artist takes this one challenging step further. From there, we have to discern when, where, and how best to simplify the overwhelming amount of detail we see in order to create the illusion of what we were looking at for the viewer of our painting, which allows their own brains to fill in the omitted details on its own. And we have to do this all the while adhering to artistic principles that make good art, like color harmony, composition, value structure, symbolism, hierarchy of focus, among others. Err too far to the accurate detail side, and you can end up with a technically proficient but soulless, boring rendition. Err too far to the interpretive extreme and you can end up with a distorted, unintelligible or non-convincing pile of whimsy (in other words, abstract expressionism?). Hitting the sweet spot for our goals as representational realist painters is the ultimate challenge, daunting and addicting all at once.

If you want to learn more about the phenomenon of seeing from a more scientific angle, read this great article I found today. Some nice parallels can be drawn from it to what we are doing as artists.

https://www.quantamagazine.org/your-brain-chooses-what-to-let-you-see-20190930/

Notes & Advice 4: Clear Seeing and Accurate Drawing

Earlier this month I attended a 3 day intensive drawing course hosted by an artistic mentor of mine, Edward Povey.  This course started from the absolute  foundations of drawing–clear and simple seeing, lines, and shapes–and progressed by the third day, after a brief foray into tone and value, into a full-fledged classical still life.

While I had taken a similar foundations of drawing course around a decade ago (wow, that sounds like I’m old…and an “adult.” Wierd.) in art college, I wanted to revisit these incredibly important disciplines in order to sharpen up my artistic skills.  Edward taught the course with a combination of classic drawing exercises, and insightful personal anecdotes about the nature of seeing. His philosophy emphasized the faithful recording what we see, in the tradition of “the humble craftsman.”

Exercise: reproduce the Picasso drawing upside down, without regard to subject matter. Simply observe line, shapes, and proportions.

Many of the exercises were taken directly from the popular book by Betty Edwards Drawing On the Right Side of The Brain (which I personally have never read, but can now vouch for after this experience), such as the Vase/Face exercise which you can see here.  One of the most demonstrative exercises consisted of trying to reproduce a complex line shape in exact precision while simultaneously counting aloud, from 50 to zero. I won’t spoil the amusing results of conducting such an experiment by describing them in detail here, in case you should decide to try it yourself. But let’s just say, it puts the two sides of your brain into a major state of conflict.

All drawing consists of, is working with one’s own mind.

The most poignant lesson that was reinforced for me over the 3 days was the emphasis on clear, simple seeing.  Much like a meditation practice, this places emphasis on simply seeing the physical reality before us in all of its detailed truthfulness, without the confusion nor illusion of belief. For example, our mind knows and believes that a human arm may be approximately 3 feet long, but when seen in sharp perspective, the appearance of the arm becomes far shorter (aka ‘foreshortened’), and we must account for this when drawing it on a 2-dimensional surface.  This cognitive dissonance between our belief about the arm and the reality of how it appears on our retinas (and therefore must appear on the paper) is the reason why drawing complex forms with complete accuracy is incredibly difficult.  Therefore an artist must learn to disconnect from certain areas of thought in their brain, and tune into the unembellished truth of reality, breaking it down into simple criteria of line, shape, and negative space (the areas or shapes between/around featured subject matter).  Extreme precision in this task can be achieved with measuring techniques and devices, but it is not impossible to do so completely with one’s own eyes and mind.  It takes patience, practice, and a willingness to let go of our ego and all of its beliefs.

Words of wisdom.

As a painter of realism, this practice is indispensable for me.  All of my aesthetic illusions must be grounded in, must stem from, the fundamental truth of how objects or spaces look in reality, or else their believability will be compromised.  Not to mention, the strength of all representational art in the first place, regardless of chosen specialty or chosen illusions, lies in the accurate reproduction of 3D forms onto a 2D surface.

Subjecting oneself to the rigors of classical drawing training is the most efficient way to stay sharp, no matter how advanced or practiced one is. It’s the same concept as strengthening muscles by going to the gym.  After a while, certain drawing exercises are likely to make less of an impact as they become more familiar/easier, and just as with physical strength, the artist can increase the artistic challenge by adding time limits or more complex subject matter. I strongly encourage all artists to revisit the simple disciplines of drawing as a way to “work out” their skills of observation and their representational accuracy.

Here’s my completed drawing from the final day of the class:

Form & Emptiness, Graphite on Paper, 2012, 12in x 9in

Form & Emptiness (detail). The title of this piece is a reference to the Buddhist teachings on the nature of reality, as represented by the dominating dark form in the center of the composition bearing my reflection, and of course by the empty glass and mug. This title is also a reference to the similarities between the clear seeing techniques used for drawing, and the awareness cultivated in meditation practice.