Nicholas Baxter

Blog posts tagged “optics”

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.