Nicholas Baxter

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/

Pest

“Pest”, oil on panel, 11 x 11 inches, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s a silly random painting I made recently.

“Pest”
Oil on insect shaped panel
For @christian1perez ‘s “Metamorphosis” art show at Hope Gallery in New Haven CT, September 7, 2019

 

What if humans are actually the cockroaches, infesting this beautiful planet and spreading disease, pollution, war, garbage, and waiting to be exterminated by an increasingly angry Mother Nature?

This ridiculous painting started with that premise, or nagging question, in mind, and then just snowballed from there…

Coming up with an effective composition on a laser-cut beetle shaped panel with very thin arms sticking out proved difficult, and eventually led me right back to the most obvious solution: acknowledge the shape of the panel with the image itself. Why slap a random image on a bug-shaped surface? So I slapped a bug-shaped semi-self portrait of me on a bug-shaped surface.

The inspiration for the tattoo on my, uhh, its? back was an ancient Egyptian temple carving of a scarab beetle, and then I paired it with a classic traditional Americana tattoo dagger.  The inspiration for the butthole and sack from the back was–ahh, actually, I’ll just stop there. Enjoy.

 

“Pest” (detail)

 

The End of Websites

I’ve slowly let this blog turn to seed and die out, as the attention of the whole world turns to social media.

I’ve noticed website traffic declining ever since the cultural takeover of Instagram, Snapchat, etc. and along with that, my own website use has dwindled. I’ve posted far fewer updates to this site, and even less than that to this blog, since basically no one reads blogs anymore?

This was always a labor of love and not profit or mass audience cultivation, but as all the eyeballs move to Instagram, it has taken over as the defacto blog of choice, since the platform lends itself to quick, easy, effective content sharing, especially for visual creators like me.

As the task of staying relevant and worthy of someone’s attention becomes increasingly difficult, and the pace of changing internet trends gets increasingly difficult to keep up with (it would seem?), there just isn’t the time for this anymore, and that makes me very sad because I enjoy producing long format art-related content. I love explaining things, teaching things, revealing insights to the curious. I have 2 sold out books now only available as ebooks (here!) because of that love.

And just because websites and blogs are dying, doesn’t mean I’m creating any less; you can follow all of my work in all mediums on Instagram, of course. And I’ll always post new paintings on this website, in their respective gallery categories. as well as post major announcements to the front page.

For now, since I have no major projects or shows in the works with deadlines to observe, I am available for commissions.