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To See or Not To See

by Keith Bond on 3/2/2009 12:59:53 PM

This Post is by Keith Bond, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews.  Find out how you can be a guest author

Note: Today's article is primarily for those who paint (or wish to paint) from life in a realistic manner.  And by definition, 'realistic' includes both tightly and loosely rendered paintings and everything in between.  Yes, even impressionism falls under the umbrella of realism.  This article may or may not be as applicable to other styles of art, but I do hope those of you who aren't realist painters can glean something from these thoughts.

I would like to improve upon the famous words penned by Shakespeare:  "To see or not to see.  That is the question."  OK, so maybe it isn’t an improvement.  But it gets at what I consider the most fundamental skill an artist must develop if he/she is to create a believable painting from life.  The ability to see is paramount and supersedes all other fundamental skills.  How can I paint color relationships if I cannot see color relationships?  Or values?  Or edges?  How can I draw accurately if I cannot see perspective or form?  How can I organize or compose the underlying abstract patterns if I do not see them?  Once I develop the ability to see, then it is simply a matter of accurately painting what I see.  It's that simple. 

However, we often confuse what we see with what we know or what we think we see.  It is easy to let our preconceived ideas get in the way of really seeing what is there.  To illustrate this point, I will share a true experience that happened about 20 years ago.

My high school friends and I were in Salt Lake City one weekend (we lived 80 miles north in beautiful Logan, Utah).  Somehow we got into a debate over the name of a restaurant.  One friend who used to live in Salt Lake City insisted that the restaurant was called the Old Salt Lake City Jail Restaurant.  My other friend insisted that is was called Old Salt City Jail Restaurant (to be truthful, I can't remember if 'Old' was part of the name or not, but I think so).  The debate got quite heated as we sat parked there in front of the restaurant staring directly at the words on the side of the building.  Both friends could not believe that the other could not see what was clearly there.  A wager of $20 was made (or was it $50?).  Finally, the sign was read slowly, one word at a time. Maybe it was even spelled out.  It read 'Old Salt City Jail'.  The word 'Lake' was nowhere in the name!

How could my friend who lived there most of his life insist that the name included the word 'lake'?  Moreover, how could he insist upon it when we were parked there for about 10 minutes looking right at it?  Even reading it?!  The reason is that he could not see because of what he knew.  He thought he saw something that wasn't there.  He had a preconceived idea.  After all, the city was named Salt Lake, so why not the restaurant, too?  (I won't say which side of the debate I was on.  I will only say that I also lost $20.  It doesn't pay to gamble.)

Richard Schmid, in his book Alla Prima wrote, "If there is ever a conflict in your mind between what you know and what you are seeing, paint what you see, because if you don't the result will look like something that isn't there."

Consider a distant mountain covered in trees.  We all know that trees are green, so naturally we want to paint them green.  However, if you isolate a small area of color (by looking through a peep hole in a small piece of cardboard or mat board) you may be surprised to realize just how blue or violet the color really is.  There may be no green at all in what you are seeing, but you perceive it as green because of your knowledge of the object.   An artist must see shapes of color rather than objects.

To paint from life accurately, you must carefully observe – REALLY OBSERVE – what is in front of you.  This takes a lot of concentration.  If you develop this skill, regardless of how loosely or tightly you paint, your paintings will be believable.  They will feel natural.  They will be a true representation of what you see.  If you seek truth as I do, then you must learn to see.


Keith Bond         

P.S.  If you would like help learning how to see, then sign up for a workshop I will be teaching at the Loveland Art Academy, June 8 – 12 in Loveland, Colorado.  This intensive, yet fun workshop will focus on learning to see.  Invest in yourself and take your art to the next level with this workshop. 


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Diane Leonard
via web
Thanks for reminding us to really "see". I like to spend time just looking at what I am about to paint before I start -- and then every half hour I take a break, wash my hands, and walk back into the studio with a "fresh eye" and then I see where I need to go.
I also put my paintings on the floor in front of me while I am doing other things and just look at them -- to really "see" them and by the time I am finishing the painting, it is embedded in my memory and then I can paint from my heart!

Thank you,

Diane Leonard


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