On Seeing as an Art Form

(Context described in 3 Key Coaching Pillars)

Excerpt from “Oil Painting Secrets From A Master

“What is painting? Painting is visual. If you cannot see, you cannot understand what painting involves, which is seeing in a totally different way from the seeing that takes place in everyday life. You must hear what the teacher expresses verbally and then see with your own eyes the translation in reality. Obviously, you can’t see it with the teacher’s eyes. You can’t learn about painting through someone else’s experiences, only through your own.

What is painting about? It’s understanding what comprises a visual reality and then translating that reality to a canvas through painting techniques. Rubens, for example, had the ability to see objects of nature with a painter’s eye, that is, he could immediately see the predominant feature that defines and distinguishes every object and bring this visual reality to his paintings. You can learn how to do this by studying and examining his paintings.

When I use the term “seeing,” I don’t mean merely using your eyes. When you see with your eyes only, you see a limited reality. Like the blind man in his effort to see, you touch only one part of reality at a time because when you focus on one thing, you automatically block out everything else. This kind of seeing is called “selective focus.” You can choose to see either the dirt on the windshield or fifty yards down the road. But you can’t see both simultaneously. The information is all there; what you see depends on how you shift your focus. It’s the same in painting; you must keep the right things in focus, you must see what you’re painting.

That’s why if you just copy the model, bit by bit as you look, it will look wrong on canvas. Just matching your canvas to the model doesn’t involve real seeing because it doesn’t involve understanding. You must learn to look beyond the model to understand – and convey – the illusion of a three-dimensional reality onto a two-dimensional canvas.

Thus the intelligent artist who sees selectively and with understanding, see the canvas as the reality, not the model. He doesn’t paint what he sees, he paints the way he wants the canvas to look and uses the model for reference only.

All of this means that you must have a concept. When you know what you’re painting and the idea you want to convey, you’ll see properly. Thus, keeping the concept in mind while you’re painting will help you see with understanding.

It’s not how to paint what you see, but how to see what you paint. What you see only with your eyes is not really what’s there. We accept too many optical illusions as visual truths.

Seeing in large measure is seeing through a veil of assumptions and prejudices. Learning to paint, if you’re serious about it, enables you to understand your conditioning and assumptions and to put them aside. If what you put on your canvas doesn’t coincide with reality, then it doesn’t reflect your technical ability; it reflects your ability to perceive with clarity.

Don’t assume! The way something appears to be is not the only way it can be viewed.”


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  • Marlin
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    Thank you for this and I would respectfully disagree that you can’t see the dirt, the windshield and fifty yards down the road at the same time. As a master juggler I have to see “the whole” all of the time and continuously readjust my throws based upon the visual I am getting which may mean tracking a number of moving things in the air all at once. Our focus hones in to finer and finer degree based upon our needs. I can see the chair, or the grain of the wood on the chair, or the small imperfection on the wood that is there because of how the tree grew. Each layer we pull back the more we see but we can always zoom out and take it all in at once.

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