Asking What-If-

Some Advice For Improving Your Artist Eye.

By: Linda Riesenberg Fisler October 18, 2021

How does an artist see? How does an artist improve how they see? How did
Past Masters see and what insight can I learn from them? Is there a way to study them to see differently? Is there a right or wrong way to see? Who should I listen to–I need to determine if I see correctly?  I want to see like (insert the artist whose work you admire)!! 

How does a person see color? The human eye and brain work together to translate light into color. Light receptors in the eye transmit messages to the brain, then interpreted into familiar sensations of color. However, color is not inherent, according to Newton. Instead, we perceive only reflected colors. Do you want to test that out? Find a white object, a strong light that you control (like lights used for photography or your still life set up), and some different color construction paper. Place the white object on one color of construction paper. Shine the light on the white object and observe the colors your eyes see. Add construction paper in different places and monitor the changes.

We have had many guests on our Art Chats that discuss color and how we see it. George Gallo, Carolyn Anderson, and Quang Ho are just a few. At the bottom of this blog, I will add some Art Chats to listen to if you want more information. For now, back to the blog about seeing!

Bent Creek, by Linda Riesenberg Fisler

Not only has there been an evolution of how we see throughout the centuries, starting as far back as the caveman who painted animals on the wall (their need or obsession was food/survival) but through every century up to today. The Greeks explored form through sculpture–the shape of the figure primary, but it didn’t convert to the paintings. Leonardo da Vinci brought structure to the figure through his work and study; Rembrandt brought light and shadow to painting. The evolution of seeing continues as artists challenged and learned more about how to express what their artist’s eye was observing and how best to represent this to the painting’s viewer.  The epiphanies along the way were astonishing when you study artists’ work from the standpoint of how they evolved their eye and mind to see as an artist. 

Think about how Helen Keller, physically deaf and blind, described her dark world before Anne Sullivan introduced her to the things she feared. Helen didn’t know the cold liquid that suddenly touched her hand, and it frightened her.  Imagine a world with no perception of right or wrong or color or light or shadow.  You are standing in darkness—no one to help you see or shatter your innocence. No prejudices. A light comes on, and a still life appears. You are drawn to this light, not knowing what the objects are or what light is. Can you, since you don’t know what the thing is, paint what you see?  If someone just handed you a brush, showed you how to dip into the paint and made a small mark on the canvas, told you to paint what you see, could you refrain from asking, “What is this?  Is this a flower?”  Jettison the questions, the need to label an object.  Think of Helen Keller (or a child) who sees the still life props in front of them for the first time. What shapes, forms, and colors do you see?

John Ruskin wrote a quote about Turner in his book called Modern Painters. It reads, “The whole effect of painting from the technical viewpoint is based on our ability to acquire once again the state which one could call the ‘innocence of the eye,’ in other words, the way of looking at things through a childlike manner, through which one perceives spots of color as such without their knowledge of meaning, as a blind man would see them if his sight were restored all of the sudden.”   Artists have accumulated knowledge and assumptions made through that knowledge that we refer to as technical skills. We engage the eye in a technical, scientific way. We know that there are lines, forms, shapes, color, edges, contrast, etc.  There is a relationship or relativity between them. 

Bringing intention into our work starts the journey into intuitiveness. Intention and questioning our knowledge are a part of this journey. Is the sky blue? Do I have to paint the sky blue? We need to stop seeing the individual components of the painting and learn to see the whole painting and its intricate relationships to each other throughout.

We need to transcend the painting so that we move the viewer. Think about any painting that moved you, stayed with you after all these years. It may be a Monet, Fechin, Sorolla, etc. For me, it was a painting that I saw in a San Francisco gallery. It brought tears to my eyes, and to this day, I remember every inch of that painting. But, unfortunately, not every piece of artwork achieves transcendence. Nevertheless, it is what we should strive to accomplish. Childlike innocence is a key part to making that happen.

The next time you are standing in front of your easel, writing a scene in a novel, playing a tune on a musical instrument, or reading aloud from a script, ask yourself, “What if?”  Allow yourself the chance to explore. “What if” is only the first step.

Here are some Art Chats You may want to explore:

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