Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Learning to See

This summer I visited my son’s family every Thursday to help with two new grandchildren, Sophia and Jack, born in February.  My visits allowed my daughter-in-law to go out unfettered by her now four children: Lily, 7; Max, 5; and the twins.

My husband accompanied me, and while he watched the babies and Max, I taught Lily (and sometimes two or three of her friends) to paint.

The girls had no art training, but they all liked to work with their hands to draw, color, and make things.  I tell you this because, as with other children I have taught, my job is not so much to teach them “techniques,” but to teach them to see.

For example: I placed some simple objects before them (some apples, for instance, and a glass), and I asked them to look at them and do a “warm-up” drawing, the way a pitcher warms up before a baseball game, I told them.

Generally, at first, they barely looked at the objects before they went to work, and the resulting drawings were tiny, barely filling their paper. The lines they made hugged the lower edge of the paper and the shapes did not touch each other as though suspended in air.

Then I asked them to watch my finger as I moved it around each object.  I showed them where one object blocked another, and I pointed out the spaces between them.  With a ruler, I showed them the space made at the bottom of the arrangement, how the glass was further back than the apples, for instance.

“Oh,” they said in unison, “I did not see that.”

Their next drawing was larger, the objects now moved front or behind each other, and the spaces between them made patterns.

We see what we look for, and the hand follows the eye.

I do not tell you this story because I want to teach you to draw; I tell you this because it is the basic principle in understanding what art teaches.   Art teaches a new way of seeing.

If we examine an art form, we must experience it visually. 

The things in our world are visible to us because of light.  To see anything, we need light.  Light, absorbed and reflected, produces color.  Everything we see occupies a position in space (above, below, behind).  Everything we see has a boundary, an edge, sometimes defined by one color shape next to another or by a line.  Visual artists must use these elements to make pictures.  They also use an idea their subject inspires (we call this the picture idea) and adapt relevant visual ideas they discover in works of art, current and past (aka the traditions of art).

When we examine a painting, therefore, we need to look for and describe how the artist uses light, color, line, and space. We decide what visual idea sums up the picture’s meaning, and we identify the visual ideas borrowed and transformed that make this work unique—that make it new. Discovering this educates our vision (aka teaches us how to see in a new way).

Stay with me.  This will make sense.

One more tool: we need to describe the visual quality of what we see, its specific visual characteristic.  For example, if I held a rock in one hand and a cotton ball in the other, what qualities define each of them?  Do you agree the rock is hard, solid and, compared to the cotton ball, relatively heavy?  Do you agree that the cotton ball is soft, fuzzy and, compared to the rock, relatively light?  You may use other words to describe the qualities of each, but that is more a matter of language usage than it is disagreement with the basic qualities.  I doubt any of you thought the rock was soft, for instance, or the cotton ball hard.

When we confront a painting, however, we cannot hold anything in our hands.  We have to describe the qualities of the color, light, line, and space by using our eyes. 

Finally, we must recognize and accept that a picture is a two-dimensional representation of something.  It is not the “something.”  A picture re-presents something, gives it to us in a new way, color-made and flat.  The medium of visual art is color, and the color holds the meaning.

In other words, the subject of the picture does not determine the visual meaning expressed via the color. 

As practice, look at the following picture and, before you read any further, make a list of what kind of color, light, line, and space you see. 

Bauman, Sitting Pretty, Oil on cnavas, 2005, Private Collection
Now list the qualities revealed by the orchestration of those means:  for example, is the color bright or dull, vivid or muted? Is the space deep, shallow, or something else? What kind of line do you see?  How does the line affect the color?  For example, does it contain it? Does it establish a pattern?  Is the line thick, thin, broken, or something else?  What does the light do? Where is it? Why? 

Keep looking until you cannot see anything more.

Then read the next post: What to Look for in Art. 


  1. Hi, I read your blog ever time you post something but do not always comment. You are brave to use one of your own paintings. I would love a dialogue but not online. Too difficult to type it all and not converse. I will say that the right side is translucent and the light on top of the painting seems to go through what was once a figure in the lower part of the painting which makes the space very shallow- back to frong, juxtaposed to brighter primary colors on left side of painting which come forward and have space behind them. Lots more to say but not enough time to type.

  2. if dr. parks recommended it ,,this must be good ..for art ...and timie to read right now but will get back to this! thanks for sharing..sheila townsend, artist/art educator

  3. Thanks Dr. Parks for recommending this site.