Sunday, July 31, 2016

Artist's Eyes

Degas said, “one sees as one wishes to see.”  

I thought of this today because my daughter visited me this past week, and we worked together in my studio as we had a few weeks ago.

This time she sat right next to me, and we uttered a running series of complaints, not really to each other, but just for their own sake: “I don’t like this,” she muttered, “this is not coming out the way I see it.”  “I ruined Sophia’s face,” I said, “it’s no longer her.” 

That sort of thing.

Once we stopped working, my daughter said something I found intriguing: “why doesn’t my hand do what my eyes are seeing?” 

Bewildered, I asked her to explain what she meant.

She told me she had in her head exactly what she wanted to put on the paper with the colored pencils she was using, an orchid that her dad happily got to bloom.  She saw clearly how she would make her picture using it as her subject.  But she felt as if her hand had a mind of its own, and her hand did not do what she saw at all.  

Now this sounds weird, doesn’t it?

In my case, since I learned to see color 45 years ago via a series of difficult and painful lessons taught by my mentor Edward L. Loper, Sr., I subject any subject to careful scrutiny and feel like I am “copying” exactly what is in front of me.  It is only when the painting is finished I can see what I really did, how many changes I made in the subject, and why.  But I have never felt that what I was doing had no connection to what I was seeing.

First, look at a photo of my daughter’s sunflower subject and then at her colored pencil picture:


When I first looked at what she had made, I told her that her picture had more color than van Gogh’s sunflower pictures.  She did not believe me, so I showed her every van Gogh picture with sunflowers as the subject, and she finally agreed. 

Here is one of the most colorful van Gogh paintings using sunflowers:

Sunflowers, 1887, Rijksmuseum

Here are the photos of my daughter’s orchid subject and her picture:

She knew she had moved the “leaves” from the right to the left to balance her drawing.  What she complained about was that she had in her head a simple, light-dark rendition of the orchids, something like Georgia O’Keeffe’s An Orchid, at MoMA, or Matisse’s Flower Piece, at the Barnes Foundation, with its vivid, rich dramatic color.

Here they are:
 O’Keeffe, An Orchid, 1941, Pastel on paper mounted on board, MoMA

Matisse, Flower Piece, 1906-07, Oil on canvas, Barnes

Why, she wanted to know, did my hands keep making those vivid colored lines when I wanted to be making smooth, soft, purples and whites for the flowers and light and dark large green areas of color for the leaves?  

Why indeed?

We speculated it might have something to do with growing up as my child and learning to draw and paint before she was 2 years old and being “dragged” (her word) to museums and art shows all the time.  In fact, when she was a teenager, she told me that my taking her to all those museums was a form of child abuse.  Still, she applied for, and was accepted into, Violette de Mazia’s course at the Barnes Foundation when she was a senior in high school.  Her high school granted her an early dismissal on Tuesdays, and she drove herself from Wilmington to Merion and back through rain and snow to attend the 1–4 pm class.

My theory is that all the work she saw at the Barnes Foundation, and in all the museums I dragged her to, are stored in her brain along with how to look for color that I was learning from Ed Loper and teaching to her and to all her friends who attended my classes.  When she works now, no matter what she thinks she wants to do, something else takes over and that something else we call the traditions of art. 

For example, here is a Vlaminck painting which illustrates the kind of vivid, saturated, powerful color bands she used in her pictures:

Vlaminck, Houses at Chatou, 1905-06, Oil on canvas, Chicago, The Art Institute

A celebration of instinct better explains my daughter’s odd brain/hand conflict.  Her hand knows something important, as Maurice Denis declared in 1890: “Remember that a painting before becoming a favorite theme, a nude or a specific anecdote, is just a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”  

Looks like I am arguing that the brain/hand disconnect is not so unusual after all.  The writer E.L. Doctorow said, “One of the things I had to learn as a writer was to trust the act of writing. To put myself in the position of writing to find out what I was writing…. The inventions of the book come as discoveries. At a certain point, of course, you figure out what your premises are and what you’re doing. But certainly, with the beginnings of the work, you really don’t know what’s going to happen.”  

Trusting in the act of creating art is what we do when we turn off the noise in our mind and let our interest, training, and knowledge of what other artists have shown us is possible guide us through the process.  At the end, then, even the maker of the work is surprised. 


  1. Your posting is food for thought...Love your inquiry into the mind and hands of an artist to seek appreciation of the artist's work. Do the hands translate and release the accumulation of experiences, rather than what the artist mentally anticipates to paint?

    1. Wow, fortunately she did not follow her photo or her brain! Her work is wonderful and she certainly assimilated all you taught her!

  2. Yes, the hands express the accumulation of experiences. A succinct way to say it. We do best to stay out of the way and let the colors flow.

  3. I find it challenging to keep my hand in the moment of my mind's eye. I am filled with everything I have ever experienced, as it relates to my interaction with a particular being, place or object over time. There is the moment of experience on a given day that dictates the colors I see and paint on a flat surface. At the same time, I am also driven by what I have seen before. I am not sure each experience can be separate.