Learning to See

By Armand Cabrera

Artists use the term learning to see quite a bit when studying painting. Learning to see is more than a philosophical idea. It is learning to overcome not being aware of your surroundings. Learning to see is learning to see things as they are not how we expect them to be. New artists fail to see color and value because of a lack of awareness. The sky is blue the grass or trees are green even when the visual information contradicts this idea. I’ve seen artists in my classes try and make trees green in orange afternoon light when the trees no longer appeared green at all.

We think we see everything in front of us like a camera does but in reality studies show we only see things we pay attention to, missing everything else and actually making up the other parts of the scene in our imagination.

The term for this is called inattentional blindness. Inattentional blindness is a real phenomenon that people experience when they have preconceived expectations about what they are seeing or when they focus on a predetermined set of parameters that cause them to exclude other important information.  It is what magicians exploit to accomplish their tricks. 

As representational artists we have to learn to see things as they are and achieve a heightened sense of observation to effectively be aware of subtle differences and shifts in color value and shape. This awareness allows us to orchestrate a painting in such a way that we don’t have to render every piece of information to achieve the truth of the scene. 

Studies show that perception is based on knowledge and awareness, it is inattentiveness that allows the illusion of representational painting to fool most people into thinking they are seeing something that completely mimics reality when in fact that is not true at all.

If you would like to read more about the phenomenon here is a link to a short article.

7 thoughts on “Learning to See

  1. What about the other end of your argument? I see many different colors in the shadows of trees,
    the grasses, sky, clouds, etc.

    If i try to paint all of those colors, my painting falls apart.
    Not because I have the wrong chroma, or value, but because all of the colors I see make the scene/area I'm painting look to complex.

    Which, of all the colors I see, in that tree, should I show to thee?

    At some point, you have to compromise and paint the main colors you see and model/design
    your trees, clouds, etc. using the few main colors you see.
    Don't you? I think that picking which colors to use in your painting, of all the variation
    you see, is what is very hard to do.

  2. Wynn,

    No, complexity comes from detail; a photo print which is made up of dots of color that can be the full visible spectrum, doesn't fall apart when you look at it. So the reason it falls apart in a painting is exactly because of having the wrong chroma and value and hue placed incorrectly.

  3. So it comeback to lack of observation. But there is also the technical aspect of painting that get in the way, when mixing colors on your palette, the perceived hue and value will change in relation to the adjacent colors. It makes it incredibly hard to control a color/value scheme when mixing a color outside of it "context" or surrounding colors. Any tip for that Armand?

  4. Audran,

    Working from the general to the specific is the approach I use. It is important to establish large areas of hue, value and chroma from the outset, covering the whole canvas in the first twenty or thirty minutes with large averages of tone and value. If these areas are accurate then choosing the colors are not as difficult since there is a base to work with. When isolating colors compare them for their differences as well as their similarities in all of their aspects. It is not easy but it is possible with focused practice.

  5. In order to abstract as you say the geometric planes to fool the brain to connect the dots without over rendering requires exact placement of paint to canvas. This is extremely difficult . Any tips?

  6. Gary,

    It doesn't have to be that exact if you get the relationships between the elements correct. Even then you can decide what is important to you and what is not. Emphasis and selection is key here. Practice with a goal in mind is the best solution. So to learn simplification one must practice it deliberately.

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