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.

Learning to See part 2

Armand Cabrera

In this second part of learning to see I thought I would go over some ways of looking at things as an artist. What separates a painting from real life or photography is a painting is designed by the artist. Its value, color scheme, the placement of elements and their simplification have all been decided upon in service of the idea for the painting. This happens either consciously or intuitively depending on the temperament of the artist but it must happen.  The three main things for learning to see as an artist are

Selection, Organization and Simplification.

Selection requires the artist to decide what should be included and what should be left out or altered if painting from life. When illustrating an Idea, an artist does the same thing from their imagination creating the elements as a set designer would.

Organization is a further refining of the elements; they are grouped or altered to conform to a plan of certain qualities of value or color or some other unifying idea to strengthen the design of the painting.

How this is done is completely up to the artist and actually constitutes the artists painting style over time.

Simplification is a continuation of the refining process, deciding on the qualities of the elements that are worth keeping in service of the idea for the painting.  Simplification is using the first two practices of selection and organization within the chosen elements.

Here the Step by step process for a painting using the Selection, Organization, Simplification process. This process is an organic one. What I mean by that is the steps overlap and merge depending on the type of scene I am painting. When I started out I needed something codified to help me break everything apart to see it as a painting. Now it is almost second nature and I see everything in those terms even when I’m not painting.
This is the scene unedited. There is lots of potential here for a painting but it is up to me to decide on what the painting is, not blindly copy what I see. I’m going to work right on my photo using my wacom tablet and Photoshop to show my thinking process. When I was making the painting I didn’t get process shots so these will have to do.

First I decide what I want to paint and pick the elements to include in my composition. This also is where I decide if I have any elements I want to exclude. Excluding or altering elements for clarity of concept is more important than just painting what is there.


I then begin to reorganize these elements into a more cohesive statement.This includes changing the shapes of things, grouping them using different edges, color and or value.


I further refine my elements and alter them to strengthen and clarify the statement I want to make. I adjust shape, edge, value and color towards that end. I remove any overlapping areas, distracting details or lighting situations that add confusion to what you are looking at.

And here is the actual painting. It contains all of the elements of the scene designed to make a statement. Nothing ambiguous is left, even though I don’t paint lots of details.