How to see like an artist?

Elvis Elvis

Drawing is 90% seeing. For sure fine motor skills are needed, but most of us have these. If you can thread a needle, you have the motor skills to draw. Hand eye co-ordination is also necessary: if you can catch a ball you have this, too. Seeing like an artist is a little more elusive, however – it’s also a little harder to explain.

Most of the time, when we look at the world, we aren’t really looking at all. Instead we are relying on the knowledge about the world we have stored up over years. We know the table is flat, so we don’t really bother to observe how that flat rectangle on four sticks looks out there in the world from the particular position in which we are currently standing.

Our brains operate as efficiently as possible to filter the wealth of information coming through our senses. In fact we don’t really see with our eyes at all – we see with our brains. Only those things which are unusual, a potential threat, or have changed significantly, cause the brain to react – our attention is caught and for once we are really looking at what is out there.

When we were children we looked at the world like this most of the time – everything was new to us – exciting and waiting for us to discover it. As we got older, less things were new. We’d already seen so many trees we stopped looking at bark patterns, the same happened with the clouds in the sky and on it went – as our body of knowledge grew ever larger we paid less and less attention to those things we had ‘seen before’.

Fortunately it is possible to recapture that ability to pay attention to the world again – and to look at things directly rather than filtered through a cloud of knowledge. Some knowledge is of course required for drawing, but make sure it’s the right knowledge. The laws of perspective, what something looks like from every angle – this is the kind of knowledge you need and will develop as you learn how to draw.

How to see like an artist?

Make the world more interesting: Try this

You can start seeing right now – spend a few minutes training your brain by choosing something complex and really looking at it. Do this everyday – it’s fascinating – and you’ll soon find yourself paying more attention to the world generally.

What do I mean by complex? Some which has an irregular shape, for example a spoon. Hold it up and look end on, now turn it, look side on, look at it when held vertically, at a distance and close up. See how it changes? How the light moves over it? Looking like this, on a regular basis will also help you develop the concentration needed for drawing.

Try looking at all of the everyday mundane things in your house this way. The contents of your fridge might prove enlightening too – cauliflowers and broccoli have interesting structures. And have you ever noticed what’s inside an apple when you cut it in half across the core?

You should also do this before drawing – obviously if you are drawing something large, or a landscape, you will need to walk around it, rather than hold it!

The world really does become more interesting when you start seeing it. Tiny things are out there waiting patiently to be noticed and celebrated. Even densely populated urban areas have hidden pockets of beauty when you slow down and really start paying attention.

Go for a walk

The Surrealists were very familiar with the way our capacity to really see diminishes as we grow up. We don’t just stop examining individual objects, we also stop paying attention in a more general way. Determined to see the world afresh they developed the following exercise to make the familiar once more unfamiliar: The Dérive is an exercise in paying attention to what you might think you already know. You will need the following:

A map of your home town or city, or a place you know very well – and a pin!

A notebook and pen

Possibly a camera

A collecting bag – optional

You do it like this. Close your eyes and stick a pin in the map. This is your starting point. Taking the other items from the list above with you, make your way to the starting point. Now, walk in whichever direction appeals until you find the first turning on the right. Take it, then take the second turning on the left. Repeat these directions until you either: hit a dead end, feel you have had enough, or feel tired.

Whilst walking the idea is to look at everything, make a note of your responses – whatever they may be, even if they are just ‘I’m, bored, there’s nothing to look at’. Photograph or draw anything and everything interesting and collect objects which catch your attention. The most important aspect of a Dérive, however, is to stay open. Even the most unlikely looking environments can yield interesting sights. Certainly you will learn something new about your town.

Of course this is not for everyone – I really enjoy them, they are like mini adventures to me, but you might prefer to find other ways of seeing the world anew.

Drawing to See

Just as seeing is essential for drawing, so drawing will teach you to see. Don’t worry if at first what I’m talking about doesn’t seem to make any sense, or you get no pleasure from really examining things – it will come, as will a more focused mind. The concentration which develops through drawing regularly also tends to impact on other areas of your life – an increased ability to concentrate generally and a willingness to start looking at things from all sides are just two of the happy side effects of re-learning to see.

You have probably come across something referred to as the ‘zone’ or a creative ‘trance’ – even an ‘altered state of mind’. Not just artists talk about this, but athletes and others too. They talk of how they lose all sense of time, everything flows and feels effortless, they are ‘at one’ with whatever they are doing.

What they describe sounds – and in my experience most definitely is – blissful. But it doesn’t happen all the time. It’s a product of absolute focus on whatever it is you are doing. That doesn’t sound quite so mystical and unattainable, does it!

As children most of us had this ability to lose ourselves in an activity, but adulthood, and responsibilities to others can interfere with it, as can the ‘knowledge’ we have already gained about the world. Persevere however, and you will rediscover this kind of focus and all of its rewards.