Art TheoryBooksPsychology

On the importance of learning to see

By November 11, 2017 February 8th, 2020 No Comments

One of my first assignments in a drawing class was to draw a simple aeroplane from memory. But my attempt came out looking nothing like it. The difficulties I had with this task revealed how little attention I paid to the visual details, colours and patterns surrounding me. And art teachers throughout the history can’t highlight enough how important it is to learn to see for anyone before making art. 

Renan Aguena, Untitled, 2016
Artwork by Renan Aguena, Untitled, 2016

This ‘inability to see’ by art students was long known by teachers. One of them, Jonathan Richardson, in the 18th century wrote:

For it is a certain maxim, no man sees what things are, that knows not what they ought to be. That this maxim is true, will appear by an academy figure drawn in by one ignorant of the structure, and knitting of the bones, and anatomy, compared with another who understands these thoroughly … both see the same but with different eyes.

So before considering any style, according to the Victorian artist and philosopher John Ruskin, who gave currency to a term ‘innocent eye’, artists should be trained to observe:

I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing, and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature than teach looking at Nature that they may learn to draw.

For ancient Romans observing was a method of examining and learning the physical world. Later during Renaissance period, people considered Art as a branch of natural science. Artist’s role, therefore, was to use his ability to observe to contribute towards various branches of science and technology.

Certain art historians of the time, such as Pliny and Vasari portrayed the course of art history as a progress towards the visual truth. Hence, the better the technique of art-making the closer it is to perfection.

Further down the timeline, in the 19th century, English artist John Constable took the practice of looking at nature and painting landscape on a new level. He said:

Collage by @eatin.dis.order

The art of seeing nature is a thing almost as much to be acquired as the art of reading Egyptian hieroglyphs.

He also addressed the public’s lack of observational ability, implying that they have no right to judge the veracity of a painting because their vision is clouded by ignorance and prejudice.

In 1843 John Ruskin, along the same lines, wrote in his Modern Painters in defence of William Turner, that Turner is better than Claude or Canaletto,

because he knows demonstrably more about natural effects than his predecessors… But this truth of nature is not to be discerned by the uneducated senses. Let the doubting critics analyse the structure of waves and clouds, of rocks and vegetation, and he will have to admit that Turner is correct every time.

Even though, today we know that merely looking isn’t going to help us to build space rockets (or is it? Who knows…), observation skills will definitely help artists to create better art.   

Art teacher, and famous illustrator Martin Salisbury in his book Illustrating Children’s Books talks exactly about the importance of looking at the world with fresh eyes every time we draw and not being blinded by what we think we know.  

Collage by @eatin.dis.order

Over the years I have often noticed that art students who have been having difficulty with drawing, in particular with drawing the human figure, have produced their best drawings when taken on a trip to the zoo.
I have come to the conclusion that this is probably due to the fact that when drawing the human figure or more particularly the human face, we are constantly deceived by our brains that are trying to tell us that we know what a human being looks like (because we are looking at them all the time).

Consequently, our objectivity is impaired by expectations of particular results and likenesses. But when drawing animals, even the apparently familiar ones, it is somehow easier to surrender ourselves to the fact that we are in unknown territory, exploring unfamiliar and exotic shapes with a sense of wonder.

In fact, this admittance of how ‘blind’ and ignorant one can be led artists to delve deep into Optics and examine their own perception throughout the history of art. Many artistic styles, such as Impressionism, Pointillism, Op Art and even the art of Piet Mondrian verge between artistic experimentation and scientific inquisition.

Text adapted from the first chapter ‘From Light into Paint’ of the book ‘Art and Illusion’ by E.H Gombrich, 2004

Published 4 years before the hit book The Story of Art, Art and Illusion is one of my favourite and the most significant book on Psychology of Image Making. As described by Gombrich himself, it is an art historian’s ‘counter-raid across the psychologist’s frontier’. It discusses and seeks answers to one of the most delicate, difficult to describe, but the most fundamental aspects regarding making, seeing and understanding art. Gombrich suggests, the ‘instinct’ of image making is ingrained deep within our psyche, and, perhaps, art is a signal coming from the hitherto unexplored areas of our deep, dark subconsciousness.