The Importance of Seeing Differently

One of the more common pieces of sagely advice given to a beginning artist is “change how you see.”
In countless books, tutorials and lectures it’s fairly easy to pick up on this theme of learning how to see things differently, but most of the time (at least it was for me) it isn’t all together clear ‘why’ until I actually managed to do it.

The time first time I did, I remember with alacrity.

It was 10th grade Art II, taught by the beloved Mrs. Angus. The exercise was taken from Betty Edwards’ book Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain. (Which I highly recommend for anyone who picks up a pencil, not just beginners.) We were first given a line drawing by a famous artist and told to copy it. The drawings the class produced were *close* to the original in line weight and general composition, but each was very, very markedly different from the original. All the noses different, all the fingers different… obviously drawn by students of varying experience.

Of course it was. We all thought. The original was done by a master. (Picasso if I remember correctly).

Then the saintly Mrs. Angus had us take the original line drawing and hang it upside down. I remember watching as the class erupted in, “Oh yeah right. Now I have no idea what I’m drawing.” and various other statements attesting to this being a ludicrous exercise.

And that was the point.

Stop drawing what you ‘think‘ you see and start drawing only what you actually see.

The results from the class were astounding. Every. Single. Drawing was frighteningly close to a copy of the original. All of us were in awe, it was one of the more beautiful moments of my time in highschool.

Since then, I have tried to make myself aware of the difference between drawing/painting what I believe I am seeing, to what I am actually seeing. Unfortunately, good intentions can be just that – intentions and I find myself making marks that aren’t true to life. Marks that feel right, but aren’t.

That’s not to say I don’t let my artistic voice come through in a work, because that would be shooting myself in the foot. Both feet more likely. It’s just terrifyingly easy to get into the habit of disregarding the truths of the subject and only draw from that mishmash schema the brain has already shackled together.

I would totally advise everyone to go give this experiment a shot. It is a neat trick for the brain and a great way to become a bit more intimate with all of the ways our perception might deceive us.

Or better yet, find a copy of Betty Edwards book and try going through all of her exercises. It’s not the holy grail but it will absolutely make you far more aware of the way you process your sight.

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