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  • Bianca Vinther

Art and the perception of reality

Perception as reality in the visual arts: an exploration of artists’ perception

What does reality mean to you, and how do you perceive reality as an artist?

Listen to short version of this blog article here.

Burning candle and its reflection on a frosted glass

As I mentioned in my blog article about the essence of art, there’s no absolute perspective on what we see. There are only multiple viewpoints.

In the seminal book Ways of Seeing published in 1972, John Berger argued that we don't just see things but we always see our relationship with the things we look at. Because none of us has an uncritical relationship with the world.

Though ideologies, political authorities, and mundane leaders may attempt to conceal their relativity beneath the veil of "ultimate truth", they cannot and will never be able to remove one obvious fact: perception is not impartial. We see a complex mix of who we are, what we have learned, and what we want to see.

We cannot see things as they are, for we are compelled by a necessity of nature to see things as we are. We never can get rid of ourselves.” (From an article published in 1831 in the London based newspaper The Atlas under the title “Things as they are”)

Art is transformation, metamorphosis, change. And transformation is about seeing differently, through and beyond appearances and the limits of physical, cultural, and political vision. It is also about seeing consciously, e.g. finding, recognising, and seeing from within, as well as creating mindfully, which means being in the process and the present moment, and creating with your heart.

Art is about endless possibilities, not about big, fat, final answers. In the realm of visual art, perception is reality, which, in its turn, is a faithful expression of the artists’ multiple points of view.

In this blog post, I’ll address perception as reality in the visual arts, and contrast two approaches to reality and art-making. Because this seems very important to us as visual artists, art historians, teachers, and critics.

If you want to delve deeper into your perception of reality and better grasp its nature, keep reading till the end.

Art and the nature of our perception

Every perception is filtered through one’s worldview, which is a blend of culture, experiences, values, and a variety of other factors. Each of us has a unique perspective, an individual viewpoint on the world, which the world faithfully mirrors. Yes, the world is an expression of ourselves, a reflection of who we are.

Consider the case of a tree. When you look at it, what do you notice? I see its physical aspects, e.g., form, size, colours, and specific traits such as strength, beauty, or even solitude and fragility. I also see lines, surfaces, dots, patterns, and the relationship between them. Close examination of a tree ultimately reveals our personal impression of it.

You can only see a tree through your own, unique lens and experience. And the more you look at it, the more you mirror yourself in it, whether you're fully aware of that or not. In other words, the tree is not a "thing-in-itself", but rather the visible manifestation of something termed "tree." Because the tree is a unique representation of yourself, your artistic expression. It is your own reality, a reflection of your emotions, moods, thoughts, dreams, previous or recent experiences, and much more.

Self-projection is your inner perception of reality. It is per se unique because you and your perspective on the world are unique. As I stated in the blog post "How to See Like an Artist: 8 Highly Effective Strategies", inner perception is diametrically opposed to outer perception, which is a rather objective viewpoint on a consensually shared reality that individuals see when they look about and label objects.

Expressive tree in a park
Emotional expression of a tree. This is a drawing I made 25 years ago.

Can anyone ever have access to "reality-itself "? Certainly not because reality-itself is beyond our capacity of perception and comprehension in the given space-time frame. As Immanuel Kant stated, "the appearance of things as they truly are" is subjectively conditioned by our sensible intuition and cognition.

As a result, every perception is a kind of self-expression and an opportunity for self-exploration. An artist is a constant snorkeler and an active observer of the world inside and the world outside of him, which are, in fact, the same thing. As an artist, you always have a range of possibilities between two poles: replicating exactly what you see and representing the world as you see it in your artwork.

Replicating what you see: "the outward approach"

To me, replicating what you see is the same as imitating reality from the outside: you and the things you replicate are two separate entities. This means to take things literally, and to attempt at reproducing everything you observe. It means to strive for a perfect description of the outer world, e.g. form, size, proportions, and tonal values among other things. Simply put, this implies confronting subjective perception with reality, that is with objective facts.

Red and orange trees in autumn

In the long run, the outward approach to reality may frustrate you. Just like it frustrated me when I graduated from art school. My works looked good because they appeared to be “well-drawn and painted”, but my style was poor, and there was no compelling personal message associated to them. Have you tried this before?

As I stated in a previous blog post titled "One essential thing about art", I believe that art doesn’t imitate or copy anything, but thrives on otherness, on the very essence of what it means to be different and unique in its own right. Art transforms everything into something new. And finds possibilities rather than answers.

Painting how you see: "the inward approach"

When you turn inward and let your inner perception unfold, your art becomes an expression of yourself.

Returning to the tree as an example. When I look at a tree from within, I notice certain features that I can relate to at the time. I consider that tree to be an extension of me. My own message is carried via its branches and leaves. As a result, my subject and I become one.

When you shift your viewpoint on reality, you start to see things differently. And your perception merges with your own reality.

Black and white picture of a pathway in a forest

Upside down picture of some tree trunks in a forest.
A different sense of reality. My own. Inspired by a walk in the forest around the city of Spa in Belgium.

Finding your way: change perspective

There’s a clear distinction between the outward and the inward approach to reality and art-making. You must choose between gravitating towards one of the poles and walking the range of options between the two.

If you're tired with realism, feeling uninspired, or experiencing artist block, find a way to transcend immediate reality through your perception and style, rather than a strictly descriptive and dull imitation of reality. You can find some really effective wayys in my blog post "How to see like an artist: 8 highly effective strategies".

To return to the tree example, you should begin with a rejection of conventionalism and a simple query, such as "This is not a tree. This doesn't appear to be the case. And this is not the case, contrary to popular belief. This is something else entirely. So, what and how is it, then?"

Look closely, observe slowly, then step back and recognise patterns and relationships. Make connections. Turn immediate reality on its head. Flip your current perspective and see what occurs! This is life-changing because it has the power to transform you. The world becomes your inner space. You and the outside world merge into ONE.

Painting of the space and galaxies in perpetual movement.
"The Universe in me" from the "Cosmos Safari" Series by Bianca Vinther.

In your inner space, you can create, organise, mix, and recombine anything at your own will. In that space, you’ll feel your creative energy, engage in a process, and see what comes out of it. It’s all there: your ideas, feelings, hopes, ghosts, joy and sorrow ... Perception is reality.

During the first lockdown in Germany, when the world came to a halt and entered the dark night of the soul, I painted the work titled "The Universe in me" to reflect my personal sentiments of loss and despair for the faith of humanity in the face of an invisible menace manipulated to kill hope and natural bonds between people (see above).

Freedom is unlimited and “creation is only the projection into form of that, which already exists” within you, according to Srimad-Bhagavatam.

Reproduction is a noun. Self-expression is a verb. Why wouldn’t you consider your art to be an ongoing, dynamic, never-settling creative process? Or perhaps an outburst, laughter, protest, meditative breath, or statement of awe?

A painting to me is primarily a verb, not a noun, an event first and only secondarily an image.” (Elaine de Kooning)

Recommended Reading

Art, Perception, and Reality by E.H. Gombrich, J. Hochberg, and M. Black (1972). This book consists of three individual essays dealing with art and the perception of reality. It provides a multi-disciplinary approach to perception and art from the perspective of three eminent scholars, an art historian (E.H. Gombrich), a psychologist (Julian Hochberg), and a philosopher (Max Black).

Thank you for reading till the end.

If you’ve got something to add, please comment on this blog post below, drop me an e-mail or pm me on Instagram @the_pointless_artist. I'd love to hear from you!


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Recognise your pointlessness, and keep creating!

From Germany with love,

Bianca Vinther


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