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  • Bianca Vinther

How to observe like an artist in 3 key steps

How do artists observe? And how do they develop and practice the art of observation?

Picture of a circle made of leaves by the British Landartist Andy Goldsworthy
Magical land art by Andy Goldsworthy. Courtesy of boredpanda.

In this blog post I’ll show you how to train your mind to be able to observe like an artist in 3 key steps, and how observation can benefit your creative practice.

For creatively curious people and artists from all walks of life: this is thought to be a quick training in observation. Would you like to learn more about this topic? Check my blog post entitled "What is observation in art?" and listen to my Art Talks on The Pointless Artist Podcast.

If you’re an expert observer, this blog post will help you sharpen your observational skills. After all, there's always more or something different to observe!

How does observation work? Three key steps

1. Notice with all your senses. Slowly.

Are you a visual, auditory, tactile, or olfactory type? What is your best sense? Regardless of how you perceive the world most naturally, make conscious use of all your senses and involve them all in your observations. Consider, for instance, walking in nature with the sole purpose of noticing input that appeals to each of your senses.

This can be of great benefit to your creative practice because it can help you shift perspective regularly, refresh your perception, as well as see and experience the world from many different angles. Don’t hesitate. Begin with what you’re drawn to, and go beyond the appearance of things.

For me, observation starts with a slow and conscious looking at pretty much anything, and continues with listening deeply. Because I’m first visual, then auditive. Nevertheless, involving the tactile and olfactory senses in my observations is often something I do deliberately, despite the fact that they come less naturally to me than visual and auditory observation.

Photography of a water stream in the forest.
"Water stream". Photography by Bianca Vinther.

I use Nature as my ultimate source of observation. I often focus on things that other people take for granted or don't even notice or think of, for instance when taking a walk in the forest. I don’t seek for the original, but I find the magic of ordinary and rejoice each time in it: old branches, fungus, lichens, human and dog footprints ...

"You can walk on the path, or you can walk throug the hedge - two different ways of looking at the world. I think that's the beauty of art: it just makes you step aside the normal way of walking or looking." (Andy Goldsworthy)

I pay attention to the inherent qualities of things, such as size, shape and motion, as well as to those characteristics of natural elements that produce various sensations and experiences in me. Sometimes I begin with those elements that excite me most: water, sky, stones, and seashells. Some other times I go (on purpose) for something totally different, like pavements, worn out walls, graffiti ...

I love to practice observation in the midst of nature, where I can gather my raw material for further experiments and I can listen to the sounds and whispers of the wind in the trees. When I'm in my studio, no matter what I observe, music accompanies me gently. It inspires and nourishes my soul.

I've always had a special connection with music: I grew up with it (the classical masters and the French chansons of the 30s and 40s, in particular) and I learned to play piano before I knew how to hold a pen in my right hand. Music and deep listening soothe my mind and open my creative channel.

If you listen to music when you make art, I'm sure you know exactly what I'm talking about, and if you don't, I suggest you give it a shot. Music can change your mood and your vibration, as well as boost your creativity in art.

Would you like to know more about how music impacts your brain and can help you overcome artist block, find inspiration and become more creative? You can listen to my podcast episode with Lucianna Whittle, a British process-driven artist based in Brighton, in which she talks extensively about her relationship to music and how it benefits her art-making process.

What's your favourite way to observe?

2. Dissociate forms and words. And look with an impartial eye.

Reality is more than meets the eye, something much more complex and profound. Something always new and versatile, which eludes concreteness and a single, monofocal perspective. For example, a tree is not (just) a tree. It’s something way more complex and different than its label.

The word "tree" condenses an entire universe into four letters, allowing the mind to grasp and categorise it. However, if you separate the word "tree" from the form that looks like a "tree", you begin to see a different world within it, such as structures, patterns, and shapes you may not have been aware of previously. And that is mind-blowing, isn't it?

If you name me, you negate me. By giving me a name, a label, you negate all of the other things I could possibly be.” (Søren Kirkegaard)

Like Andy Goldsworthy, a British artist I much admire, I stop where I feel that there’s something to be discovered. I pay attention and try to go beyond the appearance of things. I don’t work with natural elements but I consciously notice as much as possible about them with a naked, impartial eye, and a curious, enquiring mind.

As with all my work, whether it’s a leaf on a rock or ice on a rock, I’m trying to get beneath the surface appearance of things.” (Andy Goldsworthy)
Photography of a transparent glass on a piece of marble.
"Rätsel" (Riddle). Photography by Bianca Vinther.

3. Receive, analyse, compare, and make connections.

As I explained in a previous blog post, outer perception, an objective view on things, is what every human being sees when looking around and recognising things as they are, a consensually shared reality, while inner perception, an individual view on the world, is something unique and unparalleled.

Though your outer perception may be ordinary, your inner perception of reality is loaded with depth, mystery, and wonder. This perception is uniquely yours, and there's something utterly creative and magical about it. Your inner perception is an infinite act of creation!

There's nobody else who sees the world like you do because observation begins within yourself: feeling the vibrations, receiving, inhaling, taking in the energy. Then exhaling, transmitting, sending out information.

In other words, observation with magnifying glasses, from within, doesn’t happen passively – creation is involved: you see the world through your own lenses, you see more than your mind can grasp, beyond the limits of physical vision. This is why a core aspect of observation is to explore how you interact with what interests you: feelings, vibrations, energies; understand how those things affect or influence you, and how you can interpret their signals.

The German artist Joseph Beuys drew our attention to the fact that the creative process is a two-way street: just as you transmit information to the world, you're also receiving it. The inner and the outer are one!

As you contemplate Joseph Beuys’ multiple called "Telephon S―Ǝ"(Telephone T―Я) from 1974 (where the “S” stands for Sender and the “E” for Empfänger / “T” for transmitter and “R” for receiver), you'll understand the nature of communication. Beuys shows the artist as a sender-receiver of signals that is continually exchanging information with the world at large. That's what I call enhanced observation.

Inquiring about the things you perceive and their qualities can help you transcend appearances and explore the world more deeply. For instance, if you take close-up pictures of pretty much everything can open up new horizons: you can view things from a different perspective than what conformity dictates. Close-up pictures reveal patterns that you can translate into abstract works. This immersive approach to reality is like deep sea snorkelling for me.

Photography of a transparent glass and its shadow on a piece of marble.
"Dancing cobra". Photography by Bianca Vinther.

Another highly effective way to train your patience and your eyes to see beyond appearances is through observational drawing. It gives you time to contemplate a thing and forces you to focus on a task for a very long time. During this exercise, you'll learn that details and relationships between a thing and its context, as well as between yourself and the thing you look at take time to perceive beyond the immediacy of a glance.

As you observe and draw slowly, you discover meanings, possibilities, and a potential that you'd initially overlook. For more information on the practice of observational drawing, check out my podcast episode with William Eckhardt Kohler.

Observation involves time and insight. A slow pace, a deepening of all our senses, and an extension of silence are all parts of the experience. Imagine caesuras in music - a suspension of the pulse, and fermatas - extended wonders and moments of pure bliss.

I'll leave you with a quotation from the wonderful Australian writer, designer, and actor, Olivia Joy Siebel. She brilliantly captures a core element of observation in art.

We prepare for things on show, copious hours of rehearsals and lines remembered for the stage. What if we prepared to stop? Made the preparations to listen to the language that comes in silence and far from rage. Does the mouse in the house waltz out in the busyness of the day? Or does the hungry little heart come out when all is silenced, distractions at bay?” (Olivia Joy Siebel)

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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