How to see like an artist: 8 highly effective strategies
Wanting to see like an artist but not really knowing how?
Seeing like an artist is a different way of seeing. Unlike everybody else, an artist sees from within. If you struggle to find out how to see like an artist, or you’re simply curious about The Pointless Artist’s view on the subject, then you might find this blog post interesting. Because I’m gonna be talking here about the fundamentals of seeing through an artist’s lens.
The most important thing about the artist’s way of seeing is the inner perception – an individual way of seeing, which transforms empirical reality into something else, unique, and different. The inner perception is opposite to the outer perception, which is a rather objective view on a consensually shared reality that humans see when they look around and label things as such.
If you want to see like an artist and develop your inner perception, then this is what you should do.
1. Dissociate things and words.
For instance, if you love to paint trees, then don’t just paint trees, but something else, which is more personal and profound. Something, which could be your emotions, feelings, or memories that potentially look like actual. That’s painting consciously and from within.
Why do you love to paint trees? What’s so special about that? What do you see when you look at trees? And what’s your relationship with them? Notice what associations arise from it. You’ve got my point: don’t paint the trees, but your inner perception of them. Because that’s the foundation of seeing like an artist.
“The painter who draws merely by practice and by eye, without any reason, is like a mirror which copies everything placed in front of it without being conscious of their existence.” (Leonardo da Vinci)
I fully agree with master Leonardo when he says that the painter who copies reality is like a mirror – a passive reproducer of the outer world. But I’d personally replace reason by heart (a matter of personal conviction, I’d say).
So, what if you turned reality upside down, flipped your perspective, and took a step inward? Let me give you another example. Supposing you love clouds up in the sky (like I do) and you love to paint, draw, or photograph them. What do you actually paint, draw or photograph – their physical appearance, their colours, and tonal values, or their meaning for you?
Is it purity, calmness, vastness, time, or the infinity that you want to express through your art when painting, drawing, or photographing clouds, or is it something else, which only you could think of? Inquiring about the message of things and their meaning for you can effectively spark your artistic creativity. It can help you transcend appearances, and explore the world in depth.
I often take close-up pictures of pretty much everything, because that opens up new perspectives for me: I see the world from a different angle, up close, not as conformity dictates or as the world appears to be on a macroscopic level. Further, I transform the patterns I identify in my pictures into a series of abstract works. I call it an immersive approach to reality. It’s like snorkelling the sea, which reminds me again of a retrospective of Pipilotti Rist’s works I saw in August 2018 in Denmark and wrote about in this blog post.
So, if you really want to see like an artist, then dare to
2. Challenge your preconditioned perception of reality.
Force yourself to become hypersensitive to your surroundings and your relationship with them (even if, in the beginning, that wouldn’t come naturally to you). Be a permanent snorkeler, a researcher, a close observer of everything. For that’s gonna have a lasting impact on your way of seeing.
Don’t be afraid to
3. Play with familiar objects and your own emotions.
Place them in foreign contexts, and question their conventional meanings. This is how you can transform the way you see. This is the path towards seeing differently.
Think of René Magritte’s interpretations of conventional things, of his utterly brilliant and original way of turning the rational into irrational, and the real into surreal. There’s so much you can learn from him!
Here’s another highly effective way to develop your inner perception.
4. See one thing as another.
This is how visual artists often look at the world. How does it work? For instance, like Leonardo da Vinci describes it below:
“Look at walls splashed with a number of stains, or stones of various mixed colours. If you have to invent some scenes, you can see their resemblances to a number of landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, great plains, valleys, and hills, in various ways.
Also, you can see battles and lively postures of strange figures, expressions on faces, costumes, and an infinite number of things, which you can reduce to well-integrated form. This happens on such walls and varicoloured stones, (which act) like the sound of bells, in whose peeling you can find every name and word that you can imagine.
Do not despise my opinion, when I remind you that it should not be hard for you to stop sometimes and look into the stains of walls, or the ashes of a fire, or clouds, or mud or places, in which, if you consider them well, you may find really marvelous ideas.”
I'd like to thank R.J. Bardowick for this good capture of Leonardo da Vinci's thoughts:
David Hockney, one of my most beloved British artists, has also got an excellent idea in store for you. He suggests you
5. Become aware of your marks, observe their movement, and consciously borrow additional marks from other artists.
“You can look at the different kinds of marks that artists use and borrow from one another – the marks they make with pen, charcoal, pencil, as well as the strokes they make with the brush and paint.” (David Hockney)
For “you have to have a variety”, and that’s gonna change your way of seeing, provided you stick to the practice, as usual.
6. Don’t look for the thing itself, but for its abstract form. Or for its shadow.
The form itself is per se pure. Because it is devoid of content, and there’s no word to carry the meaning with it. This pure form can consist of a contour line, a few brush strokes, or can be more descriptive, though still abstract in its essence. That is to say, it can be anything and nothing when words are missing.
“If you name me, you negate me. By giving me a name, a label, you negate all the other things I could possibly be.” (Quote attributed to Søren Kirkegaard, paraphrasing something he never actually said, which has been bouncing around since the 80s. I love this quote anyway!) Alternatively, you can choose to look for the shadow – “a patch of darkness surrounded by an outline” (Martin Gayford).
David Hockney is right in saying that "people don’t always notice shadows". But artists do because they look attentively and consciously around themselves and see through and beyond the physical things and the limits of visual perception.
7. See with the basic art elements in mind.
Get your eyes used to seeing dots, lines, and surfaces way before you recognise the conventional purpose of things. Learn from Wassily Kandinsky to see basic art elements literally everywhere! Learn from him to focus on the size, form, and intensity of dots, lines, and surfaces because they create rhythm and composition. And composition constitutes the hardcore of every artwork, don’t you think so?
But don’t forget the space! What’s your perception of it? Have you ever noticed how your memory and sensory impressions shape the space? What do you do with the space in which you put your motifs, patterns, brush strokes, and shapes?
In my previous blog post entitled "Seeing like an artist: the secret revealed", I referred to John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. He rightfully argued that seeing is not neutral. To be precise, we do not just look at things but at the relationship between ourselves and them, as well as at the space between ourselves and the things we look at.
By looking at things, we establish our place within the world and the space we live. Our perception of space is not virgin but mediated by a set of factors, such as culture, stereotypes, individual experiences, the picture that the brain creates from impressions, and the recollection of events and facts.
To put it simply, we see what we’ve learned to see. But if you want to see like an artist, you must unlearn the conventional way of seeing and develop your inner perception.
Once you’ve trained your eye enough to see the basic art elements everywhere, you can move further, and
8. See patterns, textures, tonal values, light, rhythm, movement, composition, contrast, and intensities …
There’s so much you can see beyond the basic art elements! For instance, you can notice layers of colours and forms that create depth, echoing diagonals that convey scenes a sense of unity, and orthogonal lines, which induce a sense of perspective. Possibilities are infinite when you look beyond appearances. When you practice a different way of seeing.
There’s a fundamental law in visual arts, which says that each colour, form, and motif constantly react to and play with an opposite colour, form, and motif. This interplay and the energy and tension that the negative space contains translate into the rhythm, which, in its turn, sets the eye and artistic creativity in motion.
Colours have different kinds of contrasts, including hue, tone, temperature, intensity, lighting, and saturation. Get your eye used to distinguish the qualities of colours before it gets caught in the net of contour lines and physical shapes.
The fact is that we’ve got a limited vision of things. The path to artistic freedom is secured if you shift your attention on the unlimited, that is on the basic art elements and their life companions – colour, space, texture, and materials among other things.
Spend more time looking around yourself and inside of you. Be like a window from inside looking out and from outside looking in. Filter. There’s nothing more extraordinary and unique than seeing the world through your own artist’s lens!
Thank you for reading till the end!
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Recognise your pointlessness, and keep creating!
From Germany with love,
What to read next
Wondering how to create like an artist? Read my next blog post entitled: "Seeing like an artist: the perception of space in visual arts".