Seeing like an artist: the secret revealed
What does it mean to you to see like an artist?
You must have asked yourself before what it means to see like an artist. If you haven’t found a simple answer to this complex question yet, you might find this blog post useful. Because understanding what it actually means to see like an artist can help you overcome artist block, boost your artistic creativity, and find new inspiration for your art.
Visual artists see differently. They see beyond appearances and the limits of physical vision. They disrupt conventions and make free associations between objects, concepts, forms, colours, surfaces, feelings, memories, symbols, words … Furthermore, they see tonal values and notice patterns, intensities, and textures that other people don’t. In a nutshell, visual artists create unique artworks in the broadest sense of the word. Therefore, they don’t copy, reproduce, or imitate anything. They don’t search for the perfect representation of empirical reality, but they find and transform usual and familiar things into something else that is per se unique and different.
“Art needs a withinness” (Marc Chagall) that only artists can capture. Because artists see from within, and they question conventional truths and the world outside. Just like the little round-headed fellow called Oblio, the protagonist of the American animated film The Point!, who has inspired the concept of this blog.
To see like an artist is to find
For me, seeing like an artist is a personal way of seeing that is in its essence more abstract than familiar-figurative. It is both perception and insight, a result of intense observation and relentless practice.
For instance, when I look up at the sky (a recurrent theme in my artwork, by the way), I do not see clouds drifting over the surface of the earth. Because, if I did so, they would have nothing to say to me. What I actually look at is inside me: movement, tensions, contrasts, colours, and intensities that I need to express on my paper or canvas. And what I actually see are surfaces and tonal values, rhythm, and composition, that is art elements rather than the usual figurative forms. I’m the sky, and the sky is within me.
Seeing like an artist is not about searching but about watching actively and finding. It’s about being sensitive and inquisitive about yourself and the world around you and perceiving yourself and the rest of the world as one.
“I do not seek, I find.” (Pablo Picasso)
In the seminal book Ways of Seeing published in 1972 and based on the homonym BBC television series, John Berger argues that seeing is not neutral. It is always a way of seeing. We do not just look at things, but we always look at the relationship between ourselves and things. And none of us has an uncritical relationship with the world. By looking at things, we establish our place within the world.
The way we see affects us and our place within this world. In addition, what and how we see is mediated by culture, which influences, changes, or alienates the original meaning of the things we see.
Finding versus seeking
To seek means to search for something you can’t find. When you seek, the object of your quest is hidden somewhere. The search continues, sometimes for years, some other times forever. Because to seek means to look outward in search of answers, inspiration, or ideas.
“Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot, others transform a yellow spot into the sun.” (Pablo Picasso)
On the other hand, to find is to look inward, within your Self. Beyond the visible. To rediscover and reinvent empirical reality anew each time. Pretty much like a yellow spot that becomes the sun!
To see like an artist is to recognise
Because seeing like an artist is finding, and finding is recognising and choosing. As an artist, you spark creative processes and transform immediate reality into something different. You see possibilities instead of limitations, and you choose from among a multitude of options. Because you recognise the essential.
Mastery of a technique or a style doesn’t necessarily make you an artist, but perception and attitude certainly do. The way you see is key to making art, not handwork.
When I’ve decided to change my way of making art, I’ve asked myself these questions:
Do you choose a personal version of reality, or does empirical reality choose you instead? Do you choose the kind of art you’d love to make, or do you channel your entire energy into imitating immediate reality? Are you a dynamic and versatile chooser or a passive doer?
The answers to these questions led me down the path of self-transformation. What about you?
To see like an artist is to reinvent
To find a thing means to give it another life. That is to take it out of its familiar context, dissociate it from its initial function, and change or reinvent it. However, you cannot find and reinvent a thing without a different perception of reality and a differentiated approach to it, which you and only you have.
In other words, if you want to be able to create Art and stay creative, you need an inner perception of reality. This translates to me into a non-judgmental, personal, nuanced, and sensitive view of the world you live in and of your own relationship with it. Your perception is shaped by what you’ve learned and been taught so far. It is focused on familiar forms and stereotypes, and it filters in objects that fit familiar matrices. This is why you must unlearn the usual, familiar, and conventional paths before you begin to find (not seek).
There’s a saying: Reality is perception. I’m sure you’ve heard it many times before and, you know what? It’s true! Remember that the conformist way of seeing does not fuel any self-directed creative processes. The non-conformist way does. So, what happens when things are seen and used differently? A change of perspective that opens up endless possibilities for you as a visual artist!
To see like an artist is to see from within
Your creative acts are rooted in your inner perception. This is, in fact, where every creative process starts. You just need to find the courage to express your vision and reality in your works! And to stop, at least for a while, the usual practice of mimesis (reproducing reality), e.g., drawing or painting just like in real life (if you happen to fancy that).
Find your own marks and visual language through close, mindful observation, abstraction, and practice. And avoid by all means the trap of searching for a personal style (in case you haven’t got one yet), for style will find you once you shift your attention from the external to the inner. Because style, which is your personal signature in this world, is deeply rooted in your inner perception.
Speaking of your inner perception and creative process reminds me of a retrospective of the Swiss visual artist Pipilotti Rist's works, which I saw in August 2018 in the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark. In particular, I recall an installation of feebly lighted LED crystals that invited the viewer to enter inside a giant digital picture by moving around in a forest of pixels (Pixelwald, 2016). The picture was visible from about 200 meters away. Once I moved inside the pixel forest, I perceived the picture in a totally different way. I had a unique experience of my inner perception of that picture from my personal perspective, not as it appeared from a 200 meters distance!
“I want to discover new ways of reconfiguring the world, both the world outside and the world within.” (Pipilotti Rist)
Seeing like an artist is seeing from within. Without the slightest doubt.
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 see like an artist? Read my next blog post entitled: "How to see like an artist. The Pointless Artist's hands-on guide to becoming more creative and artistic".