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  • Bianca Vinther

The Key Difference Between Looking, Observing and Seeing in Visual Arts

What distinguishes seeing from observing and looking in visual arts? And what is the connection between looking, observing and seeing? The secret revealed below.

Christmas tree decoration in form of Jack Skellington

There is a fundamental difference between looking, observing, and seeing in art.

We look with the eyes, observe with the mind, and see with the heart, our higher consciousness. How we look at the world and observe it determines what we actually see. Because seeing is a way of seeing, and the way we see affects us and the world around us.

The eyes and mind are windows to the heart, which is the centre of our inspiration and creativity in art. We can block access to the heart by keeping the windows closed, or we can choose to open the windows widely, so we can see the light that comes from within.

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince)

We are sometimes too close to see the possibilities in front of us. Because we’re blinded by our nearsightedness, or we are manipulated to see things differently from their true nature. Furthermore, we see the world through the lens of our culture and experiences, which influence, change or even alienate the perception of what we look at and what we observe in the moment.

"Of course, I've been too close to see! The answer's right in front of me." (Jack Skellington, The Nightmare Before Christmas)

The good news is that we can change our perception, rewire our brain, and access our higher consciousness at any time. If you’d like to know how, read this blog post till the end.

I’m gonna be talking here about the key difference between looking, observing, and seeing in art. Further, I'll reveal the direct connection between the concept of "seeing" and The Nightmare Before Christmas by American filmmaker Tim Burton.🦇


When we look around us, we merely capture the sight of things and their unstable, constantly shifting image. We capture fleeting impressions, bits and pieces of reality. When we look, we float at the surface of things. Looking always happens from a distance.


The difference between observing and looking, and how observation works

When we look at things up close, we look slowly. We start noticing them, and we begin to pay attention to how we look at them. After the initial, transient sensation or the initial fleeting impression, we develop a feeling about what we see, and if we involve the mind in the process, too. In other words, we use the mind in conjunction with the feeling we sense.

When we observe, we do not only notice the objects of our perception, but also our own, genuine selves. This is how observation becomes a mindful, slow, and thorough way of looking at everything; a conscious act of non-judgmental exploration of reality. If you'd like to learn more about observation and the perception of reality in art, read my blog post "Art and the perception of reality".

In conclusion, observation enables us to see not only the form itself but also the spectrum of possibilities behind the form. He, who observes, can see through and beyond the limits of physical vision.

Seeing vs. looking or outer perception vs. inner perception

Time and an awakened eye, which curiously and patiently looks at the form and beyond it, are essential part of the process of observation. But what’s the difference between looking at the form of things and looking beyond their form?

When we look around and recognise things as such, we are looking at their form, which constitutes an objective view of a consensually shared reality. I call this an outer perception. As opposed to outer perception, looking beyond the form of things corresponds to our inner perception of reality, which is unique to each of us. 

Be a mindful and active observer of the world. Notice the banal, familiar, and ordinary, and don’t stop wondering at it. By the sheer act of observation and wonder, you make the ordinary into something unique and extra-ordinary! You literally transform it into something different. Provided you drop your expectations and don’t anticipate the outcome, but stay in the process and go with the flow.

Woman silhouette staring at the sea
Seelenlandschaft (Soulscape). Photography by Bianca Vinther

Your inner perception is essential to your art-making process. Because every inner perception is an act of creation through active transformation. Yes, the act of observation is not passive. There’s creation involved in it. And there's no art creation without observation.

The way you look at reality is unrepeatable. There’s always something magical to me about the uniqueness of human perception. Just think about this: nobody else on planet Earth sees reality the way you do!

As a visual artist, I always start with a gaze, with an act of slow and deep looking that folds itself out in myriad ways and continues its perpetual journey in the eyes and the mind of the beholder. I imagine that gaze stretching each time the entire Universe!

Observation as conscious looking

Observing with magnifying glasses both as an artist and a beholder of artworks is not a passive act of perception but an active form of creation. It is conscious looking, which leads to more creation, which triggers a new act of slow, deeply looking, as well as yet another act of creation and re-creation of reality, and so on, ad infinitum.

Observation enables the process of seeing: you can only see if you observe intensively and make art relentlessly.

I like to collect microscope photos, and I often take close-up pictures of pretty much everything because it "peels my eyes" and opens up new perspectives to me. I then transform the patterns I identify and the connections I make into a series of abstract works. I call this practice an immersive approach to reality.

It’s like snorkeling the sea. Or like Pipilotti Rist’s Pixelwald from 2016 – both a picture that is visible from a distance of 200 metres and a pixel forest which you can literally enter and in which you can move. The pixel forest offers you a totally different perspective on the picture as it actually is when you take a close-up look at it, not as it appears to be from a distance. If you’d like to learn more about this installation and the concept of seeing from within, read my blog post entitled “Seeing like an artist: the secret revealed”.

Underwater picture of a woman snorkeling
A matter of perception ...

Mastering the art of observation opens up endless possibilities for you to re-invent the ordinary, identify unique patterns, and make unusual connections between usually unrelated things.


Seeing is more than visual perception (our eyes are merely instruments we use to perceive the world). As the American philosopher of science, Norwood Russell Hanson, said,

Seeing is an experience. People, not their eyes, see. There is more to seeing than meets the eyeball.”

For example, when I look at the sky (one of my favourite sources of inspiration, by the way), I usually get a fugitive impression of its colour, but when I look at it slowly and mindfully, I start to notice the movement and shape of clouds, as well as a myriad of tonal values and contrasts. A feeling arises in my body, and I become aware of it. I am delighted by the blueness of the sky, or I am impressed by its dramatic scenes. My mind is freed, and I feel my spirit expanding. 

The sky marks for me the beginning of freedom and the end of fear. 

The more I observe the sky, the more I see.

Seeing is an intimate act. We don’t see from a distance; we can only see up close. As a matter of fact, the deeper we observe and the more we practice, the better we see as visual artists. Paradoxically, when we look up close we see far, too: further than the limits of physical sight, further than the Universe. Because seeing is infinite.

People complain about Picasso – how he distorted the human face. I don’t think there are any distortions at all. For instance, those marvelous portraits of his lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter which he made during the thirties – he must have spent hours with her in bed, very close, looking at her face. A face looked at like that does look different from one seen at five or six feet. Strange things begin to happen to the eyes, the cheeks, the nose – wonderful inversions and repetitions. Certain distortions appear, but they can’t be distortions because they’re reality. Those paintings are about that kind of intimate seeing.” (David Hockney)

Christmas lights in the city of Gent in Belgium
Photography by Bianca Vinther

Thank you for reading till the end. If you’d like to learn more about visual perception and observation, as well as about seeing and makingart with your heart, read the following blog posts:

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!

Via The Pointless Artist Blog and The Pointless Artist Podcast, I support the creative energy of life and the artists who contribute to transforming this world into a freer, kinder, more inclusive, caring, transparent, and compassionate place to live. I firmly believe in the passion for art, the importance of sharing knowledge and experiences, and the power of personal stories to bring us together.


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Recognise your pointlessness and keep creating!

From Denmark with love,

Bianca Vinther


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