What is observation in art?
What does it mean to observe like an artist?
Here I share my relationship to observation, when and how I first learned to observe, and my definition of observation in art. I hope this will help you better understand the art of observation and your own observational practice.
How I learned to observe for the first time
I didn’t learn how to be observe in art school, but while I was a child, with my mother, in museums and art galleries. And with Cäcilia, my nanny, in the ultra-protected environment of my grandparent’s house, where literally everything was neat and cosy – the Biedermeier furniture, the 19th century Landscape paintings, the Persian carpets, the Byzantine icons, and the many nice books.
When I was about 5 years old, I was eagerly exploring the world – a passion that has never faded.
It will always be a delight to recall Cäcilia and me sitting on velvet-upholstered chairs around my grandparent’s big walnut dining table and looking slowly at a picture book entitled “Wenn der große Regen kommt” (When the big rain comes) by Karl-Heinz- Appelmann, which said just this: “Erzähl mir, was du siehst!” (Tell me what you see!).
We spent hours looking at those 12 color illustrations without text, discussing each plate, paying attention, comparing and analysing different things, and then imagining beyond the given frame.
The book provided a context, my nanny facilitated the development of my observational skills, and my mind recognised and then transformed the pictures into something new.
“Everything has a value, provided it appears at the right place at the right time. It’s a matter of recognising that value, that quality, and then to transform it into something that can be used.” (Jurgen Bey)
I can’t even recall the number of times I sat with “When the big rain comes” and told what I saw. Again, and again. Because I always saw something else in it, and that fascinated me. It gave me a feeling of treasure chest like many of the other wonderful books I had in my library then. Or of a “metaphorical suitcase”, as the Dutch designer Jurgen Bey would say, which I’ve been carrying with me ever since and opened up every time I needed a boost of creativity, a bit of inspiration, or a cure to creative block.
The study of Fine Arts and Art History taught me the basics of observation, which I had already learned in my childhood. It helped me consolidate my knowledge of them and take my observations further; widened my horizons and helped me shift perspective regularly.
In these days, when we’re engulfed with smartphones and occupied with virtual platforms and work-related tasks, when our culture of immediacy and rapidity asks constantly for images of shorter lifespan, the experience of being whole and present hic et nunc is often lost. So, too, is the opportunity to wonder at the banal, to observe extraordinary patterns in ordinary things, and to make art slowly.
What is observation in art? The basics
Observation is more than a sensory input or a quick impression of something. It’s more than the capture of a fleeting sight, sound, smell, taste, or surface of an object.
Observation is a process of exploration, which requires your mind to be hyper sensitive to the environment, i.e., to resemblances, differences, changes, and movement, as well as to contrasts and correlations between apparently unrelated things.
Observation is a unique experience of noticing the banal as being unfamiliar, unconventional, unusual. It’s filtering out and finding always something new. Recognising, each time, the familiar as unique. Marvelling at the ordinary, rediscovering the commonplace. Recreating the world.
For visual artists, observation is visual archaeology or making the unobvious obvious, the unseen seen, the meaningless meaningful, and the overlooked noticed. Bringing the hidden to light, discovering the obscure existent, and turning the irrelevant into highly relevant. It’s also looking with an impartial yet enquiring eye and forgetting the names of the things you see. In other words, transforming “what is” into “what it could be”.
Observation is a conscious, mindful, multi-sensorial investigation of reality with a scrutinising, curious yet neutral, non-judgmental, open mind. You see, listen, feel, smell, and taste slowly and deeply the world in your unique way, in a perpetual creative act.
I’m thankful to my colleague Lawrence Good, actor and improvisation expert, for bringing my attention to T. S. Eliot’s work “The four quartets”. In there, I found a passage that summarizes wonderfully my thoughts and knowledge regarding observation:
“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
What do artists observe?
Artists observe literally anything because EVERYTHING is interesting for them. There are countelss things that artists notice - themselves, Nature, objects, other people, communities, environments, and invisible, impalpable things.
For instance, the 75-year-old Japanese artist Susumu Shingu is one of the finest observers of wind I know. He's a sculptor of the wind. With an enquiring mind, an eye that sees the unseen, and an open heart, he has created marvelous three-dimensional works of fluidity and ever-changing motion. Susumu Shingu's work of observation is brought into sharp focus in Thomas Riedelsheimer's film "Breathing Earth" from 2012. A must see.
"Before familiarity can turn into awareness, the familiar must be stripped of its inconspicuousness; we must give up assuming that the object in question needs no explanation. However frequently recurrent, modest, vulgar it may be, it will now be labeled as something unusual." (Bertold Brecht)
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Recognise your pointlessness and keep creating!
From Germany with love,