What did the artist see in that?

     A contractor visiting a one-man art exhibit walked up to the artist, looking puzzled.  “Why on earth do you want to paint dilapidated farm buildings that are falling down, and old crooked fences?” he asked.  “In my opinion brand-new buildings and fences would look a lot better!”

     There’s no doubt that artists look at the world differently from everyone else.  And part of the artist’s function is to help his or her audience see and enjoy the beauty that lies in things that don’t meet most standards of beauty.  The ability to see the beauty of a dented tin can, the subtle colors in faded old cloth, and the loveliness of a wise, homely face is a special kind of visual appreciation.  Artists see that there is beauty in a back alley as well as in a formal rose garden, and they try to show this to their audience.

     For example, Rembrandt painted a picture titled “The Slaughtered Ox,” with the subject being a huge piece of meat hanging outside a butcher shop.  He was excited by the colors and shapes of the subject, and the contrast of the freshly dressed meat against the dark interior of the shop behind it.  Regarding this painting, Charles Hawthorne, a great American artist of the 20th century, commented, “There is something elevating in the painting of a side of beef so it can hang beside the Madonnas in the Louvre and hold its own through the centuries.”

     Beatrix Potter, the author and illustrator of the beloved book “Peter Rabbit,” loved to draw everything she saw.  She laughingly wrote that she once found herself sitting on a stump in the back yard with her sketchbook “making a careful and precise study of a slop bucket.”

     Sometimes people don’t appreciate a painting because they don’t look at it attentively.  Author and noted artist Jack Clifton remarks, “It was years before I saw the watering can in Renoir’s ‘Girl with a watering can.’  I had seen the painting many times at the National Gallery but apparently had never even read the title.  I was more interested in how it was painted than what was painted.  It was brought to my attention when a friend asked if I had a print of it.”  If an artist can have this kind of visual inattention, it’s no surprise that the average person might have difficulty enjoying certain kinds of art.

     How do artists look at the world around us?  One example of “seeing like an artist” would be looking at the shadows on snow.  Many people simply assume they are gray.  However, they often contain lovely blues and purples. And snow itself isn’t just plain white.  Where the sun strikes it, you can sometimes see soft, iridescent pinks, blues and yellows.  You have to look at snow with awareness and purpose to enjoy its full range of colors. 

     Since sight is mostly controlled by our minds, and our minds are conditioned by what we have been used to in the past, what we really see depends on how we look at things.  The next time you pick up a red apple, don’t just assume it’s all red.  Take another look.  What color are the shadows on the apple?  What color is the stem?  Are there flecks of brown, or even a bit of green on the apple’s surface?  If you can see more than just plain red in a red apple, you’re beginning to see like an artist.

     Now find a dilapidated old wooden fence.  How many colors can you find in the fence?  Are there interesting angles?  Does the wood have patterns and texture from peeling paint and deterioration?  Do you see the plants around the fence as just a blob of green, or can you see that the blob is actually different kinds of plants in a variety of colors?  For an artist, it is this variety of shapes, colors and textures that make an old, worn object fun to look at and to paint.

     When we learn to really SEE things rather than just LOOK at them, ordinary things become a source of great interest and the world around us expands into endless richness.

Published by on February 2011. Filed under Archives, HowDoit PB dept. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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