Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Paint what you see not what you think you see.

On my drawing table I have a small note, an axiom which states,
 “Paint what you see, not what you think you see.”

I'm not sure where I first heard this saying, I just know it has been in my studio for a long time, longer than I remember. I’ve found it scrawled on notes and inside sketchbooks dating all the way back to my early Art School days. It just keeps resurrecting itself.

It's one of those things that is easier said than done. Sounds very simple, until you attempt doing it.

And it is one of those sayings that is hard to explain. An important idea to understand but a concept that is almost a contradiction in terms. Which is probably why it keeps showing up in notes around my studio work space.

As representational artists/painters we are interested in depicting the world around us, however as we attempt to do that we find that paint has its limitation when compared to the real world, that we cannot paint as bright a white or as dark a black as we see them in nature. And that if you describe literally everything you see in a subject in detail verbatim, you will give yourself and the viewer a mental overload. Too much detail can kill a painting, and vise versa, being overly simplistic and too idealized the less realistic.

We are supposed to be more than visual recorders of facts, not simply replicating what you see; but artists, creating a piece of art which portrays the real world in some meaningful way that moves and touches the senses of another human being. So how do you make a realistic representational image that does that? Which is why the saying “Paint what you see, not what you think you see.” sounds like such a contradiction.

With my still-life’s I can do controlled studies like this where I can investigate the subject. The whole idea for me is to slow down and really see what it is that is front of me, to see form, color, space. Not objects, when I see or think objects, all kinds of preconceptions come up, I think the image, some idealized version of the image more than see the thing in front of me. So, I cannot let preconceived ideas get in the way. You must investigate the subject…explore it with the eye of a painter…form, color, edges, light, atmosphere, and how one relates to another. Discover relationships between those elements and look for those nuances that make it unique and interesting, it is one of the hardest things to do,  to let go of what you think you know.

But when you are attempting to paint realism, knowing how to suggest information is more important than knowing the fact. The average person's head has up to 150,000 hair follicles but I would never attempt to paint them, only imply them. A glass bottle is transparent and an apple solid, but I would not paint them the same way, but imitate the differences of their forms. Much of my time is spent figuring out how to convey the character of a thing by texture, shape, color, value, edges that makes a convincing illusion of realism.

It is about creating imagery that reads convincingly to the human eye. So, we will manipulate and alter the imagery responding to the complexity of the subject and to make aesthetic adjustments. The human eye sees the world in shape, color, forms, light, shadow and deciphers that information to represent the natural world. We paint an impression of that information and attempt to set it into a picture plane with an illusion of space and depth. With abstract brush strokes, lost and found edges, and other paint manipulation you suggest and imply “hopefully without getting too gimmicky”, an illusion of the thing in front of you. All the while keeping it simple and true to subject so that it can be considered naturalistic and real. See what I mean easier said than done.

Once you jump that mental hurtle you can really see what’s in front of you, then you can begin to play with the object and express your idea or emotion about the subject.  It becomes a new discovery. And in that discovery, you will open new eyes, those of your viewers and your own.

That sense of wonder, when you move past merely the representation of a thing and transcend it becomes the illusion of nature seen through a poetic eye. It seems that learning to see, is just as much about learning to unsee.

Which just might be another one of those axioms that is hard to explain…

Silver Cup, Egg and Bottle, oil on panel, 10 x 8 inches, 2017© Jim Serrett

Explore - Question - Learn - - Enjoy, Jim 

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