Learning to see as an artist

There’s a great scene in a movie of a famous painter asking his student what colour the clouds are. The student, responding instinctively, says “white.” Seeing the painter’s look of disappointment, the student takes a closer look at the clouds, and then observes several colours.

What makes this scene great is the way it encapsulates a common failing of would-be artists: their lack of discipline in using their senses to perceive the environment. We become so accustomed to relying on instinct and memory to interpret the world around us, that we forget to use our eyes. It seems rational enough to say that clouds are white, but that answer is a knee-jerk response based memories of what clouds look like (perhaps from a Wikipedia photograph), rather than in-the-moment observation.

Many of our daily actions are governed by a kind of perceptual shorthand in which we rely on past knowledge and experience to move through life. We discount the present moment and tune out the environment. This is usually a practical tactic for urban dwellers suffering from sensory overload, but it works against our development as artists.

If we create art by interpreting the world around us, then the first piece in that process is the interpretation part. It is also the most critical part. Get that wrong, and everything that follows will also be wrong.

So how do we turn off our pre-programmed responses, stop being robots, and re-engage our senses? To paraphrase one of the tenets of Buddhism, “live in the moment.” This means paying attention to what you see, hear, taste, touch and smell, right here and right now. Just to qualify this, I’m not suggesting you change religions. But opening yourself to your environment and opening up your sensory capacity to its fullest potential can make you a better artist.

I’ve found that it helps to focus on one sense at a time. There are some simple steps you can take to develop this focus. For example, when eating dinner, don’t listen to music, read, or watch videos at the same time. Concentrate 100% on the taste of the food. You’ll find you enjoy your meal much more, and feel more satisfied at the end. Multitasking is overrated. It’s also at odds with our biology. Our brains are like one-CPU computers, meaning we can only concentrate effectively on one task at a time.

To wrap up, I’ll leave you with this Buddhist parable, which comes right to the point (from dailybuddhist.com):

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!