Authentically Human! Not Written by AI!
All Content Copyright © Michael Chesley Johnson AIS PSA MPAC

Sunday, December 24, 2023

Thoughts on Seeing

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**Authentically Human! Not Written by AI**

As plein air painters, we are told one of our best tools is the squinted eye.  Sure, that's great for seeing a simplified version of the scene—detail and color are reduced, shapes and values massed—but it doesn't help with seeing more than that.  And to paint well, we ultimately need to see everything.  This means you have to open your eyes.

But what are we looking for, exactly?  For me, it comes down to comparing line, shape, value and color:

  • How does the angle and length of this line compare to that one?  Is it more or less acute, longer or shorter? 
  • How does this shape compare to that one?  Is it rounder or less round, bigger or smaller?
  • How does the temperature and saturation of this area compare to that one?  Is it warmer or cooler, richer or duller, in a different hue family?

As an experienced outdoor painter, I often rely on my naked eye for these comparisons.  But sometimes I need help. The handle of a brush or a pencil helps me measure angle and length.  A "color isolator," such as the hole in the center of my ViewCatcher, lets me isolate a tiny patch of the scene so I can judge the different aspects of its color.  The tool is a mid-value, neutral grey, so the questions I ask it include:  Is the color lighter or darker than the grey?  How much more saturated does it feel than the grey?  Hue is easier to see against the grey, too.  Additionally, I can compare different patches with the tool.

But what about depth?  I'm sure you already know how the atmosphere creates a sense of distance through reducing value, contrast and saturation, and by softening edges.  Yet there's more to it than that.  There is the "roundness" of form, the contours of the land or a tree, something you can only see with both eyes, binocular vision.  If you have experience drawing the human figure from life, you know what I mean.  There's all the difference in the world between a drawing done by someone who works exclusively from photographs and that done by someone who works from life.

By the way, you don't have to be painting or even drawing to learn to see.  Just go outside, find yourself a comfortable spot, and just look. Observe the scene as if you were painting it.  You'll be surprised how much just this simple exercise can improve your painting.