In the previous two blog posts we covered what artists sight is and how to develop artists sight. Today we conclude this 3 part series on artists sight by delving a bit deeper to discover how we can apply this information toward creating stronger paintings.
If you missed the two previous week’s posts then be sure to check them out:
- Part 1 – Learn what artists sight is. Do you have it?
- Part 2 – Discuss the nuances of artists sight and how we can begin to acquire it.
Painting from Life vs Painting from Photos
We hear repeatedly to ‘paint from life’ rather than depending completely on photos. But why does it matter?
Can’t we get plenty of information from photos to master oil painting?
Well, based on what we learned from Mike May’s experience in Part 1 of this series, and what researchers are discovering about eyesight and the brain, the answer seems to be – No!
We Need Experiences Combined with Images
Remember what we read in the first post about plasticity:
“20 years following his surgery May can see colors, motion, and some simple two-dimensional shapes, but he can’t distinguish 3-D forms, faces, objects or scenes from one another. He can’t tell the difference between a male and female face, and if he’s walking across a street and comes to a sidewalk that doesn’t have a significant shadow or difference in color, he can’t tell it’s there.
Recent research suggests that the part of the brain that processes 3-D recognition is not developed fully until we become adults. So, those who lose their sight at a young age never have a chance to develop that crucial part of the eye-brain equation – what scientists call experience-dependent plasticity.
That means that our ability to clearly see all the nuances of life is made possible by our brain.”
That phrase ‘experience-dependent’ is the crucial part.
We are born with neurons that are dedicated to helping us specifically with shape and form recognition. But those neurons don’t gather information simply by looking. Our brain gathers information from all our senses to help us recognize one shape from another.
When we talked in the last post about the years it takes us to identify faces, it is not just by seeing the same face over and over. As we grow, we engage all our senses to teach us how to recognize and remember people.
We can uncover a lot about ‘learning to see’ by watching infants and toddlers grow and interact with the world around them.
How We Learn to See in 3-Dimensions
What’s one of the grossest ways children drive their parents crazy?
By putting everything into their mouths – coins, their feet, dog ears, dirt, tv remotes.
Are babies born knowing that shoving everything into their mouths will make their parents screech in horror and fret about all the bacteria they just consumed? Probably not. But they are born knowing something much more valuable.
When we’re born our minds understand the critical need for sensory experiences to develop the ‘experience-dependent plasticity’ we talked about.
What does that mean? Well, let’s see what the ‘kitten experiment’ can teach us.
Richard Held and Alan Hein conducted an experiment with kittens in 1963. The kittens were raised in total darkness except for short periods where they were placed in individual baskets on a carousel. One kitten could use its legs to move the basket forward.
The other kitten could not use its legs – it was pulled around by the first kitten. Both saw exactly the same scene as they went around the carousel.
When they finished the experiment the kitten that used its legs could do things the other kitten could not do – like swat a rolling ball with its paws or move around furniture on its own.
The second kitten had no depth or object perception at all. Just like Mike Mays – it was functionally blind. Its eyes were healthy, but it couldn’t ‘see’.
All animals – lions, dogs, rhinos or humans – need to interact with their environment. Touching, tasting, hearing, smelling and moving all contribute to our understanding of objects and 3-D reality.
Our other senses like smell and touch combine with our eyes’ information to teach our brain. That knowledge is essential for the brain to learn to see and move through an environment.
Simply seeing the world passively without moving around in it is not enough.
Transforming Our Paintings Through Experiences
Okay, so what does that tell us about painting from photos compared with painting from life?
When we paint outdoors or from life, we experience the atmosphere – the sights, sounds and smells. We feel the breeze and the warmth of the sun. We hear the snow crunch under our boots and feel the moisture from our warm breath freeze against our cheeks.
When we look at a photo we see an image. That’s it. Maybe it will jog our memories, but mostly it supplies us only with details. Our minds have nothing to grab onto.
Much like the second kitten in the above experiment, we are passive viewers.
There’s something magical that happens when we paint from life. It’s hard to put into words – like trying to describe the taste of salt to someone who’s never tasted it (really, try – it’s impossible to describe salt).
There’s power in the combined efforts of our senses. We gain a greater understanding of the light, the color harmonies and the value transitions.
If we paint exclusively from photos, we can probably learn to technically replicate the details in the photo, but our paintings will suffer for it. Our paintings will never quite gain that feeling of life that we so readily see missing in photos.
Eric Rhoads, in his Outdoor Painter Podcast, tells of a Russian Master coming to his studio. Without hesitation the master pointed to those paintings Eric did from photos and those he did from life.
Clyde Aspevig, one of the most admired landscape painters in the world, is an avid plein air painter. His ‘field studies, smallish plein air works painted quickly on canvas or board, are at the heart of each larger painting. Aspevig likens his extensive collection of field studies, which he stores in long cubbies like a vinyl record collection, to his personal journal.
He doesn’t keep a written diary, but says the studies serve as an emotive visual record.
“I can tell you what was happening on that day, who I was with, what the weather was like,” he says, pulling out study after study: a camp in the California redwoods, a Wind River pack trip, a Katahdin Lake canoe expedition, a winter day in Sweden, and on and on.’
Here’s a photo of the Marias River.
Look at the difference in feeling between Clyde’s painting and the photo. The photo is nice, but Clyde’s painting feels alive with light and color and atmosphere.
Do you think that Clyde could have created a painting filled with such magical color nuances and value transitions if he had spent his career painting only from photos?
Combining Photos and Life Painting
So, with all of that in mind, should we paint exclusively from life – start and finish every painting on location?
Some artists like Rose Frantzen are against the use of photos completely. Others like Richard Schmid believe in the use of any tool that will improve our opportunities and our paintings. And Daniel Gerhartz says it’s harder to paint from photos than from life because so much information is missing in the photos.
Whether we choose to use photos or not, the consensus among top level artists and the science of ‘seeing’ seem to agree on at least one thing.
Experience is crucial for artist’s sight! And experience involves much more than passively looking at photos.
Suggestions for Painting from Life
Now, how much or how little we paint from life, our imagination, or photos has much to do with our individual personalities and circumstances. Not all of us are able to get out and paint on location due to health issues, financial limitations, work schedules, family obligations – many things can get in the way.
But, even with tough circumstances, most of us can paint from life.
Grab a spoon and fill a bowl with cereal – set it beside your easel, point a light at it and paint what you see. Look out an open window so you can feel the air and hear the sounds of passing traffic or children playing catch. Then paint what you experience in that moment.
I do paint a lot from photos, especially for the Master Oil Painting training videos. But my paintings are informed by the 30 years of painting on location that I’ve experienced.
And even with 30 years experience I’m still learning just how critical outdoor painting is for me. When I paint from photos over an extended period of time, and don’t get outside to paint from life, I can feel myself begin to struggle and lose confidence.
Conclusion – Help the World Gain Artists Sight
Artists Sight requires experiences that engage our senses. That means no more passive observing for us.
Can anyone gain artist’s sight?
I believe so! If they are willing to put in a whole lot of work.
Let’s take what we’ve learned over the past 3 weeks about recognizing the beauty around us, the 1-millimeter difference and experience-dependent sight and combine them all into a focused journey toward oil painting mastery.
We know now that seeing involves the brain much more than the eyes. And truly seeing beauty in all its forms requires interacting with our environment. Painting plein air or from life is the perfect way for us to interact and help our minds to see.
Once we’ve gained artist’s sight it’s time to share.
We artists have a marvelous opportunity – we can help those around us to see the beauty that Heavenly Father created for His children to enjoy.
It will take time and patience – both from artists and others.
Artists must be patient with their friends and loved ones who don’t understand why they are so excited about light striking tree bark. Others need to be patient with themselves – artists sight isn’t developed overnight the way Mike May’s vision was restored. It takes cultivation and repetition.
The same holds true for those just beginning to paint. Seeing the nuances and subtle shifts that give reality the feeling of life takes time and concentrated observation.
Noticing the way edges of a tree branch transition from hard to soft to lost, or the way leaves in a bush move from cool greens to warm – that all takes time. It is a rewiring of the brain – connecting synapses and creating conduits that haven’t been formed yet.
The wonder of it all is that it can be done. The brain is a marvel – there is nothing as magical among all of our Father’s creations. Why don’t we devote ours to filling the world with light and beauty and help others see and experience the joy we feel as artists!
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