Paint What You See And Not What You Know Part I

Morning Coffee 3

For those of us working in two dimensions beginning artists are, typically, interested in realism; not always, but often.  (Abstract artists, bare with me.) Typically, most art classes for beginners teach painting by using still lives to “copy.”  There is nothing wrong with this approach. While we learn to use our medium, we can objectively gauge our progress by comparing our painting to the original image. This method measures both the development of drawing skills as well as the evolution of the knowledge of the medium.

In order to accurately “portray” a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional canvas we must learn to Paint What We See and Not What We Know. For any of you unfamiliar with that phrase, let me briefly explain.

If I tell you to draw a coffee cup from memory, you will create whatever image of a coffee cup that you have stored in your brain. (The cup may or may not be “realistic” depending on your drawing skills/experience). If I place a cup in front of you and tell you to draw it you will do one of three things:

1.  Look at the cup, but draw the image in your head anyway. (Painting What You Know and Not What You See).

2.  Actually look at the cup and draw the shapes that you see in front of you, ignoring the fact that these shapes and lines make a coffee cup. (Painting What You See and Not What You Know)

3.  A combination of 1 and 2.

Most people will do #3. When you are trying to draw something accurately and it doesn’t “look right” on your paper/canvas, you have not truly drawn what you see.  It often takes a teacher or someone with a “trained eye” to help you learn to see the true shapes as opposed to those shapes from your head.

Morning Coffee 1

A coffee cup is a simple example, but imagine an intricate landscape or a portrait where the shapes become more complicated. In order to re-create an “accurate representation” of “things” on the canvas, we must learn to see accurately. We must break down our subject matter into shapes and possibly line, and actually learn to ignore the “thing” of the subject itself. (Yikes, that’s a mouthful!)

How about: forget that you are painting a coffee cup. You are painting an oval, a teardrop, a triangle with a rounded/flattened bottom., an arched rectangle, etc. With practice we learn to actually ignore the subject matter as a “thing”, and look at shapes, both positive and negative shapes, as equals.

The more we look, the more we learn to truly see. Numerous additional skills are developed over time, including accurate value and color judgement, perspective, etc.(which I won’t go into here).

Abstract artists need to learn most of these skills as well, even if their work is not “object oriented” (which means painting a “realistic object”).  In an abstract piece, both shapes and color theory play an extremely important role as you might imagine.

An important note here is that every individual learns these skills at a different rate. For some, perspective will come easily, and for others it may be a continual challenge. Some artists see color values right away and others work on seeing values for a lifetime. You may understand the concept of shapes right away, but find it difficult to apply. How we SEE is part of our own unique self! It may seem frustrating at times, but everyone will have her own challenge in creating.

So here’s the kicker….

Just when you thought you had it down, you nailed the “Paint What I See and Not What I Know”, you perfected the values, colors and shapes. The cup looks like you could pluck it off the page and chug the latte… you discover the next truth: now you have to learn to do the exact opposite,  “Paint What You Know and Not What You See.”

What the Frank is she talking about?   Stay tuned for Part II….

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2 Responses to Paint What You See And Not What You Know Part I

  1. Julia Wickes says:

    This concept is so important if you are a painter/artist who strives to develop your own style. When you follow this idea, the shapes make the object as you actually see it. It is truly unique to you. Isn’t that the goal?

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