When I teach basic drawing workshops I am continually telling my students that I want them to learn to see like an artist. When my drawing teacher, Melanie Jackson, told me that the first time, I wondered what she meant. How do you learn to see like an artist? Don’t we all see the same? Well, not really. But it took me a long while to understand.
When my daughter, Ashley, was seven years old, I took her to the eye doctor and found out she could barely read the first letter on the chart. I was totally dumbfounded. The day we walked out into the mall from the eyeglass store, Ashley was astounded at the clarity of the shapes, colors, and objects she saw before her. When we went outside, she discovered the trees had separate leaves filled with texture and color. I actually cried that we had been so blind to her deficit.
When my friend, Nan Gurley, got cataract surgery, she told me she couldn’t believe how much brighter and bolder the colors were in everything she observed. It was a testimony to how we get so used to seeing one way that we are astounded when we begin to see differently.
I struggled for a while in Melanie’s class, trying to understand how to see differently without relying on an aid to my visual acuity. I continued to study under Melanie’s tutelage, hoping I would get it at some point.
One day I was sitting in Dan’s office discussing something with him when suddenly I got it! I was totally absorbed in looking at the lines, shadows, and textures of the creases and folds of his pant leg, oblivious to what he was saying. I remember thinking, “I could draw those lines and shadows! I know how to do this!” It totally blew me away. A light-bulb moment in my ability to see like an artist.
The universe is only as large as our perception of it. When we cultivate our awareness, we are expanding the universe. This expands the scope, not just of the material at our disposal to create from, but of the life we get to live.
The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin
I’ve discovered that the more I learn to quiet the inside, the more I am aware of what is going on around me. The more I notice. I’ve always enjoyed an exercise I promote to artists that helps them become more in tune with the sounds around them:
Find a comfortable chaise lounge outside and sit with eyes closed for at least ten or fifteen minutes. Listen. Really listen. Count the many different sounds you hear. A dog barking, tree branches brushing together, a plane overhead, birds singing (how many different birdsongs can you hear?), a car door slamming, a lawn mower humming, and so much more. I found I could usually count at least ten different sounds in just a few short minutes. And those were mostly sounds I would totally miss if I weren’t really listening.
I have often taken a grandchild on a walk and asked them to observe their surroundings and tell me why something caught their eye. Explain why that object or situation “spoke” to them. It created great conversations but also helped me to see things through that child’s eyes.
The ability to look deeply is the root of creativity.
To see past the ordinary and the mundane and get to
what might otherwise be invisible.
I have learned there are many colors in the leaves of a tree, in the clouds above, and in the earth below. Through the years of creating, I have learned to see in technicolor and listen to surround sound. As ole’ Sachmo would croon “What a wonderful world.”