Learning to See

I am an advocate for learning art. For most of my life, I was quick to repeat those oft-heard words: “Oh, I can’t draw at all!” I’d been told that it was possible to learn to draw, but I really didn’t believe it… until 2015 when I made the decision that, by golly, I was going to give it a try.

To be honest, even after five years of practice, I’m not good at drawing, but I have learned the basic principles. Sometimes I even surprise myself and turn out a drawing that looks really good. But it’s not easy for me. I’ll never be one of those fortunate artists who can grab a pencil and quickly sketch out anything they see before them. I struggle with proportions. I have to work really hard to get lights and shadows right. My drawings are adequate but nothing to write home about.

Still, when I hear others lament that they can’t draw, I’m quick to speak up and say, “Oh, yes, you can. Drawing is a skill that can be learned.”

That’s true with much of art. Anyone with a desire to learn can become an artist. We can learn to use pastels or paints. We can learn principles such as perspective. We can gain an understanding of the essential elements of art. Yes, art is a skill that can be learned.

But with all the learning we can do, are there some things we can’t learn?

For a time I’ve wrestled with the idea of artistic vision, and this is an extremely difficult concept for me to explain.

Once we begin drawing and painting, we naturally begin to see the world in different ways, but that’s not really the sort of artistic vision I’m talking about.

Once we start playing with colors, again, we naturally develop a different way of looking at the world around us. We become more aware of lights and shadows. We see how one color affects another. But again, this isn’t quite what I’m talking about when I speak of artistic vision.

I see artistic vision in action whenever I watch naturally-talented artists at work. I watch in amazement as they casually pick a color, make a brushstroke, add little embellishments to designs they’re making. I gasp in wonder as they happily splash bold colors here and there, doing things I’d never dream or dare of doing, and I marvel at their artistic vision — that rare ability they have to know what to do, where to do it, and how to do it. They have a sort of inherent ability, it seems, to look at a work in progress and understand what it needs, how to turn it into the creative vision they have in their heads.

That’s the sort of artistic vision I want for myself. Sometimes, though, I despair of ever developing it. Sometimes I think that is what that special quality is that separates natural artists from those of us who have learned art from books and demonstrations, from reading and practicing.

Part of it, I believe, comes from good design sense — knowing instinctively that good illustrations have balance and harmony, understanding intuitively how to use principles like rhythm and repetition. And so I studied design. I learned from it, but I still didn’t feel that I’d developed any real artistic vision.

But maybe — just maybe — I’m starting to see.

It’s a mind-boggling thing right now. I’m sitting here in my studio/office. I can look over to my right and see my easel. There’s an oil-painting-in-progress sitting there. From where I sit, so help me, it looks gorgeous.

When I first blocked this in, it looked awful. It was one of those things that made me wince when I looked at it.

1st Block

When I took this first photo, I had already started putting a little color into the sky, but mostly I just had this awful-looking blob — a mass, it should more properly be called, I suppose. As for the idea that this might somehow turn into something worth looking at… well, that was laughable, at best.

I worked on it a bit, putting in yellow ochre on the highest area of the cliff. I tried to add a bit of light and shadow. It was all right. That’s all. I played around a little with my values, and I added in those tree-like shapes on the left. That made it feel much better. I still didn’t think the painting had much to offer though.

Upper Cliff Area (2)

But then, I turned away from the easel and walked toward the stairs. I stopped, looked back at the easel, and I truly gasped at what I saw. There was something there, something besides masses of grays and dark grays and bits of color.

I saw shapes forming. I saw a cliff. I saw a hillside sweeping down to a rocky path. Those things weren’t really quite all there, but I could see them almost like a ghostly image showing me what could be. 

When my husband got home from work and came down to the studio, he stopped in his tracks when he reached the bottom of the stairs and looked toward my easel. “That is awesome,” he said, nodding toward my painting. “At least, from here.”

Those were interesting words to hear. I’d been saying the same thing. If I got up close to the painting, I shrugged and shook my head. It was all right, nothing more. But when I walked away and looked back, my breath caught every time. I could see so much in the painting from far away.

Time after time, we’re told to step away from the easel. Move back. Get a bit of distance between us and the painting. That’s the only way we can really see. Theoretically, I’ve known this from the time I first began oil painting.

I’d been oil painting for exactly one week when I wrote this in the blog:

“I can’t tell how a painting will look while I’m working on it.

Now, this might seem like an odd thing to say, but it’s true. It’s really, really true. As I’m painting, I’m usually shaking my head, frowning, and thinking that “This just doesn’t look right.” It’s only after I step back from the easel that I can actually see that all my little blobs of paint really are creating the proper illusion.”  From “What I’ve Learned”

What I’m learning now is an extension of this idea, I think. I’m discovering that not only can I see what’s really there when I step back, I can also see the possibilities for what could be there. It’s like somehow, miraculously, stepping back allows me to see with that artistic vision I’ve so long despaired of ever having!

I was a bit apprehensive about working more on the painting. Maybe I’d just ruin it if I tried to bring that vision to life. But, I’m determined to finish what I start — that’s a rule this year — so I grabbed my palette and picked up a brush. And I stepped back. I looked. I saw.

I stepped forward, added a few brushstrokes, and stepped back again. Yes, it was working. Forward, back, forward, back, always looking, always seeing, always asking “Does this add to the illusion?” Here and there I would shake my head. No, wrong brushstroke. So, I’ve stepped up again, made a little change, and taken another look.

Even now, it still amazes me to realize that if I get too up close, I really don’t see much in this painting. But when I step back, the illusion comes to life.

I worked on the painting again the next day, slightly altering the color on the cliff, and adding in notes of that same color in the left foreground. I added in the tree growing at the edge. I also tried adding in a pathway. It’s not quite right yet, but it’s close.

Persistence - Oil by Judith Kraus (2)

I’m following the oft-heard suggestion of turning this one toward the wall now. I know it’s not complete — I still need to work on that persistent tree — but I want to take my time. I’m enjoying this process of seeing what’s there and seeing what could be there and best of all seeing it happen before my eyes. It feels good to think that I really am beginning to develop a bit of artistic vision.


    1. Thanks so much, Janet. I think all my watercolor doodling is really helping me develop this “artistic vision” I’ve sought for so long. It’s very exciting, indeed!

      Liked by 1 person

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