Wednesday, November 23, 2016

On "Seeing like an Artist"

Alberto Giacometti at work in his studio.
I'd love to hear some thoughts about this idea, "seeing like an artist," which I for one have been turning over in my mind for some time.

Of course this is all about finding a key to unlock the secrets of art-making, a key that doesn't exist. But that's what philosophy is for!

I've been invited to speak at Rye Art Study, a long-running group of artists and art appreciators (formed in 1963!) that meets once a month at the library in Rye, NH. My talk is scheduled for December 18. I've given this subject (On Seeing like an Artist) as the title of my presentation to force myself to focus and articulate my assumption and ideas about what artists do and why. 

What is "artistic seeing?" At the simplest technical level, it's reducing raw visual information into the components of art. For a painter working from life (e.g. plein air), this could mean a series of questions such as:

  • how can I visually parse - and effectively simplify - what I'm seeing?
  • what are the big shapes and how do they relate to each other?
  • what is the light doing and where are the shadows?
  • what colors predominate and how relatively dark or light, cool or warm, are they?
  • how does texture play into this?

A step beyond technique would involve a different series of questions, such as:

  • what do I want to convey about this subject?
  • what's the best composition for what I want to convey?
  • what will be my "point of interest?"
  • which details of the things I'm looking at serve my intended "story" and which do not?
  • how could I modify what I see to better fit my purpose?

Alberto, aka The G-Man.
As a starting point for deeper enquiry still, here's a quote from modernist sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti that delves into the topic a bit more suggestively than most I've encountered:

"One should draw and paint one’s model the way one sees it - simply the way one sees it. Simply? That of all things is the most difficult! To draw something the way one sees it, not the way one knows it, not the way one thinks it looks, and not the way some others saw it! Only then, when one forgets what one does not actually see, can a resemblance - which is the essential thing - emerge."  - Alberto Giacometti, 1953 

Giacometti's kinda bleak at times...

It seems to me Giacometti is suggesting that a painter somehow literally sees the object as a combination of what’s there and what imagination/emotions/ideation projects onto the object - which means what’s “actually there” for that artist, and him or her alone. The artist’s job is to work to discover and convey that. That’s art. 

Hallelujah! I've got it ALL figured it out!
He could also have said, however, that the artist begins his work only when she no longer sees “what’s really there.” Instead, the painter paints something that is not there - which is to say she conveys a belief, a feeling, or an idea - the artist’s hand “realizes” (1. comes to understand while 2. making real in the form of a material object) how she actually feels about it. The subject or, if abstract, the work itself, then, is a a kind of metaphor or symbol, more or less consciously chosen, for a more or less deeply held belief about life/human nature and conveys in paints a close equivalent of that feeling/idea about the world.

We're all just alienated wanderers, really. -Love, The G-Man.

It's been my experience that the procedure for doing that is to have spent years in touch with the feeling to be conveyed, and to envision, often in a “flash,” a subject that embodies it coupled with a type of treatment (e.g. subjective color and paint handling) that conveys it, and then to set an intention and simply begin painting, surrendering complete control, allowing a combination of impulse and judgment (some call it “intuition”) to guide your choices - you “order it” from your unconscious the way one does in a restaurant and then become the handmaiden of its emergence on the canvas. In this way, the artist "sees" both with the physiological and the "inner" eye. But then what is it, actually, that is "seen?"

More to follow but I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Is this man falling or flying - or neither one? Hmmm...

That idea in the last paragraph of not being the controlling agency of the work is one of the very oldest and most constant in western aesthetics. For Plato, the poet/artist is entheous - (the root of our "enthused") - inspired (in-spirited, breathed into) by the gods (theo), via the Muses - a case of possession by "divine madness." As Shakespeare describes it: “The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,/Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;/And as imagination bodies forth/The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen/Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing/A local habitation and a name."

We're all beasts of burden, and hungry too.

Surely German philosopher Martin Heidegger had something similar in mind when he spoke, in The Origin of the Work of Art, of the original meaning of the word "technique," the Greek techne, as a partnership between the artist and the material that achieves a showing forth or "unconcealment" of Aletheia, the truth of Being that is always there but which we rarely experience or perceive.

"Visit me here any time". -The G-Man.


  1. Really, Chris, on Thanksgiving morning? Well, why not. I have thought about this a lot because, like you, I not only make art, but earn a living at it, which means--for me, at least--there is always an awareness of a market place. During the decades when I was a full-time puppeteer, I compartmentalized: in this box is my work for which there is an audience, and in this box is the stuff I make simply because I see the world this way and have to do it. I think there was a lot of overlap--artful and surprising renditions of fairytails, and bizare visual theatre that ultimately found an audience. But the question of seeing like an artist boiled down to something like this: get out of your head. Everything you know is boring (that is, consciously know), so find a way to get down to your pre-conscious self. This is not easy, as our egos are implacable, but there are ways of getting there: having an artistic practice, breathing, meditation, mind-altering substances, ruthless self-critique… The test for me was if things came across as simultaneously true and impossible, as when (and I'm sorry if I've used this example before) a good magician pulls a cigarette out of his ear: We know, as rational adults, that he did not, in fact pull a cigarette out of his ear, yet the illusion is so perfect, that, in our pre-conscious animistic minds, we know that he did. In your example of Giacometti, we know that a dog does not really look like his sculpture, and yet it does, because he has seen it as an artist. Your quote from Shakespeare nails it.
    Quick, I need cranberry relish! Pumpkin pie!

  2. It is my thought we are "born," as artists, and we spend our lives becoming. If you are born an elephant, you can't become a mouse. So try as we might, you cannot "make" an artist. I think that is the reason, if you were not born an artist, it is so hard for some. I haven't gotten to read your post, but will be back to do so. Happy Thanksgiving.

    1. It's a good question how much of art making is innate and how much is within our control. I don't think as a society we have a clear idea of this at all!

  3. It is just that we can explain how an artist sees, or creates, but can a leopard see like a dog. I think not, and no amount of explaination can create that ability....a leopard has to be born a leopard to see as a leopard. Perhaps, I am suggesting as artists we are worlds apart, from others.

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