Artists see differently.
Someone who sees in this special way that artists see can look at a collection of buildings and see a design, become entranced by a pattern of light and shadow.
The greater your ability to see in this way, the more you will be able to look at something and see a picture. The better your ideas for pictures will be. And your life will be enriched with the simple pleasure of seeing.
Honestly, it’s worth it just for that.
In exactly the same way that a practising table tennis player develops blindingly fast reaction times through repeatedly trying to hit small, extremely fast moving balls, in the same way that muscles build through repeated use, artists develop this ability to see differently through using it.
What’s different about the way an artist sees
But let’s be clear about something here, lest we get confused about how to acquire this ability. We’re talking about seeing, but this skill has nothing to do with how our eyes work.
We see with our brains
What’s really happening is that our eyes are taking in the same visual impression as people who don’t see this way, but we’re processing it differently. Instead of simply looking and thinking “tree”, we’re also seeing the shapes between the branches. The contrast of the leaves against the sky. The shape of the tree in relation to the shapes around it, and in relation to a picture in our mind’s eye.
We’re seeing “tree”, but our brains are thinking “design”.
Mondrian’s series of tree paintings are a great example of this (mentioned by a reader in connection with the last post – thanks Kate), because they take the idea to an extreme; to the point where, eventually, there is almost no tree left, just design.
Whether we call ourselves abstract artists, realists, classical realists, impressionists or something else, the principle is the same. We’re creating design from our visual impression, in the moment of seeing.
This way of seeing can result in a more realistic representation of a visual impression:
Or one much less so:
The principle is the same. Both the two preceding images are by the same artist, Arthur Wesley Dow.
How to develop this skill
It follows that if this way of seeing involves mentally creating design from a visual impression, the best way to develop it is to do it: to create designs from your visual impressions. And to do it a lot.
I’ve got a handy way for you to do that, a simple exercise that anyone can do. No matter what your current skill level, working with this exercise will stretch your sensitivity to design, and develop your ability to see the potential for design around you.
This exercise came about as a natural development of exercises we were already doing at the Creative Triggers Art Practice Community to develop sensitivity to design and composition.
Like most good ideas, it’s very simple. It combines a simple method for cropping pictures with negative shape drawing to produce an exercise that is capable of infinite variation and development.
Negative shapes design exercise
If you want to get straight to it, here’s a video demo of the exercise in practice.
The drawing here, of a bird of paradise plant, was from an original by Barbara, a member of Creative Triggers. She’d mentioned that she was having trouble coming up with a good composition for her drawing, it being such an oddly shaped plant.
The solution is the same as for any design problem, indeed for the development of any skill: Practice.
The Exercise, step by step
- First, make a simple line drawing. You can do this from reference or from life. I’d advise doing it from life, because then your brain will fully connect all the dots from seeing to designing.
- Trace the outside edges of the shapes in the drawing, ignoring all internal detail.
- Cut out two pieces of card to form a frame or viewfinder, and try out different crops of the drawing.
- When you find one you like, trace it.
- Once you have a traced design, go over it with a brush and ink, trying to refine the line quality. Begin to make small changes to the design where you feel it needs them. At this point, you have moved a fair way from your original visual impression, and your brain is dealing only with the problem of composing a harmonious design.
- Now, take your final design and redraw it, without tracing. Using the design as a point of reference, try to create a better design using the same elements. Here’s an example of this kind of development:
1. A simple negative shape drawing of some lily buds.
Stretching your muscles
You can see how, in the final drawing, the design has moved quite a long way from the section of the original drawing that it’s based on.
This final step of redrawing and redesigning is the most important, and is where you will feel the most improvement in your design skills. By striving always to create a better, more harmonious version of the same basic design, you will be constantly pushing yourself beyond what you are currently capable of. Like a table tennis player trying to hit ever faster balls.
This comes full circle, because the more you practice creating compositions from what you see, the more you’ll see to create compositions from.
The more art you make, the more you’ll see like an artist.
Thanks for reading,
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