The greatest skill that has grown in my own art practice is the skill of observing, of learning to see. I didn’t realize how much it had grown until my father and I were driving along the road one gorgeous day in the late afternoon. The shadows were strikingly contrasted against the warm light in a deep purple color–one of my favorite colors.
I said so to my dad, who looked at me like I had lost my mind.
I continued the conversation long enough to realize that while he could clearly see the contrast and the fact that the shadows were very dark, he could not perceive them as purple or any other hue. They were just…shadow colored.
Learning to SEE is one of the most difficult and most vital skills for an artist. You are more likely to give up any efforts to be an artist at this roadblock than any other. The reason for this is that you don’t know what you don’t know! You don’t know why what you tried to draw or paint or sculpt doesn’t look like what you wanted. You just know it doesn’t. Many artists decide that it’s a lack of “talent” and give up.
But it’s not talent. (And don’t get me started on “talent”. I have to stay focused here.)
It’s simply that you haven’t yet built up the ability to see. To really see.
So how can you begin developing that? There are three things you can try to get started.
- Begin a sketchbook practice.
- Describe what you see to yourself using art words.
- Make art every day.
Begin a Sketchbook Practice
Sketching will teach you to see. You won’t really need much more instruction than just attempting to sketch things. Sure, you could look up videos on the internet or pay an instructor, but you don’t have to. You just need to begin. One pencil, a good eraser, and a cheap sketchbook, small enough to put in your purse or pocket and you’re ready.
It’s going to be bad at first. Really bad! I’m telling you this so you don’t give up. Everyone is bad at first. Do your best to sketch simple things–even geometric shapes, if that feels less threatening to you. But choose things that inspire you, or set off a little spark in your heart. If that turns out to be something complicated, try it anyway. You will learn, even though you may not know what you learned and you may be disappointed with your effort. No one ever has to see your sketchbook, so feel free to fail gloriously!
One thing you may not be aware of is that there are several places you can get photos to practice from. These photos are “royalty free”, available for people just like you to use as practice. Be aware, though, that the terms “copyright free” and “royalty free” are a bit of a misnomer. The fact is that legally any photo is the property of the person who took it, and while you can certainly download it, use it for practice, etc, you won’t be able to enter any contests with the work you create from it. In addition, please be aware that just finding something on the internet is a legally risky idea–just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s royalty or copyright free. Please respect the intellectual property of artists.
Describe What You See in Art Words
Have you ever come across a really inspiring view that makes you grab for your phone to take a photo? Maybe it even makes you wish you could paint it or draw it.
The next time that happens, go ahead and snap that photo, but take a few extra minutes to enjoy it. Inside your head, begin to describe it to yourself using art words.
By art words, I mean simple terms like red, blue, yellow, misty, round, bright, dark, fluffy, smooth, exciting, calming, etc. The more you do this, the more sophisticated your descriptions will become. Sooner than you think, you’ll learn to see colors in shadow, and notice that the sky isn’t always blue.
Make Art Every Day
Art is a practice. You are never going to be completely satisfied with your art–ask any artist. There is always something they feel they could do better! Just like any practice, the more often you do it, the more skilled you become.
But you don’t have to have hours of time to commit. Even ten minutes of sketching every day will make a BIG difference!
When I first began painting with pastels, I heard this advice from Karen Margulis, who is an excellent pastelist and master teacher. Her advice was to paint small, and paint daily.
Paint small so that you finish more paintings or sketches or sculptures in a shorter amount of time–finishing a painting teaches you so much! Paint daily because your skills will only increase as much as you are able to paint. So for the first year of my art journey, I painted every day on tiny little pieces of pastel paper that were only 2.5 inches by 3.5 inches.
The More You Look, The More You See
Observing, i.e. learning to see, may seem very logical, cold and scientific, but it is my passionate belief that the more you see, the more scope you have for gratitude. Whether or not you ever achieve your goals as an artist, the ability to perceive more enriches your life and can lift your spirits because you will be more able to find beauty in whatever you are looking at, even if it’s a back alley or a bog.
Any mental health expert will tell you what an asset it is to be able to feel and express gratitude. Observing in more depth, in more detail, with more perception is a great way to encourage more gratitude in yourself. It’s not necessary to be an artist to cultivate the ability to observe, but being more attuned to the lovely, intriguing, and wonderful in the world is one reason why artists are…well, artists.