The Art of Seeing
There’s a trick to Seeing the way an artist does.
It’s a trick of the mind not the eyes. It’s even teachable. Once
you can See as opposed to just looking, both drawing and painting
become amazingly easy. You just paint what you See. On the other
hand, if you can’t See it you can’t paint it. I’m not talking
about visual acuity here. You can have 20/20 vision and not be able
to See like an artist.
In class I discuss several exercises to learn that
trick of Seeing I’ve been telling you about. They come highly
recommended. The great Leonardo da Vinci wrote about some of them in
his notebooks on the art of painting. I’ll bet you even indulged in
one of them when you were a small child. Ever lie on the grass
staring up at the clouds? Did you imagine pictures in the clouds? I
did! I saw castles, dragons, seahorses and puppies up there. That’s
one of the easiest ways to start. It trains your brain to work in a
Another way to develop your artist’s eye is to
focus on the spaces between things instead of the objects themselves.
Pay special attention to the shapes of the sky between the leaves of
a tree for example. Notice the shapes between branches. See the
spaces between trees. Look around you and study all the in-between
shapes. It can also be helpful to observe the outer forms of groups
of objects. Perhaps that bouquet of flowers is roughly triangular in
form. You’ll find this will help immensely when drawing or
composing your paintings.
Try turning a picture upside down and drawing it.
Use a complex line drawing for this. I find coloring books useful for
this exercise. If you haven’t drawn well in the past you will
probably amaze yourself when you turn your drawing upside down and
compare it to the right-side-up picture you were copying.
As you try out these tricks of Seeing, be aware of
how you feel. Chances are you are experiencing a slightly altered
state of conscious. You are shifting into right-brain mode here. That
is the state of mind that is best for drawing. It is characterized by
a sense of timelessness. You may stop thinking in words altogether. I
find this state of mind both relaxing and energizing.
I suggest you read “Drawing on the Right Side of
the Brain” and “The Drawing on the Right side of the Brain
Workbook”. There are many more exercises to help develop your
ability to See in that special way in both of these books. Remember
this. Whatever you can See, you can paint. All you have to do is
paint what you See.
"Painting embraces all the 10 functions of the
eye; that is to say, darkness, light, body and color, shape and
location, distance and closeness, motion and rest."
Leonardo da Vinci
Good Painting Habits
I stress good work habits in class because it
increases your pleasure in painting and helps to make your art
better. We often don’t notice the little things that sap our time,
energy and enthusiasm but it can make a big difference in our work if
we eliminate them. Efficiency counts. Make these simple practices a
permanent part of your painting experience.
1. This may be the most important habit of all.
Leave your easel and paints out and ready to paint at a moments
notice. I find I can easily talk myself out of painting at all if I
have to lay out my materials before I can get down to work. It’s so
easy to put off making my art when I have to set up, take it down and
clean up afterward. If your space is limited find a small corner
somewhere to leave your easel and a small table. A TV tray will do.
I’ve also used a plastic storage bin, which makes a great place to
store extra tools and supplies when they aren’t in use. If you’re
always ready to create, you will paint much more often.
2. Keep your work-in-progress in plain sight. Out of
sight is out of mind, you know. My current project sits in the living
room even if I’ll be painting it somewhere else. I like to watch my
painting while taking my breaks, having dinner or during television
commercials. Much of the work of painting involves just looking at
your canvas. Really study it. Take notes. Then when you pick up the
brush you’ll know exactly what changes you want to make or problems
you need to fix. Whatever you do, don’t hide it in the closet or
the garage where you never see it.
3. Keep your paint, palette, knife, brushes, and
water or solvent jar in front of your dominant hand. That will be on
your right side if you are right handed. All you lefties need to
reverse this and put everything on your left. I see so many people
reaching across in front of their painting to clean brushes or to
pick up paint. This causes accidents not to mention physical strain.
Your body and your clothes will thank you. Oh, and for safety’s
sake, put your drink on the opposite side. You’ll be less likely to
wash your brush in your root beer.
4. Position your photo reference on the opposite
side of your canvas from your paints and brushes. That is the left
side if you are right handed and the right side if you are left
handed. It should sit upright at the same angle as the canvas. This
will prevent many drawing mistakes. If the angle of your photograph
is different from the tilt of your canvas it causes a false
perspective. Most of my students use a small stand or easel for their
photo. A stand made for typists works quite well.
5. Check your values by squinting when you look at
both your subject and your painting. This makes contrast more obvious
and color less distracting. Squint often. Get those darks and lights
right if you want a strong picture.
6. Step back from your work. Do this often. It will
allow you to spot patterns, mistakes, and relationships between
objects. You will see the overall composition instead of the details.
You can’t see the painting for the brushstrokes when you are
working up close. Keep in mind that we normally view finished
paintings from a distance. The stretch feels good if you usually
paint sitting down too. Here’s a tip for those of you who have
physical problems that make it difficult getting out of your chair.
Get one of those peepholes like you install in doors so you can see
who’s outside. Keep it in your paint box and use it to look at your
painting while you work. It gives almost the same effect as viewing
your work from a distance. There is some distortion but it’s better
than never stepping away to look at your picture at all. Looking over
your shoulder through a mirror helps spot problems too.
7. Stand or sit directly facing your canvas. If you
are sitting at a table arrange the easel so that it is parallel to
the edge of the table right in front of you and comfortably within
reach. If you need more distance use longer brushes. You shouldn’t
have to lean across the table to work. Your back will be grateful.
8. Last but not least, paint on location as often as
possible. There is no substitute for painting your subject in person.
Photographs cannot convey all the information from the original
scene. Colors are fewer and incorrect, and depth disappears. Contrast
is lost and values skewed. Many details don’t show in the photos.
These ideas (when used) will give greater enjoyment
to your painting experience and improve the quality of your work. See
you in Class. Until then, Happy Painting!
Color Mixing With a Limited Palette
A limited palette simply means that we restrict the
colors used to a small number of predetermined paint tubes. You can
mix most of the paint you need with only 5 basic colors. Add the 3
optional colors and you can paint any subject and get good realistic
I recommend the following
Cadmium Red Medium
Cadmium Yellow Medium
These colors can be useful
but are optional:
If you paint a lot of landscapes you may wish to add
Sap Green, Pthalo Green and Prussian Blue to your palette of colors.
For floral painting I find Magenta and Permanent Rose are essential,
and when painting a portrait I like to add Venetian Red to my
I limit my selection of paints for several reasons.
First I want to have good color harmony. This is easiest to achieve
if I use just a few colors. Also I want my students to learn to mix
paint. With only the 5 basic colors it’s a simple matter to learn
to mix almost any hue and repeat the mix later. I believe almost
anyone can learn to mix by eye just as a musician can play by ear.
There is no need to memorize complicated formulas.
It’s simple to remember that red and yellow make orange. Yellow and
blue make green and so forth. Looking and really Seeing do the
rest. For example to make a particular green, mix one part each of
yellow and blue. Look at the color you just mixed. Is it too blue?
Too yellow? Is it too bright or too dark? Too green? If the color
isn’t right, divide it in half and push one half aside. This is so
you won’t have a huge mountain of one color that you don’t need.
You’ll probably find uses for the in-between shades you’ll mix
trying to get that perfect green.
Now look at your palette. What color looks closest
to what you are trying to mix? Add a little of the new color to half
of the color you just divided. Take some of the color on your palette
knife or brush and hold it up next to the color you are trying to
match. Don’t try to judge the color on your palette. The distance
and the color of the palette itself will throw you off. Is it right?
Closer? If it still needs some adjustment divide it again and add
more of the color you think will fix the problem. Maybe it’s too
bright a green. Just add a little burnt sienna, red or black to dull
the color. Or try a different yellow. Yellow ochre gives you nice
natural greens. Divide the color in half again each time you add
another color. That way if you make a mistake you still have the
original color and all its variations to try again and the extra
shades will be useful in other places in your painting. (Remember to
spray water on your palette often if you are using acrylics.)
Keep trying till you get it just right. With
practice you’ll get just the right shade and value without wasting
a lot of paint. It won’t take as long as you think either.
Eventually you will mix color without having to think about what
you’re doing. It will be almost intuitive.
Because you are only using a few tubes of paint you
will quickly learn how all your colors work together. When you are
ready to add other colors to your palette, do so one at a time.
Experiment to see just how the new color mixes with all of your other
paints. Create a few pictures with the new color before you add any
Here are a few Guidelines to mix by:
9. Use Black or Blue to darken other colors (except yellow).