Awareness – Perception – Seeing Like An Artist

Friday, February 22nd, 2008 at 5:43 pm.
by pre.

In “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, Betty Edwards suggests a valuable exercise. She asks her readers to select an image at random. We suggest a portrait, a face, but it’s not important. She recommends her readers, assumed to be naive of artist’s skills, try to copy that randomly-selected image.

Then, after that attempt, she advises they try again. Copy the image once more, but this time do it upside down.. Put the source image upside down in front of you, and draw a copy of it, so that your copy will be upside down too.

Most people find that, contrary to expectation, when they turn their copy over and compare it to the first copy which they made right side up, the second copy is a more accurate duplication of the original image than the first was.

Why should this be?

When you perceive a scene, your brain immediately begins to interpret that scene. It’s hard to see a nose or whatever as a collection of shapes and shades because you know that it’s a nose. Since your visual system is less used to seeing upside-down noses your “it’s a nose” neural response is dampened, and you’re more able to see the outlines, the subtle textures and tones, and thus more able to reproduce those abstract shapes on paper.

Edwards further suggests, and we concur, that you do it again. This time paying particular attention to the way you see while you’re copying one image onto another. Notice how different your perception is when you’re trying to draw your internal representation of a nose, rather than copying the upside-down projection of shapes you see on your retina.

This second state, where you’re concious of the way things look is what we mean when we talk about awareness of your perception. Edwards calls it “seeing like an artist” and claims that her students thank her for teaching them to see this way, saying things like “Everyone looks beautiful now.”

We suspect this is what Zen Buddhists mean when they talk of “Kensho – “Seeing things as they really are”. Although if this is what those philosophers mean, they are mistaken. You cannot see things as they really are, only see how they stimulate your nervous system. We know that your fingernail is actually a swarming dancing field of energy, each atom a quantum blur with neither true location nor momentum. You can’t see that. But you can see the very base level of input into your nervous system. The patches of shade, the sparkles of light, the colours and textures and forms.

How is this useful?

The aim is to become more aware of how your perception system works. To increase your awareness of each stage of your perception. From patterns and shapes and colours, up through the texture and models and types to the meaning of the things you perceive. To see as an artist does.

For example, if you see an expression on someone’s face, you need to know why that face is looks ‘angry’ or ‘happy’, know which visual signals are indicating this. If you don’t learn to understand this process there’s a danger you’ll be fooled by your own suggestions, expectations and subliminal associations. Worse yet you’ll be more more easily beguiled, fooled into seeing illusion, misdirection, or phantasmagoria. Learning to notice what you actually see, rather than what you think is there makes you less likely to fall for illusion.

It will also help with your visualisation skills. Much of the process of self-reprogramming involves visualization. Often the easiest way to practice a skill is just to visualize it happening and having an artist’s view of the world will help to make your internal visualization more vivid, clear and accurate. It will make your visualizations more believable, more real.

You will likely also find that it improves your memory. If you notice the shape of something, it’s another detail which make later jog your memory, more mnemonic evidence that something actually happened and wasn’t just a figment or illusion. If you’ve paid better attention, you’ll be more likely to recognise and remember things later. If you need to remember something, remembering how it appears is at least a helpful trigger.

Finally, it’s fun. There’s an unbelievable aesthetic joy in looking at the way the sun glints off of a person’s eye; or to notice the shade, bend and texture of a wall; the composition of your visual field or the burning brightness of colour and light in a fire. It can literally reduce boredom to look in detail at the world around you, to see how it’s built from shapes and colours and shade and form.

How can you improve?

The best and easiest way, of course, is to practice. To look closely at the world around you. You can do this at any time. Next time you think “I’m bored,” start to really examine whatever it is that you can see. To see the tiniest detail, the shape of the marks of dirt, the specks of dust, the shine and glint of light off of it’s surface. The more you practice looking at things the better you will get.

More time-consuming (and often disheartening to start with at least) is to practice drawing things. Try to represent as accurately as you can not the objects you are drawing but the shapes they project, the patches of colour, the jigsaw of space between the objects. To get the image as photo-realistic as you are able.

Finally, if you find that you forget to do this as often as you may like, our self-hypnosis audio file for increasing your perception skills will help you to get used to how it feels to really pay attention to your perception, and to remember to practice the skill more often.