Seeing through the Eyes of an Artist

Copyright 2006 Lynne Taetzsch

One of the blessings of being a visual artist is the intensity with which the world appears to me. This has nothing to do with 20/20 vision, but with the attention artists pay to our surroundings. We may not notice the scent of new-mown grass or the song of nearby birds, but the play of light and dark on the landscape at dusk will fascinate us.

One of my favorite sights—probably because it is so different from the typical northeastern landscape I see on a regular basis–is the California desert, with endless sand-colored dunes undulating in the sunlight as far as the eye can see. I love the strangeness of these badlands, the sense of isolation and abandonment they give me, as if I were alone on the planet.

When I fly, I always take the window seat. Sure, clouds were exciting the first time I saw them from an airplane, but what still excites me is the view of the earth, with its varying hues and shapes. Looking down at the squares of cultivated land in brown, tan, pale green, maybe with a river winding through or a lake interrupting the flow, is like staring at an abstract painting.

Since I am an abstract painter, I am continually turning the natural world around me into abstract compositions. On walks near my house, I follow the patterns of shadows on the ground, or the sun’s reflection in puddles. I look up at the web of branches overhead forming an intricate pattern of criss-crossing lines. I study the texture of bark on the trees. Any of it might form the basis for an abstract design.

Representational artists, on the other hand, might look at the landscape around them with a photographer’s eye, selecting the best shots and “framing” them. Finding interesting subject matter is the first step in their work, and many artists travel all over the world with their cameras and sketch books to stimulate their art. Others paint “plein air” directly on their canvases, translating what their eye sees directly into the forms they paint.

Seeing like a photographer is always fun, even if you’re just sitting in a waiting room with nothing else to do. I like to compose unlikely shots of corners or doorways, squinting to clarify the major lines of my composition. A portrait painter might find the faces of those waiting more intriguing, composing a portrait of sadness, pain, or impatience.

You can teach yourself to see more in the world around you just by paying closer attention. Instead of burying yourself in a book or staring at a computer screen when you travel, relax and let your eyes wander slowly over the scene around you. Study the faces you see on buses and trains, in airports, passing you on the street. Or make a study of clothing—its textures, colors, style.

The most exciting times to see nature, even scenes you see every day, is when the light changes. In early morning, at dusk, or when the weather causes changes in the lighting, ordinary images stand out in starker, more surprising contrasts. The first blanket of snow changes everything you see around you. A sunny morning after an ice-storm brings you into a metallic-like alien landscape. The arrival of Spring presents you with colors you only get to see at this time of year—the startling yellow-green shades of new growth that soon turn the more common darker greens.

Artists are blessed with a natural interest in the visual world, but others can cultivate this sense by paying attention to their surroundings. Take off the headphones, put down your book, and see. You will be amazed at the joy you can experience by just looking.