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Learning to See

In realism art, one of the important features is to understand the visual realities of nature… geometric perspective, light and shadow, and basic shapes just to name a few. Understanding edges and the role detail plays comes later… for me it came much later.

Like most visual artists, I spent many years looking at subjects, objectively, the human figure, the hand, foot, head and anatomy in order to try to represent accurately the human form. There is much that goes into this practice… then it became not cool to paint people nude. So, now I paint and teach painting the sex organs of plants (flowers). It’s surprising how easy it is for our brain to say, oh yeah tree, and we paint limb, limb, limb… without disciplining ourselves to really look at how that branch turns or the light bounces off a stem of the upward facing planes of a plant.

Much of painting is drawing, and much of drawing is learning how we see, think and perceive visually. Color temperature, theory, hue, color value and intensity come after studying form in simple black and white for classical training, anyway. I jumped right in with paint and color and backed my way into drawing; however, I had been a draftsman so I already knew stuff like geometric perspective. But shading and shadowing (value and contrast) to describe form came much later as did negative space and simplifying things into major collections of basic shapes. Heck, implicit versus explicit texture came only recently.

Today I find myself letting go of some of that “paint what you see“ and find myself straying more into “paint what you know“ in order to provide a more visually appealing painting. I know that we see with selective focus… so it’s okay if not everything is detailed or in focus. In fact detail is distracting, so I know to save it for the focus of a painting. I know that grey and low chroma colors let the highlights and bursts of bright color pop out.

I’m compressing reality into the bandwidth of a paint spectrum, I’m creating a focal point of one or two blossoms opposed to an entire bouquet. I’m using basic shapes to create organic forms, and lighting and shadowing them in conventional ways so that they are easily recognizable. I’m lowering contrasts and dulling colors and edges to push stuff back in space visually. I’m totally fucking with what I see in order to explain it with paint in a way that a viewer will see what I want to create visually. I have the ideal grape, silver, brass, or copper metal colors in the bag of tricks, the shape a rose, lily, or Iris in all its stages…

I want to be informed by what I observe now, the nuance of a highlight or color temperature, but I’m not copying or cartooning objects I’m creating.

I only wish I had that kind of command of anatomy, though, so I didn’t need models, but could create figure paintings from imagination like Bouguereau painted landscape backgrounds.

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