Deep Seeing: Developing the Art of Seeing with a Critical Eye to Enhance Your Art

The Art of Seeing for artists

Last Updated on April 8, 2024

Developing The Art of Seeing

In the realm of art and perception, the act and the art of seeing transcends mere visual reception, unfolding as a complex interplay of physiological, psychological, and cultural dynamics. The process through which we interpret the world around us—filtering, processing, and making sense of visual stimuli—shapes not only our understanding of reality but also the very essence of artistic expression.

This text delves into the multifaceted nature of deep seeing, exploring its implications for both the creator and the observer within the artistic domain. Through the insights of Aldous Huxley and John Berger, we embark on a journey to unravel the layers of meaning behind the simple act of seeing, reveal its profound impact on art and perception, and explore how we can integrate our own critical eye in a rewarding art practice.

What is Deep Seeing?

Seeing in art is like listening deeply, allowing us to connect with the art’s stories, emotions, and truths beyond just looking at it. This process makes us active participants, creating a conversation with the artwork that goes beyond words. Just as listening carefully can deepen understanding and empathy, looking closely at art lets us appreciate its finer details and the feelings it wants to convey.

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Deep seeing, like deep listening, requires a deliberate, intentional presence. It is an open invitation to shed preconceived notions and immerse in the visual experience, allowing the artwork to reveal itself on its own terms.

This dynamic interplay between the observer and the observed grants the artwork space to breathe and resonate within the viewer’s consciousness, transforming it from a mere object of analysis to a living entity that engages in a meaningful exchange with the viewer. By tuning into the nuances of color, form, texture, and space, deep seeing fosters a profound engagement with the artwork, blurring the lines between observer and observed and inviting a more intimate, immersive experience.

Whether looking at a scene you want to capture or contemplating a piece of artwork, this way of perceiving the world is like the practice of ‘holding space’ when we listen to someone, where we offer our full attention and support, letting them express themselves freely without fear of judgment. This kind of seeing and listening builds trust, promotes healing, and strengthens our connections with others.

Understanding the Cycle of Seeing and Creating

Seeing starts in the eyes, but it doesn’t end there. The eyes are the ininital source of visual input to the brain, that information enters our consciousness and shapes our reality. We see, we process, and as artists, we, in turn, produce an output that reflects that entire system, a system that begins with seeing.

Let’s break this process down.

The Eye: A Biological Camera

The eye functions similarly to a camera in that it captures light and converts it into electrical signals that the brain can interpret.

Like a camera, the eye meticulously captures the world through a lens, focusing light onto a sensitive surface to create an image. This lens—the cornea and crystalline lens of the eye—adjusts to control the focus, similar to how a camera lens zooms and focuses to capture sharp images.

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The retina, akin to the camera’s film or digital sensor, receives this focused light and translates it into electrical signals. These signals are then sent to the brain via the optic nerve, analogous to the way a camera stores or transmits images for viewing.

The eye processes color through cone cells in the retina, which are sensitive to different wavelengths of light corresponding to red, green, and blue. These signals are then combined and interpreted by the brain to produce the full spectrum of colors we perceive, allowing us to discern fine variations in color and tone.

Furthermore, just as a camera has an aperture that adjusts to the amount of light entering, the pupil of the eye widens or narrows to regulate light intake, ensuring that the visual scene is neither too bright nor too dim.

This process allows us to navigate our environment, recognize faces, and appreciate the beauty around us. However, unlike a camera, the eye is connected to a highly complex system—the brain—that processes, filters, and interprets visual information based on past experiences, emotions, and cognitive biases.

Beyond Seeing: The Interpretation of Visual Data

Once the “raw data” of sight enters the brain, it undergoes a sophisticated process of interpretation.

This is where perception diverges significantly from the simple act of seeing. Our brains contextualize visual information, infusing it with meaning drawn from memory, culture, and individual psychology. Thus, what we “see” is not just a direct representation of the world around us but a subjective construction shaped by our consciousness.

This internalization of what we see marks a profound transition from mere observation to personal experience. As the brain interprets the visual data, it weaves these perceptions into the fabric of our individual consciousness, integrating them with memories, emotions, and cultural understandings. This process not only colors our view of the present but also shapes our responses to future experiences.

By internalizing the visual world in such a deeply personal way, we create a unique lens through which we view everything around us. It is through this intricate process of internalization that our perceptions gain depth and meaning, transforming simple visual signals into rich, textured narratives of our lives.

Artistic Expression: The Output of Inner Vision

Artists harness this complex interplay between seeing and interpretation to create works that reflect not just the physical world but their inner experiences and visions.

Through their art, they share unique perspectives, challenge viewers’ perceptions, and evoke emotional responses. This creative output can be seen as the culmination of the entire system of seeing—processing through personal and cultural lenses, and then expressing that processed reality in a tangible form.

In this alchemy of creation, artists not only mirror the world but also invite us into uncharted territories of the imagination, where the familiar is reimagined and the unseen becomes visible. Their work serves as a bridge between the external reality and the internal landscapes of emotion, thought, and spirit, allowing us to explore aspects of life and perspective that transcend our own experiences.

The Role of Art in Expanding Perception

This cycle of seeing, processing, and creating is dynamic and cyclical that not only circles back to the artist but to the entire art community.

Art not only emerges from the artist’s perceptual and cognitive experiences but also influences the viewer’s perception, potentially altering their reality. In this way, art acts as a medium through which the processed realities of various individuals interact, fostering a shared yet diverse experience of the world.

By exploring the boundaries of perception and expression, art has the power to expand our collective understanding of reality. It invites viewers to engage with alternative perspectives, to question their assumptions, and to see the world anew. In this sense, art serves as a critical tool for enhancing visual literacy, encouraging a deeper, more nuanced engagement with the visual information that shapes our lives.

What does it mean to Have a Good Eye in Photography and Painting?

Having a good eye, whether in photography or painting, is about possessing an intuitive sense of visual aesthetics, an acute awareness of one’s surroundings, and the ability to capture or represent the world in a way that resonates with both the creator and the viewer.

It is what sets apart the mundane from the meaningful, transforming visual experiences into forms of art that captivate and communicate beyond words.

While this talent transcends technical skills, tapping into deep observation, creative interpretation, and emotional expression, both fields possess their own unique fine tuning of the visuals senses.

Having a Good Eye in Photography:

Having a good eye in photography involves the photographer’s ability to see and frame the world in unique and compelling ways. It means recognizing the interplay of light and shadow, the composition of elements within the frame, and the decisive moment that elevates a photograph from ordinary to extraordinary.

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Photographers with a good eye are adept at capturing the essence of a moment or the soul of a subject, often noticing details, angles, and moments that others might overlook. They understand how different elements within a scene can tell a story or evoke emotions, making deliberate choices about focus, depth of field, and perspective to guide the viewer’s experience of the image.

Having a Good Eye In Painting:

For painters, having a good eye is about more than reproducing what they see; it’s about interpreting and transforming observations into art that speaks to the viewer on multiple levels. This involves a deep understanding of color, form, texture, and composition, as well as the ability to discern subtle nuances in their subjects.

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Painters with a good eye pay attention to the details that breathe life into their work, whether capturing the realistic intricacies of their subject or abstracting elements to convey a certain mood or idea. Their vision is not just about what is seen on the surface but about peeling back layers to reveal deeper truths or beauty.

Huxley and the Art of Seeing

Aldous Huxley, an English writer and philosopher best known for his writings on philosophy, consciousness, and utopian or dystopian society, offered significant insights into the act of seeing, particularly in his essay titled “The Art of Seeing.” In this work, Huxley discusses the often-overlooked distinction between the physiological ability to see and the active, mindful process involved in ‘truly seeing.’

In the book’s preface, Huxley recounts a severe bout of keratitis punctata at sixteen, leading to nearly total blindness for a year and a half. This episode, which resulted in a lasting impairment of his vision, profoundly influenced his ideas on sight and its importance, shaping his exploration of perception, the limitations and capabilities of sensory experience

Huxley’s main thesis in “The Art of Seeing” revolves around the concept of “attention” in the context of visual perception. He argues that most people take their sense of sight for granted, not fully utilizing their capacity to see.

According to Huxley, the quality of what we see is not solely dependent on the physical condition of our eyes but significantly influenced by our conscious effort to see clearly. He suggests that much like any other skill, the ability to see—truly see—can be improved with practice and awareness.

Here are a few key points from Huxley’s perspectives on seeing:

  • Sensing vs. Perceiving: Huxley makes a distinction between sensing (a passive act where images simply fall on the retina) and Perceiving (an active process of the mind in which attention is directed towards that which is seen). He suggests that many people look without seeing, missing out on the richness of visual experience available to them.
  • The Role of Mental Conditioning: He discusses how our perception is conditioned by our mental habits, past experiences, and memories which can limit or distort what we see. Huxley argues for the importance of unlearning these habits to enhance our capacity for seeing.
  • The Potential for Improvement: Much of “The Art of Seeing” is dedicated to the idea that people can improve their vision through exercises and techniques aimed at increasing visual awareness and reducing strain. This was influenced by his own experiences with the Bates Method, a system of vision improvement involving relaxation techniques and visual attention techniques.
  • Philosophical and Practical Aspects of Seeing: While Huxley’s approach includes practical advice for improving vision, he also explores the philosophical implications of seeing more deeply. He reflects on how enhanced vision can lead to a greater appreciation of the world and a more profound understanding of life’s beauty and complexity.

“The Art of Seeing” is both a personal exploration of Huxley’s own experiences with vision and a broader philosophical treatise on the potential for human perception. His insights challenge readers to think about how actively engaging with what they see can transform their understanding of the world.

John Berger’s Ways of Seeing

The art of seeing is not only a question of how we see, but how we interpret what we see in the art world.

John Berger was an English art critic, novelist, painter, and poet, born in 1926 and passed away in 2017. He is perhaps best known for his influential book and BBC television series, both titled “Ways of Seeing,” which aired in 1972.

In “Ways of Seeing,” Berger revolutionized the way art is understood, moving beyond traditional aesthetics to explore how social, political, and historical contexts influence our perception of images and artworks.

Berger’s insights into “seeing” can be summarized through several key ideas:

  • The Social Construction of Seeing: Berger argues that the way we see things is affected by our social and cultural contexts. What we notice or ignore, the meanings we assign to what we see, are all influenced by societal norms and values, as well as by power relations within society.
  • The Influence of Reproduction on Art: With the advent of photography and mass media, artworks can be reproduced and seen in various contexts, separate from their original intent or setting. Berger suggests that this changes the way art is perceived and experienced, potentially altering its original meaning and reducing its aura.
  • The Gaze: Berger discusses the concept of the gaze in art, particularly focusing on the male gaze as it relates to the portrayal of women. He critiques how women have been depicted in art history, often as objects for male pleasure, and explores how this influences the viewer’s perception.
  • The Mystification of Art: Berger also talks about the “mystification” of art by the art world. He argues that the language and practices of galleries, museums, and critics can often serve to make art seem inaccessible, obscuring the social and political dimensions of artworks in favor of celebrating technical skill or the artist’s genius.
  • Art as a Vehicle for Ideology: He asserts that art often serves as a vehicle for ideology, reflecting and reinforcing the values of the society from which it emerges. This includes the way art has been used to glorify wealth, power, and status, subtly influencing societal views and values.

Berger’s work invites us to question and critically examine our ways of seeing, urging us to become more aware of the underlying social dynamics and power relations that shape our perception of the visual world. His contributions to art criticism and theory have had a lasting impact, encouraging a more critical and engaged approach to viewing art and images.

Tips for Fine-Tuning your Artistic Eye

Fine-tuning your eye as an artist requires focused effort on both your observational skills and your technical understanding.

Here are 4 key tips for refining your artistic vision:

  • Engage in Observational Drawing: Regular practice in drawing from life sharpens your ability to observe and render the world accurately. Whether it’s landscapes, figures, or still lifes, each subject can deepen your understanding of form, detail, and proportion.

  • Master the Fundamentals: A thorough grasp of art’s building blocks—such as line, shape, color, and form—and design principles like balance and contrast is crucial. These fundamentals serve as the foundation for creating visually compelling and technically sound works.

  • Develop Your Color Perception: Work on mixing colors and experimenting with palettes. Understanding color theory and observing colors in various lighting will enhance your ability to use color effectively in your artwork, capturing mood and depth more accurately.

  • Study Light and Shadow: Light’s interaction with objects defines perception and mood in art. By studying and practicing rendering light and shadow under different conditions, you can add realism, volume, and emotion to your pieces, bringing them to life.

By concentrating on these areas, you’ll not only refine your technical skills but also cultivate a more nuanced and perceptive eye for art. Each practice encourages a deeper engagement with your visual environment, allowing you to capture and express your artistic vision with greater clarity and impact.

Seeing the Big Picture

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Throughout our discussion, the insights of John Berger and Aldous Huxley have illuminated the multifaceted nature of seeing, highlighting its significance beyond the mere act of looking.

Berger, with his critical exploration of how context, culture, and power dynamics shape our perception of art, urges us to see more deeply—to recognize the layers of meaning that lie beneath the surface. Huxley, meanwhile, emphasizes the importance of actively engaging our vision to truly see, suggesting that our perceptions are not just passive receptions but are deeply influenced by our conscious efforts and attention.

These perspectives underscore the concept of deep seeing, an approach that involves a mindful, immersive engagement with visual stimuli, enabling us to uncover the profound narratives and emotions embedded within.In the realm of art, whether through photography or painting, developing a critical eye—a blend of deep and technical seeing—is paramount.

Technical seeing addresses the mastery of skills and the understanding of the fundamental elements and principles that govern visual art, allowing artists to effectively translate their visions into tangible expressions. Deep seeing, on the other hand, invites a more introspective and interpretative approach, encouraging artists and viewers alike to delve into the emotional and conceptual depths of an artwork.

Together, these modes of seeing enrich our interactions with art, enhancing not only our appreciation of its aesthetic qualities but also our understanding of its broader implications and the shared human experiences it reflects. This dual approach fosters a deeper connection with art, prompting us to not only observe the world more attentively but to comprehend and articulate the beauty and complexity that surrounds us.

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