The One Skill Every Artist Needs

30 Mar 2011

Plein air painting workshop with John Hulsey and Ann Trusty
You can test your bias as a plein air painter by studying a
scene, like this one of a city square in Provence, to see
what your eye focuses on and what it passes over. 
As plein air artists, we have had to become very aware of our own visual filtering processes--our visual biases. We train ourselves to focus our eyes and our minds on the subject before us, but it is only when we can quiet the mind from labeling and judging what we see that we are ever able to truly ‘wake up’ to the vision before us. This takes years of discipline and effort, and in our view, is a skill more important than any technical ability to work with paint. 

If we can’t see, what good is perfect technique? Over the years, the focus of instruction in our plein air painting workshops has evolved into teaching students how to become more fully aware of their subject before they attempt to paint it. Students often focus more on getting the elements right within their compositions of an unfamiliar landscape, but would then fail to get the relationships of the objects accurately visualized.

We realized then that we had to devise a simple way for artists to test their visual biases, in order to understand what they saw and what they were ignoring. This is how it goes: We gather everyone in front of our subject for the day, and ask them to just sit quietly and study the subject for 5 minutes. No talking or sketching, just looking. This is a very long time to sit quietly for most people, and after about 3 minutes, restlessness sets in and we can see their concentration beginning to wane--perfect! 

Plein air painting workshop with John Hulsey and Ann Trusty
Sitting quietly and contemplating a composition,
even for just five minutes, helps artists better
see the composition they are about to paint.

After 5 minutes we call ‘time’, and ask the students to turn their backs on the subject and make an accurate drawing of the plein air composition they were just looking at for another 5-minute stretch. Almost everyone finishes before the time is up, after which we ask them to turn around and compare their memory drawing with the actual scene. It is a moment of epiphany for most people. Everyone leaves out something but puts lots of detail into those things that they are most interested in. Some students leave out entire buildings or other prominent and unavoidable objects in the foreground, while tightly rendering the lamp post or the fountain. There is no right or wrong to this--everyone has these biases. The point of the exercise is to give a clearer picture of how each of us sees the world, and how you can take your own bias and improve your appreciation of it in your art.

For more in-depth articles on the art of seeing, visit us at The Artist’s Road

--John and Ann

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JDWooldridge wrote
on 31 Mar 2011 7:09 AM

Fascinating exercise!! I think I may have to try this.  Thanks!