Perceptual Filters

How to Paint? Change Your Blindness.

“Simply knowing how many things shape perception and that perception shapes what we see can help alleviate miscommunication and misunderstanding, preventing us from getting upset with others when they don’t see things the way we do. The fact is, they don’t. They can’t. No one can see things like you do except you.” – Amy Herman

The Cow by Wassilly Kandinsky, 1910.
The Cow by Wassilly Kandinsky, 1910.

Working from life requires that we are able to see fully. But what does that really mean? We all know how to see, right? Amy Herman’s book, Visual Intelligence : Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life, may cause you to reexamine exactly what you think you know about your ability to see and take note of the world around you. Ms. Herman has made a career out of exploring how we see and don’t see and is a professional consultant for law enforcement agencies, the Department of Defense and the FBI.

As visual artists, we are deeply interested in all facets of seeing, perception, recognition and the personal biases which cause us to notice one thing and disregard another. The problem of not seeing something right in front of us is a common one and Ms. Herman lays out the main reasons for this in her book. The first issue is that the brain is constantly swamped with visual and other information but can process only part of this load. It must sort, often unconsciously, through this mountain of data and pick out the relevant information in a hierarchical process based on our personal needs and preferences. The second issue is that we have perceptual filters which interfere with our ability to accurately assess any situation. The three most common ones are, briefly:

Cognitive or confirmation bias (tunnel vision). We see what we want to see or expect to see.

Seeing what we are told to see. Outside suggestions or instructions, labels or other descriptive information, comments from authority figures, etc., all can bias what we think we observe.

    Roland at Roncevaux by Odilon Redon, oil painting, 1868.
Roland at Roncevaux by Odilon Redon, oil painting, 1868.

Change blindness. Failure to recognize that everything changes continually. In repeated tests, 50% of participants failed to notice a new person had replaced the first subject, right in front of them, or that someone or something remarkable had entered the scenario unnoticed.

Perception can also be, and often is, shaped by a person’s values, upbringing, experiences and culture. In our painting classes, we focus as much on teaching the art of seeing as the art of painting. As we concentrate intently on learning something, the brain responds by forming new neuronal connections—literally growing a bigger brain, in those areas we need. It is a positive feedback loop. Try hard to see, and you will, over time, have the physical ability to see more. But we must also consciously recognize our biases and filters if we are to gain the power to see more fully what is before us, and that is the key to making better, more personal art.

Join us on The Artist’s Road for more enlightening articles, interviews with top artists, step-by-step demonstrations and discounts in the unique Artist’s Road Store.

–John and Ann

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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.