How Artists See

Visual art is all about the artist and his/her interpretation of what he/she sees and is trying to depict. Drawing or painting requires that the artist fool the viewer into thinking that the viewer is seeing a three dimensional object, when in fact, it is a two dimensional representation. One of the most important elements of this is how the artist sees the object. Hiring a storyboard freelance artist is a good idea for small scale projects.

Seeing is three phase exercise for an artist. The first part is how the artist interprets what he/she sees. I studied anthropology when I went to college, and I was amazed to find out that there is a culture in the South Pacific, that can distinguish hundreds of colors of green. And did you know that people who live in the Arctic regions routinely distinguish many more forms of snow than do people who live in say the rest of Canada or the United States?

The reason for these differences is that we as human being are constantly receiving vast quantities of information about our environment from our senses, especially our eyes. For the most part, we create a generalized model of what it is we see, and compare what we are seeing with the model. If what we are seeing, basically matches the model, then we give what we see the label we gave the model, and move on. So people in the South Pacific, who see hundreds of shades of green, do so because it is important to their survival. Their models of the color green are much more sophisticated and varied than ours. The same holds true for people who live in the Arctic and need to be able to distinguish various kinds of snow. Their models of snow are more specific and varied than ours.

This modeling process often creates problems for beginner artists, though. When you ask a beginner, for instance, to draw an eye, you usually get their mental model of an eye. The eye is fairly simple, and has the major elements of an eye, but it really could be anyone’s eye. So, the beginner often draws his mental model of the object rather than the object as he sees it. This is why foreshortening is so difficult for the beginner. The beginner artist knows a leg is so long, and if viewed coming directly at him, the shape of the leg does not really match the mental model of its length, so the beginner is confounded, and tries to draw the leg the way his mental model represents it.

So to overcome drawing the mental model rather than what is in front of the artist, the beginner must learn to concentrate on what he/she is seeing, and not on what he/she thinks they are seeing. This is why beginners are given exercises like contour drawing, to teach them to see what it is they are looking at, and not what they think they are looking at. Of course, contour drawing teaches other skills as well, such as eye hand coordination, and feeling the object you are drawing.

Once phase one is mastered, and the student can reasonably draw the foreshortening, and different angles, mass starts to come more into play. Mass is represented by light and value in a drawing, and correctly addressing this requires an understanding of light sources and how light reflects off of an object. One thing that students usually do when they are first trying to master the concepts of mass, is to draw a smiley face on the paper where the light source is coming from. Once in my student days, I did this beautiful watercolor of a colonial soldier in the snow, only to have my teacher point out that I had the shadows going in two different directions. This was a disappointing lesson that I have never forgotten. Usually the best and easiest way to light a subject is with one light source. This produces less confusing images and stronger shadows, but often times there may be more than one light source, and this is more challenging.

In addition to the main light source, often there is light reflected off of surrounding objects. For instance, a white ball on a table, may have a light value on the side furthest from the light source. This light value would represent light that is being reflected from the table the ball is resting on. As well, the ball will have a very dark area that is furthest from the light source, and a highlight that is closest to the light source. Combine the play of light with the shape of the object, and you have mastered the second phase of seeing.

The third phase of seeing is the most interesting and most fun, but it requires mastery of the first two phases. In the third phase, the artist now creatively adjusts the lines and values to maximize the effect of the drawing. So in this phase, the artist draws what he creatively sees. For instance, the artist may not draw cast shadows if these shadows would confuse the viewer about the shape of the mass depicted. Or the artist may well create more than one light source if that will enhance the image.

Also line can be manipulated to heighten the impact of the image or to indicate mass. For instance, the artist may discontinue a line as it passes over a highlighted area to enhance the highlight, or make a line wide and dark to give a sense of weight.

This final phase is where the artist can ignore the reference and work just on the artwork. The purpose of this phase is to improve the image artistically, even if it starts to move away from the original reference. I remember once doing a portrait, and my friend saying to me that it wasn’t as important that the portrait was a slavish reproduction of the person, as it was that the artwork was as artistically excellent as I could make it. After all he said, the model is never there when the viewer is enjoying the art!

Keeping these phases in mind as you develop your art skills will help you learn one of the most valuable skills an artist possesses, his or her ability to see like an artist.

My name is Jim Genovese and I have a passion for drawing and painting, and like to draw using a variety of mediums. My primary focus is on classical figure and portrait drawing and painting, but I sketch everything I can see, or imagine. I am always asking myself the question “If I am not drawing, what am I doing that is more important?” I teach drawing at a local college. For more information please visit my website at [] and my blog at, or follow me on Twitter (ArtistGenovese).

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