An Artist’s Eye

email Girl with the pearl earring with frame--Deon Matzen

Above  Study of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring painted by Deon Matzen

What is an artist’s eye? Someone posed this question to me recently and though I have been thinking about it, I was flummoxed as to what it actually is. Having done some research I am now prepared to make some comments.

As many of you know, I am an artist.  I studied art in college and, off and on, over my lifetime I pursued an artist’s career.  I know that I am probably more susceptible to color than the average person.  I also know that I see more than most other folks.  In the past, I put this down to being more observant of my surroundings, but it isn’t just that.

My students often comment, “How did you see that?”  I will be helping them with a painting and point outa missed detail or a misconception on their parts and show them, either through a sketch or an explanation, what I see in the scene.  They cannot believe they have missed it as it becomes obvious when I point it out. Many have commented, after studying with me for some time, that they are now much more observant people.  They see the world differently.  Maybe the artist’s eye is something that can be trained.  I think this is true, though some of us are born with it.

Often times I tell my students to leave their brains out of seeing, that the mind and logic only serve to misrepresent the truth.  It is true.  Our preconceived ideas of what objects should look like ruins our ability to really understand what they look like. If I ask you to draw a horse from memory, using your brain and memory, and then ask you to draw a horse from a photo or real life, which is the better example of a horse?  The one you imagine or the one you REALLY looked at and drew?

In beginning drawing classes my students use large drawing tablets (18 x 24”) to draw large works.  Often times I ask them to draw objects bigger than life.  Sometimes I ask them to draw with their non-dominate hand to force eye-to-hand coordination to come into play.  They concentrate so hard on making the hand work that they cannot use preconceived impressions of the object (the mind and memory) to draw the object; they must focus on the object and the movement of the hand.  Most students will complete a more accurate rendering of the subject than when left to draw in the usual manner.

Other times I will have the students cover their work while they are drawing, not allowing them to see what is happening on the page but making the hand follow the eye as it moves around an object.  Mostly this results in a much better drawing than if I just let them draw while looking at the page.  If left to their own devices, many students will spend more time looking at the page, trusting memory—the weak link—while seldom looking at the object and thus misremembering it. I have watched the new artist work. Many times, a student will spend about ninety percent of the drawing time looking at the drawing and not the object.  Those who spend most of their time looking at the object while continuing to move their pencils will become the better artists.  It is a hard habit to break, watching you hand draw.  After many, many years of being an artist, when I draw and when I paint, I spend most of my time looking at the object(s) and not looking at my work, mostly  using my peripheral vision to guide my progress.

Do I look at the world differently, being an artist?  I guess I do.  I see the details.  I notice the colors and how they relate to one another.  I understand how bright light can cause my pupils to constrict, causing shadows to lose details. Lightness and darkness (value) are important to me and I am constantly aware of how shadows play out in a scene.  How dark or light are they?  That tells me how dull or bright the daylight is.  I am constantly aware of this.  Maybe the average person is not.  I see textures in the scene and am aware of them, the smoothness of water and how reflections waver or not, the patterns made by the leaves of various species of flora, the forms and shapes of rocks and how they differ from one another.

While researching the subject, I came across a good article by By Sadie F. Dingfelder. Monitor Staff.,2010, ,Vol 41, No. 2, Print version: page 40. ( In this article, they seem to come the closest I can imagine to describe “the artist’s eye.”  For some of us this is an instinctual thing, something we have always had, something that has allowed us to see the world more clearly and in greater detail.  For others, my students, it is something I have trained them to do.  Some of the unsuccessful are frustrated about learning something that seems too basic and simple to them, learning to see. I tell my students that all I am teaching them is to see and eye-to-hand coordination.  They laugh at this, but, really, it is as basic as that.  But remember to leave the brain out of it.


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