Painting Gives You New Eyes

Painting teaches you to perceive the world differently.

I first approached painting as if I were a camera. If someone’s eyes were dark brown, then I would mix dark brown and put it on the canvas. If someone’s lips were pink, I would put pink on the canvas. I’d do this for the whole painting.

This doesn’t work well.

What you’ve got to do instead is see 3 different levels.

On one level, there’s the geometric structure of the face. The nose is a pyramid, the eyes are spheres. You must paint them as such. Unless you’ve practiced painting these simple structures, you can’t do justice to complex structures like the eyes and nose.

On another level, there’s tone. Imagine printing a colour photo in black and white. All that’s left is tone. Most people can’t see tone. But painting teaches you to see everything like that. If you can’t perceive tone, then your painting just looks unbalanced and noisy.

On the last level, there’s hue. This is colour. When painting a face, for example, even if a person had a uniform skin colour all over, the colour of the skin would change depending on the light hitting it. But skin is rarely uniform. You not only have to worry about the light, you must also pay attention to the actual discolourations on the skin. Freckles, for example are differently coloured, but not necessarily differently toned.

All of this turns into a very complex study of shape, tone, and hue. You need to know all of this when you put your paintbrush onto the canvas, or your Apple Pencil onto your iPad. It’s difficult to do.

But once you start painting, you start to approach vision as a painter. Your perception changes from one of passive indulgence to “competitive viewing.” You’re constantly asking yourself “how would I paint this?” and “why do the blues pop out so much from the white on that shirt?”

As a result of learning to see with these new eyes, you see into more of the natural world’s beauty. You can even say why a forest in the evening is more beautiful than at noon (because the contrasts are crisper and the hues redder). You notice that at the top of his lips, there’s a ridge of white. And you notice that her eyes have speckles of blue in a sea of green. You just see the world differently.

I’ll end with a joke. If you’d like to experience LSD with none of the legal or psychological consequences, try picking up painting. It’ll definitely give you a new pair of eyes.

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