Seeing Better

Beginning a new year might be a good time to think about seeing better. Many of us have been mostly looking at the interior walls of our homes for a long time. If anything, this leads us to see worse. Seeing better is not just our visual acuity, I refer to our ability to perceive, to notice, to be aware of what is around us.


When we think of seeing better we naturally think about the sharpness of our vision. Technically, this is called acuity. When we go to the optometrist and read the letters on the wall we will hear some number pair, like, say 20/30. This means we can see at 20 feet what most people can see at 30 feet. We would like, of course, to hear that we have 20/20 (normal) or even 20/10 (extra sharp) vision.

The doctor will be glad to prescribe corrective lenses or contacts to bring our acuity up to par. There are also other visual conditions like glaucoma or astigmatism that need attention. It is good to visit a vision specialist regularly.

The ability to see well is very important, as an artist and a viewer and to lead a rewarding life. My art is a visual medium. If I cannot see to make it or appreciate it I am greatly handicapped.


But it is not simply a matter of getting good glasses. Most people see, but don’t see. That is, they are able to image the world around them very well, but they do not think about or perceive what they see. This is head skill, not a visual ability.

I hope I am being too critical. I hope you do not have this problem and you really pay attention to the world around you. If you are a regular reader of this blog perhaps this is so. What I observe of the people around me tells me I am not wrong, though.

Put away your phone for a few minutes – I’ve tried it; a few minutes without it is not fatal – observe people around you. Are they glued to their mobile device? Are they in a daze, oblivious to what is around them? How many people do you see with their heads swiveling, really observing the people and sights around them? What about you?

Before you can perceive, you have to see. Seeing is not perceiving, but it is a necessary step. To actually see you have to detach from the attention grabbing time wasters that have mastery of us. When we get to the point of taking the time to intentionally see, we can start to learn to perceive.

Perceiving is an attitude. It is a skill we develop with time and discipline.

Observation skills

Have you watched a good Sherlock Holmes? I recommend the most recent series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. IMHO it is the best version ever done.

Anyway, what sets Holmes apart from other people, other than being a self-described “high functioning sociopath”? It is his observation skill. He can take a quick glance at someone and describe their story in detail. He picks up on the clues and tiny details that everyone else overlooks.

Sherlock Holmes is, of course, a fictional character. But he serves to show a contrast to the way most of us go through the world. Most of us do not take the time and effort to look closely and really see things. To pick up on the details, the story.

A large part of perception is attitude and training. It is a mental skill. I believe any of us can learn to perceive more of the world around us if we work at it. It takes conscious effort and awareness. Some people are more naturally attuned to it than others, but it is not impossible for anyone.

See from inside

Unless you just want to take “pretty pictures”, you cannot make a very interesting image unless you have something to say. I’m not dismissing beauty, I’m just saying even a beautiful scene doesn’t have much staying power unless we can see through the artist’s eyes. Unless he can make us see what he felt about it.

We have to find something inside of us to connect to so we can interpret it and express our feelings to the viewer. To connect to something, we have to truly see the subject. Not just forming the image on our retina but really taking it in and letting it affect us. This is perception. Jonathan Swift said “Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others”. It may be lonely and nobody else may “get it”, but an artist is compelled to share his vision.

Good or bad, beautiful or ugly, grand or tiny, we have to be able to have an emotional reaction to the subject to give our reaction to the viewer. Any worthwhile image is not just a record of what was there. It is our interpretation of it. You can’t really interpret unless you have taken it in, processed it, examined it, contemplated it, thought about it. All enough to be able to give it meaning.

I’m not saying you have to develop a deep relationship with the subject, or write an essay about your feelings, or spend weeks visiting it. Any of these things might help, but none are necessary. An artist should build a broad base of experience and interests. That allows a quicker perception and reaction to encountered subjects.

I find some excellent images driving down the road. It is probably something I can react to quickly because I have thought about the type of subject a lot. Also, I give myself permission to stop and get out and examine it. To set up and frame it give my best interpretation of it. Do you ever stop when you are driving and just look at things?


Beethoven? I mention him because he is an inspiration and example to me. Toward the end of his life he became deaf, yet he created what some consider his greatest masterpiece, the Ninth Symphony. He never heard a note of it, except in his mind. What he was able to perceive in the silence of his mind was greater than what anyone else could hear.

That, to me, is true perception. He could hear without hearing. We should learn to see without seeing. It is in our minds, our experiences, our feelings. We can create experience at a deeper level than just pixels. But first, we have to be able to operate on that deeper level. That takes time and self-discipline. We have to train ourselves to perceive.

Seeing better is a responsibility of the artist. If we do not perceive and feel, how can we bring something meaningful to our viewers? They want more than just a record of something. We have to see better so we can bring more to them.

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