Seeing Better

Impression of ship passing in the night

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.

What You See

A different view of some wine glasses

An amazing artist, Karen Hutton, said “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” This is very wise. We cannot always control our environment. We cannot always surround ourselves with astounding subjects and grand scenes. Our environment should not control our art. Even when we are looking at a grand scene we should see it differently than others.

We can’t always control what is around us

It is easy to say to ourselves “poor me, I’m stuck in [fill in the blank]; I can’t take time off to go to the Grand Tetons to shoot amazing landscapes, so I guess I can’t do anything.” Get over it. An artist explores the subjects he can find around him.

Adapt. Reframe the possibilities. What you see should be a trigger. Your surroundings are a canvas you can create on.

Get excited about the environment around you rather than disappointed about where you are not. It is hard to put me someplace where I can’t find great images. That is not bragging. I’m curious about everything I see. That leads me to explore with a good attitude. My curiosity helps me seek out visually interesting things.

That is not to say we should be equally excited about everything. Each of us is called to by different types of subjects and situations. Flowers, for instance, do not excite me to do much. I know they are a great subject for many people, but you will very seldom see me present a flower image.. Unless I figure out something to do with it that I consider “interesting”.

You don’t require an amazing subject to make art

I am the artist. I can’t not look for image possibilities wherever I am. It is not my subject’s job to be so dramatic and interesting that I can just lazily point my camera in its direction and make a great image. I might even say that the more difficult a subject is to “capture” the more it excites me. I have to work at it.

The image is created in my mind. It is my reaction to the subject that forms the picture. Artists over the centuries have made wonderful pictures of bowls of fruit or fields of wheat or city streets.

Monet is a good example. Except for some time in the Netherlands and England, he found most of his scenes in a small area of northern France. He could take something I would walk by without noticing and make a great picture of it. That is making art, not just finding it.

And isn’t that what we should be doing? Shouldn’t an artist make art out of what is around?

What can you do with what you see?

Using Monet as an example again, he narrowed and narrowed his focus down to the point where he spent the later part of his career almost exclusively painting scenes of the lily pond in his garden. But he perceived art and drama in the intricacies of the color shifts and light at different times and different seasons. His images of this are amazing.

That subject doesn’t really excite me. I would love to see his gardens, but if I went there I would shoot some images to record his famous garden, maybe try to do a study of the shapes and colors, but it is unlikely I would create any real art there. He has already done it and that is not where I should spend my time.

But some things jump out to me that escape most other people. And they do not have to be grand scenes.

Nearly every day I wander around my little town. Of necessity, this is where I spend most of my time. I try to keep my eyes open and attentive for things that interest me. I’m not always successful, but a day seldom goes by without taking some pictures.

When you are “stuck” in one fairly boring location, you learn to scale your perception accordingly. I learn to be aware of smaller, more subtle things. After seeing the same scene a hundred times I sometimes suddenly perceive it differently. Maybe this is kind of what Monet did.

Everyone sees different

As Karen Hutton said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” We all see differently, or at least we should. If we train ourselves to understand and express our vision and feelings for the subject then our artistic interpretation will be unique.

Do we want to make images that are simply a record of a location or would we prefer to show the way we perceive it? One of the problems that de-values photography for many people is that much photography is it is just a camera pointed at a scene. If we cannot reveal our emotions or our beliefs or our point of view then there is seldom anything special about it.

Do you want to be one of the photographers fighting for tripod space to record a famous scene at the perfect time of day with the perfect lighting? Or would you rather turn around and find something interesting the other direction? Something they would not see because they were fixated on the iconic scene?

Maybe that is a foolish question, since so many people are intent on shooting the same image over and over. But for me, I would rather be the one seeing something different. As Apple said in their famous ad campaign, Think Different.

What do you see?

Looking vs. Seeing

Old door

We all look at things every day. Do we really see them? What’s the difference?

When we’re driving, for example, we look at everything around us. (I hope! Put that phone down!) What we mostly see are threats, dangers, problems to work around. Is that car going to run the red light? Does that driver seem distracted, so I should move away from them? Is that pedestrian going to walk in front of me? That construction is blocking the lane I want to be in so I have to make a different plan.

We look at things like this all the time, but we don’t really see them. That’s not inappropriate for a situation like driving. After all, when the guy swerves into your lane and nearly hits you, you don’t really care what he is wearing or what color his eyes are. Looking is sufficient to take in the essential information to let us get by. Doing it is efficient. It prevents us from having to waste time and energy examining things that probably are not directly important to us.

Unfortunately, most of us go through life in this state. Things are happening all around us but we only see the minimum necessary. We get in the habit of not noticing. It simplifies our life and reduces the clutter of things we have to examine and consider. Simple is not always better. It can lead to a minimal existence. We are aware of enough to stay out of trouble but we don’t always appreciate the beauty, irony, joy, pathos that is swirling all around us.

But what about those of us who consider ourselves artists? We don’t want to just get by. We don’t want the minimum connection to the world around us. Artists and creatives should see more. One of our jobs is to wake up people to what they are missing in the world around them. That decision comes with costs. Actually seeing is much harder. It takes a lot more effort.

What do I mean by that? Say I am walking down the street. I walk by a door. On the looking level it is easily dismissed as “door is closed, nothing to watch out for there”. But what about what the door actually is? It’s texture and color. Is it tagged with interesting grafitti? Is it weathered and rough or smooth and modern? Where does it lead? When is the last time I say someone go in or out it? Does a door like this say anything about our environment, or about people’s relations to each other, or about the people who built it and their history?

Going through like this way takes much more awareness, more intention, more thought. And it is distracting. Sometimes we get lost in something we have seen and end up late to an appointment, maybe even miss lunch. It fills our minds and crowds out Facebook or the TV shows we watched last night. It focuses us on something we did not expect when we left the house.

All in all, I think seeing is a better existence than just looking. It is more rewarding, if for no other reason that that we are more in tune with our environment; with the world around us. It encourages us to take in more, to examine things more deeply. I try to practice seeing every day. When I don’t, I feel like I have drifted through the day in a daze.