We take it for granted. Of course we “see” things. But seeing is a marvelously complex and personal process that warrants more thought.

Forget the mechanics

The typical way “scientists” study something like sight is to break down the details of the mechanisms involved. So they investigate the ability of the cornea and lens to focus images on the receptors at the back of the eye. On the way the optic nerves process and transmit the data. On the rather large section of the brain that processes the data into what we recognize as “seeing” something and recognizing it.

It is a very complex process. But looking at it this way is a classic “can’t see the forest for the trees.” It matters little to us what mechanisms we use to perceive images. What matters is that we do. And the process is vastly more complex than the scientific mechanisms would lead us to believe.


When we take visual stimulus into our brain it elicits different responses in different people. Sometimes, different responses in the same person at different times. This is part of the vast complexity of “seeing”.

Our perception is based on, among other things, our experience, age, education, health, environment, personality, even what we had for lunch. Because of this, what we perceive is different from anyone else in the world. Even identical twins perceive images slightly differently.

We should always keep in mind that our perception of a scene or a work of art is unique to us. When anyone tells you that you should see it a certain way or this is the interpretation of the image, walk away, quickly. They can only tell you their perception and they are giving you the message that their visualization is better and more complete than yours. Yes, there are societal norms and statistical groupings, but those only apply across large groups of people. They do not say what any of us as individuals should see or feel.


Have you ever tried to describe what you see or what it means to you? It is an interesting process. Speech is a very different mental transformation than visual interpretation. Some people are more verbal and some are more sensitive to images.

When we see something, it creates something in our mind. Perhaps we file it as a memory. Maybe it invokes other memories. It could create a sensory impression on us, like calm or fear or stress. An image may even bring up a song or a smell.

When we then try to express in words what we perceived it is an impossible task. We can give impressions. We may be able to paint some aspects of it in words. But we cannot create a verbal description that exactly represents the image we perceived in our mind. Words and speech are inherently linear. Information is conveyed through a sequence of symbols over time. Images are much more non-linear. We tend to “grock” the whole image before starting to isolate parts.

Poets and authors have tried for centuries to paint images with words. They have some success, but the image I get from reading them is different than the one you get. And both are different from the one the author had in his mind. It is a beautiful and fascinating process, but it is different from our visual perception.

What we experience

If it is true that we all experience something different when we see a visual image, then is it hopeless to try to analyze it? No, because despite the range of experiences, most of us share enough common experience to appreciate similar things.

We have all experienced beautiful sunsets. The experience may mean somewhat different things to each of us, but there is something built into humans that appreciates a sunset. Likewise, most people enjoy looking at portraits of people. We are wired to be interested in other people. Again, we each may see something different, but we like it.

And an image may touch something in you but completely miss the mark with me. That does not say the image is good or bad, but it creates a different response in different people. This is part of the wonderful complexity and depth of viewing images. But can we get deeper in the process?

Examine it

I said we should be afraid when people tell us what we are supposed to see in an image, but that does not mean it is wrong for us to analyze what we see. One difference between casual viewers and those who really appreciate a work of art is how deeply they examine what they see.

Most people are content to be at the “that’s pretty” or “I don’t like it” level. The art creates a response, but they do not reflect on why. To appreciate art more it is necessary to develop a “vocabulary” to express our understanding of it. I don’t mean we need to be able to write a detailed verbal analysis of it.

Art is seldom created in a vacuum. It builds on traditions, on work of other artists, on classic subjects or themes, on recognized styles or techniques. As we mature and get more familiar with a range of images we can understand a piece in context. We can examine the color pallet used, the style of representation, the tradition it aligns with, and other images we have seen of similar subjects. Then we can start to understand more deeply. We can see that this artist is kind of like this other but departs in these certain ways. It is clear that this is a new twist on something commonly done by a group of artists we have seen. All of this is just a layering of understanding to help us see the work more clearly.

Trying to be explicit about our reaction to an image forces us to examine our feelings and even beliefs more closely.

Art should elicit a response

It seems a truth to me that art should create a response in the viewer. Otherwise it is just documentary or illustration. I want my images to have an immediate and visceral effect on you. I hope it is not just a dismissive “it’s pretty” as you go on to the next image.

I will go out on a limb and state that if you don’t love my image you are viewing, I hope you hate it. It is better to me for you to react strongly one way or another rather than to be indifferent.

Do I need you to spend significant time analyzing my images in order to appreciate them? No, I cannot demand that of you. I hope you do want to contemplate them a while, but it would be foolish of me to expect everyone to view them as an artist or an art historian.

I hope something about my images grabs you, compels you to spend some time with them. As you view them I hope you are intrigued and want to figure out things about them and why you like (or don’t like) them. The process of figuring this out for yourself will help you come to a better ability to express and understand your interests and likes.

Understand your preferences

Ultimately your response to a piece of art is your personal experience. It doesn’t really matter if the artist is famous or respected, you have the right to decide for yourself if you like or dislike their work. Who knows? You might like work by an unknown like me better than a Picasso or John Paul Caponigro. 🙂

One reason there is so much art and so many artists is that it is all very personal. There is no “one size fits all”. Each of us is still at liberty to decide what we like. I recommend that it is healthy to think about what you like and prefer in art. Learn to articulate it, at least to yourself. This way you will understand your preferences better and have a firmer grasp of your interests. Then, when a well meaning friend tells you “no, you can’t like that” or “you must like this” you can gently and persuasively correct them and defend your decisions. They will be impressed. So will you.

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