Painting what you see, Not what you think you see*

barn wood painting hamptons

“East Hamptons Shop” acrylic_painting on canvas_16″ x 20″

by Robert Conway

*I have been told that some of the subject matter included in this post might reach into “Drawing for the Right Side of the Brain” territory, since I have never read that book ,this is my (I am sure) less eloquent version of the subject matter. honestly I really don’t know my right from my left anyway.

When using a reference source like a picture or a layout for your painting the act of visually translating that image to your canvas can be can be quite a challenging one, there can be this inner struggle in your mind between the analytic side and the sentimental side of your brain. I always find it helpful to try to block out that sentimental side of your mind, the part with all the stored memory of all things you know and embrace that logical side of your mind since this is going to aide you in visually breaking down the elements such as for example which colors to mix, which brush to use or how much paint to apply.

There is sometimes a tendency to want to rendered favored areas into something greater than what you have in front of your eyes and this can lead to a hot mess of confusion, for example if you are painting say a leaf, there is going to be that part of your brain coaxing you to depict the leaf from your collective memory of all the zillions of leaves you have seen in your lifetime, it would be more productive to block out these urges since you are dealing with a new challenge and you should be focusing on the present and depicting what is actually sitting right in front of you. This sentimental part of your brain is going to tell you that a leaf is usually green, it has a stem, it has these veins in the middle and it has pointy edges, now this is all useless information for the task at hand, you want to tap into that part of your mind that tells you “this object is just a mixture of black and green that gradates to green and white and has some yellow highlights thrown in.” It is like you have to take a step back and detach yourself from a lot of the things that you are comfortable with, it is like a very sterile, scientific approach, maybe it would be good to pretend that you have never even seen a leaf before, in this way you can focus on a non-bias, analytical approach that should yield positive results. You can even take it a step further and not think of the leaf as an object at all, it may be better to just think of it as just another part of the composition
another brushstroke, another dab of paint and just move on from there.

Being a self-taught painter, I find this clinical method of visualization really helps especially when I am working on difficult, complex areas of a painting, much in the way that I would imagine a fire walker psyches himself up to walk over the coals, I want to get into a zone of detachment where i do not panic. In the past I have had a history of crashing and burning while working on difficlut areas of a canvas, but with this method of visualization I no longer feel like I am totally going to screw up, it is a good safety net to have.

March 2, 2014


26 thoughts on “Painting what you see, Not what you think you see*

  1. I found what you had to say about the leaf very interesting. Trying to transpose that into writing poetry I think I would have to say that I really need some of both parts on my brain. There is the sentimental side from which I think the genesis of the poem must come from and then the analytical side which must map out what the point of the poem is. But both need to be used in actually writing the poem because of the linguistic and emotional value of each word and how it corresponds to the other words. What’s funny is that most of my inspiration for poems comes from visual stimuli, paintings or photographs. It was a very good read thank you. >KB

    • that is so interesting, it makes me smile that you see a parallel to this post and your poetry. and it also makes me happy that you mentioned the part about the leaf, I really labored over writing that little bit and I was kind of hoping someone would mention it! 🙂

  2. I really appreciate this insight into your creative process. I always wonder why I can never think analytically in straight lines and primary colors. My creative process is all jumbled up in knots, going hither and yon, mostly yon, and not even knowing where the heck yon is. I acknowledge the fact that I am a right-brain thinker and totally incapable of break-downs the way you do them. But if I try to apply step-by-step left brain thinking, I find that I actually can, and my work improves. I even impressed myself by being able to pull a point out of this ramble even though I was guilty of the “yon joke” only a few words before.

    • that was great, love the yon, I am glad you liked the post, it was really difficult to write that one and as you know my sentence structure is a mess to begin with, nothing ever stuck in english class. all this stuff can be attributed to the fact that I work in photoshop all day at my job as a retoucher, so that has forced me to be analytical because if have to stare at images for long periods of time and have to figure out the best way to fix them.

  3. Definitely related to “drawing on the right side of the brain”. If you want to get a feel of what that is like, just take a photo (a face will do nicely), turn it upside down and start drawing it. Because you are not used to seeing faces upside down your brain will not get in the way of what you are really seeing. You may be surprised at how accurate your drawing turns out when your brain isn’t telling you how it “should” look!

    • Alli, that is a good one, that would really put one side of the brain to work, smoke pouring out of only one ear. I am going to have to read that book, everyone references it.

  4. I think that sometimes I will approach a painting from an even different angle. Instead of breaking down the colors of the leaves, for instance, i will ask myself how the leaves feel. Or how I want to feel when I am painting the leaves. If I want to feel COLD, for instance, I will tend naturally towards the blues, and if they become to depressing, I will add the light until the feeling is just right. I find it amazing how, as artists, we can approach a subject from many different view points and always seem to end up with a million different versions or interpretations of the same thing…from realistic to impressionistic, to abstract…

    I agree with the “safety net” idea as well. The way I feel safe when I am on the verge of “ruining” a painting is to know that I can start over, if I had to, and it will be okay 🙂

    • thanks it truly is interesting how different people go about it, I am always fascinated to see how other artists go about it. the way I paint now if I went about changing colors and things well the wheels would really come off my bus. right now I have to stick to the script, I mean the layout I make before I start a painting. I hope someday I will have the confidence to loosen it up a bit and just wing it. thanks for stopping by.

  5. So true, especially when I am working on difficult, complex areas of a painting, much in the way that I would imagine a fire walker psyches himself up to walk over the coals.” Sometimes I feel like choking, or chucking the project, just before it starts to come together. Nice advice on overcoming panic, and a great painting.

    • thank you so much. overcoming panic is a specialty of the house! I never quit a painting now, in my earlier days I was always trashing those things in a fit, but years of practice has made me feel more confident and in control.

  6. Thank you for ‘Like-ing’ my post … what an honour. Your work is marvellous. I’ll try and pop by regularly to read about and see more of your work.

  7. I took a high school art class with a very eccentric and talented teacher who gave us a few lessons in drawing what we saw by having us position our pencils at a starting point on our paper and, while looking at the subject of the day (usually the board or a shirt draped on a chair) we had to draw the complete thing, without a lot of detail) without looking at the page. The key for me was to not lift the pencil from the paper. She also taught us how to draw the “inside” of things like creased shadows and rolls. It helped me so much! I like this post. Thank you.

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