As artists, we excel at being hyper-observant of everything around us. We study the graceful curve of the coffee mug's handle, and we notice when the goldfinches at the feeder start shedding their winter drab for the mating season's brighter plumage. We see the tiny purple flower peeking up from a crack in the sidewalk, and we see breathtaking abstracts of patterns and colors in a rusty piece of farm equipment.
It's all in the details...Noting details most people are oblivious to is an everyday experience for an artist. Far from being merely a casual pastime, it's an essential skill for us. For example, if we remained oblivious to the shapes or colors of shadows, how could we hope to depict them realistically in a painting? If we didn't study the movement of the waves, how could we render them convincingly on canvas?
When I taught painting to adults at KSU, I used to give my classes a handout titled "How to See Like an Artist." It contained tips and exercises for opening one's eyes to the physical world. Inevitably people would come to class the following week bubbling over with excitement. One woman described studying late afternoon cloud formations and noticing for the very first time their amazing range of colors, including yellow, gold, peach, orange, lavender, even green. "I never really looked at them before," she said. "Now I can't stop looking! Everything around me looks so different now!"
Among most of the artists I know, the habit of careful observation underlies much more than a desire to achieve a high level of technical skill. This heightened awareness of the world around us is almost a spiritual thing, a sense of connectedness to something infinitely richer and more complex than words can describe.
A coffee mug's storyTake the aforementioned coffee mug, for instance. Look at it carefully and closely. Its dishwasher-worn finish tells of years of daily use, of thousands of morning risings, of a lifetime's worth of day-starting rituals. Its matte ceramic surface is darker in one spot where a thumb has rested every day. This humble mug is a veteran, a survivor. It holds stories and memories. It has witnessed much in its two decades of faithful service. To most it's just an ordinary cup, nothing noteworthy. But an artist truly sees it. He or she reads the clues.
The artist glimpses something more than just a cup. That "something" is ineffable and impossible to describe, but it's there. What is learned through observation informs our experiences and thoughts, the internal processes that give rise to creative expression. We may never paint an image of that cup (or the cloud, or anything else we pay close attention to) but inevitably taking the time to observe it will, in some small way, shape our work and nourish our spirits.
©2014 Lynn Edwards