What you See or What you Know?

As an artist should you paint what you see or what you know. It is an interesting dilemma. Many of us strive, particularly when we start as an artist try to capture what we see in front of us in paint or pencil. We may interpret it in slightly different ways, but essentially, if paintings or drawings ‘don’t look right’ they are often dismissed or discarded. This is a very strange approach to painting and drawing when you consider that what we see isn’t ‘real’.

Scientist’s tell us the sky is actually colourless. It is not blue, our brains ‘interpret’ the clashing of electrons that happens in our atmosphere as blue ( I am not a scientist so please excuse the terminology). People appear to get smaller the further away they happen to be, but they don’t actually shrink. Train lines appear to come together as they recede into the distance, but they don’t actually get narrower.  Our brains condition us to ‘see’ the world in a particular way. Wouldn’t it be exciting if we could ‘see’ the world differently.

Imagine This

Picasso famously said, ‘I don’t paint what I see, I paint what I know.’ Imagine painting people their actual sizes in a picture irrespective of how close they might be to you.  Buildings do not get smaller because they happen to be further away so why draw them smaller in the distance. What would happen if you did not use perspective to draw a road narrowing as it recedes into the distance, but drew the road parallel. Imagine how different the painting would be. chinese personPainting or drawing the world as we see it is a very western approach to the world invented with the flowering of the Renaissance. Look at a lot of eastern art, before the western influence and the world is seen quite differently.

Have you ever noticed that drawings and paintings of figures in traditional Chinese art never have shadows on the faces. We draw the shadows on a face, but they are transitory and dependent on light. The colour of our face doesn’t actually change,  it is light that makes it appear to change. So the Chinese are drawing/painting what they know not what they see. Notice also, in the painting here how everything is painted ‘flat’ there is no attempt to make the image appear 3D. The surface on which the painting is produced is flat, so the painting is not trying to be something it is not.

What I am really saying here is that ‘real’ means different things to different people. The way we all interpret colour, emotions, feelings and the visual world can vary considerably. So why stick with  what is seen, why not try painting and drawing what you know and challenge your perceptions.

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A Different Approach to Reality


  • Kelly

    You’re a good man. This short article empowers everyone to do art and accept their own expression of it. Thank you.

    • Art-Tutorials Online

      Yes, That’s right an artist should produce work for himself/herself and not worry about the audience. Thanks for the comment

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