To See or Not to See

Saturday, Greven. Standing in a con­cert crowd I was mak­ing faint attempts at doing a few quick sketches of the front man jump­ing about when a lady next to me remarked how envi­able such skills — It’s a sort of remark I dis­like more and more. Nothing against flat­tery, I’m too vain to refuse it; but it does­n’t count if it’s not well-deserved. A resigned phrase like this one usu­ally prompts a less-than-polite reply how it’s all but practice.

Later, though, I came to think of what I have actu­ally been prac­tising all the time. Is it draw­ing, really? From a draughts­man’s per­spect­ive every­one can draw, we’ve just found out that we could while the vast major­ity isn’t aware of their skills. I’m not typ­ic­ally using magic­al tools, just the lines and squiggles that should be famil­i­ar at the very least to any­one who knows how to write let­ters. It reminds me of the admis­sion exam in Leipzig: One day we were to paint a garden from the ima­gin­a­tion. One girl asked the fair and use­ful ques­tion: “What should we paint it with?” – “Oh, you know:”, went the pro­fess­or’s fair and use­ful answer, “red, blue, green, you know, yel­low

Probably what’s far more import­ant to train, should you want to draw or paint, is: to see. “We only look, but we don’t see”, sighed Tarkovsky. The task of draw­ing a pic­ture isn’t so dif­fer­ent struc­tur­ally from pro­gram­ming: Here as there you look at the world, then try to mod­el it as accur­ately as seems neces­sary. If your code is bad because it does­n’t com­pile you’ll fix it (with­in seconds, or after hours of curs­ing and look­ing for that invis­ible fuckup – but you’ll fix it even­tu­ally); and if your draw­ing is bad because it lacks a lay­er of shad­ing, go add it, no harm done. If how­ever your code runs just fine but is built on poor assump­tions, in the worst case there may be awfully little to do about it oth­er than start­ing over, as a draw­ing with mis­matched pro­por­tions is easi­er to redo than to fix. Certainly to state that to see is all that mat­ters means neg­lect­ing the tech­nic­al side too much, but nev­er­the­less I’d rate the lat­ter as far less import­ant, far less chal­len­ging than just see­ing – which not­ably encom­passes sev­er­al dis­tinct prob­lems: Not just to recog­nise, but also to under­stand, to remem­ber, moreover to get an intu­ition for pic­tures that “work” (which could for instance mean har­mony in some ages, or an entirely dif­fer­ent ten­et in others).

Grützke asser­ted that the pho­to­graph­er be at an inher­ent dis­ad­vant­age com­pared to a paint­er, set­ting a sim­il­ar agenda (in this example the dif­fer­ence between paint­ing and draw­ing is neg­li­gible). To para­phrase the rel­ev­ant pas­sage: In pho­to­graphy – light enters the lens, falls onto the film (or chip) and changes its state, done. In paint­ing – light enters the paint­er­’s eye, con­verts into a nerve sig­nal, zooms into the brain. The sig­nal gets pro­cessed into an idea, fur­ther into a com­mand. The com­mand travels down dif­fer­ent nerves into the arm, into the hand; the react­ing muscles pick up the brush, apply paint to a sur­face. The pho­to­grapher­’s image is just there – The paint­er­’s image has been care­fully cur­ated by all these suc­cess­ive fil­ters and has all the inten­tion­al­ity to which the eye (pars pro toto for the mind’s visu­al depart­ments) con­trib­utes most significantly.

These aren’t very new or innov­at­ive notions, as the boat­load of cita­tions shows already. I’ve come to write about the top­ic because I real­ised that the phe­nomen­on also thrusts into anoth­er direction.

Said lady at the con­cert, like oh so many oth­ers out there, does­n’t draw, and if she would, she would at least in the begin­ning run into the prob­lem of not hav­ing enough prac­tice in see­ing, as I did for a long time. But does­n’t that also impact her when she’s not draw­ing, but, let’s say, look­ing at some stranger­’s wobbly sketches? If I aim to depict real­ity, would­n’t you need at least very sim­il­ar eyes to see both real­ity and a rep­res­ent­a­tion of it?

There is a whole cat­egory of people who do not draw, at least not prom­in­ently, and who are nev­er­the­less train­ing their see­ing skills: Those who in the art-forensic tomes I’ve recently enjoyed read­ing would be referred to as “art lov­ers”. The avid museum-goer as well as the wealthy col­lect­or, or indeed a sub­stan­tial share of this blo­g’s reg­u­lar read­ers. I’m fur­ther­more con­vinced that hav­ing basic see­ing skills isn’t a rare trait at all, on the con­trary. But still it is way too easy to for­get as a paint­er, as a draughts­man, that as the spe­cial­ist one nat­ur­ally has become to be look­ing at pic­tures works far dif­fer­ent for almost any­one else. I’ve noticed the effect pass­ively for a long time, the symp­tom being – you may know it if I’ve shown you this or that sheet – eager curi­os­ity how a pic­ture will be received, not primar­ily for the more object­ive side of cri­ti­cism – which I’d often state to value, and while I’m being hon­est about it, some­times it just con­firms a judge­ment I had had any­way –, but more for the sub­ject­ive impres­sion, which should be pre­dict­able to an extent (because when I show it to enough people, usu­ally a con­sensus emerges), but which I totally and abso­lutely fail to pre­dict. To learn how to moment­ar­ily exchange my eyes for those of a spec­tat­or shall be yet anoth­er task for me!

The con­cert, in the end, left little to wish for. It’s true that Mr. Anderson has nev­er regained a lot of his voice, but what’s the point of going to see a noted multi-instru­ment­al­ist if all you’re look­ing for is a bit of nice singing. In all parts but the vocal, the bright­est star of uni­ped­al flautistry con­tin­ues to shine.

One Reply to “To See or Not to See”

  1. Leon! The desire to see bor­ders on the spir­itu­al so soooo much. I do sense it when try­ing to make my pho­tos good, how stronger must it get with all these fil­ters you add when draw­ing! I find your idea here very true and I’d love to hear one day from you wheth­er you get this “quasi-reli­gious” feel­ing when try­ing to see/understand. I feel that’s worth explor­ing with my small cam­era, you do encour­age me. Thank you.
    Salutations, mon Ami.

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