Why “Paint What You See” Is Not Good Advice

“In every object there is inexhaustible meaning; the eye sees in it what the eye brings means of seeing.”

Goethe

“Paint what you see.”  Has anyone ever told you that? The other day I was reading something online and ran across a discussion where several artists were offering advice to another artist about how to tackle a particular subject. “Paint what you see.” was the recurring theme of the conversation. I have heard that before, of course. You have too, right? Instructors often give this advice to students in workshops and classes. But before you can paint what you see, you have to learn to see.  The vast majority of landscape painting problems are a result of a failure of seeing.

Emil Carlsen
Emil Carlsen

First, we cannot see what we are not prepared to see. We literally don’t know what we don’t know! For example, unless someone has explained the concept of value and its importance, perhaps relating that to how values can be organized by the planes in the landscape, the beginner won’t see that. He or she won’t know what or how to even look for it. Unless someone explains the concept of color temperature, the intermediate painter won’t see it or even know that he or she isn’t seeing it! Once we understand fundamental concepts like value and color temperature, then we see it because we know what to look for and why it is important. We are then prepared to see it, and we do! Learning to draw and paint is first a matter of learning to see.

Emil Carlsen
Emil Carlsen

Second, once we can see, it is no longer our job to simply “report” on what we see, but rather to “translate” what we see into a work of art. Once we have the technical skills and understanding to truthfully represent nature, it is time to create a work of art. Nature rarely arranges herself into a perfect pattern or design. We take the raw material provided by Nature and make a painting of it. The painting becomes its own thing, separate and apart from the Nature which inspired it. It must stand on its own.

P.S. Our upcoming online class The Painted Sky starts August 7th! Take a look at our previous posts on painting big, atmospheric skies and join us!

Registration is here.

4 thoughts on “Why “Paint What You See” Is Not Good Advice”

  1. Thank you for the interesting post Ms. Paris. I do agree that learning to draw or paint is an exercise in learning to see. While I cannot speak to the context or particulars of the conversation that inspired this response, I can say with reasonable certainty that you critique may be addressing an erroneously truncated quote. The full statement (which I believe is attributable to Charles Hawthorne (1872-1930)) is “Paint what you see, not what you know.”

    The full quote is actually communicating something quite different than the far more ambiguous truncation. While it can be reasonably safe to state that Mr. Hawthorne could not be aware of the stages of visual processing when he made this statement (such visual processing models would later stem from MIT’s David Marr in the 1980s), I suspect that he may have been inspired by the phenomenology of conceptual contamination on his ability to garner information from real world percepts.

    Today, this statement is still quite apt for the aspiring realist in that it truly is the first step in learning to garner effective information for building a representation that will yield a percept that replicates the product of the inspiring source stimuli. Guided analysis of visual stimuli (value, color), as you state, is also very important, but the individual must first understand that the percept is not a true reflection of reality—but a conflated aggregate of several layers of processing.

  2. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment! I am aware of the full quote by Hawthorne and I agree that he was most probably referring to how our preconceived ideas of the things we see in Nature can interfere with our ability to truly see, carefully observe, and reproduce those forms in drawing and painting. What I sought to address is the common practice of sending students out into Nature to paint before they have any idea of the concepts which are necessary to make a two dimensional representation of it, much less the technical skills. This is particularly prevalent in landscape painting and the teaching of it. The fact that Hawthorne’s advice has now been reduced to the simplistic “paint what you see” is just further evidence of this failing.

    1. I was happy to participate in the discussion here Ms. Paris and I have shared your article as I think some productive discussion can come from it (my favorite kind of posts).

      I agree with you 10000% that sending out aspiring realists without preparation will almost always lead to excessive frustration and diminished motivations. Skill developing deliberate practice is a highly structured activity engaged in with the specific goal of improving performance. I think your post highlights the prevalence of the deficits in the “highly-structured” department. (You suggestions for such structured preparation are admirable).

      I often take special interest in articles and posts that weave artistic development with ideas about perception—especially when ideas like “seeing accurately” are skimmed.

      I feel that it is important for the practicing observational realist to understand that there is a significant disparity between observable physical stimuli and their subjective correlates, or percepts. Biological visual systems cannot accurately measure the properties that define the physical world. Rather, a biological “image” is a reflexive response to stimuli generated from statistical information (accumulated experience, frequency of occurrence, etc.). However this does not mean that biological vision cannot produce a wealth of useful information for the observational painter or draftsperson. In fact, understanding how vision works can actually reveal how we may use its particular mechanisms to our advantage in an observational/representational visual art context.

      I look forward to any future posts you may have on the topic Ms. Paris! Best wishes and Happy Painting!

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