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.