Several years ago I was birding with Fen Lansdowne when we spotted some large predatory birds circling several miles in the distance. Just dots in the sky — even our binoculars didn’t pull them up very much. “Golden eagles,” I announced. “Nope, Turkey vultures,” said Fen, “Don’t you see the dihedral?” Even at that great distance Fen saw the slight v-shaped wing-angle that’s characteristic of vultures when soaring.
Deducing info from minor nuances, in the manner of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s perceptive Sherlock Holmes, is a prime skill for artists. “You see, but you do not observe,” says Holmes to his sidekick Dr. Watson. Looking at the work of many artists, I’m convinced that not a few are on Dr. Watson’s side of the office. Not that artists need to inflict every bit of accumulated visual info into their work, but they miss out on one of our top privileges: the art of really seeing. Here are three quick exercises that’ll heighten your powers:
1. Take a look at that tree over there. It’s spring and its foliage is new, feathery and wispy. There’s an eagerness in the greens and the soft edges seem to flirt with the sky. Now note the tree is hardly solid–even though you might be inclined to paint it so. Today it’s rather a flighty dream, and even though it’s full of holes and avoidances, you can feel its roundness. And in spite of all this wisp, how strong the trunk and branches are.
2. Now take a look at those rocks around that small islet. Each one is in the form of an independent brick or a ball, and yet they nestle and cuddle with one another for support. Each has an upper side that reflects the sky and a mysterious dark underside. These rocks have been partners on this islet for so long they have grown toward one another and are blended by their mutual mosses and lichens.
3. Now take a look at that strongly lit nose on that guy over there. Notice how the lit side nicely gradates down into the cheek beside it and forms a fine negative shape that determines the form of his particular nose. Notice the core shadow that runs its length with the colourful penumbra on either side of the shadow. Notice how the cast shadow overruns the details of the nostrils and inner eye. Notice how that nose reddens toward the end, and is topped off with a cool, moist shine. Methinks he may like his brandy.
Esoterica: Poking your nose into other people’s business — in other words, staring — is an artist’s prerogative. You can also do it by studying photos but, funnily, they’re not quite as valuable. When you look at the real thing, tiny movements or body language of both the object and yourself make clearer the nuances you need to observe and understand. “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
The gift of urgency
by Bill Hibberd, Summerland, BC, Canada
When I paint from life, whether in studio or in open air, I am intensely aware of the passage of time. It may be a fleeting shadow or light pattern as it’s moving across an alpine meadow, or even the value of a model’s wage. An exception would likely be a still life arrangement but I have minimal experience with that genre. With the awareness of time another benefit, urgency, compels me to really observe, eyes wide open. When working from photos the element of urgency is absent and I find it more challenging to observe as effectively. Urgency is a gift.
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Capturing individual human characteristics from afar
by Mike Barr, Adelaide, South Australia
Recently, I have been going through master watercolorist Joseph Zbukvic’s book, Mastering Atmosphere & Mood in Watercolor: The Critical Ingredients That Turn Paintings Into Art and noted two of his paintings included small representations of fellow watercolor artists Hermen Pekel and Alvaro Castagnet.
The figures were just part of the landscape and very small but their bodily profiles were spot on! We can all spot people we know from afar by their walk and profile without the need for facial detail. If only we could capture this natural skill when we paint! Of course it goes for all objects that are distant. The game is afoot!
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Language of artists
by Robert Abrahams, Perth, Australia
Observation is of course important for artists, but I would like to suggest that the skill in turning these observations into the language of artists is also very important, e.g. tone, temperature, intensity, hue, shape, edges, texture and composition, etc.
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Use of Haiku for inspiration
by Magi Leland, Rye, NH, USA
I enjoy thinking of painting in poetic and musical terms. Your Holmesian artist piece is so poetically written and beautiful to read. Here are a few of my Haiku as my thank you:
owls serenade the night
communicating through verdant trees
winter turns toward spring
full moon bonfire
white, cherry-orange red, black
fire turned inside out
rivers run; snows melt
rain around in rosey swirl
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Immersion with subject matter
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
This is one of the key points I make in my plein air classes. Yet, time and time again, I find myself “jumping in” and beginning my plein air work without really taking the time to observe and make key decisions about mood and what really strikes me with a scene. Rosetta is one of America’s (perhaps the world’s) top animal sculptors. I have had the pleasure of getting to know her. Her work is abstracted into a series of planes. One would imagine that she wouldn’t have to know animal mannerisms and anatomy as well as a more representational sculptor would need to. Yet, she told me once that she has gone to Africa so she can really study her subjects. The amazing thing about that is that on at least one occasion she did not even take photos of the animals she had gone to observe. She simply immersed herself with them. That keen observation comes across in her work! In some ways her abstracted works capture the essence of an animal better than sculptures that contain every little detail.
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Observation vs. preconception
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
Just staring at stuff is easily 80% of my artistic life, if not more. It sounds ridiculous, because the obvious goal is to create. But observation has so many rewards that get the art-making juices going.
— excitement of exploration
— absorption of new information
— surprise of unexpected discoveries
— naughty delight of seeing what was intended to be hidden
— generating desire to contribute
— playful making up stories
— triggering small or groundbreaking ideas
— witnessing small miracles
— developing appreciation and love for the world around us
The person who likes to observe never feels alone; it gets you out of your own head, which is not a small feat for some of us.
Opposite from the Holmesian are preconceptions. Having a preconceived idea what a tree looks like, or a rock or a nose. So in this art all trees and all rocks and all noses look similar if not identical. This works in some genres; comic books, illustration, medieval art, and folk art. They typically communicate a clear message, but most people can admire them esthetically as well. The important point may be that good preconceived art still comes from thorough observation. The artist decides how to generalize or stylize it or even exaggerate the reality. It’s quite amazing how those deviations can be so appealing and powerful.
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Holmesian art detective
by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada
A good Holmesian artist, who truly observes and records the observations in pigment, leaves behind a rich environment for the Holmesian Art Detective — a rare beast of which there may only be one or possibly two still alive. Visualizing the clues in the finished scene can reveal the what, when, where and even why (motivation) of the creation. “You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.” I call this “Creative Scene Investigation” — CSI for short although some TV shows have taken this concept to the criminal extreme. Nobody dies in my research.
CSI can be applied to the work of any artist. Being the inventor of this approach and probably its only practitioner is an advantage. I made it all up and as long as I can support my Holmesian Theories, then it is all good. It is not black magic but merely applying the laws of science and of course meteorology. I have applied it to the recent work of my plein air friends and they suspect that I had to be lurking in the bushes as they painted. It is really “elementary” my dear artist.
The plein air work of the masterful Tom Thomson is where I started applying CSI in the 1980’s — long before the TV shows. Like in Bob’s story of the golden eagle and the turkey vulture, Tom’s “Thunderhead” was a May F2 tornado and not just a cumulonimbus. To a meteorologist it was pretty obvious and “the game was afoot.” This tornado passed one or two kilometers north of Tom’s location on an eastward path and left Tom to his July 1917 fate. Everyone wants to see a tornado before dying but not “just before” dying. Tom really loved the weather and I can prove it. He has provided lots of sleuthing opportunities for a meteorologist.
I am in the process (and have been for 20 years) of writing the CSI concepts down in book form and using the art of Tom Thomson to illustrate the principles. “Education never ends (insert your name here), Watson. It is a series of lessons, with the greatest for the last.”
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by Carla Woodcock, West Hartford, CT, USA
Back in 2011, my friend Robert Dublac wrote to your letter, which I had forwarded to him in the hopes of sharing with him a vehicle for hearing about other artists and their experiences in the art world. I never imagined he would write to you, let alone send to you such a personal lament. Robert was truly unaware of the consequences of his sincere outpouring of frustration.
Robert passed away on August 15, 2012, of non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. He was brilliant, principled, sincere, arrogant, talented, annoying and lovable… sometimes, all at once. He loved nature and animals far above humans and, I think, he tolerated me simply because he adored my dog.
Landscapes were his passion. Above all, he was a colorist. He died far too young at age 74 and through the decades of his painting career, one can see an amazing evolution into the abstract.
In his later years, he withdrew and became more isolated from the greater world around him. He was stuck and he knew it. Like all artists, he craved the energy derived from the observer.
This letter is a thank you to all of your readers who responded to him at that time. As upsetting as the negative responses were, the positive encouragement was a blessing. His name lives on with all of you who cared to communicate with a discouraged and depressed fellow artist. On May 20, 2013, the first series of 12 of Bob’s oil paintings will be auctioned off through Winter Associates in Plainville, Connecticut. Photos of his paintings should be available online at www.AuctionsAppraisers.com.
(RG note) Thank you so much, Carla. One of the joys of this letter is the wider connectivity between artists. Daily we deal in new friendships, the remaking of old connections, mutual encouragement and advice, as well as sympathy and understanding. Robert Dublac was one who joined us late in life to find there are fellow travellers like himself. We are now, and will continue to be, a brotherhood and sisterhood of individualists, a club for the shy, the outgoing, the informed, the uninformed, the student, the pro, the pleasant and the obstreperous. Bob Dublac has gone, but his work is still with us and thus his beguiling spirit.
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Serge of Honour
oil on canvas, 12 x 16 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Kelly Walker of White Rock, BC, Canada, who wrote, “Thru shades and tones of social care and guided films possess the air had acme’s wings once more take flight and straddle upward to the night. With casts and swings gave shadow fair on frosted night the cold deep air breaths the loss it seeks to find, breaths the breath of vultures vine. Stretch out I plead and writhe my eyes to see at last one more sunrise to warm this wretched thing I am this body in this mortal man.”
And also Dimitri Kalicinsky who wrote, “‘Seeing’ should be a course offered for credits in Upper schools.”
Enjoy the past comments below for The Holmesian artist…