A traditional art form has been greatly facilitated by the advent of the digital camera. The art of Miksang was begun as a meditational tool by Shambhala Buddhists, but it has implications for painters and other creative people. The idea is to find joy and awareness by attending to the minor and seemingly insignificant — the colours, patterns and textures that exist in the close-up world. Miksang is a Tibetan word that means “good eye.” Shambhalas think widespread use might lead to more compassionate and enlightened societies.
Artists have been going in this direction for centuries. Leonardo recommended seeing beauty and finding motifs in the texture of walls. You might remember several years ago I demonstrated the use of a special camera set-up, and encouraged the practice of close-up looking and capturing.
These days Buddhist instructors in several countries are handing digital cameras to kids. Children seem to take to it faster than adults and, according to some, get better results. Instructors need to be certified by the Toronto-based ” Miksang Society for Contemplative Photography.” Part of the Miksang philosophy is that subjects must be found and collected “as is” and not moved or adjusted to improve composition. Subjects can be man-made or from the natural world.
What value does Miksang have for creative folks? Obviously, Miksang makes for pause, reflection and quiet centering. By increasing awareness, one builds a feeling of wonder and kinship with the overlooked. But its real value is in seeing design and the subtlety of colour. To the discriminating eye the macro world is a minor symphony. Looking through a viewfinder and making decisions hone the ability to find the larger compositions. It’s all about the acquired skills of looking and seeing. Buddhist or not, this art can be performed at any time and any place.
Digital photography has been a bit of a shock for the formerly film-based who thought of cost every time they pressed the shutter. Digitals are essentially “free” until you do something with them. The act of capture becomes like a prayer — free for the asking. Miksang praises the world of small.
PS: “To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.” (William Blake)
Esoterica: A valuable exercise is to select a small area such as the corner of a garden, a children’s playground or even a traffic island. Any inconsequential area will do. Most digital cameras have an icon (usually a flower) that sets the camera for fast close-up focus. Take CU’s of everything you can find — from dew drops to bottle tops. Assess the design of each shot and frame accordingly. You can put hundreds into the camera in half an hour. Before you edit out your “failures,” load them into your computer and give yourself a slide show. Don’t be judgmental. Let it all dissolve by at one or two second intervals. You will be taken away, Zen-like, to a world of amazing detail, colour and design.
by Tom Frederick, Fort Collins, CO, USA
Although I’ve never heard of Miksang before, it’s amazing how closely my esthetic follows it. However one additional part of my process allows my photographic works to have an aspect of painting without the mess. I use “hand-painted light” in my work, which uses long exposures and painting the light on the subject with specialized flash lights in a darkened studio. It takes quite a while to get the hang of it, but the incredible control over light direction and intensity in localized areas is quite a trip! It allows artistic expression well above the usual photographic techniques.
by Graham Smith, Wongamine, Australia
So there’s a name for it eh Robert? I have recently been getting down on my hands and knees and taking hundreds of “macro” photos of the ground litter in the bush behind my house. Some people have thought the paintings from this exercise were abstracts until their mind flipped them into something more representational. For my part, I have been staggered at the tonal variations there can be in what seem to be very simple colours. And then there is the ballet of shapes. No need to rearrange any of them. Just look. I have called the series My Back Yard and there is enough material in that small universe to keep me enthralled forever.
Communicate with your subjects
by Kare Hellum, Edmonton, AB, Canada
As a botanical illustrator I have felt this truth of Miksang always. It has to do, for me, with being close to the earth. Today we remove ourselves from the earth and we understand it less and less as a result. But to focus on the details, as you say, to focus on colours, design and composition is pure joy. I find myself often talking to my plants as I sit down to paint. Another point is that I paint out in the forest, the meadow or wherever. This experience is fundamentally different from painting indoors or in a more comfortable situation. I sit cross legged and in total silence and the communication with the earth is strengthened by this. It helps, of course, that I have spent two years in Bhutan where I did a lot of painting.
There is 1 comment for Communicate with your subjects by Kare Hellum
Finding hidden forms
by Bev Aisbett, Victoria, Australia
I have been an advocate of Miksang (without realizing it had a name) for quite some time. I have always been fascinated by minutiae. I’m particularly drawn to photographing rocks and there are some superb forms which look like alien hieroglyphs at a particular beach on our beautiful Great Ocean Road that I never tire of visiting.
Honing your attention to detail
by Becky McMahon, Surrey, BC, Canada
You seem to be on a similar wave length to my view of the world. I frequently study the “small” world around us. There are a vast number of extremely tiny but beautiful flowers, plants, insects and patterns in general that fascinate and delight me. I have a need to know what I’m seeing so I’ve learned to observe carefully and then go back to check my references to find out what I’ve found. This attention to details makes me a bit of a pain when anyone is out with me. I’m constantly pointing things out to them. I should probably let them discover things themselves but I’ve noticed most people seem to be blind to anything that is smaller than a rose. I use this skill in making my paintings. I paint from memory and try to get the essence of what I’m painting while still have a fairly accurate representation to what I am painting. The attachment is a photo of rocks in the Ashinola River near Keremeos.
Delve deeper when painting
by Rick McClung, Atlanta, GA, USA
I’ve always felt that the intricate patterns and details of a natural subject help explain the larger story. In a sense, I think many people today master the starting of a painting and are much too satisfied with themselves as opposed to delving a little deeper in the subject. One can look at William Merritt Chase’s great works and only appreciate the beautiful loose brushwork and marvel at how spontaneous and yet descriptive it is. Here is a quote from him that should not be ignored when you attempt to capture even a first impression or try to express an idea in a thoughtful manner. “Do not imagine that I would disregard that thing that lies beneath the mask… but be sure that when the outside is rightly seen, the thing that lies under the surface will be found upon your canvas.”
by Karen Gillis Taylor, Niwot, CO, USA
A similar exercise can be employed using Photoshop to crop one’s own paintings. For years I have been zooming in to find paintings within my own painting or preliminary sketch. It is as simple as using the selection tool, copying the cropped area and pasting into a new file, effectively creating a whole new composition. This technique can also be applied to any photo or even paintings of the Masters one might wish to study. Sometimes I get overcomplicated in my compositions. I find that I have a tendency to try to capture too much in a landscape, for instance, and this technique helps train the brain in the art of simplification.
I heard a photographer say that once you have an image in your sights to photograph, zoom further in and take the shot. It will be better. That comment stuck with me as it applies to composing paintings as well. For an example, I put up a painting of a night city called The Old Country and 2 cropped versions beneath it on my homepage. I hope to paint one of these cropped images as a lesson to myself.
Capturing vs. creating a moment
by Vita , Sutton, QC, Canada
Cameras that capture the moment are giving us the impression to own it. The immediate gratification from the digital technology is one thing; it is something else to conceive and represent images in compositions which deliver true aspects of humanity and unadulterated philosophic principles.
I will never forget a sketch I saw many decades ago. It was a wife describing a vacation in different American states. After recalling multiple places, monuments and landscapes, the interviewer turned to her husband asking which kind of site had impressed him the most. He said: “I will never forget that postcard we sent to Johnny. It was a beautiful sunset over the canyons… it looked just like the real thing.” Also, when Leonardo suggested that stains on a wall may present us with sublime art, he meant that some of us can see it and some don’t. This leaves us to believe that when the artist presents his or her visions they are creating a “stained” wall for almost all to see.
by Gail Griffiths, Ocean, NJ, USA
Throughout my life I have always been one to live in the intricate details around me. As a child and even older, I enjoyed my time spent lying in the grass looking at all the passageways therein. Bugs, the colors, designs and housings, amazing in what those little creatures have to offer. I learned through the years how to look, I had never been formally educated in photography. My Dad taught me how to use a camera and my brother taught me about the darkroom. I thought for years, innocently, as a young girl, “If I only tried harder, I could get closer.” One day my Dad mentioned Macro Lenses. Recently, I got a new real macro lens for my Canon digital camera. I am back into my little girl world again.
by Lorraine Khachatourians, Saskatoon, SK, Canada
I have done this for years without knowing it. I have always loved getting up close to objects in the landscape. I used to photo them with a 35mm, but since getting a digital, I do it even more. I always seem to be nose to nose with things that catch my eye. This has given me a great idea for a series of paintings, now that there is a unifying idea behind it. I just thought it was my scientific bent — I worked in the sciences until I took early retirement. Since I discovered that I could paint what I see, I have been looking even more closely. Thank you for expanding my knowledge, and giving me another direction to explore.
Overcoming fears with observation
by Nicole Lavoie, Pontiac, QC, Canada
Interesting, I have been working in this frame of mind for the last few months, not being aware of the Miksang philosophy. I had an episode last year with my cat being infested with fleas, which of course affected me physically and psychologically. I studied the physical aspect, the habits and lifespan of this tiny ogre. A few months after that episode, I felt compelled to express that situation in my paintings… and the fleas came back, but this time with a positive aspect to them. I was using them as opposed as being used. I ended up creating a series of paintings with the fleas in mind.
Centering kids and teens
by Carole Ann Borges, Knoxville, TN, USA
I can hardly wait until the sun comes up so I can change the settings on my camera to the “little flower” setting, get barefoot, and then race into my garden. We are so programmed to move fast in this world. We seldom see the small or appreciate the patterns in things. The way the monks use the camera as a tool for meditation is so timely and unique. I have also discovered when teaching what a gift and a tool the camera can be. I always had plenty of throw-away cameras to offer to my slow learners and to the teenagers in my class who had been deemed too hostile or apathetic to remain in a regular school setting. Now when I’m riding around town with my friends, I point out that the Buddhists are right, seeing what is around you up close can center you.
The microcosm/macrocosm paradox
by Lynda Lehmann, NY, USA
I have been practicing micro vision for a long time, but didn’t know there was a name for it or a Buddhist association with it. I’ve been looking at things this way, I think, since I received a “real” microscope for my 12th birthday! I remember being fascinated by visions of colorful diatoms and the configurations of amoebae in junior high biology classes. Even when the cost of film impinged on my freedom to take as many photos as I desired, I still shot many glimpses into the microcosm. I have been fascinated, always, by the microcosm/macrocosm paradox, and the way the universe moves through levels of each, with the awareness of each level being both a macro and a micro universe to those above and below it. A favorite book of mine is The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, by Lewis Thomas, MD, because he addresses the phenomenon of similarities of organization and function within and among different levels of nature.
The joy I find in looking at things this way has fed my sense of wonder and aesthetic sensibility, as well as given a lot of range to my choice of subject matter. Perhaps my early introduction to micro vision is why I tend to move into abstraction at every turn, and find it more interesting than traditional scenes. “Scenes” are temporary; form is eternal. As for texture, isn’t it the most enduring and ubiquitous underpinning of form? Texture is certainly a calming, meditative and appealing world for both the eye and mind.
Value in the ‘good eye’
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA
The artist’s job is to observe the world. Particularly what they see everyday. But, this could, or should be, everyone’s “job.” To observe the everyday world beyond simply recognizing and identifying what is seen. There is a huge difference between noticing something and seeing it. Unfortunately, our educational system does not encourage careful observation. Sadly, this also applies for much of art education as well. Generally, we are encouraged to identify and label things, and learn facts about them, but not how to pay attention much beyond naming and knowing. These aspects are important and have their place, but when careful observation is not taught, we are developing a population that is half-blind and thus disconnected from the world. And the visual world in particular.
It is believed that up to 2/3 of the information we receive from the world around us comes through the sense of sight. It only follows then that if we develop our observational skills, we will see the world more accurately and more completely. Careful attention to the appearance of the everyday gradually helps everything look more actual, and thus, more real. This in turn connects us more directly with the physical and visual world around us. I believe that most of the world’s problems are caused by our disconnectedness from what is around us. We see and treat the world as a “thing,” and not as a phenomenal, ever-changing experience that we are related to. In a sense, we are living within a vast composition, and we are participants and observers of this amazing creation. But it doesn’t become amazing, or seem actual, until we see it. A “good eye” is acquired.
Purple cliffs of home
acrylic painting by Cath Sheard, Patea, New Zealand
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 Ann Heckel of Lambertville, NJ, USA who wrote, “My wonderment never ceases. With that wonderment comes the desire to share. By sharing we can make the bigger macro world a better place.”
And also Paul Kane of Bloomington, IN, USA who wrote, “I love photography, but for me, it has nothing to do with painting.”
And also Moncy Barbour of Lynchburg, VA, USA who wrote, “It is no wonder that children take to the art form of Miksang so fast. They have an innate wonder and an innocent fresh mind. They are the hope and future of art forms that we now can not even imagine.”
And also Adele Hustis of North Bend, OR, USA who wrote, “I do needle felting and your description of Miksang articulates what I do as I felt. I take roving and needle it into window screen for stability then add color upon color. Then I look at the felt and discover what is there and needle it so everyone can see it.”
And also Carolyn Millard of Canada who wrote, “The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, especially the chapter Imagination and Rejuvenation is valuable in regard to the theories of Miksang.”
And also Susan Tait of Pender Island, BC, Canada who wrote, “A Miksang of mine is a very close up shot of the marbling on a martini glass (that I painted). Some people think it’s clearly a Space Shot.”
And also Margaret Griffin who wrotem “I think there has always been an element of miksang in my photography, even though I’m not usually working in macro modes.”
And also Helena Tiainen of Berkeley, CA, USA who wrote. “Isn’t it fascinating how patterns and forms repeat themselves in the micro and macro designs of the universe?”
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