One day my painting teacher entered the studio, picked up a chair, and placed it in the middle of the room. We all stood at our easels with brushes in hand, waiting for her to put something on the chair. Maybe a vase full of flowers, or some fruit for a still life? Would there be a live model for a figure painting lesson?
But she didn't put anything on the chair.
She then addressed the class, "This is our subject matter for the day. But whatever you do, don't paint a chair!"
"Don't paint a chair?" someone asked, "I don't get it. Why did you put it there? You said it was our subject matter."
To which she replied, "This is your subject matter. But if you think to yourself 'I'm painting a chair,' you're going to start painting your idea of what a chair is. It's unavoidable. You'll paint your mind's version of a chair... a flat seat with four legs and a back rest."
"Umm, okay," said the student, "So what should I do?"
"First, you should observe your subject very closely," she said. "In fact, you should spend at least twice as much time observing as you do painting. Find all the shadows and areas of light. Discover the odd angles and empty spaces between things. Locate all of the hard edges and soft transitions."
"Most beginning painters only glance at their subject matter from time to time, and then spend comparatively large amounts of time painting from that momentary flash. Unless you have a photographic memory, it is impossible to paint or draw anything realistically with so little information."
"That makes sense, I guess," admitted the student.
The teacher went on, "Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, you must realize that in fact your eye doesn't see a chair at all. Your eye only sees light that is reflected off of the surfaces in front of you. It sees colors and shapes."
"So don't paint a chair, paint colors and shapes. Paint roundness, flatness, textures, and form. Take the bounty of information that your eye is giving you and translate it onto your canvas."
There's a scene in the movie The Matrix where Keanu Reeves' character Neo suddenly sees the true nature of the world around him, realizing that it is all a computer simulation. Buildings, streets and people all become a collection of 1s and 0s before his eyes.
That's how I felt after hearing her explanation. I suddenly realized that what I see is just a combination of abstract colors and shapes, and that my mind quickly filters it all into something I can understand.
It's useful to do that. If you're in the jungle and you see a tiger, you don't want to spend a lot of time analyzing the colors, shadows and shapes... you want to recognize that you see a tiger, and you should probably run away or grab your spear. Quick.
But if you are an artist who desires to paint or draw realistically, this survival instinct is constantly working against you. Your mind's amazing ability to recognize objects, places, and people in an instant causes you to dismiss all of the nuances. And it's the subtle nuances that make a drawing or painting realistic.
At this time I must warn you. Once you see beyond the Matrix, there's no going back.
As you train yourself to see with all of the actual power of your eyes, you will become infinitely more observant. Objects that you used to quickly glance over will become an immeasurable wealth of visual information.
And yes, it can be dangerous. I have on more than one occasion walked into a parked car while gazing up at a towering cumulous cloud, wondering how I would layer the paint to achieve a realistic depiction of it.
It can also be time consuming. I am constantly running late, as I spend hours analyzing the glowing translucence of a madrone leaf in the autumn sun.
But I wouldn't ever want to go back. For all of the problems it may cause, being hyper observant, as all realist artists are, is an incredible gift. You will find delight in every day sights that most people will never even notice. A sunset will make you literally weep with joy.
So don't be afraid. Pick up a brush, or a pencil, or a piece of charcoal. Put a chair on the floor in front of you, take a deep breath and begin.
But whatever you do, don't paint a chair!