The wonderful contemporary artist Quang Ho opened my eyes recently to what he terms an artist’s three levels of seeing. If I understand him correctly, the first is based on our beliefs of accepted characteristics of our subjects (“A face has eyes, nose, mouth, and ears; an apple is red”). This is exemplified in, but not limited to, a child’s early drawings, in which, though proportionately skewed, with simplistically shaped features, the subject is still provided the key formulaic elements. Although these “truths” are incomplete and therefore often inaccurate for depicting specific subjects, this level is identifiable by our fear of diverging from our understanding and belief of “what is.” Because of this, we paint the surface characteristics we have come to accept, without looking for a greater, more specific truth.
In the second level we see variations from our original assumptions. We base our revised assumptions on informed observations, which are interpreted by our understanding of artistic “rules” and our perceptions of natural laws. (“Atmospheric perspective dictates that colors become cooler and lighter as they recede.”) These observations and perceptions may or may not be complete or accurate for all situations. But they allow us to make certain judgments that may break away from the original mode. We actively seek out differences and compare our observations against what we have been taught to expect. Yet at this second level, even with thorough technical mastery of the medium, we often still rely on, and stubbornly cling to, our revised understanding of “what is.”
The third level transcends this to the point of our slipping “into the Zone,” being able to imagine the whole of a composition before its execution, visualizing possibilities beyond what our eyes perceive, and allowing an artistic concept or mood to transcend the subject. At this level the artist is freed to either apply or ignore observational assumptions and perceptions of “what is” and experiences a fearless freedom to play, experiment, and vary from the literal. This is where innovation lives, creativity thrives, and individual vision becomes apparent.
Third-level seeing is what separates top-grade artists from the rest of the pack. While often designed using characteristics and idioms of first level seeing, cartoon art, such as Une Petite Fleur (above) by Carol Mertz, often illustrates an artist’s inner vision by transcending the seeming simplicity of the drawn subjects to express a greater message. Simplification and use of the first-level idiom focuses on the message of the art and makes it easily understood by any reader/viewer. In Une Petite Fleur, the simplicity of the line drawings, and the subtlety of differences between the weekly images, contribute greatly to the poignancy of the messages.
But I leave cartooning to my daughter. Watercolor is the vehicle that moves me toward that third level of seeing. Once in “the Zone” I don’t have to concentrate so hard on the mechanics. Here I tend to lose track of time and conscious thought, and can let the freedom flow. It isn’t an easy level to reach, requiring both considerable confidence and competence in the medium. And the changes come gradually.
I haven’t entirely or consistently achieved that third level of visualization in my representational painting.
Perhaps more than any other painting medium, well-executed watercolor is demanding and requires considerable pre-planning. But this medium carries me along, begs me to play, and challenges me to find the answers to “how.” Acknowledging the need to find “how” is humbling (perhaps because it suggests incomplete mastery), but it drives my continuing exploration and pursuit of understanding. This realization reaffirms that it’s time for me to come back home to watercolor.
With increasing mastery will come increased confidence to step beyond the familiar to paint as only my mind can visualize. Thorough mastery ensures greater freedom of expression, to reach for that ultimate level of seeing and of composing that inner visualization in an entirely different mode. At this level, even representational work transcends a literal interpretation. This is the level of artistic mastery I am striving for.
I hope you’ll stay with me as I pursue it through 2017.