Learning to See Things Accurately / by Jeannine Cook

Saturday was one of those days when it was so misty at one point that one could hardly see anything across the marshes at Dunham Farms, Midway, Georgia. Within a couple of hours, however, it was brilliant sunshine and the world was transformed. It all made one stretch as an artist working outdoors!

I thought of a remark that Michael Gormley had written about the artist, Bo Barlett, in an American Artist article in the March-April 2011 issue. He reported about Barlett that, "Like many other artists, he notes that looking and learning to see things for what they really are (my emphasis), rather than seeing a projection of a preconceived mental concept, is key to the development of a visual language."

Barlett's observation is so true for all of us as artists. I found that as I peered through the mist to try and see accurately, it became a series of surprises. What I saw first, in the scene above (Edge of the Creek, Dunham Farms, graphite), were indistinguishable silhouetted lines of distant horizons. I looked harder, and finally began to see individual small islands and different trees edging the marshes.

The same thing later occurred when I wanted to draw the wood storks perched on a dead tree on a distant island. The birds moved constantly, the wind riffled the palmettos and their fronds were a maze of lines and ever-moving shapes. It was a real challenge even to make any sense of the scene, let alone create a drawing. (At left, Dunham Farms, Midway - wood storks, graphite.)

Another effort of intent observation, later in the day when the sun allowed one to see better in the forest, was trying to follow the myriad lines and patterns in a magnificent old dead live oak tree trunk. Time had distilled the upright trunk to rhythmic sinews, an endless maze of movement. Its patterns and rhythms fascinated me, but I found it really challenging to sit and concentrate on following its ways whilst trying to create a sensible drawing. (At right, Live Oak Rhythms, Prismacolor).

Every time that I go out to work plein air, I am reminded of how difficult it actually is to look really hard and see things accurately. It is a siren call to assume one knows what is going on in the scene in front of one. It is so much easier to think one knows. Only when I remind myself to look again and again, with my eyes really open, do I discover that Nature is once again liable to fool one. In other words, a facile, preconceived "visual language" would not necessarily be an accurate one that reflects one's artistic voice.