Johns Hopkins Magazine - September 1996 Issue

The Painter's Eye

By Dale Keiger
Art is about paying attention.
--Laurie Anderson

Years ago, artist Gahan Wilson published a cartoon of a painter working outdoors, in an idyllic glen full of wildflowers, fawns, bunnies, and butterflies. The painter's canvas, set on an easel in the cartoon's foreground, is covered with a hideous montage of oozing sores and other images of suppuration. His face turned toward the viewer, the painter pauses, brush uplifted, and with a malignant look says, "I paint what I see."

Wilson was spoofing his artistic brethren, but what distinguishes painters from non-painters is more than the desire and ability to apply paint to canvas. Painters do see things that other people do not, both in the surrounding world and on the canvas before them.

Rockwell Kent ventures to Greenland, looks at an ice formation, and sees a shape so compelling that when he executes his painting Artist in Greenland, he rearranges reality to repeat it at least five times throughout the composition: in an arrangement of sled dogs in the foreground, in other, smaller ice formations scattered about the scene, in the tiny figure of himself standing next to his easel. In the classic painting Nighthawks, Edward Hopper looks at an all-night diner, then produces a composition full of tension; the diner's lighted interior invites us to stay, while the trapezoidal lines of its facade urge us to keep walking down a dark and deserted urban street. Vincent Van Gogh looks at a starry sky and sees a swirling maelstrom of emotion that transforms the heavens.

In Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, art teacher and author Betty Edwards says, "Contrary to popular opinion, manual skill is not a primary factor in drawing...when you see in the special way in which experienced artists see, then you can draw." In The Painter's Eye, Maurice Grosser puts it succinctly: "The painter draws with his eyes, not with his hands."

If the art is in the seeing, what is it the painter sees? More to the point, what does the painter see that the non-artist does not? We posed these questions to a small collection of Hopkins painters and people who have spent many years studying painting. Though the artistic process is not easily articulated--painter Larry Stearns '65 noted, "When you ask a centipede how he walks, he begins to fall all over himself"--our respondents gamely tried to analyze the difference between everyday vision and the painter's eye.

Do painters literally see things that the majority of us could not? That is, are the eyes of a good painter unusually sensitive to light, color, or form? Two painters who, coincidentally, both earned degrees in philosophy from Hopkins before moving on to artistic careers, think not. The aforementioned Stearns paints large representational works, mostly of men or groups of men, out of a studio in Philadelphia. He also executes murals and decorative faux finishes. He says, "Though everyone sees things differently, I don't think painters have any more visual acuity than anyone else." Raoul Middleman '55, a Baltimore-based painter of landscapes, portraits, still lifes, and large allegorical works he calls "narratives," agrees with Stearns, but states his position with more vehemence: "I don't like the idea that we're physically different. I don't want to be some damned freak."

Two men who have taught art at Hopkins are convinced there are physical differences. Eugene Leake, former director of the Maryland Institute College of Art and founder of the Hopkins Homewood Art Workshops, says, "I think painters probably have an eye more sensitive to value and color than the normal eye."

Leake's successor as director of the Workshops, Craig Hankin, has changed his opinion over the years. "I used to think that everybody's eyes took in the same thing," he says. "Now I think there may be a sensory predisposition. This comes out of teaching students here and seeing what some of them bring to the table. Some kids have a built-in ability to see tonal structure, to see three dimensions and make that happen in two dimensions through tones and values. Over 15 years I've seen this again and again."

Then, still addressing the question of visual acuity, Hankin shifts the conversation to new ground. "This ability indicates a different way of thinking about things," he says. "I don't know if it's a visual thing, or cognitive."

Visual or cognitive? Regardless of whether painters' eyes take in more sensory stimuli, painters are attentive to visual detail in specific, painterly ways. They possess visual mindfulness. Think of it like this: Everyone looks; painters see. There's a distinct artistic mental process that accompanies the sensory process. Gertrude Stein once asked Henri Matisse if he looked at the tomato he was eating in a special, artistic way. Replied Matisse, "No, when I eat a tomato I look at it the way anyone else would. But when I paint a tomato, then I see it differently."

Arnold Lehman '66 spent some of his younger days trying to be a painter ("I didn't have it. I didn't have the compulsion."). Now he is director of the Baltimore Museum of Art. He says, "I think artists are able to understand the nuances of color, and of color-to-color, more than we can. They are very sensitive to how light affects color, to whether it is absorbed or bounces off a surface."

The trained painter learns to disengage from preconceptions. Over an al fresco lunch in Baltimore, Leake demonstrates. He points to a distant grove of trees and says, "An untrained eye paints what it knows, not what it sees. Kids and untrained painters would paint those trees as green, because everybody knows trees are green. But if you take a piece of paper and punch a hole in it and isolate that section of the landscape, you'll find it isn't as dark green as you thought. It's lighter, and grayer."

Writing Seminars professor Mark Strand, who studied painting at Yale before turning to poetry, observes that, "When I look at something, I'm thinking, What color is that...really? What kind of marks would approximate what I'm seeing?"

Painters must be mindful of a great deal more than color. They are attentive to shape and proportion, the edges of compositional elements, the shape of the space around and between objects. Again, it's a matter of seeing what's there, not what one thinks should be there.

"If you could, you'd take your students and hang them by their heels so they could see things without preconceived notions," says Stearns, who taught for 14 years at the Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts. "People bring their emotional responses to drawing. When drawing faces, for example, they tend to make eyes too big and foreheads too small, because eyes have more emotional importance."

Are the edges, what Stearns calls "how one thing becomes another," sharp or fuzzy? Do two objects seem to be right next to each other, creating one type of edge, or does one overlap the other? A painter has to see the difference.

Then there's the matter of figure and ground. Look at a coffee mug. You see the mug itself--that's the figure. But there's also the shape of the space around the mug, a shape created by it, called the ground or the "negative space." Most of us pay little attention to this second sort of space, but a painter must. Hankin has noticed that his Asian students at Hopkins have an easier time grasping this concept than do his Western students. He's learned that the Japanese even have a word for it--kagay-- that commonly means "shadow" but also refers to "the space between objects."

"Some kids early on have a heightened perception of negative space," he says. "They have an innate ability to simultaneously see the forest and the trees, to see the individual components and the whole composition. Once students grab hold of the concept, their drawing immediately improves."

Artists are alert for visual elements that can be used later. "You have an appetite for what will be useful for yourself," says Strand. "Non-painters are more casual in their looking. The painter is thinking about his next painting." Strand makes small collages, some inspired by landscapes and composed of bands of colors that fascinate him. Looking through a recent issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine, he pauses to examine a full-page illustration. Running his finger over areas of purple and red, he says, "These are nice." Then, grinning at his visitor, who happens to be the author of the piece that accompanies the illustration, he says, "Maybe after I've read this I'll cut these out and use them."

Stearns's paintings, though representational, do not employ realistic colors. He says he likes to apply paint to paper palettes, just playing with color, alert for pleasing combinations. When he finds a combination he likes, he tears off the sheet of paper and tacks it to the wall of his studio, saving it for later use in one of his paintings; for him, it's a sort of pictorial note-taking. For a painting, after he's executed the basic drawing on the canvas, he'll select from these "notes" on the wall a combination he wants to work with, then begin coloring the composition.

"Painters and writers both hope for lucky accidents," Strand says. "Of course, good painters and writers create their accidents for themselves."

At some point in the painter's creative process, a new sort of vision comes into play. The pictorial potential of the canvas intrudes on the visual reality of the scene. Says Strand, "The canvas takes over. The canvas wants to assume its own reality very quickly. The world is changed in favor of what's going on in the picture. Making art is not reproducing nature--it's making art. I distrust whatever I see anyway. What I see is merely a starting place. I'm not interested in accuracy. I'm interested in the production of visual pleasure."

Says Stearns, "There's a point at which you stop looking at the subject and focus your attention on what's happening on the canvas. It's a captivating challenge to make a unified thing that is at the same time not static."

"It's a triple vision," Middleman says. "There's what you see around you, what you see happening on the canvas, and what's happening inside you."

He tells a story about a portrait he did of his fellow Baltimorean painter, Grace Hartigan. Hartigan's work tends to be full of vibrant color, and so does her wardrobe, so when he prepared for her sitting, Middleman says, he got out all the paints in his studio. When Hartigan showed up, she was dressed in black and white. "I got you, didn't I?" she said. Middleman painted her in the colors of her outfit, but made the background mostly a vivid red. It was only later, on viewing the painting, that he realized he'd included a few jagged yellow lines that suggest lightning, or an electric charge emanating from Hartigan's head. Obviously, the lines were not something that Middleman saw when he looked at his subject. They exist only in the pictorial reality of the canvas. Middleman thinks about this for a moment and makes a new three-part list of what the painter sees: "How things are, how I see them, and how they don't exist until I see them."

As if responding to Middleman's last point, Lehman says, "I think that's especially true of abstract painters, whose discernment is such that they can create whole universes that they see, but none of the rest of us see until that completed canvas is in front of us."

Strand notes that all painting begins with a fascination not for how an object or person or landscape looks, but purely for the making of art: "You don't paint because of what you see outside the window. You paint because of what you've seen in other paintings." And the study of other paintings imparts a visual vocabulary that painters share. Says Stearns, "It's an endless reappropriation of visual metaphors that have been used time and time again."

Adds Hankin, "When I see a great painting, it makes me want to go home and paint."

You don't have to be a painter to learn how to see like one. Nor does it follow that learning to see like a painter will make you want to become one. Another aspect of the painter's vision is an emotional reaction to what he or she sees, what Hankin alludes to when he talks about wanting to go home and paint because of something he's seen. Hankin noticed this about himself when he was a kid: "I remember looking around at my friends. We'd be watching a Popeye cartoon, and I'd have to grab a piece of paper and draw. They wouldn't. I always responded to visual things. Certain shades of blue would make me get a box of Crayolas and draw. It was a visceral response."

Get Middleman talking about light, and he'll describe it in terms of his emotional reactions: "When the late afternoon light hits Boston, it's like...corrosive, like acid eating away at the walls. But in Baltimore, it's a warm light on the bricks at 5 p.m."

Stearns says, "I find myself not only emotionally moved, but challenged. I look at something and I think, How would I mix that color?" He notes that color affects everyone, citing as an example the calming effect that bubblegum pink walls seem to have on prisoners in police station holding cells. But he's convinced that color affects painters to a greater degree. "There is a compulsive aspect to painting," he says. "This includes looking at things in a compulsive way to understand how color works. I think some folks like myself have a brain chemistry that drives them to paint."

Hankin just nods. After years of studying the masters and working on his own paintings, he says, "There's something that happened in Matisse's head that set him apart from everybody else. You may never figure out the why of it."

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