What Do We See?


Last winter, when I was half-way finished with a charcoal drawing, my grandmother came for a visit.  She watched as I knelt on the floor (I never have gotten used to using an easel) diligently turning my fingers a lovely black, and asked me what it was I was drawing.  I showed her the photograph I was working from.

“That is beautiful,” She said.  “I would like to have it when you are done.”

At the time, I personally thought it was ugly, but I was glad she liked it.

Last week my grandmother came for another visit and my drawing was behind glass, ready to go home with her, but when I showed it to her she said:

“that isn’t the one you were working on last time I was here.  Where is the lady you were working on?”

My grandmother has very good sight, she can read normal sized print without glasses, but when I showed her a picture of a toad she saw a picture of a lady with long dark hair.

* * *

Several years ago my Dad asked me to do a drawing on a thank you card, he let me choose the subject.  When I was finished, he looked at it for a moment.

“Is it a fox?”  He asked.

“No.”  I said, in surprise.  “It is a pair of silos, with trees around them.”

* * *

My first pastel painting was of an old tower with a little vine covered house in front of it.  When I proudly showed it to my sister she said:

“I like that you put the smoke from the  chimney in the picture.”

I looked at it, puzzled.

“Oh!”  I said.  “That isn’t smoke that is a crack in the side of the tower.”

But as I looked at it I realized that it really did look more like smoke than a crack, I just had not been able to see it that way, because I knew it was supposed to be a crack.

* * *

Our eyes play tricks on us.  Not that it is our eye’s fault, we see the wrong thing because we expect the wrong thing.  It is really our minds which are tricking us.  My grandmother did not expect me to be drawing anything so ugly as a toad, my Dad had no idea that I was very fond of silos, and I could not imagine how my drawing of a crack which lined up exactly with a chimney, would strike someone who had not seen the original.

An important part of learning to draw is learning to ignore what we think we already know.  If we think that a face is a circle with two dots for eyes and a thin curve for a mouth then we will be unable to see that the face before us is actually rather square than circular.  But this tendency to blind ourselves is not confined to drawing.  How many times has someone misheard your name, simply because they were expecting something different?  It happens to me all the time, and sometimes, I do it too.

Knowledge can obscure our understanding as well as illuminate it.  And if this happens when trying to grasp tangible things, like drawings, how much more should we expect it to cloud our understanding when thinking about abstract, intangible things?

What do we not see?