Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) 'Wing of a Blue Roller'
(watercolor and gouache)
But there was a catch. They were not allowed to interpret what they saw. Hagner recalls:
"When we wrote our descriptions, we weren't allowed to name movements, styles, or schools or to try to place the paintings in cultural or historical contexts. We couldn't repeat significant events from the artists' lives or relate stories about the people and places shown in the works. We were forbidden to explain the meaning of symbols, or even to suggest that objects represented in the paintings were symbols."The students would be marked down if they included any such extrinsic details. They couldn't even name names unless the artist wrote them in the painting.
Hagner was assigned to The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb by Hans Holbein the Younger. His description of it catalogued the grisly details of the corpse of the bearded, nearly naked man with sallow skin. He had to forgo all allusions to Easter and the Crucifixion. He had to dispense with recollections of oratorios and catechisms, and of other paintings he had seen or books he had read.
Hagner recalled this story as advice for birdwatchers. Especially when they're seeing something unusual, birders must report their observations accurately, uncolored by the assumptions and errors that inevitably come with interpretation.
The advice is equally valuable for artists seeking to paint what they see. Doing so requires the ability to see colors without naming them and to evaluate shapes without being influenced by mental images.
Chuck Hagner went on to become a leader in the world of birding. He's the editor of BirdWatching magazine. His chapter called "Practice Seeing" is included in the book Good Birders Don't Wear White: 50 Tips from North America's Top Birders.