Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Seeing without Interpreting

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) 'Wing of a Blue Roller'
 (watercolor and gouache)
When Chuck Hagner was in college in Freiburg, Germany, he took a course on the Renaissance that taught him how to see. The professor had selected a group of paintings in nearby museums and assigned a different one to each student. The task he gave them was simple: to describe the painting.

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.


Steve said...

Interesting post -- and reminder to truly see. Thank you.

Hagner's "Practice Seeing" contribution to the "50 Tips" book is #40. It's worth noting that #39, by renowned guidebook illustrator David Sibley, is "Learn by Drawing."

On a side note, my life has been greatly enriched by my friendship with Macklin Smith who, at various times, has had the largest list of birds seen in the lower 48 states, Alaska, and Canada.

Eugene Arenhaus said...

The artist must learn to see without personal interpretation affecting them, or else the picture they make will be distorted. But then they must learn to interpret again what they had seen without interpretation, or else the picture they make will be a dead copy.

So to learn to truly interpret, you must first unlearn to interpret. How zen. :D

Tom Hart said...

It's interesting that one of the first things that came to my mind was that this describes what I see as the difference between an artist and an art historian. IMHO, an artist, when successful, has the tendency, either through training or natural inclination (or both), to put down what he sees, not what he "knows" about the subject. The art historian, on the other hand, tends to relegate the physicality of the object to a secondary status - sometimes almost an afterthought, second to a discussion of symbols, context and "meaning".

Miguel Ruivo said...

Ohh man this hits me up on soo many levels..have to get that book and do birdwatching more often! Thanks Jim!

James Gurney said...

Eugene, that's a really good point. Hagner explains that the step of pure observation is followed by interpretation, either by the original observer or by someone who reads his or her notes. In the case of an artist doing a painting, you're right: it's the interpretation that takes it to the next level. In the case of a doctor listening to a patient's symptoms, the diagnosis follows, but it has to follow a moment of open listening.

Steve, I had a feeling you owned this book. I can't wait to read the rest of it, including Sibley's chapter.

James Gurney said...

Tom, well said. I thought of art historians and art critics, too. When they're good, they give meaningful context and connections. When they're really good, they open your eyes to see the painting empirically on its own terms. That's why I like John Updike's writing on art--he's a good observer and a good writer first and foremost.

Ruivo, it's just a tiny paperback, but it's full of gold, the best advice from the best birders.

Lou said...

Having the opportunity to watch several very accomplished landscape artists work plein air over the last eight or nine years I've concluded most have moved well beyond observation and very much into interpretation. Until I came to that realization it was a bit bewildering ('Why is he painting that mountain THAT color?').
Perhaps a small sign hanging from the easel "what you see isn't necessarily what you get."

Sesco said...

Maybe I'm saying the same thing as the posts above, but for me to understand what he's saying I feel I have to 'interpret' his meaning by my understanding: On one extreme is a photo-realist painter. To me this person is a technician, a really good one. All other painters who strive for realism but never accomplish photo-realism are technicians. Their eyes 'see' visual data and their brains are able to 'interpret' that data to create a perfect 2D copy of what they are seeing. At the point where a painter 'intends' to accept his limitations and allow for something less than photo-realism, there may be an interpretation. But an Artist, not a technician, has an intention of interpretation. There is an imagination being used to intentionally move away from photo-realism. So, to me, technicians and artists can learn to see, but one learns to see in a way that does not require imagination, but the connection between what he sees and what he paints is just that, a connection, but not an interpretation; I believe every artist with an intention to interpret has a unique imagination that allows for a unique interpretation, even if that artist wishes to paint, for example, in the impressionistic style of interpretation or the cubistic style of interpretation. How much variance would there be in the paintings of a still life by a series of photo-realistic painters sitting in the same spot with the same light source, as opposed to the variance of the same still life by a series of Artists each with an intent to interpret what they 'see'?

David Webb said...

James, I've been fortunate enough to have two directions in art. I spent my first 25 years of work as an illustrator of natural history subjects, which requires a certain detachment from leaning towards any personal interpretation... 'just the facts'.
Around the time of the Millenium though, I made a decision to break away from illustration and explore a looser approach, specialising in pure watercolour. This wasn't entirely a matter of choice, as the gaps between my illustration jobs began to get longer and longer. This was partly down to new technology and digital photography gradually replacing a lot of illustration. Some of it was the advent of the internet making large books redundant. My work these days is much more of my own personal take on what I'm painting. However, I value the earlier experiences of illustration and I'm glad I also had a chance to have a crack at a looser, more free, style.

Tom Hart said...

Inspired by Sesco's and David Webb's insights, I'm thinking about the differences between intentional interpretation and unintentional interpretation. For the latter, I think of children's drawings, which I find endlessly fascinating. (As an example, the typical early child portraits that show stick-like arms emerging from the head.)To me both types of interpretation are - or at least can be - fascinating, if for different reasons.

A Colonel of Truth said...

Structural Differential --> a seeing machine. And, try looking at a lemon (bathed in natural, red, or blue light) and not "see" yellow.

Bobby La said...

A term I picked up on the UK show QI was JIZZ or more properly GISS. It's a term thought to come from the second world war where citizens were expected to identify invading aircraft. GISS for General Impression of Size and Shape. It's a term that has since been adopted by birders (twitchers) and even ecologists and botanists.


James Gurney said...

Thanks, Bobby/Ross. I like the term GISS and hereby adopt it in my lexicon.

Colonel, nothing better for really seeing color than taking a bright colored object, wrapping it in colored cellophane or sheer fabric, and lighting it with a colored light. All mental constructs go out the window.

About the other discussion, I may have added confusion by using the word "interpretation," which means something different to artists (ie a personal statement) than it does to scientists (ie an identification). I believe what Mr. Hagner is talking about is more like "naming," "classifying" or "cataloguing."

So you see a flash of red and black and white in the forest and you think: Wow, I just saw an ivory billed woodpecker! That's an interpretation. But what you must start with in your notebook is something more descriptive and less conclusive.

Delfos said...

There is a book of french philosopher Gilles Deleuze (I don't know if it is in english) about perception, and structure analysis in painting. I have to be honest, I haven't read it (yet) but my drawing teacher really likes it and there's a lot of interesting thoughts about the painting process from an outsider perspective.
It takes specifical painters and their ouvre to build philosphycal concepts.
In a very interesting way it postulates a conflict between inner structure and the "chaos" that comes from the natural world. For example, Abstract expressionism would be chaos prevailing over structure.

Anyway, interesting suff.

A Colonel of Truth said...

James, I once spray painted some lemons bright blue and included them in a still life. The consistent question from folks seeing the painting: Why are the lemons blue? Shape dominating color. As we well know is the case when identifying most any old thing. And then there's context; another discussion. Anyway, great post. Interesting stuff.

Bobby La said...

Cheers James. GISS should enter every artists lexicon. As a bit of an amateur twitcher (I lose myself in the local birdlife), another one I use for the myriad of diminutive, largely non-descript, brown forest dwellers here is SBJ's or Small Brown Jobs. Most of my failed paintings fall into that category too.....

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