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Look. No, really look.

Claude Monet – Poplars on the Epte. Trees and clouds or the visual experience of trees and clouds?

How to look

As visual artists, we do a lot of looking. This is because our excitement and engagement with what we see is a primary driver for our image making, it’s both our source and to some extent our fuel.

Looking and seeing are not always the same thing, one sounds active and the other passive, one could be empty whilst the other implies understanding, one to do with the eyes the other to do with the soul.

Where looking is entirely objective it can describe the raw visual experience, devoid of meaning. We might choose to do this because we want our viewer to engage their own visual cortex and experience the meaning event within themselves rather than have it served up for them.

Seeing involves cognition, so in one sense it’s more complicated as it carries with it meaning and memory. Consciously or unconsciously most of our work will carry the freight of our past lives and who we are. What we personally ‘see’ is coloured by the filter of previous experience and arguably our biological inheritance and it is always unique to us.

In practice looking and seeing are a mashup, all interconnected, a series of multi-level processes that we may or may not be aware of.

What we can be aware of is that the very act of looking is worthy of our quiet attention.


Before we start a drawing or a painting, make the space to just look and observe what the eye is drawn to. Allow it to linger and explore. Be aware of any response within the self to what is seen; any feelings, memories, thoughts and ideas that surface. These are all raw material which can be drawn on.

Pausing, being still and observing, it is possible to allow the more obvious responses to subside, the clichés to reveal themselves and for the fresh and new and real to come to light.

You might say that this is more than seeing, it may even be insight.