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The tyranny of optics

A photo of the retina – the white blob is where the optic nerve attaches, it’s called the blind spot.

One of the advantages of having bright and fleshy beings in the studio again is that casual conversations about drawing and painting emerge of themselves, surprising us and reminding us of the strong forces we wrestle with when describing our world.

One recurrent theme is around how we see. As visual artists this is more important to us perhaps than to many: freedom from the idea that our perceptual system works like a camera can be a breathy liberation.

So lets say it, your eye is not a camera, very far from it. Yes, there is a lens which projects onto the back of the eye but as soon as the retina gets involved the magic begins.

The retina is low resolution except for a hot spot in the middle. What you see with clarity is an area about the size of your thumbnail at arms length. Everything else is mush. If you don’t believe me hold your arm out now and whilst focusing on your thumb try and experience the level of detail in what surrounds it. Not much there, is there? There is even a blind spot of which we are blithely unaware.

The optic nerve, the string that attaches the eye to the brain is actually made of brain. It triages the information being received by the eye and only passes what it deems worthy of consideration, chiefly things that move or things that are new.

Our visual experience is a tableau orchestrated by our mind’s eye, cunningly arranged to convince us that we are in a highly rendered three dimensional space filled with things. This is an illusion, it is a trick consciousness plays on us, for good Darwinian reasons. At the visual level at the very least, we create our own reality.

One aspect of the trick, which can be infuriating for us artists, is that as soon as a ‘thing’ is recognised, a hieroglyph is issued rather than the full richness of visual experience. The brain can work faster with this visual word, which keeps the illusion running smoothly.

If the eye recognises a banana, the optic nerve sends its hieroglyph of a banana, enough for the minds eye to work with but pretty much useless for the observational artist. For us, to really see a banana we have to stop, focus, be intrigued and explore. We have to convince our mind that this is not just an archetypical banana but a particular banana, an exquisite and unique banana.

Traditionally and in practice, artists have learned to draw the many ‘things’ that fill the creation. We refine our inner hieroglyphics. Your visual shorthand for an ear is a useful expedient when your drawing is more interested in gesture or narrative. But when learning to draw the ear then acute observation is the thing.

Understanding a little of how perception works is not only fascinating but opens up interesting questions for artists. If it is the case that the mind’s eye has a talent for filling in the gaps, do we need to describe everything we see? Could we supply a series of visual cues instead of slavishly rendering what we appear to see? Is this why images which have a more broken presentation can be more engaging?

Whilst we are surrounded by photographic imagery we can be forgiven for thinking that this is how perception works; after all, we’re just following the science of optics. Then, with a little curiosity, we discover that there is more and deeper science which tells a different story and our whole world changes. The camera never lies and yet, when we appropriate its very particular form of ‘seeing’ for our own, it becomes the most outrageous of misrepresentations, defensible with logic and yet fundamentally a misunderstanding.

The propensity to question everything, including certainties like what we see, is a powerful tool for an artist or indeed, any awakened human being.