A Guide for Collectors on How to See Your Paintings

If you are a collector who lives with paintings on your walls you may have noticed a problem with your artworks. After a while, you stop seeing them. Once when they first joined you they almost called out to you by name..."LOOK at me"...and you did. But the dust of familiarity gradually settles over your works and strangely, they become harder to see.

Fortunately there's help.

Artists' main job is to see more and deeper than everyone else. We practice. There are tools in an artist's box that might not occur to the average person. These are things I do in my studio all the time to help me see more clearly- some I was taught and other tricks I stumbled upon in my years of making paintings, Anyone, artist or just an art lover, can benefit. Here goes with a short list.

Stand Back

Above is an early oil painting by Rembrandt titled An Artist in his Studio. The artist has painted himself standing easily a dozen feet back from his work in progress. I have a rule in my studio- I have to paint standing up. My second rule is that if I've got a cup of coffee or a snack it has to be on the table at the far end of the room. This forces to look at the paintings from a greater distance and it helps me see the larger shapes and overall relationships of the chords of colors. Try looking at your art collection from as physically far away as possible. You'll discover different things in each piece. One of my favorite tricks is to go outside at night and peek in my own windows at the art (try not to alarm your neighbors while doing this).


The problem is we need to see less, not more. Practice squinting your eyes until they're half shut and the world is slightly out of focus. Details drop away in favor of large masses of shape and color. Trust me, in that oil above by Rembrandt, the artist is squinting at his painting. (How do you think Rembrandt got his marvelous crow's feet in his older self portraits?).

Keep Moving

Think of how as a child you struggled learn to read and write. While you were doing that good and necessary work, you were also unlearning the natural way of seeing you were born with. In reading your eyes had to focus in on at first letters and then words. That meant turning off the natural tendency of our eyes to scan the whole visual field. 

I have a bird feeder in my front yard (it's my TV). When little birds approach the feeder they don't first fly right to it. Rather they alight on the top most branches of the tree that holds the feeder and look in all directions for the dreaded neighborhood cat Isabella. That urge to look over the whole scene is what keeps them alive. It's an impulse we need to rediscover in ourselves when we look at a painting. Keep you eyes moving like those of a nervous little bird.

Love the Darkness

More light isn't better light. Try looking at your art works in the half light of twilight. They seem simpler, essentialized, and moodier. One of my favorite things to do is sit in my rocking chair in late afternoon in the studio and watch my paintings as they fade into darkness. 

Gaze in the Mirror

There is nothing like a good mirror to add light and life to a room. We have mirrors decorating most of our house. But the real reason is it gives me a chance to catch glimpses of my paintings in the mirrors' reflections. The art always looks better, and different, in the mirror than it does in real life. Don't trust me- try it. The mirror reverses the image, of course, and that means your trained-how-to-read eyes will be scanning the image in a differnent direction as they begin looking at the artwork. And the mirror pushes all the tones darker, slightly polarizing the paintings into a group of the darker tones contrasting the group of the lighter tones. 

There are other tricks of the trade. One is to put  really good frames on your paintings. Here are two oils I just got back from my framers this afternoon.  They're both headed up to Vermont tomorrow to the Edgewater Gallery in Middlebury. First is Blue Mountain, oil on panel, 7 x 10 1/2", 2011.

And here's Mountain: Rust II, oil on panel, 10 x 15", 2011.

Frames were  designed almost like a moat around a medieval castle. They wall off the special world of the painting from the ordinary and the everyday. As your eye passes over the frame it signals your brain that you're entering a different kind of space where the imagination will drift to new, unexpected places. If the art you own now is hanging in a scratched and drab frame, spring for an new and more elegant frame. I myself use mahaogy frames custom made for each painting. The exact hue of the wood is carefully chosen to complement what's going on in the picture. Whenever I see my work newly framed it's as if I'm seeng it for the first time. More than once adding a new frame provoked my eye to see something that could be changed in the painting to push it up to a higher level.

One last thing, and this sounds like it's aimed just at artists but I challenge anyone owning art to try it. Do a drawng of one of your paintings. Even if you're inexperienced at drawing, it will be a revelation. I guarantee if you do even a modest drawing of one of your paintings you will discover a half dozen features in the artwork you've never seen before. Many of them will become the things you love most about it.

Painting is so much about color and the richness of the pigment and brushstrokes. It's easy to get stuck seeing just those things. Below is the vine charcoal drawng I did that I used as a guide for the two oils above.  At times in my studio when I felt I couldn't see a painting I was working on clearly anymore I've taken out my sketchbook and done a serious drawng of the painting. As I draw I see it only for the shapes and tones of dark and light. It spotlights ways I could create a more surprising composition or change the focus of the painting. 


  1. timely post... i had to contact a friend to look at a painting I am working on at the moment and said 'i can't see anymore... can you tell me what's what'... great tips for helping get back to the essentials and i must try seeing like a bird:)

  2. You mentioned distance and I would add to that this idea: try putting your painting in a different room from where you normally work. Different lighting, different objects around it and maybe even a different wall color all help to shake up your mind a bit. Plus, you get a little exercise moving everythiing around:)

    I am visiting by way of Stapleton Kearn's blog. I enjoyed your post on Hopper and Fairfield Porter (who was new to me). I am really interested in Porter and would like to drill down a bit to see what is going on. Any thoughts that you might want to share? Nothing lengthy(!) but any observations that you have would be appreciated. Thanks again.

  3. rahina, I find seeing what one is doing on a canvas remains a challenge decade after decade. On the best days a natural engegement coexists with a calm detachment within us and we can really paint like angels. But of course other times we all have to fall back to our favorite tricks and tools. Whatever works...

    I wonder if birds did paint what style they'd prefer.

  4. Libby, yes your suggestion is golden. That's one of the reasons I enjoy showing my paintings in art galleries. Whenever I have a show I learn A LOT that I wouldn't have seen readily back in my studio. It makes it worth all the packing and shipping for that alone.

    Funny you mention my Fairfield Porter blog as I'm just returned from Middlebury, VT where I was painting. While there I saw the Porter show at the Middlebury College Museum of Art. I have always thougth Porter was a very talented but also very uneven painter. We all are uneven of course, but Porter especially so. Well, this particular exhibt I fear was not his best work at all with a single exception (see how opinionated I secretly can be). My wife and I were quite disapointed.

    Porter at his best celebrated the quick insight and invented wonderful shorthand moves to describe the world. But those same traits can turn around and bite him, resulting in slapdash solutions. In general I think he often just ran out of steam too early in his weaker cavases. If nothing else, I think the public deserves that we really try to see things through to their best possible completion. That takes guts and endurance to go along with insight and inspiration.

  5. Philip-
    Thanks so much for the response. That seems a shame about the exhibit but I could see how that could happen. I guess things depend on the curator and the artist along with numerous other variables thrown in for good measure.

    As a final thought, I read some information about Porter written by a contemporary (though deceased) painter named Charles Sovek. I liked Sovek's paintings and enjoyed his comments about Porter as well.

    Thanks again!


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