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.
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?).
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.