The art of observation

The art of observation

Whenever I am out and about, walking or driving, I think: What is that colour, the land is looking interesting…The farmer has just cut that field, it’s silver...what is that colour, why does it look like that? Is it because, as Kandinsky said, no colour lives in isolation.. How would I mix that colour?
— Donna Crook

The art of observation detailed by the abstract impressionist artist, Donna Crook, reveals how artists attend to visual nuances, that non-artists surpass.

It can be a humbling experience to listen to an artist describe what they see.  They are investigators of the ordinary. The street and everything on it, is a living being to be observed**.   The familiar becomes unfamiliar.  The old, new again.

Comparatively, non-artists are sleepwalkers on the sidewalk.  Their gaze, glancing - frivolously considering objects.   Their mind, simply easing it’s cognitive load, reserving mental resources for the stimuli of immediate and vital importance.  

Artists also make connections between seemingly unconnected elements. They use an inner vision, unique to them, often re-exploring the same theme throughout their lifetime.  This allows them to see fresh things in a familiar subject as they tap back into the different sensory spheres to pick up on details, undiscovered to the non-artist.


Is this way of seeing a mystical gift bestowed on a chosen few, or can it be learned? 

Now the heavier stuff... Certain psychological differences have been found, however these findings are by no means conclusive.

A Psychology study by Vogt, illustrates how the eye patterns of artists are different from those of a non artist as eye movements of Psychology students were compared with those of art students whilst they viewed a series of 16 images.  Whilst non artists honed in on the objects themselves, artists’ eyes scanned the entire picture.  This suggests that artists take in the colours and contours of a scene, whilst non artists turn images into concepts. 

One small study, published in the journal NeuroImage looked at the brain scans of 21 art students and 23 non-artists using a scanning method known as voxel-based morphometry— a type of neuroimaging tuned for the focal differences in white and grey matter — as well as drawing exercises to examine the brain’s response when practicing art.  

They found there to be a greater neural matter among visual artists who are better at drawing, in areas related to fine motor movements and procedural memory.   This enables artists to manipulate, combine and deconstruct visual images.

However, as with most individual differences, the brain is incredibly flexible in response to training, and environmental upbringing also plays a crucial role in an artist’s unique ability to see the world.  This way of seeing can be learnt.  Non-artists must decide to remove the invisibility cloak and restrictions imposed by pre-conceptions of what they will see.  Time must be spent to truly acknowledge everything in site, scanning the entire picture for the novel details.  A simple walk down your street can become a refreshingly richer experience.