Jusepe de Ribera, Etching of an Eye (1622).
Have you noticed that the longer you work on a drawing or painting the more difficult it becomes to see your errors? There are many reasons for this, from your eye tiring of the scene, to confirmation bias. If you are a beginning student it may also be that you cannot quite see accurately just yet. Whatever the reasons, we all need help in order to see our errors. To that end, R. H. Ives Gammell thought it essential to have a fresh guy with fresh eye.*
Of course, unless you are studying at an atelier, that guy’s fresh eye might be as error-prone as is yours. All is not lost, however, as there are many things that you can do to freshen your own.
Philip Alexius de László using a hand mirror while painting (1934).
The Mirror is your Teacher
Short of a fresh eye from a fresh guy, your best source for seeing anew is a mirror. I previously wrote about this here, but the concept is worth repeating. To summarize that article, there are three ways to make use of a mirror.
1. Stand in your viewing position, reverse your orientation, and look into a hand mirror from that vantage point. Doing so reverses the setup and as such it is perceived differently. This can be a bit tricky, however, because you need to properly align yourself after you turn around. To most effectively do this, while looking at the setup normally choose a dimension on your source that you can precisely determine. Then, after rotating around and while looking through the mirror, align your position so that the reversed dimension is identical to your control dimension.
The image on the left is the cast as seen normally. This image on the right is the cast as seen reflected in a mirror
My control dimension is between the side of the right nostril and the side of the cast.
Based upon that dimension in the reflected image, I am standing too far to the right while looking into the mirror.
2. Stand in your viewing position and hold the mirror across your eyebrows. Then, look up into the mirror at a tilt from which you can see your setup. This orientation flips the setup upside down, which again is different from what your eye is tired of.
3. The final way of using a mirror is not unlike version 1. The difference is that you mount a large mirror on the back wall of your studio, or on a set of wheels. Either way, these options allow you to reverse the image of the setup without having to hold the mirror yourself.
Jusepe de Ribera, Etching of an Eye (1622).
Rest your Eye
It is likely that all representational artists have had the experience of coming back to the studio after a few days away only to see glaring errors that they had not previously noticed. This is a common experience and it highlights a problem. The longer we look at our source, the more our perception dulls. What’s more, it can happen in as little as fifteen minutes!
Also an issue is that at times the longer you stare at something the less you will see. Why? Because our brain does its best to take shortcuts in order to conserve computing power. Relative to our topic, the primary shortcut is confirmation bias. After you make a decision (and not just in the visual realm), it is easier for your brain to accept that decision as fact than it is to question it. In other words, your brain believes that what you have drawn has to be correct precisely because you just drew it! While it is a bit more complex than this, the main takeaway here is that taking frequent breaks can disrupt that bias.
It is also a good plan every now and then to go away and have a little relaxation; for when you come back to the work your judgement will be sure, since to remain constantly at work will cause you to lose the power of judgement.
Leonardo da Vinci
Beyond taking intentional breaks, many artists keep multiple projects going at the same time. That way, when their eye or mind fatigues they can keep painting by switching to a different one.
These two images look almost identical, but they are not.
When drawing or painting in Sight-Size (where your artwork is visually in a one-to-one comparison with your subject) you have a perfect opportunity to use your brain’s short term visual memory to find errors. This opportunity is called flicking and the complete story is here.
The basic process is as follows:
- Stand in your viewing position and close one eye.
- While looking at your subject, focus on whatever area you question.
- Now, quickly flick your eye back and forth between that area on your subject and the same area on your drawing or painting.
Your brain, very briefly, stores what your eye sees. As you look at something else, the new image replaces what was previously stored. The neat thing is, when the two images are similar, and yet not exact, the switch between them produces a visual jump or blink. This aberration indicates an error in your artwork.
The differences are more easily noticed by quickly flicking your eye between the two images.
Above is a simulation of what your brain perceives when you do this.
Accurate visual perception is rarely achieved through tunnel-like focus. Rather, your brain determines your perception based upon the full field of vision. This is why comparing relationships is such a big part of Sight-Size.
During a critique, one of my teachers, Richard Lack, drew a diagram on the paper above on the outer edge of my cast drawing. Through it he explained the ways in which I could look at the cast and my drawing. Beyond the obvious, which is directly at it, I could also look at an imaginary point just above the cast and at a corresponding imaginary point just above my drawing.
As I was intermittently focusing on those two points, I was to pay attention to my near peripheral vision. In other words, focus above the cast but look at the cast, and focus above the drawing but look at the drawing. This technique forces you to see the whole (the big-look) and therefore alerts you to any aspect of your work which is more prominent than what is directly seen in nature.
To look away, alternately focus on the green dots and at the same time pay attention to the shapes on the cast and drawing.
Unfortunately, the green dots in the diagram make this more difficult to do. They are there simply for explanation.
The hunters in some Native American tribes looked for game (or the enemy) by staring out and blurring their vision. By eliminating their focus, their ability to perceive movement was enhanced. This is especially helpful when the field of view is complex, as it is when deep in the forest. Splatter vision is the term used for this kind of seeing.
While it is true that artists are not looking for movement, they are looking for errors. Much like the previous suggestion about looking away, splatter vision helps you to see errors in context. It differs from looking away, however, in that you are trying to perceive both your drawing and the object at once in your entire field of view.
Throwing your eyes out of focus (splattering your vision) can take some concerted effort. If you are nearsighted you may be able to simply remove your glasses, though this only works well if your eyes are not too bad.
One way to blur your eye to the scene is to focus on your thumb.
For some, a better way to splatter is to focus on your thumb. You do this by closing one eye and holding your thumb up, visually between your drawing and the object being drawn. As you focus on your thumb, direct your attention to both the object and your drawing at the same time.
You probably triangulate when you draw, and you should, because the process forces you to determine the position of each part of a shape based upon the position of the other parts. At times, however, you can become so focused on the shape in question that you neglect how it relates to the others on the object or in the scene.
The grey, vertical line is a known, as are the intersections of the cast with the line (points 1 and 2).
The unknown (point 3) is found by determining the angles to it from both 1 and 2. 3 is where they intersect.
When seeking a fresh eye through triangulation, pay particular attention to the relationships between the small aspects of the object to the larger aspects of the object. As an example, on your drawing you may have properly aligned the side of the nostril to the tip of the nose. But, is it also properly aligned to the corner of the mouth, to the bottom of the ear, to the corner of the eye, etc.?
François Le Moyne, a figure drawing (1720–1725). The red lines indicate where visual follow through might take place.
Imagine throwing a ball to a friend. As you do, notice the arc that the ball takes through the air. Now, imagine someone else running in and catching the ball somewhere in mid arc. The ball’s arc, between when it left your hand and where the interloper caught it, is like a line in a drawing. The catch, is like a direction change in a drawing.
But what if the ball was not intercepted? Your partner might have caught it and therefore the arc would have continued.
A similar thing applies to drawing. What if the line in question did not end at a direction change, but continued on? What would that line eventually align to or stop at? To draw accurately, the answers in nature need to apply to your drawing as well.
In the article, A Missing Clavicle and an Educated Eye, I write about the fact that what you intellectually know about your subject often influences your perception of it. This can be detrimental if your goal is to accurately draw or paint what you see.
One solution to gain a fresh eye and mitigate the effects of foreknowledge is to pay attention to the negative shapes.
The shape of the object you are drawing is called a positive shape, the negative shape is basically the shape the object creates on the background. Seeing negative shapes takes a little mental gymnastics because you have to be aware of what you are paying attention to.
This is the Rubins Vase Illusion. Do you see two faces, or a vase?
The faces are the negative shape(s) and the vase is the positive shape.
Use a Black Mirror
A black mirror is a small sheet of glass or reflective plastic which is either black throughout or simply blackened on the back side. In past times this was called a Claude Glass, after the seventeenth-century landscape painter, Claude Lorrain. Oftentimes these mirrors were slightly convex but it is more common nowadays to use ones which are flat.
The image seen in a black mirror has a reduced tonal and color range as compared to the direct view of the scene. This can help you to more simply see whether your attempt at value and color relationships matches that of nature.
A cast drawing setup as seen through a reducing glass.
Distance forces you to see the big-look and doing so can reveal certain shape, value, color, and edge errors.
Be aware, however, that as you retreat from your viewing position you are also changing your view. This change is primarily in height and it is progressive, meaning that the farther back you go the more you will be looking up at your scene. Unfortunately, the view of your artwork will remain mostly unchanged as it is on a 2-dimensional plane. Therefore, be careful of putting too much faith in the shapes you see from a distance.
If you do not have the space to travel back from your viewing position, you can use a reducing glass instead. A reducing glass is a curved lens which visually reduces what you see through it. It is the opposite of a magnifying glass. However, because of the curvature of the lens there can be some shape distortion, especially near the edges.
Similar to the problems in the last suggestion, some of the techniques to gaining a fresh eye can themselves introduce errors into your perception. This may also be true when you actually have access to a fresh guy’s fresh eye. To both mitigate that potential and to help train your eye, once you find an error (or are told about one) ALWAYS look for it from your exact viewing position and when closing one eye.
I’ve created a free summary poster of the material in this article for you to print out and tape to your easel or studio wall. If you would like a copy, subscribe to the site here!
*A hat tip goes out to Tom Dunlay for reminding me of Gammell’s phrase. Speaking of Tom, I hear that he has a couple of spaces open for his Maine Workshop 2016. It is being held at Wooster Farm, which was the summer home of legendary Boston painter, Frank Benson.