One of the most important skills in visual arts and in fact all walks of life is the ability to observe. It’s a skill that is often overlooked, but one that can help build our mental library, whether we’re taking photographs, drawing, writing or developing a business.
As humans we don’t just see things as they appear. We add meaning to them. This can make it really tough to observe something objectively, but it’s an essential skill in separating truth from interpretation. When learning how to draw from observation for example, you try to draw what you see. The difficulty is seeing the object and its surroundings as a collection of lines, shapes and shades?(objective observation) rather than seeing an apple sitting on a table in a room (subjective or interpretive observation).
Our brain has a tendency to try to predict what something should look like rather than what you’re actually seeing. If you’re looking at an arm coming towards you, you might try to draw more of the arm than you can actually see because your brain is interpreting an arm rather than a collection of lines and shapes.
What does it mean to us? How does it make us feel? This is subjective observation. Different people interpret things differently. Red might mean danger to one person, but good luck to another.
All of this is a long way of saying, go out of your way to consciously notice things. How does something look, sound, smell, taste and feel? How does it make you feel?
An Observational habit
Spend 5 minutes a day observing something.
It could be with your eyes, like an object. It could be a piece of music. It could be the taste of food. As you observe, write down what you notice. Describe in words your observations, both objective and subjective. This could be paragraphs, bullet points or mind maps. The method is up to you.
Doing this every day will help develop our observational muscles. The more consistently we do this exercise, the stronger our observational skills will develop. It also gives us more material to work with when we’re being creative.
Go and notice something.