Written by Catherine Harlow
Edited by Kathryn Cooperman
Featured Image by Catherine Harlow (Untitled Rhododendron Sketch, pencil on paper, 2020)
For as long as I can remember, I have always taken note of the little things around me. Anything I see can become an object to study. What kinds of shadows does glass cast? What pattern can I see in the reflections in a mug? How do a plant’s branches twist and turn? How does light pass through petals? What colors do I see in various fabrics? How do they fold and drape? How would I mix those colors in paint and how would I paint those folds? Regardless of whether or not I actually pick up a brush or a pencil, those are the kinds of thoughts and questions I have and ask myself whenever I look at almost anything.
I have long believed that my observation skills help make me a much better artist. What I am re-realizing after almost a year of quarantine is that my penchant to look at everything as a possible art subject also helps me to have a positive mindset throughout my daily life. I recently realized this after a tiny incident with soap bubbles.
Cleaning up the dishes after dinner one day, I remarked to my housemate, “Look at how pretty the bubbles are!” She stopped what she was doing to look at the bubbles and agreed that they were beautiful. But the thing she said next surprised me. She told me she would have never noticed that on her own and wished she could be like me and notice all the beautiful tiny things that I do. It stuck out to me because from my perspective, how could I not notice how lovely the pinks, blues, purples, and greens were swirling around in the cute little bubbles?
While I do have a natural inclination to observe everything around me, that inclination has also been trained into a permanent habit by my art classes and artistic practices. Considering that, I think it is absolutely possible for anyone to train themselves to be more positive. I am sure there are lots of methods to do so, but based on my own experiences, I would say that training your artistic eye is a great route to take.
Here is a suggested primer to help you get started.
1. Pick up a pencil and paper.
2. Find a relatively simple object to draw. I would recommend an apple, or another fruit. Once you have figured out what you want to draw, take a few minutes to draw what you think it looks like, but without actually looking at it.
3. Set that aside and get a fresh piece of paper.
4. Now put your apple or other object of choice in front of you. Take longer on this drawing, and do your best to really observe it. Do your best to draw what you actually see, not what you think you should see. Tip: Set up a light source to create some dramatic lighting on your object. Having a more pronounced difference in the light and shadows will help you see the shapes, volumes, and angles of the object more easily.
5. However your drawing turns out, it does not matter. While the previous steps are a common exercise in drawing classes, what matters here is the process of looking. By attempting to draw what you see, you are training yourself in how to look.
6. I believe that people do not notice the beautiful, intriguing, tiny things around them because they are not actually looking. When you start practicing drawing, you really have to start by learning how to see things as they are.
7. Remember what it felt like to observe your object as you tried to draw it. Remember how you noticed more details the longer you looked. Remember how if you changed your viewing angle it changed how the object looked (and consequently how accurate or not your drawing seemed).
8. Challenge yourself to study one object per day in your surroundings by intently looking at it for one to three minutes. If you think attempting to draw it would help (spoiler alert: it would, but do whatever is manageable for you), spend longer to observe and draw it. Spending about five to ten minutes should be enough time for drawing.
I believe that the more often you intentionally spend time closely observing your surroundings, the more often you will naturally start looking, and the more often you will see the beauty that is around you. You will likely also discover that beauty takes many unexpected forms as well. The most important thing to remember, which you learn as you hone your artistic eye, is that there is nothing that is too small or trivial to notice or appreciate.