An Artist's Eye - almost finished!

Seeing With An Artist’s Eye – Aren’t We The Lucky Ones?!

The other day my sweetheart Cam said to me, “Come sit here. I want you to see the sunlight on the tablecloth and how vibrant it looks.” Then he paused and said, “But I guess you see that all the time.” And I sat and I looked and I said, “Yes, yes I do.” And I asked him why he called me over to look and he said, “Because I’d never consciously seen that scene before.” And this really got me thinking about how lucky we are as artists to see with an artist’s eye. We really do see the world differently and in so doing, experience it differently too. And we tend to do it all unconsciously

We often forget that we see differently because, well, it’s just normal for us. We’re visually sensitive to the world around us in a way that’s unique to artists. Rather than simply seeing objects, we see colours and shapes, pattern and repetition, relationships and connections.

We delight in the way a glass of water distorts what’s behind it. We revel at the colour bouncing from the red petunias onto the white wall behind them. We exclaim at how purple the road suddenly appears. We count the number of colours we see in the white of the snow. We study the delicacy of a lacy backlit curtain. We notice the repeated patterns made by light and shadows.

We “see” what others don’t and we’re open always to the possibilities for a painting. We take time to observe with full attention. We’re curious about and want to understand how to portray something – we look at angles, colour relationships, and light/dark relativity. We investigate with an artist’s eye.

This is why an artist can create a beautiful painting from something usually seen as ugly like a jumble of garbage bins, or something as mundane as laundry on a line.

Everybody marvels at and is affected by a glorious sunset at the beach but the eyes of an artist will search further, trying to determine the colour and lightness of the sky reflected in the sea, or the way the sky itself graduates in colour from blue through orange, or how the cloud is coloured with pink, mauve, and beige. When something catches our eye, we’re usually thinking, How can I paint that? 

Let me take you through an example.

With COVID-19 shutting down the gym, many of us went online to keep dancing together. One day, I observed one of the dancers putting up her hair in preparation to dance. I loved the shape her arms made against the turquoise wall and also how her shirt echoed the colour. It was a painting waiting to happen and I snapped a screenshot. I couldn’t wait to interpret it in pastel!

First I did a couple of thumbnails to work out the value decisions, the format, and the design. (I’m not going to include the reference to protect Shiela’s privacy.)

An Artist's Eye" Thumbnail 1. This looks the closer of the two to the original photo.
Thumbnail 1 – in pencil. This looks the closer of the two to the original photo.
An Artist's Eye: Thumbnail 2 - square format. This focuses attention on why I'm wishing to paint this subject.
Thumbnail 2 – square format. This focuses attention on why I’m wishing to paint this subject.
Drawing up the piece in vine charcoal on UART 280 paper, 6 x 6 in
Drawing up the piece in vine charcoal on UART 280 paper, 6 x 6 in
An Artist's Eye: First later colours - Red for the darks, warm green for the middle value, and a light orange colour for the light areas.
First layer colours – Red for the darks, warm green for the middle value, and a light orange colour for the light areas.
The first layer as seen in black and white. Compare it to the thumbnail.
The first layer as seen in black and white. Compare it to the thumbnail.
Beginning to build up the pastel layers. I've barely shown an indication of a face.
Beginning to build up the pastel layers. I’ve barely shown an indication of a face.
After MUCH fiddle fuddling (so tiny on the 6 x 6 in piece of paper!), I got down what I thought would work as a face!
After MUCH fiddle faddling (so tiny on the 6 x 6 in piece of paper!), I got down what I thought would work as a face!
I put attention on the arms - both their positioning and also how they related to the shirt.
I put attention on the arms – both their positioning and also how they related to the shirt.
An Artist's Eye: Done (I think!). Gail Sibley, "Shiela Ready To Dance," Unison Colour pastels on UART 280 paper, 6 x 6 in.
Done (I think!). Gail Sibley, “Shiela Ready To Dance,” Unison Colour pastels on UART 280 paper, 6 x 6 in. (Photo taken with my iPad. I’ll need to replace it with a DSLR photo eventually..)
And because you know me, have a look at it in black and white.
And because you know me, have a look at it in black and white.
And here are the Unison Colour pastels I used - divided into the three value areas.
And here are the Unison Colour pastels I used – divided into the three value areas.

The world is an extraordinary place and as artists, we interpret and reinterpret what we see. Our art reflects back our unique vision of the world. In this way, those who don’t see the world with an artist’s eye may also have a similar encounter and often with what may be an unexpected awareness of something beyond the ordinary. 

Most people look but it takes an artist’s eye to “see”. And developing that eye and that ability to see the world as an artist can enrich your life. In seeing, you’re fully in the present moment, connected in a deep way to what you are seeing. 

Spend time with non-artists and share with them what you are seeing. Show them how to pause and look to see so much more than a named object.

As visual artists, we’re incredibly lucky. I feel so grateful to have the gift of an artist’s eye!

What about you? Do you look at the world with an artist’s eye? If you’re an artist, what are some of the odd or unexpected subjects you’ve painted (or photographed)? I’d LOVE to hear from you so please do leave a comment!

Until next time!

~ Gail

PS. To see a full video with voiceover of this piece (hearing my thoughts and seeing my process), then join us in the IGNITE! art-making membership – an awesome monthly programme where you’ll learn how to perfect your painting skills and develop into a confident, fearless, and roaringly successful artist! We only open the doors twice a year so join the Waitlist to be the first to know when it’s time to join!!

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36 thoughts on “Seeing With An Artist’s Eye – Aren’t We The Lucky Ones?!”

  1. Thank you! I never thought of myself as an artist, but I’m a notoriously “slow looker.” Some members of our family are fine with that, others not so much.

    I have noticed EVERYTHING you list, and even reflected light from a knife in the sink onto the coffee cup. I never put the cameras away and shoot photos of “everyday life” everyday.

    I think I am blessed to look at things the way I do but I never thought if it as artist eyes. I so enjoy your blog. Please, never stop!

    1. Thank you for your ever so sweet response to my blogs Yvonne. With encouragement like yours, I’ll keeeeeep going 😀

      I love the example you gave about the reflected light. It’s those details that thrill us when we notice them that most people don’t ever see.

  2. Hi Gail really enjoyed this post. It deals with the subject that is constantly on my mind how I am conditioned to see and comprehend in comparison to an artist. You have been a great help in trying to improve my ability and it has added much to life in general. Many thanks. Sandy

    1. Ahhhh Sandy, I do admit that as I was writing this post I was thinking of you. I know how you’ve said in the past to me how I’ve helped you to “see” so much more so I thank you for leaving a comment about it. It does make me happy that I’ve helped open your eyes so to speak 😀

  3. Yes! This artist’s eye viewing really distracts me when driving. I see so many shapes, patterns, values, hues. I have to stop it so I can drive safely. Nice painting. Reminds me to simplify.

    1. Hah hah. I hear yah Marsha. As much as I enjoy driving, I do like being a passenger so I can relax and take it allllllll in!!
      Glad the painting is a reminder to simplify 😀

  4. Love your friend getting ready to dance!! So simple yet we know that she is getting ready to do something!! I love the folds in her shirt emphasizing how her arms are positioned. Lovely and loose!

    1. So good that you can see this Ruth and I’m glad you mentioned the folds because I spent time observing how they reflected the action and the ways to include that in my painting.

  5. Hi Gail, I really like this. I’m a beginner and I’m fascinated that you have a blue background and a blue top, yet they seem quite distinct. I would have made a mess of that. Is the underpainting the key?

    1. Hi Lilla, those two repeated blues were definitely part of why I was attached to do this image as a painting. So the underpainting colours certainly make a difference PLUS they are different VALUES. You can see this in the thumbnail and again in the black and white version of the final painting. I’m happy you noticed the similarity of colour and also their distinctness in the piece 😀

  6. So helpful and interesting for me…a pastel student trying to improve and loosen up in my paintings. I love the fact that I can relate to the way an artist sees the world from your description so I’m encouraged to continue. Thankyou Gail

    1. That’s wonderful to hear Carolyn! I think that as soon as a person has the urge to respond in paint or pastel to what they’re looking at, then they are seeing the world in a different way to regular non-artmaking folk. As we progress along out art journey from the beginner stages, we learn how to look more and more deeply and develop our artist’s eye to see even more. So definitely keep going!!

  7. I drive my friends and family nuts when I rhapsody about what I see and they don’t! But I do love to explain it and even teach them . And they appreciate it, although there are those who think I’m nuts! I am thankful to God for the ability to see this beauty, so I try to show and explain to others.

    In high school, my mom and I were driving home from shopping. and I was blown away at the sudden scene before me. The sun was behind us, very dark storm clouds in front, the wheat field ahead was pure gold and the grey bark of trees a glorious silver against the deep deep grey of the clouds. I was blown away by the brilliant contrast, and my mom saw it too! The next day, my best friend said she and her mom passed us and she asked why we had stopped. I said, “Didn’t you see the glorious scene in front of you?!” She said, “What scene?” Deflate!

    I learned as I got older to understand how the human brain works and to appreciate the differences and individuality of all of us. And we can all learn from each other.

    Thank you for your blogs!


    1. Katie, thank you so much for sharing your own experience with seeing. And LOVE that your Mum saw the scene as well. I chuckled when you said you drive friend nuts but I’m delighted to hear that they are open to you showing them why you are rhapsodizing and that they then understand. So cool!

      I actually edited out a passage I’d written about something similar so I thought I’d add mine to yours.

      I have another friend who always marvels at what I see. She sees a woman reading a book in a cafe. My friend can’t understand why I think she’s a great subject for a painting. So I share what I see: A young woman is deeply immersed in what she’s reading. I smile at the way she twists her hair and bites her lip as she studies. I see the reflection of her white coffee mug gleaming in the polished wood table. I notice the way her red shirt reflects a rosy colour underneath her chin. I point out the interesting contour her shadow makes against the wall. So much loveliness!

      Thanks again Katie!

  8. Dear Gail, you are so right! I have always had this ‘sight’, though my inability sometimes to express what I see can be frustrating. I remember the feeling from childhood . As my skill has developed I fail less often but it still happens, and it’s so easy to be discouraged. But, oh, the joy when it works!
    One of my greatest pleasures has been the effect on my friends who stop to see what I’m looking at. They become more aware of the beauty around them, they take ‘arty’ photos and they even start to paint. It’s like they suddenly open their eyes. It’s so life enhancing. Everybody should paint!

    1. Yes! Needing to stop, and pause, and look, and then see in order to sketch or paint allows us to see so much so you’re right about everyone should be an artist!
      I love that you share your observations with your friends. Sounds like they are certainly the richer for it!! And it’s true, I think, that their eyes have indeed been opened!

  9. I’ve always seen things that others don’t notice, or notice things differently. I never put it together with the artist’s eye, I just figured I was hyper-aware.
    Just last week I was out with friends for our weekly ‘Pint Night’ and my friend’s beer was glorious with color. Snapped a shot of it. Maybe one of these days I’ll paint it.
    I do look at objects and landscapes with a thumbnail eye now, assessing even faces with a nod to value. Thanks for sharing your process and this story. The iPhone helps enormously – so convenient, and most always with me.

    1. Liz, I like to call it the Artist’s Eye although there maybe other names for it. I think though that as visual artists, we are always seeing and thinking about how to capture what we’re seeing. I’ll keep an eye out for the beer!

      LOVE that you are also using the Thumbnail Eye 😀 Yay!!!!

      And you are so right about the iPhone – such a ubiquitous and handy accessory!So convenient. What did we do before?!

  10. Thank you for your beautiful prose, Gail and equally beautiful artistic sharing! I love your naming of one of the gifts of the visual artist – to see deeply. Brings to mind the William Blake quote:
    “To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour…” And a powerful mindfulness practice too. Thanks for the reminder to deepen into what is already there waiting to be discovered! 🙂


    1. And Julia, thank you for your beautiful words and the oh-so-perfect Blake quote! You captured the nub, so particularly, of what artists do – “see deeply.” And yes, taking time to really see is a mindfulness practice – love that you’ve pointed that out!

      In the name of clarity and focus, I ended up editing out the part I wrote about your influence on this blog post topic but happily, you’ve given me the opportunity to share it!

      My friend Julia Menard was saying to me the other day that she’d done a sketch of the sea and rocks while on a wee getaway. She used to love art in school but had hardly done any art-making since then. She talked about the incredible feeling of connection with the landscape she’d had as she paused, looked, and deeply observed the landscape. (Julia’s active creative talent is her writing which really shines through in her blog. Check out her recent ‘discoveries’ about Lilies here.)

  11. Hi Gail! I have enjoyed so very much hearing from you and learning more about using color. I also really appreciate being introduced to new wonderful artists I have never heard of before. My “artistic world” has been greatly expanded in many ways by your terrific blogs. Thank you !!!

  12. Hi Gail!
    I love your posts, but this one really resonated with me because you so beautifully put into words what the artist’s eye feels like to all of us who see the world differently. So wonderful that Cam had an artist’s moment too. And shared it with you so you could be inspired to write this post!
    I also love your pastel. It’s a perfect choice to include here — a moment that would not be noticed by many people, yet you captured it. As always, seeing the progressions while you worked on it was great too. A goal of mine is to create an interesting composition and get the values right while using a limited palette and deliberate marks! I see that happening here. I think that’s another reason why this particular post really grabbed my attention.
    I’m four years into this and every once in awhile I see a glimmer of hope that I’m heading in the right direction. It’s getting those values right that is the toughest part (for me anyway). The process of physically creating art with pastels is so fun for me so I don’t mind this journey that I am on. Thanks for continuing to provide inspiration!

    1. Thanks so much Mary!!
      I’m glad you also enjoyed the progressions of the piece. I am always surprised when I look back at the start to see where the piece first started!

      It’s always a mark of progress when we have that glimmer of hope that we are moving forward. And values are hard to see! It’s taken me years to get to a place when I feel fairly comfortable discerning them but I also have moments of – what the heck is the value of this colour? But as you say, there’s soooo much joy in using pastels that the process itself is the greatest joy.

  13. Lovely shades of blue against the peachy colours of her face. I am always amazed at the different ways you use colour. But I guess that is the artists‘ eye. If you’ve been artists for most of your lives, I imagine it comes naturally. I think I had some of this when I was young but lost it over many years of teaching (not art) and having to be super-organised. But now, being retired, I’m painting and drawing more and more and I’m looking at patterns and images without thinking about it- so we can all learn and train this ability – the brain is plastic, after all.

    1. Thanks Judi! And YES, the artist’s eye can certainly be developed. Deep looking certainly helps. As does hanging around with an artist 😀 And being curious about this way of seeing the world. And PRACTICE! As you are doing!

      Thanks for the reminder that the brain continues to change. We can create new neural pathways by learning new things – a habit worth forming!

  14. Just this morning I stood in my kitchen gazing into my stainless steel sink planning my morning when I noticed some drops of water in the bottom and began painting them with my eye – the center of the drops were slightly lighter than the sink, and gradually darkened until reaching the bottom edge, creating a roundness but there was no cast shadow. The top edges were bright, reflecting the light that illuminated the sink back. There were bright spots in the middle of the darkest shadow on the bottom, reflecting the light that came from behind me. I wish I had actually duplicated these fascinating 3-dimensional drops in my sink but the experience proves, as you say, that an artist sees beauty everywhere.

    1. What a PERFECT example of seeing with an artist’s eye Elaine! And so deeply described that we can all picture it. I’m sure we can all relate, having had similar experiences.
      Thanks for sharing it!!

  15. I, also, tend to see things others don’t….never really thought to give it a name like, “artist’s eye”…but how appropriate. Our house was built in 1950 and has old fixtures in the bathroom. One day, the sunlight coming through the shuddered window beside the sink created an interesting angled light pattern…. creating bright highlights on the chrome fixtures and at the same time, some of the light went through a bottle of soap creating a brilliant blue on the wall behind it, along with the cough medicine creating a brilliant ruby red spot next to it. Paige thought I was nuts when I brought the camera in to take a photo…haven’t painted it, yet…. Booo!
    Loved your post….

    1. Hah hah Curt. As you described what you saw I could COMPLETELY see AND feel your excitement. I get it!!!!! I got excited too.
      Now I want to see the painting.
      Go on…get to it!! 😀

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Gail Sibley

Artist. Blogger. Teacher.

My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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