A Painter's Journey - Creating a Vision

International Artist|June - July 2020

A Painter's Journey - Creating a Vision
In this seven-part series, artist John Hulsey takes you on a visual journey through his outdoor and studio painting processes.
By John Hulsey

It seems to me that I have spent my life learning to see, both as an individual and an artist. I have found that the process is much more complicated, nuanced and individualistic than simply looking at the world around me. It takes focused attention to really see anything in any meaningful way, and that takes time. However, our modern lives don’t encourage us to spend time just observing the world around us, and this can lead to a kind of myopia. The biological foundations of our visual system evolved in forests and then on the savannas of Africa when our primary attention was either finding food or avoiding becoming it. This is still how most of us process the world—either for danger or for survival success, or because we are personally interested in something particular around us. In the mental hierarchy of attention, all other visual material takes second or third priority or is just ignored. It is why eye witnesses often provide unreliable information to the police. It really depends on the individual. I learned how important this fact is while teaching art students to paint plein air in my Aix-en-Provence workshop more than a decade ago.

In order to teach someone to create an effective composition, especially a plein air one, the teacher must understand what the student sees and doesn’t see. However, students can’t tell you what they don’t notice! So I devised a little visual test for my students. I had them sit quietly and intently observe the same street scene in Aix for a full 5 minutes. For anyone not used to it, 5 minutes is a long time to sit and just look. Then I called time, and had them turn their backs on the subject and draw from memory what they had just observed. When I called time again, everyone turned around and compared what they had drawn with the subject. This is a real eye-opening moment for most people. Each person drew in detail those parts of the subject that they found most interesting and left other important things out. Some left out entire buildings, or the length/shape of the street, shadow masses, cars and so on. But each had detailed something that they were attracted to. I stressed that there is no right or wrong to the test, only a result, which helped me to understand what they paid attention to or didn’t. With that, I could begin to help them improve their compositions.

MY ART IN THE MAKING SEA OATS AND BLUESTEM

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June - July 2020