What You Know Blocks Your Vision

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“What we see depends upon what we think we see.” Nobel Winning Biologist, Elizabeth Blackburn.

One of the most difficult hurdles for artists to ignore what you know (what you think you see) in favor of what you see. To see takes practice and tools like linear perspective to help see spatial relationships. It is not intuitive. Our intuition or subliminal mind prefers what we can easily access and know versus the work of looking.

This explains why more amateur artists (even professionals) have a hard time getting their rivers, lakes and landscapes to lie down and not tilt up.  It’s an old problem which became more evident when linear perspective designs were compared to previous pictures. Consider this image of the last supper made in the 12th century by an artist trying to get all the disciples around a flat, circular table (example 1). Compare the use of linear perspective found in Da Vinci’s last supper (example 2. courtesy of Martin Kemp’s Science and Art).

Example 1. 12th century last supper.

Example 2.  Last Supper by Da Vinci.

The difficulty for artists lies in trying to squeeze what we “know” of the size of a body of water, an extent of land, or a table into a foreshortened point of view, that is the point of view we experience as we look on the world.  The information we know won’t fit in the space perspective allots in a picture so, we find ourselves we take more space and our result is the land, the lake and table tilt upward. What’s more, we often don’t see our error until someone else points out the problem. Learning to foreshorten a table, lake, road or figure provides visual credibility to space whether making abstractions, landscapes or still-lifes.

Whatever we see whether we are working in plein air or, from a photo, those things we can name we make larger than those we cannot or do not name.  I recently demonstrated a view of the Hudson River Valley referencing a photo (example 3).  Because artists think that there is a massive area of water seen in the distance they tend to make the section of the water much thicker in their painting than they see it, even while looking at the photo.  The vertical space red-lined over the water is the same size as the vertical red-lined space in the lower left. The tall red-lined space illustrates the height of the forward foliated area.

Example 3. Photo of View of Hudson Valley from Boscobel.

Learning to squeeze the slivers of distant information into thinner and thinner bands as the image extends into space takes practice and, linear perspective is a tool that can aid the artist.  It’s not the ultimate solution, just an aid.

My demonstration of this image in oil allowed me to further extend the distance by creating a foreshortened labyrinthine serpentine area (example 3a). Notice that the area continues to rely on progressively thinner slices to render the space for the flattened marshlands. Notice the shared design qualities with the Claude Lorrain in example 4.

Example 3a. Extending Space in a painting, small oil demonstration.

I will provide some examples of practiced foreshortening over the last five centuries, the period which includes the adoption of linear perspective as a tool for creating credible space. First, consider the landscape painter Claude Lorrain from the 1600s (example 4).  The height of the illuminated foreground has been measured by me and is the distance between to vertical red dots. Notice that this apparently slender territory is taller than the tallest mountain in the background (also marked by two vertically aligned red dots.) Here is another illustration of the problem of knowing the size of the space versus picturing it well as Claude ably demonstrated.

Example 4.  The illusion of space by Claude Lorrain.

In mid 19th century France Charles-Francois Daubigny, a plein air painter, was well schooled in perspective. Observe how his road quickly foreshortens from very wide to narrow. As it turns into the distance it becomes an indiscernible line. The horizon itself (a vast conceptual space) appears only as a bright thin stripe (example 5). I have outlined the areas in the painting in red to reinforce their thinness and to draw your attention.

Example 5. Charles Francois Daubigny oil sketch.

Let’s move to later in the 20th Century with Richard Diebenkorn (example 6).  Here is another artist well schooled and practiced with linear perspective. Notice how he also radically contracts the size of the turning road as it descends. I have outlined in red the forward area of the road and the area of the second bend to illustrate the extent of road shrinkage.

Example 6. Richard Diebenkorn, Ingleside, 1963,

Example 7 presents another road rising up and down (like the Diebenkorn this requires familiarity with three point perspective to render the sensation of ascending and descending foreshortening). Notice how quickly the road diminishes in size.

Example 7. Foreshortened road, oil on Dibond,

Lastly, a reminder that even at the multi-mile high elevation of an airplane we still experience foreshortening which does not equate to mapping (example 8). Observe the space between the red dots on opposite sides of the river at the bottom of the image are the same distance apart as the red dots at the top of the image even though they feel farther apart. As Alfred Korzybski said,” The map is not the territory”.

Example 8. Aerial View of Manhattan, oil on canvas, 36×36,

Please visit my new paintings on view at my solo show at the White Gallery  342 Main Street in Lakeville, Ct. The show has been extended through November.   The gallery is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11 AM to 4 PM. for other hours  or an appointment  tel: 860 435 1029 or visit thewhitegalleryart.com

I invite you to join me this year for Jerry’s Artarama’s tradeshow and workshops at their Art of The Carolinas in November (9th -11th) in Raleigh Durham NC. I have three workshops to offer you.  My Friday workshop FR1807 is “New Affects and Ancient Sources for Painting in oil/wc/and Acrylic. My Saturday workshop SA1807 is “Nature Up Close” in oil/wc/and acrylic. My Sunday workshop SU1807 is “Cities in Motion, Bridging Realism and Abstraction”. A more fulsome description is available through Jerry’s Artarama Art of the Carolinas website. Or on daviddunlop.com.  Try www.artofthecarlinas.com/all-media-workshops.  Also, for the complete description of my workshops you can visit this website but, under the category of “Classes and Events” on the homepage.

9 Responses

  1. Susan Tilley

    Thank you David. I love the foreground in example 3a and especially your generous teaching.

  2. Sylvia

    Thank for pointing out again the importance of linear perspective in design; so many amateur landscape painters are missing this point.

  3. david lewis

    Thank you. One of my usual issues. Sometimes I nail it instinctively and sometimes I have to really bear down to get it right.

    Is there any way to have clickable links so the photos of the paintings can come up larger when clicked?

  4. elide' s. beltram

    …..and also ” what we hear depends on what we think we hear.” Is it not the base of all misunderstandings and discord? Maybe that’s what makes us unique and creative?

  5. elide" beltram

    Quoting the famous psychoanalyst J.D Winnicott on the illusion of the child. ” The infant thinks he/she IS the maternal breast is order to feel a sense of existence and security? Do we need creativity to survive?
    Interesting stuff David. Tks

  6. Trina Cerk

    Hello David,
    I am new to your teaching. You do an excellent job explaining everything about each painting. You give a lot more history, reasoning, etc. than anyone else that I know. Thank you for caring so much about your students. I appreciate all of your hard work that goes into each blog, email. Thank you for all of your time.

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