To see or not to see


You could be forgiven in assuming that I possess keen eyesight as an artist. As it turns out I’m not at all blessed with perfect vision, and I have worn glasses for acute myopia for most of my life. Rather than being a hindrance, however, unaided vision has often influenced artists approach to creating work in positive and innovative ways.

Self portrait study , 2019 acrylic 19.5 x 17 cm (7 x 6 inches)

Self portrait study, 2019 acrylic 19.5 x 17 cm (7 x 6 inches)

When practising observational image making on my art foundation course at Newham Community College in 1990, I would often take my glasses off before commencing work on a study. This was to make the subject in front of me appear as a fuzzy area of abstracted colours and tones. By blurring out identifiable objects and details I was able to focus more on recreating the overall tonal relationships and general composition of the subject. One of my tutors would remark: “He’s removed his glasses, he means business!”

I often use this approach today, especially when I start a new painting, where I can block in the main areas and general details with more impunity. It’s especially fun to create portraits this way, where shapes such as eyes and mouths etc are less discernible. A thirty minute self portrait study I made (pictured above) used used this approach where I applied paint with a single thick brush as I gazed at my blurred features through a mirror located a couple of feet away. As is always the case when working this way, brush marks and sharp lines only became apparent to me at the end of the session when I placed my glasses back on. 

Claude Monet   The Japanese Footbridge,  1920-22 oil on canvas (Image source:  Museum of Modern Art, New York )

Claude Monet The Japanese Footbridge, 1920-22 oil on canvas (Image source: Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Artists throughout history have grappled with visual impairments. French Impressionist Edgar Degas immediately comes to mind, especially with his bright pastel works produced later in life when his eyesight had almost failed him. Claude Monet’s later work was also greatly affected by his own visual deterioration, especially age related cataracts, which greatly altered the colours that he saw. In one of his last pictures The Japanese Footbridge, his work took on a brown set of hues, where background and foreground seem to blend into one.

Chuck Close   Leslie  (detail), 1977 pastel on paper (image source:  Mutual Art )

Chuck Close Leslie (detail), 1977 pastel on paper (image source: Mutual Art)

Other artists have experienced different kind of visual disability, though it would not always seem obvious. Chuck Close has a condition known as face blindness, where his brain cannot recognise people’s faces. To overcome this Chuck Close created photo realistic renditions of his friends to help him recognise who they were, using a pixellated grid method to help him recreate the photographic images of his friends, often scaling up to huge sized images. His work would become part of the original Photo-Realist movement that developed in the 1960s and 70s.

Australian painter Clifton Pugh had colour blindness, which meant that he experienced a completely different set of chromatic values in his work than what the viewer would actually see. 

It is sometimes easy to take for granted the ability to see and appreciate the colour and light of the visual world. Artists celebrate, accentuate and sometimes challenge this privilege of seeing.