Learning to See

I taught a group of interior design and fine art students a course on Design Fundamentals a few years ago.  One of the objectives of the course was to encourage them to start noticing their surroundings and to start paying attention to design.  One of the first exercises that I had them do in class was to draw, from memory, a series of very common business logos.  Starbucks, Burger King, Best Buy, etc.  The results were shocking.  Almost no one in the class got any of them right even though the majority of the class had claimed to know exactly what the logos looked like.  Why is this?  I know that everyone in the class could have instantly recognized any one of the logos, so why did they go blank when asked to draw them? 

The same kind of thing happened to me recently… I was trying to draw some trees and other entourage in an architectural rendering that I was doing.  I didn’t think anything about it, I just grabbed my pen and started to draw the tree.  But then I froze.  When it came down to drawing the tree, I had no concept what a tree actually looks like.  Sure, I have an idea of what a tree looks like.  But that idea has strangely little in common with an actual tree.  When I think TREE, I think of a big mass of green leaves with a brown trunk.  But when I sit down and actually LOOK at a tree, what I see is more like an array of colors ranging from yellow to green to brown.  I see dark shadows and bright highlights on each individual leaf.  I see shades of brown and gray and black and white in the trunk.  I see pieces of the branches peeking out from openings in the foliage. 

I’ve seen and experienced this phenomenon countless times and I find it fascinating.  It is amazing how little we actually see in our lives sometimes.  We take so many things for granted, assuming that we know everything that there is to know from a single glance.  We form instantaneous ideas about our surroundings and our circumstances that are colored by our own perceptions and experiences.  We make snap judgments.  We don’t take time to really look at our surroundings.  We don’t really SEE things as they are. 

Being an artist and a designer has forced me to start seeing.  It has prompted me to really look at the world around me and to notice what is actually there, rather than depend on my foggy notions of what I think is there.  It has shown me that the world is such a beautiful and fascinating place if I just take the time to notice it.

© Haley McManigal 2014

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