Enrich your life by learning to see more
I moved house 6 months ago. The garden here is a total ‘blank canvas’. Right now it’s just a lawn. As I’ve been dreaming of what Phil and I can change it into, I’ve been reminded of when I first started to garden.
Observing my plants reawakened my creativity
That first garden was small, and rented. So I mostly planted cuttings my mum gave me, and mostly into pots. But I found, as I know so many gardeners do, that I felt a special connection to those plants and I took a special interest in how they grew. I would take a cup of tea outside and observe them all for ages. Taking in their shapes and details. It was so relaxing but also uplifting.
At that point I’d not painted for around 6 years. And I missed it. Something about observing my plants so closely re-awakened that part of my brain that loved to draw and paint and I remember dusting off my old paints and painting this large oil painting of some fuchsias I’d photographed:
Sparked to create again it wasn’t long before I came across some botanical art online, and loved the way its realistic style allowed me to capture all the detail I was seeing in my garden. It took me about 3 months of training my eyes (and my brain) by painting in this way, to begin to ‘see’ even more details in the plants I was painting.
Drawing and painting to start seeing more
Closely observing nature around me reawakened my artistic creativity. But it works the other way around too. For a long time now members of my online school have reported that, after they have begun to start to draw and paint subjects when taking my tutorials, they begin to experience ‘seeing’ more of the natural world around them in their day-to-day life, and as a result to be inspired to paint more. It’s like an underused part of their brain wakes up. It is hugely enriching, as these quotes from members demonstrate:
“I couldn’t see all the colours and tones and hues available in the flowers that I can see now and that’s amazing because life is more colourful!”
“I am aware of the difference between looking and seeing. I am beginning to see colors differently.”
“[The biggest benefit of my membership is] being able to see more detail and look for subtle changes in color and shadows.”
“I look at the world I walk through differently now, with a closer eye for detail, light, and color. That has enormously added to my appreciation in the day-to-day natural environment. Also, I can’t explain or prove this, but I feel as though my experience with Anna’s School has regenerated my creativity on all fronts, not simply introduced me to painting. I find myself wanting to try my hand at all sorts of ideas and skills. I am genuinely grateful.”
“I see the amazing detail in the world and notice interesting things in nature that I never paid attention to before.”
The difference between seeing and looking
Everything we look at, whether for a moment or for an hour is processed by our brains. Yes, those poor old brains that have to make all those endless decisions and judgements, and filter a vast amount of incoming information in our complicated modern lives. Our brains are kept highly stimulated. In fact, in his book ‘The Zen of Seeing’, Frederick Frank writes that the ‘Western’ temperament’ in his view is no more than a ‘habitually overstimulated nervous system, an overstimulated switchboard.’
In such a state we are usually just using our visual perception to ‘look’ rather than see.
As Frank puts it:
Looking and seeing both start with sense perception, but there the similarity ends. When I look at the world and label its phenomenon I make immediate choices, instant appraisals… The purpose of “looking” is to survive, to cope, to manipulate, to discern what is useful, agreeable or threatening to me, what enhances or diminishes the me. This we are trained to do from our first day.
In effect, our brains learn to filter out so much of the richness there is to see. This is in the attempt of preventing information overload, and though our brains try to help us, the result is that we often perceive only a generic, generalised, simplified idea of tree, rather than the rich, unique apple tree that is in front of us.
Seeing as enriching, relaxing and uplifting
In contrast when we slow down, and really observe a subject in as much detail as we’d need to to draw it (even better, we actually draw it) we give our undivided attention and are able to tap into the experiential joy of the visual processing parts of our brain.
Carl Purcell in ‘Painting With Your Artist’s Brain’ describes us as having two parts to our brain: the intellectual part and the visual part. When we look at an apple tree, the visual part of our brain sees the wealth of colours, shapes and the play of light and shade. We notice everything from the rough texture of the tree bark, the fresh green of the leaves and – if we’re lucky – the shiny skin of the apples themselves. Seeing with the visual part of our brain gives us all the information we need to create art, and there’s an aliveness to it.
Observation as meditation
Not only do we tend to feel good when we’re observing in this way, we can think of it as a type of meditation where our attention is undivided and constant.
The author of ‘How To Do Nothing’, Jenny Odell, describes concentrated noticing as a type of mindfulness. It’s not like a classical sitting meditation, but instead ‘a state of openness that assumes there is something new to be seen’, alongside a commitment to ‘resist our tendency to declare our observations finished’.
Odell reminds us that this is something we have all done before. She explains:
“If you think about your mindset when you go to a place you’ve never been, especially on vacation, the way that you look at things is quite different than how you would normally look at things while on your way to work. A lot of what I’m describing is trying to apply that same mindset to things that you’ve seen many times – you will always be surprised.”
The surprise often comes in the form of feeling refreshed, as well as an inspiration to pick up the paintbrush we felt too frazzled to even think about before. And, Odell suggests, we can all begin this meditation by simply asking ourselves the question, ‘What in this scene have I not noticed before?’
Observing nature subjects offers the maximum wellbeing benefits (as I’ve explored in this blog post). That’s certainly what I found in my little garden all those years ago.
I love how Frank describes his experience of this (he calls it ‘Seeing/Drawing’):
I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing I realise how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle: the branching of a tree, the structure of a dandelion’s seed puff…. No longer do I “look” at a leaf, but enter direct contact with its life process, with life itself, with what I, too, really am…Seeing/Drawing is not a self-indulgence, “pleasant hobby” but a discipline of awareness, or unwavering attention to a world that is fully alive.
It seems so simple, but we really can enrich our lives by slowing down, and giving ourselves this time and space to closely observe the shape, light, shade, and line of whatever is in front of us. By doing this we not only become better artists, but we find an antidote to the bustle of life that can block our creativity.
I’d love to hear about your experiments of seeing with your artist’s brain. Did you find your brain ‘switched’ on to seeing more when you started to draw and paint? Or has observing nature or a garden also got you seeing in the way needed to paint? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
‘The Zen of Seeing: See/Drawing as Meditation’’ by Frederick Frank (Vintage Books 1973)
‘Jenny Odell on why we need to learn to do nothing’, article by Elle Hunt, The Guardian, 27 September 2017
‘Painting With Your Artist’s Brain’ by Carl Purcell (North Light Books 2004)
I loved this post! You put into words what I never had managed to do. I have always been the “weird” one in my family. Things would jump out at me and I’d have a burning urge to paint, photograph or write about it. I’ve told my family a million times that I love how after a rain the tree trunks get darker and stand out so pretty. (My husband will sometimes finish that sentence for me now. 😀 ) The world really does come alive when you can just “see!” And, your courses and methods have taught me to put those feelings onto paper in a satisfying way that makes me feel like I have actually captured the magic that seemed so elusive before.
Great to hear you feel you’ve always had that ability to ‘see’ Debbie. I wonder if it is innate for some of us. It can certainly be learned too. Love your description of the tree trunks! And I’m so pleased that I’ve helped you get down on paper that magic you can see!
I have had a lifelong interest in wild flowers and from a very early age knew most of their common names and the types of environment where they grew. I cycled for countless miles to the coastal Saltmarsh, the mountainous places nearby and the grassy plains in between searching them out and in the process I bought myself a botanists loop. This act was a revelation, revealing the minute details of the plants flowers, bracts,leaves and stems in a way not usually visible to the human eye as everything was magnified many times. Thereafter all plants were acutely interesting for the wealth of detail that could be seen, and I began to be drawn to botanical art as though some innate connection had been stirred. I did a few very detailed pencil drawings to begin with and then a few watercolour paintings copied from a magazine, but ran out of steam with no guidance or inspiration to be had, as I had little time to spare and knew little of the technique required with watercolour paints. After a gap of over thirty years I retired from a very demanding job and joined Anna’s School. Needless to say I am still very much a beginner, but the process is enjoyable and rewarding and I now look out at the garden and think, I could probably paint that Rose, or that Clematis, and for that, thank you Anna
That’s so lovely to hear that you came back to this passion that had stirred in you 30 years ago. Those loops are an amazing access point for seeing a whole other world we can’t otherwise perceive. I wish you lots of joy painting all that detail out there!
Anna, I love the way you have described this. Having never drawn or painted anything before signing up to your school I never appreciated the detail in anything around me and actually just never took the time, even when I had it available. Now I observe detail I never knew was there and friends observe my work and are amazed to‘see’ flowers within flowers. Indeed you are right, it inspires further creativity and joy of seeing the beauty of sometimes simple things around me. A dimension to art that I never knew existed and I’m so thankful to my hubby for signing me up to your school. Thankyou 💜
This is so great to hear. What a brilliant experience. Thanks for sharing Bernadette.
Your post is so timely and important! It is spot-on with the needs of so many today. There’s certainly plenty to worry about on a global scale and to get “busy” with living a productive life, but the largeness of that makes it really difficult to see the beautiful tiny cosmos all around us. I will always be eternally grateful to you for helping me to slow down after what seems like a life of rushing. Now I crave observing. I’ve never been so happy in my life. A universe of thanks to you for being so generous with your observations, for sharing your formidable talent, and for helping us all to find a new place for deeper well-being.
Aww thank you Lorna for such a touching comment. I’m so thrilled that you’re now able to enjoy slowing down and observing all this wonder.
I have noticed, since starting your course, that I take time to look at the details of flowers. I’ve always loved the colours of nature, especially at this time of year, but my looking is at a different level. Walking my puppy round my local area is enriched by this new skill.
Wonderful to hear you’ve been growing your perception skills – making those new neural connections! I’m excited for you.
For me it’s evident in the way I look at clouds; the colors, texture, shape, etc. Now that we moved across the US from flat Ohio to southern Arizona with the Santa Rita Mountains viewed from our living room, the light, color, shifting cloud shapes all add beauty to my day. There are some evenings that it seems the sky is on fire!
The sky is such a source of beauty! And now you have the mountains too – wonderful. Thanks for sharing Cathy.
I love photography and in particular seemed to be drawn to the detail found in macro photography . I wonder if that is why now some 35 years later apon discovering your classes I am drawn to the detail in botanical drawing?
Thank you for reawakening a lost perspective
Great to hear – thanks Katie.
Thank you, Anna. For such a well timed post. I have been painting for awhile following several online artists. This is making me feel overwhelmed as to what direction should I go. By copying them I am copying their style, their color choices etc. Whereas your lessons show us how to more beautifully paint the thing we love. I know I need to slow down and be more patient
Don’t be surprised if you see me back in your classes9🙂
Try and take the pressure off Dee, and tune in to what lights you up. You can certainly be led by the subject matter. That’s what I do. Good luck. And you’re always welcome back – we have lots more interesting content in the works.
I love, love, love, your fuchsia painting! There is something so wonderful about the shapes and colors. Sometimes I just treasure simplicity, so charming and uncomplicated!
Regarding this blog subject, I agree 100%. I notice when I take the time to slow down and walk through the park, or even just look at photos, (really look at the textures and details) I have an emotional response to them. I want to feel the texture and temperature and the smell after a rain, or in our case a near hurricane. Yikes!
I love the way you describe the garden and the peace surrounding it. Ive watched you grow over the years with your family and your painting! Thank You Anna, for all that you’ve given me! Lise
Thanks so much for your comment Lise! Is there a near hurricane smell!!? Amazing.
Thank you, Anna, for yet another reminder to really “look” at the world around us. I’m loving doing just that. May I add another book to your reference list? It is “Look at That” and deals with “discovering the joy of seeing by sketching.” The author is Bobbie Herron, another watercolor artist here in New Hampshire, USA who is, unfortunately, losing her eyesight. She has just recently published a second book, her personal memoir, called “Double Take.” She is still painting even though she has completely lost the vision in one eye and has only partial vision in the other. Both books are well illustrated by her drawings and paintings. Both books are available on Amazon, and I’ve mentioned them in the school forum. Between you and Bobbie, I’ve learned to never take the gift of vision for granted and to slow down and look closely at details in nature. I’ve put together a file of pictures that I’ve taken myself (mostly just in my own backyard) with the intention of painting them.
Thanks Sue – I saw your post in the member forum and I’ve downloaded the kindle versions of both books and am excited to read them – I always love a book recommendation!
I know what you mean Anna. I sometimes walk along and see details of subtle colour combinations and I think to myself, wow that would be so great in a painting. I didn’t ever see those before I started painting
Great to hear it Glenda!
I have only recently found ‘you’ and your art, enjoying daily the gift of your paintings. I have a background in healthcare, something I gave up in pursuit of motherhood several years ago. Being a stay at home mum has challenged me in ways I could not have imagined. At times (most times) it has been my absolute greatest achievement that fills me with sheer delight, at others, it is the source of frustration, overstimulation, isolation etc.
A constant throughout my whole life, has been my attention to detail. The stamen in a flower, veins on a leaf, striations in a rock, variations in bark. I would spend hours upon hours in parks and gardens just soaking up the depth and wonder of nature, all its miracles like fireworks igniting my brain. Without this ability to zone into the minuteness of life, I think I would have fallen into darkness at times, when I have felt who I am drifting somewhere into the distance as the demands of motherhood have taken hold of me. Your art transports me to a place where life’s busyness just stops. My eyes seem to meld with the painting, I get lost. It is such a beautiful and welcome relief. Thank you, sincerely.
Thanks for your comment Tama. I can certainly relate to your description of how hard being a mum to young children is. I have had my work continue – but life has felt uncomfortably busy most of the time. So, yes, those moments of observation as meditation are even more precious. I often think I will look back on these years and wonder how I survived them – I’m sure you will feel the same. Big hug x
Anna it’s so essential at this time in my painting process that I read your article. I have often said to myself (and outloud to you while painting a tutorial ), “Anna, I just don’t see what you are seeing!” After I finish the tutorial painting I then see why all the detail mattered. Then I see what you saw. I think I”ve been LOOKING at the painting process as a task to finish rather than SEEING and observing the whole picture as a journey and not just a process . More time is needed for me to study the beauty in the details of each object that I see and paint beforehand. I believe this to be my next steps in a natural progression in learning and transitioning in my painting as well as my life journey. Anna, every day I wake with a grateful heart. This article and your words have enlightened me and opened my eyes to be even more mindful , to see, look and observe not only in my painting journey but of my surroundings, and my love of life and watercolor . Thank you. Anna for all that you do!
You will get there with your observations Toni! And yes, relaxing into the process and not focusing on the end result is a really helpful thing to do. As much as we want a good result – if we enjoyed the process then the painting session was truly a success! Wishing you lots of painting joy!
What resonated for me was the link between gardening and art. I’ve been a keen gardener for years and what drew me to your online course was botanical art and the amount of detail and realism that can be captured. I also find the process meditative. You are totally focused when drawing and painting and you do learn to see and appreciate so much more beauty in things around you. I picked up an autumn oak leaf today and I was amazed by the number of hues it contained. I’d like to have a go at painting it if I can, not sure how successful I will be though. We are entering the darker months now and I have found that painting keeps me going, provides colour and helps my mental health in the same way that gardening does. I’m so glad that I have found art as a way of complementing and enhancing my enjoyment of gardening and nature. Thank you for sharing your own experience and for prompting others to share theirs. It’s good to feel part of a like minded community.
Thanks for your comment Stephen. I think there are many members who can relate to painting being their ‘winter gardening’ – and working with colour is so uplifting. Do paint the autumn oak leaf – it sounds beautiful.
I think this is a great post! In addition to being a big fan of you and your tutorials (it’s a minor miracle at how good your tutorials are at teaching a complicated subject), I am also a serious Zen student. My Zen teacher commented when she was watching me paint that it involves really close observation, perhaps using a similar part of the brain as in zazen. And as a physician, I also find the combination of detail and big picture orientation to be similar as with both Zen practice and watercolor practice! You have to learn how to switch between left brain and right brain orientations, which is healthy.
Also, doing something artistic is just fun. 🙂
Hi Anna, I woke up to the miraculous intricacies of plants whilst looking closely at a Scabious flowering in the garden years ago, but I never had the skill to capture it on paper. I still don’t but hopefully one dayI might get closer. I can definitely see more regards colour , shapes, negative shapes etc and transferring to paper.
Art has a very soothing affect on the mind & soul, helping through difficult times.
Like Stephen commented you see so much more around you. When I walk the dogs through the woods I pick up the odd fallen leaf, fallen bark etc and study it. My table has various objects to draw/ paint.
Despite our troubled world, we can escape through art & crafts. Thank you so much for your wonderful tutorials.
Last winter I was one of your students. I took this summer off to plant a new section our garden filled with mostly flowers. I wanted subjects I could photograph (my original artist passion). I anticipated winter and painting many of the flowers. Surprisingly I loved this project so much I created videos and posted every week on social media (GabTV). These videos have become a source of meditation for me as well and help me keep calm in this crazy world we live in. I am looking forward to signing up for your school again this winter to learn more and enjoy watercolors again now I’m not in the garden or canning the harvest in the kitchen. Thanks for sharing this in your blog, I encourage everyone to slow down and smell the roses!
Anna: Thank you so much for bringing up this wonderful topic. I have always been a lover and patron of the arts, but never felt I was capable of “drawing” or actually “painting” anything and I still consider myself a beginner for sure. But when I came across your school and tried a free class on I believe it was Craftsy (or something similar), I was thrilled with the way the process made me feel and with the result. I immediately became mindful of looking at things more closely, not necessarily to paint them, but to just appreciate the detail and beauty of them.
I have had artist friends comment to me that I needed to “play” more with the paint and stop painting with such detail, because that is not art. I, on the contrary, strongly feel that the art of the detail is BEAUTIFUL! It reminds me of the yogic philosophy of mindful awareness; truly looking at something and putting your full mind and attention to it and to what you are doing right now in this moment. YOUR instruction and style of painting does exactly that for me. Like a true meditation, it helps me to not only SEE the true beauty in the details, the act of trying to capture those details in my own way, helps me to let other thoughts and challenges in life be put aside for the moment. It allows my mind to relax and to be absolutely present with the process of creation in front of me. And NO, it does not always come out looking just like your paintings (far from it), but the process of getting there is the beauty of the journey. It has also given me permission to be the painter that I am and to be accepting and respectful of my own style and results and to enjoy that. It is like the toddler walking down the street with their parent past some beautiful rose bushes. The parent knows they are rose bushes, yes they are pretty, yes they have a lovely fragrance, but they bloom every spring, “I already know all about them.” But the child wants to look at them more closely to pick one, to smell it and to feel it, because they don’t have all that stored information already. They see it as new and beautiful and worth examining. This is how I feel each time I embark upon a new project in painting since I have started your school. And I thank you for that with great sincerity.
I love continuing to do the tutorials, even as I am trying to encourage myself to branch out and try things on my own, because the tutorials continue to teach me new things with each one I do. Again, it reminds me of a yogic story (and I paraphrase) when the master was asked by the student “How long will it take to learn this” and the teacher replied “the good news is, it will take you the rest of your life.” Thank you Anna, what a lovely lifelong journey you have presented to everyone.
Thank you so much for this very interesting post. I’ve always wondered why the inner parts of many flowers display the opposite colour on the colour spectrum of the outer flower.. it’s always fascinated me. Whenever I’m out looking at beautiful gardens or woodlands it takes you to a different place. You can’t help but marvel at the structure and beauty of flowers and plants. When I’m painting time stands still and feel I’m in a different space maybe proving Einstein’s theory of relativity!
Hi,Anna thanks for this post l think this is a great post which links us with our inner self to recognize other living beings beautiful colour world which inspire us to paint them ,and Anna you have given us your beautiful eyes to look at them large size different types of colour shade shapes to paint them with your vision and tutorial
Your painting and tutorial video made us to look in details to the leaves,branches,flowers and small birds and other all living creatures and a single rose bird can be painted in bigger size and without disturbing beauty and even we can paint small caterpillars in a such beauty full way.
Everyone else has all said it perfectly!
“Training my eyes (and my brain)” has been one of the two most interesting aspects of this watercolor adventure to me. (The other one is to see how paintings dry and how the paint sometimes seems to have a mind of its own.)
Pretty amazing! And always more room to observe & grow!
Thank you Anna, for your thoughtfulness all around!
Oct 8 2022
Hi Anna! I finally got to reading your blog and my mind is stimulated. I remember just first learning Watercolor painting and a friend told me I will never look at the world the same again. I will see everything in colors. She is right. A beautiful sunset gets me evaluating the colors for what they would be on a painting….Manganese Blue, Quinacridone Violet, New Gamboge, then asking which red? I love it and it causes constant mental exercise, which at age 67 is a good thing! Thank you for your teachings, blog, website. You helped me through Covid lockdown. I did lots of tutorials. From SW Washington State, in Rose Valley,
Hi Anna, this is a fascinating post. I didn’t realize how much I had shut down my senses, especially seeing.
I live in NY and NYC is overwhelming on ALL the senses and going to school there as a kid and working
there as an adult was bearable only because I shut everything down. I can’t tell you how many days I would
be getting on the subway and pass a guy covered in tattoos or a woman with crazy piercings and think – I
can’t process this now, I have to get here or there, always rushing. Doing your tutorials has opened my eyes,
in each one you will call out at least 1 color, sometimes more that I don’t see at first. So now I look at the world
differently. I ask myself what colors do I see, what are the shapes, how do they all come together.
I don’t just look quickly anymore, I see, I study. What a wonderful gift, thank you for that.
Anna thank you for this blog. I have been pulled in different directions as of late, but the seeing/studying/meditating have been my escape. The creating/painting comes next. I feel a kinship with many here in your school, so many on the journey to find that part of themselves to really see all around them, to put it on paper and to paper and share with others.