Creating the Illusion

The novice paints the leaves; the master suggests the tree.
81-bits-and-pieces.jpgPainters are illusionists. We trick the viewer’s eye into believing a bit of pigment on a surface is something real. Realizing this makes us confront the reality that we aren’t sculptors creating physical bulk but magicians creating the appearance of form where none exists. Our job is to learn the tricks involved in the illusion.

Beginning at birth, our brains record our experiences. All you have to do is look into a child’s eyes to see the process. They explore, touch, and ask questions, seeking heightened understanding: What is that? Why? How come? These questions come bounding out as they seek explanations. With maturity, we learn that trees grow separately and are covered with leaves; rocks are individual pieces of hard minerals, some smooth and round, while others are course and sharp; fields are made up of hundreds of thousands of tiny blades of grass. This knowledge becomes internalized, ultimately prejudicing what we see. No longer do we see with the innocence of a child. This manifests itself in painting unnecessarily detailed renderings of “things”. We over-describe what we “know” instead of relying on what we “see.”

To break free of the habit, approach a painting as if it were a jigsaw puzzle. The puzzle has no reference on its box top for comparison. The individual pieces have to be analyzed and fit together to form a relationship. As we begin to assemble the puzzle, an understanding of what the picture is becomes apparent. This exercise turns the dictionary part of our seeing off, allowing us to better focus on the abstract elements which ultimately produces a clearer impression of the scene. These non-objective “bits and pieces,” consisting of value and color, all intertwine, creating the representation of reality. The more confident we become the less information we will give. When arranged appropriately, our audience will complete the picture from just a few of these puzzle pieces. This engages them in the process; they become an active participant bringing their memories into play.

Stand next to a painting and ask passersby: “What it is?” Most will comment “a tree” or “a cloud.” The truth is that it is pigment marks representing those elements. In my plein air painting shown here, close analysis reveals that it is made up of nothing more than shapes of value and color—bits and pieces. In our paintings, we have employed sleight-of-hand, creating an illusion, and our audience gets to sit back and enjoy the performance.

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3 thoughts on “Creating the Illusion

  1. Suzie

    Wonderful article……Hope I can get there someday…I still see the leaves. I did buy your video on the underpainting as I could not get into a workshop close by. The concept is so right and it will just take practice to get the loose style flowing…Thanks

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