One of the issues we deal with when painting is allowing ourselves to see without prejudice. Our eyes work in unison with the mind, and other senses, compiling visual information into something understood. Think of the eyes as the camera and the mind the processor. The eyes focus and adjust to varying lighting conditions allowing a visual arrangement of shapes, values, and colors to be processed by the brain. Once recognized, the brain associates something known to these images and we relate our understanding to them. This is where our experiences join with our emotions to form prejudice. The older we become, the more our brain (the hard-drive of our beliefs) becomes filled with bits of information. Children’s brains, having been unexposed to visual bias, see things fresh and anew. We glace at something and without even pausing, associate a definition to it whereas a child will pause and ask: What is that? Our symbolic association leads to overstated detail and exaggerated definition in our work; we paint what we believe is there instead of really seeing.
To clean up our mental hard-drive and allow our internal computer to work efficiently, try this simple trick—look at things upside down. By observing subject matter in this way, the mind is unable to quickly associate its prejudices to the visual symbols the eyes are sending. This allows us to see the simple shapes, values, and colors, leading to a stronger painting that relates better to the natural world. When painting from printed reference material, turning the reference upside down easily facilitates this. Working on location, or from life, is harder unless you’re able to bend over and look through your legs for prolonged periods of time (something I gave up years ago). This is when a mirror comes in handy. Often used to look back over our shoulders to reverse the painting, it allows us to see lateral distortion (another big issue). It can be placed against our foreheads and angled so that when we look up into the mirror we see what lies in front of us, upside down. I use an automobile clip visor mirror found at most auto/variety stores. Inexpensive and portable, this mirror goes with me when I work en plein air as well as back in the studio. With practice, we internalize this simple visual information and become less dependent on a prop, evolving into the intuitive painter we all aspire to be.