Art is full of contradictions. One that I have grappled with for several years is finally beginning to make a bit of sense to me (maybe I’m slow!). First, an artist is taught to “paint what you see” not what you “know”. Secondly, an artist is taught not to be so literal – don’t paint everything you see. You need to change what you see, modify, delete, add to, or rearrange to express your message. So we are faced with the dilemma: paint what you see, but don’t paint what you see.

How do you reconcile these two principles?

The first is the art of seeing and understanding what you see. The second is about expression. Can you be faithful to what you see and still be free to express yourself? Absolutely.

Paint What You See

The opening lines of the song “See it Like a Baby” by Marillion (British progressive rock band) reads:

Look at it as though

You’ve never seen it before

Try and forget it

So you can see it


I believe that these lyrics hold great advice for the visual artist. Often, we don’t truly see because what we ‘know’ gets in the way. We all know that trees are green, for example. But when seen from a distance, through the veil of particulates in the atmosphere, the perceived color may be blue or violet, but we ‘read’ it as green. We all know that white is much lighter in value than black. However, when a white object is in the shade, it is actually darker in value than a black object in direct sunlight. 

Don’t let preconceived ideas get in the way. Study the subject. Work at seeing. Observe intently. Forget what you know or think you know and truly observe. Only then can you see it. 

Now take it to the next level. Look through a baby’s eyes. Look at the world as if seeing it for the first time. Discover the world. Be inquisitive. Delight in the simplest things. Be open to noticing things that you have taken for granted for so long. In our hurried lives, we often look only superficially at the world around us. Look deeper. Pretend you are a tourist visiting your city for the first time. How thrilling and exciting are the things you haven’t paid any attention to for years?   

When you begin to see thing anew you will awaken new inspiration in your work. When you begin to see things as they really are, not as you ‘know’ they are, your work will become more believable. 

See it like a baby. Look at the world without preconceived ideas. Let this new, untainted view of the world around you direct your art.

(Related article: “To See or Not to See”)

Don’t Paint What You See

Artistic expression is about choices. You must choose HOW to express how you feel about what you see. This is where this principle fits in. You as an artist must determine what you want to say about your subject. You must understand your emotional connection to it. You must understand why you want to paint it. Then you are faced with the task of expression. You must make choices. 

First you look closely, very closely, to thoroughly understand your subject (the art of seeing). Then, you must choose what elements are most important to express what you want to say. You must eliminate everything that does not support your idea. You must rearrange or edit or rely on subtle suggestion to emphasize your idea.

(Related article: “Art Filled with Emotion”)

An Example

Amber Pond, 8 x 10, by Keith Bond  

Let’s look at the above painting for example. 

I set up my easel on the edge of this high mountain pond. As I painted I had to intently study the scene. I looked at the color of rocks in the water, painting all the variety. I studied the relationships as the rocks receded. I observed the transition from seeing the rocks to seeing the reflections of sky and trees in the water. I compared the color of trees in the middle ground with the color of the tree covered mountain in the extreme background. You get the point. I had to put away any preconceived ideas and observe the scene with open eyes.

Let’s look just at the rocks in the water for example. In the actual painting, the colors have more life. There are amber colors, green colors, mauve, tan, ochre, even yellow, orange, and purple. 

I had to really see and paint what I saw to make the colors believable.

But, look closely. I didn’t render a single rock. I did not paint every rock. I did not paint every detail on a single rock. I painted patterns. I painted shapes. I painted accurate colors. I implied rocks. I did have to intently observe how the rocks were arranged and then used those relationships to guide me as I interlocked the patterns and colors to create an arrangement that we understand to be rocks.

If you were to look at a photo of the pond, you would notice that the placement of the rocks is not accurately painted. The size, shape, placement, and orientation of the rocks were arranged by me to lead the eye through the painting. 

I did not paint everything as I saw it. But I painted relationships exactly how I saw them. This is also true with the reflections in the water, the rocky/grassy bank, the trees, the distant mountain, and the sky.

See and Paint Relationships

To paint what you see and to be free to change it to fit your expression is possible in the same painting. You must see relationships. You must see cause and effect. You must see accurately. Then you stay true to the essence of the scene, but modify elements to fit your expression.

Best Wishes,

Keith Bond

PS Marillion has been one of my favorite bands since the late 1980’s. I discovered them while an exchange student in Germany. They have about 15 studio albums along with several compilations and live recordings. I don’t have them all, but do have many. They are a band that continues to evolve as they push their artistic expression. They are truly one of the greatest progressive rock bands. They are very gifted musically and very talented creatively. Many lessons in art could be learned from this band. 

If you are unfamiliar with Marillion, and like progressive rock, I would recommend listening to the album “Season’s End” as a great starting point. That album is a bridge between their earlier sound with the previous lead singer, and the new direction the band took with the current singer. If you like it, you will be able to go both directions and appreciate both old and new Marillion.