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Developing a Sense of Sight

Updated: Dec 13, 2022

Last year, if you had asked me if I could develop my sense of sight, I would ask if you meant that I needed better glasses. I was familiar with people developing a sense of taste to distinguish subtle flavors in wine or coffee. I knew that musicians could notice nuanced qualities in a song that my ears could not. But sight? Was that really something you could develop over time? Sight just seemed so basic and essential that surely, excluding certain disabilities, we must all have a similar visual experience.

Then a year ago, I started painting again, which was something I had done a lot when I was younger but had taken a break from for several years. I would do a painting almost every day, often from life. This practice forced me to pay close attention to exactly what I was seeing. What were the patterns of dark and light in front of me? What was the hue and saturation of the colors in my setup? How did the shapes of my subjects intersect and overlap with the object surrounding them?

The more I painted, the more I became on the lookout for scenes to paint from my everyday life. I started seeing paintings everywhere I went. And as I paid such close attention to what I was seeing, my visual reality transformed into something much more beautiful, complex, and sublime than what I was used to. I began noticing warm sunlight filtering into the kitchen, casting a spotlight on a rack of dishes. The way orange slices glow when they catch the light. The bright reflection of a blue shirt on my friend's face. My everyday reality became full of small moments of wonder.

So what caused this shift? I think the answer lies in the way our brains work. Our minds are great prediction machines. Oftentimes we do not see reality as it is, but instead we see what we expect to see. Prior to painting, the prediction machine that is my brain simplified the wondrous complexity of the world to give way to a more pragmatic but duller reality. I was usually so focused on the work I needed to do for my day job, the tasks of everyday life, and goals for my future, that I would miss unexpected moments of beauty. By forcing me to pay close attention to reality, painting rewired my brain and helped me to see in a new way.

I don't think you have to be a painter to access this way of seeing. I think that anyone can train their brain to see more beauty through mindfully paying attention to what they see each day. Looking deeply at good art can also help guide us into this way of seeing. Artists who draw attention to the transcendent beauty of everyday objects and sights can help us all see in this way.

What I know for sure is that I no longer want to go through my day oblivious to the many small moments of beauty around me. Seeing the world in this way has made me a happier person, and it is not something I want to let go of. I will keep painting to further explore this fuller appreciation of my visual experience, continuing to develop my sense of sight.

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