Open circle

« As soon as you see something,
you already start to intellectualize it.
As soon as you intellectualize something,
it is no longer what you saw. »

Shunryu Suzuki
September 8, 1967

As enigmatic and obscure this quote may seem, it is a very powerful description of the main predicament the drawer-from-observation is facing. He wants to paint his subject the way it is, just the way it is, with the right shape, the right colour, the right values. And yet, by a not-so-mysterious way, his brain prevents it.

We resist painting purple the snow in the shadow when we know it is white. We resist adding blue or green on a portrait when we know skin gets such colours only when sick. We resist sketching this flying bird in such a weird shape when we know it should have symmetrical wings and tail and head in between. In all these situations, the sketcher, the painter has to silence the brain and go beyond what he thinks he knows and remember the words of the father of Robert Hainard to his students : « We draw badly because we draw what we know and not what we see ».

Seeing is a given to all of us, observing on the other hand, is a hard training. By seeing I get clues to identify, categorise and act: I saw this bird, I identified it as a Bullfinch, I recognised a female, understood the behaviours going on and could write this data with the time and location in my notebook, good. Yet, when I started drawing, none of it was useful or relevant. In stead of criteria, patterns and names, I needed shapes, lights and colours. I had to go back-and-forth between the telescope and the paper, drawing stage by stage, assessing every contours and nuances of this unique scene, as if it was the first time I saw this species.

But always come this moment when you are tempted to get carried away because you KNOW how to draw the rest, you KNOW what colour the bird is, what the anatomy should be, what a branch looks like. And if you do so, suddenly this bird, this scene, is « no longer what you saw ». You start drawing according to what you know and not what you see, what you think and not what you observe, your inside and not the outside. One attitude is a close circle, you and your thoughts, the other one is open, you in the world. The painter becomes either the master of its subject by creating it, or the student by learning from it.

On the long term, one way leads to monotony, the other one to diversity.

Because yes we know, but not everything. I have an idea of the average Bullfinch in my head, but I will never know everything, every nuances about every single Bullfinch at every single moment in every given places and conditions. My idea of it is then partial, necessarily incomplete and subjective. It is a box in my head with my truncated version of what a Bullfinch is as a label. Practical yes, but partial, single and stereotypical.

I suppose you can sense that what drawing is teaching us here, runs deeper than what is happening at the tip of the pencil. It is no surprise that this quote comes from a master of Zen Buddhism, for at the heart of Buddhism lies the desire to reach the true aspect of reality in our lives, free from concepts and interpretations, free from « intellectualisation ». We need concepts, boxes in our head, average ideas in order to live, to act, to interact, to decide without being lost in all the nuances and possibilities. But one should always be attentive not to mistake his ideas with the reality itself, for it is always richer, more diverse and nuanced.

Such misconception is detrimental by the distorted version it gives of the world. It is summarizing all Bullfinches to a few identification criteria ; summing people up to their job, appearance or language ; understanding a situation from our sole point of view.

The reality will always go over the edges of our concepts, and what lies beyond is essential to look at, to observe.


Eurasian Bullfinch
Field watercolor, 31 x 41 cm
17th February 2024
Rogaland, Norway