Painting What You See

Virtually every artist, from the time of cave painting to the dawn of non-objective art, will tell you they paint what they see. What we see around us and how we respond to it is still the principle source of inspiration for many artists today. Painting what you see seems like the most obvious and simplest thing in the worlduntil you try to do it.

When I arrived at the Art Students League in the fall of 1974, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to paint and how those paintings should look. I had talent and imagination but lacked the knowledge and skills to bring my ideas to life. I had wings but no feet. Fortunately, I was able to attend Robert Beverly Hale’s life drawing class. After lecturing on anatomy, he would critique drawings in the back of the room. One day he pointed to the flank of the figure in a student’s drawing and asked why he had drawn a bump there. The student replied that he saw a bump so he drew it. Hale told him that as he studied anatomy he would discover that the bump was, in fact, the external oblique, that it ran from the rib cage to the crest of the pelvis and had a form and a function. But you can’t draw something until you know it exists, he said. When you see that bump as the external oblique and draw it accordingly, he continued, your figure will appear more human. These simple thoughts, to know what you are looking at and to express it with sensitivity, are the cornerstones to painting what you see and bringing that subject to life as a work of art.

Thomas Torak, Standing Nude, 2014. Oil on linen, 22 x 14 in.
Thomas Torak, Standing Nude, 2014.
Oil on linen, 22 x 14 in.

The first challenge to painting, or drawing, what I saw was obvious. The model before me was a three-dimensional figure and my sketch pad had a two-dimensional surface. The knowledge of how to create the illusion of three-dimensional space has been around for hundreds of years. I quickly learned to see the figure as a block and practiced drawing boxes and cylinders from every angle and was soon able to draw a head, or rib cage or pelvis, in any position. Seeing those forms lit from a single source of light and shading them accordingly increased the illusion. 

My early experience of learning to draw is quite common, so let’s assume you can draw a three-dimensional form reasonably well and move on to exploring what else is involved in painting what you see. Suppose you decide to paint a standing nude. You see the figure and depict her size and proportions on your canvas, take note of the gesture and position in space, and, if you are very observant, see that she is wearing red nail polish and has a scar on her knee from the time she fell off her bicycle as a child. In order to make her more human, you make sure your drawing of the figure is anatomically correct. You can paint these things because you see them, because you know they exist. Next, you endeavor to detect her personality and think about how to give the figure weight, things you are aware of but can’t see. Now you are no longer copying the physical surface but striving to express who the model is and your reaction to her. You’ve expanded the concept of what you see to include things you can’t see. You are well on your way to creating a sensitive painting.


Once you have fully appreciated the model and her pose, you begin to be aware of the light falling on her. Light is very important to how you see the model and your response to her. Where you stand in relation to your source of light is also important. It is rather flattering to the model if you are viewing her in flat light, a bit more interesting if you are seeing her in a half light, and if you go behind her and view her in a rim light, it is quite dramatic. The pose is the same in all three examples, the only thing that has changed is the direction of the light falling on her. Yet the paintings from each of those positions would be dramatically different. Now that you know where the light is coming from in your painting you can mix a progression of values on your palette to shade the model accordingly. You can paint those lights and shadows because you can see them. Now let’s expand the concept of what you see again. 

Elizabeth Torak, Design, 1997. Oil on linen, 16 x 17 in.
Elizabeth Torak, Design, 1997.
Oil on linen, 16 x 17 in.

In the same way you attempted to paint the unseen personality of the model, you can now try to express the quality and personality of the light. If your model is posing in a studio lit by natural light, the progression of values is subtle. If she is posing in the same studio at night and is lit by artificial light, the tones will be harsher and warmer. If she takes the same pose outdoors, the light will be altogether different. The direction of the light falling on the model could be the same in each of these examples, but the quality, the character, of the light would be different in each situation. The intensity of the light can also vary. If you paint three landscapes of the same scene, one in full sunlight, one on a gray day, and one by moonlight, this will quickly become apparent. As you strive to capture a full expression of the light, you are well on your way to creating a luminous painting.


There is yet one more aspect of what you see: the space the model is standing in. You can easily see and feel the form of the model. The light can’t be touched, but you can see it as it falls on the model and record its effect in your painting. The space, however, is not visible or tangible at all yet must be expressed as well. You must paint that space around the model if you truly intend to paint what you see. If she is standing three feet in front of a wall, you have to indicate that space or else she will appear to be nailed to the wall. If you have her posing in the center of the room, there is more space around her. If she is posing outdoors, there is still more space to be considered. A tube of “atmosphere” paint would be useful here, but since that doesn’t exist, you have to carefully control and manipulate the colors and values on your palette to create this effect. Now let’s expand the concept of what you see yet again.

Robert Maione, Vermont Landscape, 1984. Oil on linen, 16 x 20 in.
Robert Maione, Vermont Landscape, 1984.
Oil on linen, 16 x 20 in.

You have already acknowledged that both the model and the light possess character, so now you can describe the quality and personality of the space—the atmosphere—around the model. This is easier to perceive if you are painting a landscape. The difference in the atmosphere on a crisp, sunny day and a misty morning are obvious. The moisture in the air, quality of the light, and distance in the painting are all factors in determining the character of the atmosphere. Even if you are indoors, the space needs to be observed and expressed. If you are painting in a studio in the Deep South on a sultry summer day the air is very different than if you are in a studio in the North on a frigid winter day with a wood fire drying out the air. When you have observed, reacted to, and expressed the personality of the model, the light falling on her, and the space she occupies, you are well on your way to a full expression of painting what you see.

Frank Mason, The Young Emersonian, 1989. Oil on linen, 44 x 36 in.
Frank Mason, The Young Emersonian, 1989.
Oil on linen, 44 x 36 in.

So far we have focused exclusively on painting the figure. Although she is the subject of the work, other things exist in the painting. The floor and walls set the boundaries of the space and drapery, tables and other objects, which add to the composition and narrative of the piece, must be observed with equal attention. No matter how many objects there are in the painting, what you see should be absorbed in a single glance. There is a unity and harmony. Now your concept of what you see has expanded to include aesthetics. Finally, you observe your subject’s life force. As you become aware of the energy and vibration and intensity of what you are painting, you move beyond being a painter and start to become an artist. You are now on your way to creating a masterpiece.

We have yet to consider color, or how the paint is applied, or how much of what you see you intend to paint, or how to compose your painting. Some artists will paint everything; some will exaggerate what they see; some will reduce the forms to simple shapes; some will deconstruct what they see and remake it again; some will not paint the objects at all but paint only the life force of what they see. Some artists try to copy what they see as directly as possible while others prefer to interpret what they see in a more free-flowing manner; some try to be as sensitive to their subject as possible while others try to be as insensitive as possible. If you intend to paint what you see, you must be fully aware of what you are seeing, no matter the subject nor your style. Because, after all, you can’t paint something until you know it exists.

Related posts