Erstanding Perception

One of my favorite poems explains the role perception plays in our lives. In "The Everlasting Gospel," William Blake writes:

This life's five windows of the soul, Distorts the heavens from pole to pole, And leads you to believe a lie, When you see with, not thro', the eye.

The five windows Blake refers to are the five senses, the means through which we understand and record the world around us. We call this perception, and like Blake suggests, sometimes our perceptions can lead us astray. However, if you have a proper understanding of perception and how it affects your view of the world, and thus your art, you'll be better equipped to develop strong, solid drawing skills.

A good definition of perception is the process by which people gather, process, organize and understand the world through the five senses. Keeping this

When you first begin to draw, your mental dictionary of patterns is limited and untrained, and your perception filter is in full effect. Test your knowledge of the objects around you by drawing them without looking. This exercise results in repetition of known shapes. If you have learned that object accurately, you will be able to reproduce it accurately. If you practice this often enough, eventually your filter will change to allow more details in.

definition in mind, there are two important points that every artist should know about perception.

First, each of us has a filter that affects our perceptions. By shaping your filter to meet your interests, you can build upon your dictionary of patterns and develop your artistic skills. However, it can be a challenge to alter your perception without study and practice.

This brings us to the second point— perceptions are powerful. So powerful that they don't change unless a significant event occurs. In drawing, this significant event is training.

Shaping Your Filter

Perception filters exist solely to keep us from overloading on too much information. If we didn't have filters in place, we would suffer from sensory overload. As handy as your filter may be in everyday life, it needs to be shaped or altered for you to become a proficient artist.

Training the Eye

As an artist, you must be able to hone your perception of a subject and articulate what you see. Your average dog lover might look at this Great Pyrenees and see a pretty white dog, but a dog show judge or breeder will be able to rattle off the characteristic details that make it "pretty." You want to be able to see with the eyes of a judge or breeder.

Imagine for a moment that you're at a dog show and a beautifully groomed Great Pyrenees trots by. If you are an average guy who has a soft spot for animals but who doesn't possess extensive knowledge of dogs, you might think, "what a pretty white dog." However, if you are a judge or Great Pyrenees breeder, you might think, "good oblique eye, excellent shoulder layback and level topline." The judge or breeder has honed his ability to look past the filters and really see all the details of the object he is dealing with—or at least enough detail to know a good Pyrenees when he sees one.

Just as the Pyrenees expert developed accurate perceptions by shaping his filter, you too must alter your filter to really see your object of interest. Becoming a successful artist means training your eye to recognize key information and retaining it in your dictionary of patterns. If you don't alter your filter, your perception will continue to be shaped by the limited original patterns stored in your brain. Your drawings will never improve until you learn to see all the details that make up your subject.

A Good Reference and a Perceptive Eye I Can See You

A clear reference photo and the ability to perceive its many details Ken MacMillan allowed this artist to capture the reality of the cat. Graphite 0n briStol b0ard

Drawing With an Untrained Eye

The average person with no art training will draw a portrait like this one. Even looking at a reference photo won't help; they'll still make the same mistakes. For example, the artist of this portrait placed the eyes in the top one-third of the face. In reality, the eyes are typically located about halfway down the face. This fact is clearly provable by looking in any mirror, yet it was missed here. Your perception, fueled by the original patterns stored in your mental dictionary, is so powerful that even the most easily checked data is invisible to you.

Getting It Right

Although I have drawn faces for years, I have to study the face I'm drawing just as diligently every time as I did for my first drawings. I have to make an effort to really take in each individual face that I draw. Easy? Not at all. To make your drawing of a person resemble your source, you should be aware of standard rules of thumb (or patterns) for drawing faces, but you can't rely entirely on them. Almost every drawing book on faces contains at least one drawing mistake, generally in the size of the iris or the length and width of the nose. In my forensic art career, I've had the chance to really study, record and measure faces because I've had access to thousands of mug shots in my composite drawing classes. I've projected them and measured those thousands of faces, recording the subtle information in the reality of the photos, not the opinions of other drawing books.

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