Paint What You See Not What You Know

woman with ear ring and wordsI just spent ten days at Vermont College of Fine Arts as a graduate assistant at the summer residency for creative writers.  With equal parts hope and skepticism, I’d packed my big sketchbook and a set of oil pastels, but they never left my backpack.  I did, however, do a little sketching in my journal.

The first morning, I woke at 4:30 and, not able to fall back asleep, went outside with my journal and wrote for awhile as the sun rose over the evergreens.  Then I sketched the house next to the dorm I was staying in–it has an amazing garden in front, thick and deep like a night of frog song or a garden by Van Gogh.

montpelier garden

I drew more quickly than usual, going for the main shapes and not concerning myself too much with details, perhaps because I knew I could never account for the abundance of leaves, stems, and blossoms.  I once had the privilege of taking a painting class with David Coughtry, who advised, “Paint what you see, not what you know.”  On this early morning, that’s what I did without thinking about it.  I wonder if it helped that I was up so early and knew the whole day was ahead of me.  Not one to get up with the sun, I felt like I’d received a gift of extra time–a slice of splurge time that didn’t need to be productive or have anything to show for itself.  Maybe that mindset made it easier to see.

Another day, I drew at one of the picnic tables outside College Hall.  I spent many extended moments there and realized it was one of my favorite things to do at residency, the pleasure of loafing out there enhanced by the knowledge that I was missing some fantastic lecture or reading because it made clear the great value of having time to spend in contemplation at a picnic table in proximity to others in conversation, dedication to a sentence, or meditation on a passing moment.

montpelier street

From the picnic table, I drew the street–a busyness around a center of stillness and spaciousness, not that I consciously saw it that way at the time.

My favorite drawings are blind drawings, or somewhat blind drawings, sketched in lectures–mostly heads and faces.  Drawing blind is when you keep your eyes on your subject as you draw, not looking down to see how you’re doing.  That’s what I did–but I cheated a lot.  Blind drawing creates a line with a lot of flow, a relatedness between shapes, and a spaciousness.  Gesture is its genius, simplicity its signature, and accident its anima.  There’s a weirdness, an inaccuracy, that gives a blind drawing life and often captures the subject better than an accurate and thorough rendering would.  At least, that’s my opinion.

What would the writing version of a blind drawing be?  Surely it would be generative, with minimal self-correcting.  But it would also have to be playful, prone to happy accidents and perfect inaccuracies, fast and loose with a devil-may-care attitude.  It’s probably a how, not a what.  And how about writing what you see, not what you know?  What would that look like, and how would that go?


3 responses to “Paint What You See Not What You Know”

  1. Hi Liz, really enjoyed this piece. Your writing is very lyrical, evocative; your drawings are so good.
    Like how you interweave both by exploring ‘draw what you see..’ then ‘write what you see.’
    Blind….like that…HUgs.


  2. I really like how you close many of your posts with questions, engaging the reader and allowing for various thoughts to chime in, and for your own to be questioned and yet put out there while fresh and exploratory. Loved seeing this place, and last summer, made manifest in your drawings too.


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