Art of seeing

I still remember it as though it was yesterday. In fact, it was over thirty-five years ago. I was at a meeting in a friend’s house where we were planning an up and coming mission which was jointly sponsored by the various churches in our neighbourhood. I had to bite my lip to stop my enthusiasm from interrupting the flow of the no-doubt useful discussion.

The problem was I had been seated opposite a large bay window and had looking out the window and, well, there was a rather lovely sunset. It was by biting my lip that I stopped myself shouting out as a non sequitur to end all non-sequiturs, ‘Look everybody: when the sun is setting the shadows are on the top of the clouds, not the bottom!’ In the end, I held back from such a moment of deep sharing.

You see, I’d been going to art classes and trying to brush up on my drawing and painting skills. As a consequence, my powers of observation were sharpened and the result was that moment of insight – well, no, actually, it wasn’t an insight but an observation – something quite different.

It has been said that you never truly see something until you have tried to draw it. In my experience there is much truth in this –the regular practice of drawing from observation leads a person to see everything in a fresher, more lively way.

We are only able to see anything at all because light falls on it. Sunlight through a window illuminates an apple on the kitchen table. The apple is three dimensional so there will be  part of it in shadow and on the lit face there may well be a point on intense refection, a highlight. On the table, it casts a shadow and the colours of that shadow are different from those parts of the table that receive the light directly from the window. But even the shaded face of the apple is not uniformly dark as the shadow is modified by some light reflected from the tabletop…

And still we haven’t talked about shape or colour – let alone flavour! One of the challenges of trying to draw something is to draw what you see rather than trying to draw what you think is there.

To see with clarity may be a gift – but it is also a skill that can be developed.  The great British painter J M Turner was once asked about the secret of his genius, he replied, ‘There is no secret – only hard work.’

To see clearly – to be attentive to what is in front of us can be a cause of celebration as we respond to beauty and the wonder of creation. But good observational skills can also enable us to see horror and pain. Both should lead us to prayer.

It has been said that prayer is the greatest act of love. But surely, for it to be this, it must begin with a way of seeing which takes the outer world, the other, seriously. Our own profound thoughts and clever ideas may be important, but prayer begins with seeing beyond ourselves clearly. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning put it:

‘Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries…’

Here we move beyond the surface delights of light and colour to a  ‘meaning’ lit by such beauty. And do we simply stuff the fruit in our mouths or do we wonder at the God of all fruitfulness?

A while back I started attending a new oil painting class. The first term was nearly all still life painting – bowls of fruit, jugs and bottles. One day I muttered the question, ‘When are we going to do some real painting – landscapes and portraits and such like? My teacher showed me a book of art prints which contained a number of paintings by  Francisco do Zurbaran, an early seventeenth century painter who specialised in religious paintings from the bible and the lives of the saints.

Still Life
Zurbaran Still Life

Yet the print he showed me was – yes  – a still life. It was called, ‘Still life with oranges, lemons and rose’ and it took my breath away. First it was the exquisite draughtsmanship – then it was the beauty of what was displayed. And then there was more. The art teacher turned to the minister – the garrulous clown of a novice student – and gently asked, ‘Now Chris, don’t you think that’s sacramental?’

Originally published in The Baptist Times

5 thoughts on “Art of seeing

  1. I have come back to this essay three times now. I also went to the E.B.B. Poem to explore the “Earth’s crammed with heaven” quote. I have decided that you, Rev. Ellis are a pantheist and transcendentalist in the Emerson and Thoreau vein (though obviously not American):). As I have just been teaching these two authors to my high school students (albeit fecklessly), your essay struck a chord so to speak. Elements here echo Emerson’s essay “Nature” and Thoreau’s “Walden.” A poet whom you might like who speaks in a similar way about experiencing/seeing nature leading to the spiritual is Mary Oliver. Check out her poems “Morning Poem,” “Wild Geese” and “Sleeping in the Forest” which are available on line (if you aren’t already familiar with her). As I suspect that I am leaving a comment to someone far more thoughtful and well read than I, I will apologize in advance if what I have written above is inadequate. This is the second comment that I have left on your site, so thanks again.

    1. Wow – No Valerie I’m not a pantheist juyst a Trinitarian Christian – but have you encountered the concept ‘panentheism’ – God IN everythihg , not God = evcerything? Just a thought… Yes I know some of the work of Mary Oliver – she has some wonderful responses to the glory of nature.

      1. Sorry, you lost me with Trinitarian Christian…I kind of thought all Christians were Trinitarians as in believing in the Trinity (Father, son and holy spirit), so I don’t get what distiguishes a Trinitarian Christian from any other Christian. Clearly, religion isn’t my strong point. I liked the essay because much of what I try to do is get students to see differently in the context of teaching American literature which is about as vague as one can possibly get, I know. I actually went to the Baptist Times to try to get a copy thinking I’d have my stuents look for transcendental elements but since I left the comment last year it didn’t work out because I couldn’t even find the Baptist Times on line, and I think now my students would still manage to miss the the point. Somewhere in my head the essay was a modern segue between the transcendentalists and what I wanted my students to do later in the year —that is be willing to see differently to write both poetry and an essay to explore self or the world, to create an authentic voice, to quiet the noise and listen to what is important to them. To write not what they know but to find out what they know (to steal unabashedly from Neil Gaiman). We still did both the poetry project an the essay and it worked out well though I doubt I got my point across to most about seeing differently. Sigh. A teenage audience is a tough crowd needless to say.

      2. Hi Val

        You are right – ‘Trinidadian Christian’ is a bit of a tautology but I was trying to nuance my comment. I’m not up to speed on the history of American philosophy, but wanted to distinguish between some forms of panentheism (which the label ‘Transcendentalism’ might suggest) and a theology in which the Spirit of God is dynamically working in the Creation but in which there is more to say about God than just this…. no words are adequate….
        I’m sorry about the BT wild goose chase, it is now just an on-line weekly via the website of the Baptist Union of Great Britain. The article you were interested in was in its previous paper existence and probably hasn’t been archived on line. Best wishes, Chris

      3. Please don’t apologize for the wild goose chase…after all I do teach teenagers. And you are also correct that panentheism (a new word for the English teacher, so thanks) applies to trascendentalism. I think of it as British Romanticism with an American twist and teach to my students it as such since Emerson was trained minister who traveled to Europe, experienced those poets, lost his wife, gave up the ministry but not the spiritual concepts. Perhaps his most famous quote is “Live the life you have imagined.” I will try to cut and paste the little description from our text with my additions in [ ].

        “transcendentalism, an intellectual movement that emphasized the dignity of the individual and advocated a simple, mindful life. The transcendentalists, led by Emerson himself, [ Thoreau is the other one] wanted to transcend—or go beyond—the limitations of the senses and everyday experience. Key tenets of transcendentalism include
        a theory that “transcendent forms” of truth exist beyond reason and experience; every individual is capable of discovering this truth on his or her own, through intuition [I suppose you would say prayer.]
        a conviction that people are inherently good and should follow their own beliefs, however controversial they may be. [an emphasis on self-reliance, individualism]
        a belief that humankind, nature, and God are all interconnected”. [SO panentheistic, yes?]

        Damn, I promised myself I wouldn’t leave another long response. I think I will conveniently blame you. I can’t resist chewing on the food for thought. Unfortunately, the chewing clearly leads to spewing. Sorry.

        Excerpt From
        Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Literature Grade 11
        Carol Jago
        This material may be protected by copyright.

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