The Eye (Photographer) and the Mind’s Eye (Painter)

When I was a little kid I counted on my brother to make sense of the world. Because he remembered details and knew big ideas. Because he saw the forest for the trees, found the needle in the haystack. Ten years older, somewhat removed, he was my anchor, maybe even my god.

He remains one of the smartest people I know. But nowadays, I see that it’s not just the mind, but the spontaneous assuredness of his heart that makes Bruce who he is. A photographer, he relies on equal measures of heart and mind to find his subjects. His pictures say, “Look right here. I am showing you what matters; out of all the things happening in this place, at this time, this single image contains a whole world of feeling.”

My mind is fuzzier, and perhaps my heart slower to commit. I have tried the camera. But while one eye focuses through the glass there is still that other eye wandering off to catch the left-out things also calling to be included. Something in me doesn’t trust the view finder. I insist on adding the sky when I have already chosen the fish. I want the string flying past in the blue bird’s beak and the raw broken branch stuck in the dark distant oak and the old man that already walked by. Altogether. I want to look up even as I am also looking down or behind or before, or especially within.

And so, I paint.

It’s a curious difference, the image snapped, stolen even, in a split second by the camera, and the other kind laid down in layers of paint over time. The experience is different all around—for the makers, the viewer, for the thing being ‘seen’. But they aren’t exclusive experiences. Each contains a bit of the other.

Bruce ‘s eye was drawn to this mother and toddler. When I saw the photo, I experienced a flood of feelings and I knew I wanted to look further. I wanted to see what the mother was seeing. Painting slowed things down, let me be for a while, that mother. As I painted, more images emerged; my eye seized on these and I tried to hold them–loosely but securely– to the canvas.

I think this whole process is an extension of the way things work inside us. Like the photographer, our human eye retrieves the images it favors. The resulting ‘snapshot’ enters the mind’s eye, which is the body. Like the painter, the body responds all over again, feeling a flood of related memories, dreams, and fantasies—-more images. And more feelings.

So it is that we painters proceed. Moving between that light-sensing eye and the mind’s eye, feeling our way in the paint til we’ve made some kind of Sense of the world.

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