In the arts, a distinction is often made between looking and seeing. Looking is referred to as a passive act where we simply glance at something with our eyes, whilst seeing is a more active process that involves paying attention to and being aware of what we see. In short, there is a difference between what we look at and what we actually 'see', or are aware of. According to Rolf Kuehni, in his book Color Ordered (1), we are aware of only 1/250,000 of all the visual information passing from the eye, to the brain. To put that in context, if all the visual information that we take in is equal to the 100 yards of the football field, we are conscious of only 1.5% of an inch of it! Quite simply, we are missing a lot. Though the visual system tends to focus on what is most necessary and important - seeing more can enhance our awareness and provide added richness of the visual world. The image below is a good example – when you look at it, what do you see? (the answer is at the end of this article)
Fig. 1 Ambiguous image
Another example is the Fed Ex logo. Can you see the hidden symbol in it? The symbol was put there intentionally by its designer in 1994. If you look at the Arabic version, it is easier to see, because the letters are ambiguous: To people who don’t read Arabic, anything recognizable will stand out.
Fig. 2 Fed Ex logo in English and Arabic
What applies to these examples, also applies to color. Take shadows for example. Historically speaking, most Europeans thought of shadows as variants of black or grey. This is evident in the art of the last several millennia. So, when Claude Monet and the Impressionist painters began painting colored shadows – people were not only puzzled; they were shocked. To depict such things undermined their trust in all that was good and true in art. Painting had an honorable tradition, defined by the great Art Academies of Europe. The Impressionists challenged this tradition, through their technique, subject matter, and color. What Monet did was to educate people about seeing color in the world – to make us see rather than simply look. By adding greens, blues and violets to his shadows (fig.3), he challenged received notions of color, and habitual ways of thinking. As anybody who works with color knows, we can train and develop our ability to see color. For the Impressionists, this happened at a cultural scale. How did they discover this? They simply went outside and observed. Nearly all landscape painting before the 19th century was done indoors, in the artist’s studio, based on sketches and notes. When artists went outside to observe the changing effects of light and shadow they paid attention to atmosphere, and changing light throughout the day and the year. And they saw color where others didn’t.
Fig. 3 Claude Monet, Haystack series (1891) Depicting the how colors change in different lighting conditions.
One common technique used in art schools is to ask students to concentrate on a single color for an entire day. By focusing on yellow for example, not only do they notice traffic lights and road signs, they suddenly see yellows everywhere and in great variety. They see it in clothes, shoes, cars, houses, animals, reflections: Lemon yellow, golden yellow, earthy yellow, fluorescent yellow. They become acutely aware of being surrounded by yellows that they never noticed before. And this is one of the great things about the aesthetics of color – when we look for it, we become more immersed in the world – we see more, we notice more, we connect more. Aesthetics has become a sub-branch of philosophy and very opaque to understand. But we can return to its original meaning (aesthesis in Greek) by considering its use in our everyday language. The word an-aesthetic for example, refers to going to sleep, and closing down the senses. Aesthetics therefore becomes a way to wake up, to see more and to feel more, and to fully experience the visual richness of our ordinary, daily experience. Color can connect us to our world. Not only can we learn to see color, but in turn, color can teach us to see.
(*Answer – a cow looking at you!)
(1) Kuehni, Rolf G. and Schwarz, Andreas. 2008 Color Ordered: A Survey of Color Order Systems from Antiquity to the Present. Oxford University Press: New York. p.4