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Sparks of Genius: Observing

Sparks of Genius: Observing


Students will become aware of their own observation capabilities and where their observation skills may be lacking. Students will also learn what makes a 'great observer' and be given opportunities to practice their observation skills.

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Observation, You, & Georgia O'Keefe

What is observing and what makes it such a powerful tool? Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines 'observing' as to: "Notice or perceive (something) and register it as being significant" and to "watch (someone or something) carefully and attentively." In Sparks of Genius by Robert & Michele Root-Bernstein, they go beyond what the dictionary says. They say that observing is both looking and seeing

Before you move any further, answer these questions:

1. What does it mean to "look"?

2. How is looking different than "seeing"?

Artist Georgia O'Keefe recalls the first time she decoded a difference in "looking" and "seeing". Noted in Sparks of Genius on p. 32, O'Keefe says that her teacher once held a Jack In The Pulpit plant up and began to  talk about the plant in detail, pointing out "strange shapes and variations of color, from the pale whitish green in the flower through the heavy green of the leaves." She also says that you can look at a flower, but to actually "see" it--that takes time and patience. Let's continue this idea by looking at photos of a Jack In The Pulpit flower.

This (above) is a simple drawing, almost an outline of the Jack In The Pulpit. Does this image look like someone was "looking" or "seeing" this plant when they were observing it? Now look at the next image. Notice the change in value (light & dark) of the green. Notice the direction of line changing along the leaf. Notice the plants form, and the small vein-like lines on the leaf top. Is the image below demonstrating "looking" or "seeing"? Why?

On the day that Georgia O'Keefe was shown the intricacies of a Jack In The Pulpit plant, she went from observing in simple manner to observing in a new way, noticing fine details from color change to line arrangement. The best lesson from Georgia O'Keefe is that there is, in fact, different ways of observing. You can either "look" briefly or you can "see" for a good while.

The "seeing" type of observation takes more time and effort, but will give you more insight into your subject on whatever project you are working on in class. Georgia O'Keefe spent time "seeing" the pulpit plant, and her results in her art show indefinitely. Jack In The Pulpit II, 1930, shows how O'Keefe's "seeing" allowed her to pay attention to detail and retain more intricate characteristics of the pulpit flower. 

Georgia O'Keefe learned in an instant, in a moment of observation, how attention to detail and taking time to "see" things changed her whole artistic perspective. It even inspired most of her works. 

1. Think of a time when you took time to "see" something, like O'Keefe did with the flower. How did this observation differ from a moment when you only "looked"?

2. What have you learned from Georgia O'Keefe's experience with the flower?

3. How can you change the way you observe and how will that help you when you create art?

Source: Sparks of Genius by Robert & Michele Root-Bernstein. Text.

Observing Then & Now

Joe Navarro, a former FBI Counterintelligence Agent, discusses the act of observing in our history. Our ancestors relied on sensory detail to survive because they traveled in small groups and had more danger to worry about. Nowadays, we are safer, we live in close proximity to one another--the need to "look, watch out, and pay attention to the details around us" is fading. Navarro asks, "Have we become observationally lazy?". Think about it. In a world where staring is impolite, it makes sense that we stop observing people as closely as we could. How are your observational skills? Do you notice what is around you?

Navarro continues on to say, "Observation is no less important now than it was ten thousand years ago. The only difference is now we have to do it more quickly and more efficiently because we may run into fifty strangers in a day where our ancestor saw but a few. We can improve this skill, we can even teach it to our children, but like everything else, it takes effort" So before you say you CAN'T learn to observe, you should know that you CAN. Just like Georgia O'Keefe and learning to "see" the pulpit plant.

1. What types of things have hindered your ability to observe? 

2. How can you push away those distractions to make way for better observation?

3. What characteristics make a great observer? List them.


What Makes A Great Observer?

As we learned from O'Keefe, the number one factor in great observation is time. Without time, you are limited to a simple "look", rather than a "see". Great observers are born as lookers. After studying subjects so long and for so many times, their brain becomes accustomed to the art of seeing--and they pick up small details, shapes, lines, colors, values--much faster. This is because they have learned the patterns of detail, they know when to expect detail, and they know where to look. 

Artist Andrew Newton paints hyper-realistic style portraits, capturing everything from pores to blemishes to the tiniest of wrinkles. His portraits require more than just a "look". They require him to study, to make mental notes, and to understand the details of the subject's face. His portraits require "seeing". View two of his pieces below to see his observational skills at work. Titled "Phil" and "Cathy".

Newton is an awesome example of an observer. Like O'Keefe, he takes what he sees in small chunks, and almost digests it into his own understanding. In the example of O'Keefe, she listened to her teacher study the details of the flower. As soon as she learned how complex a flower could be when she really looked at it, she knew to look for that kind of detail the next time.  Don't expect yourself to be a perfect observer right away. It takes patience, practice, and all kinds of of time. It's a process in the works, give yourself challenges, give yourself time, find interesting subjects, get up close, collect every detail--and soon you will find yourself closer than ever to your subjects without even pulling out a microscope.