Look Closer

Today I was referred by Kyle Steed to an interesting article, which spoke to how people, in their rush to take an iPhone picture to memorialize something beautiful, fail to even see what they're snapping a picture of. How true I've found this to be in my own life. I had to make a conscious decision that if I want to enjoy being somewhere, if I want to enjoy being with people, not to have my phone camera on. Just let it be the experience and not worry about capturing a photo, because doing so is more of a distraction than an engagement. The article quotes John Ruskin, a 19th-century sketching advocate and critic of the medium of photography:

"No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace."

So, then, is art a wedge and a distraction? If you're making art instead of experiencing something, are you preventing yourself from experiencing it deeply?

I think it should be quite the opposite.

Though Ruskin promoted sketching and drawing is the surefire way to look at things closer (and I don't necessarily disagree), I think the idea can be expanded: art in every form, even one Ruskin thought as uninterested in detail as photography, ought to require you to look closer. There are a lot of times, however, as in the case of the mobile photography, where the media you're using will distract you from the beauty you're trying to portray. If it is a distraction rather than a deeper engagement, then I don't know if I call it art. That's the distinction I make between art and entertainment: art is for engagement, entertainment is for distraction.

In every medium I work with, I do whatever it takes to slow down. Read: I do everything to make the process more slow, more difficult, more careful. That instant gratification of "I took a picture" or "I made some music" or "I designed a poster" can be so dangerous. It rewards ease of use rather than depth of understanding. As a practice, I ask myself, "Did you do it that way to make it easier or to make it better?"

The first step to this is literally, physically slowing down. Go somewhere you're surrounded by nature. A river, a forest, a river in a forest, beautiful rock formations--something not man-made. Here's the hard part: don't try to see everything. Stop and pay attention to one thing at a time. Do you remember when you were a kid? When you used to be fascinated with every detail? I think you've forgotten some of them.

The next step is artistically slow down. When you're making art, think about what the slowest way to do what you're doing would be. For instance, as Ruskin suggests, instead of taking a photograph, draw with a pencil. Even if you're bad at it. That's not the point: the point is to look closer. When you're taking a photograph, you don't always have to look at every detail. You don't have to obsess over the tiniest veins of the leaf. But to capture it in a drawing, you have to individually represent every line and stroke and shadow. This can even be applied to a lesser extreme. Instead of taking a photo with your iPhone, try using an all-manual, all-mechanical film camera.

Let two persons go out for a walk; the one a good sketcher, the other having no taste of the kind. Let them go down a green lane. There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals. The one will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect; and that’s all! But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light. He will see here and there a bough emerging from the veil of leaves, he will see the jewel brightness of the emerald moss and the variegated and fantastic lichens, white and blue, purple and red, all mellowed and mingled into a single garment of beauty. Then come the cavernous trunks and the twisted roots that grasp with their snake-like coils at the steep bank, whose turfy slope is inlaid with flowers of a thousand dyes. Is not this worth seeing? (John Ruskin, emphasis mine)

When you look closer, when you slow down and allow your art to more deeply engage with the reality you're in, you can express that reality with such an understanding. Affection toward every part of your creation and God's creation leads you to open your eyes and places you into the posture of wonder, which, ultimately, is the definition of worship. When you start looking closer, using your art to do so, and you notice the most beautiful details, each hidden and beautiful, John Ruskin said it right: Is this not worth seeing?

You can read John Ruskin's book, The Elements of Drawing (where all those dazzling quotes came from), for free right here.

How do you make yourself look closer in your artistic practice?

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