I had a college painting prof who annoyed his students regularly by telling us, "You paint with your eye, not your hand." It seemed ludicrous to me then. Yet, I've quoted him more than any other instructor I've had.
He was right. The best painter, the best artist in general, never trusts his brain. He looks again and again at the subject. He squints at it, studies it, steps away and comes back, but he does not trust his mind's memory or interpretation of that object, that scene, whatever it may be. The artist knows that his brain lies. The brain fills in details that aren't really there, details that it has imagined to make a picture more attractive, more exciting, more like another picture it's already seen, more bright or more dark or more—you get the idea.
The paintings I've done with which I've been most pleased are the paintings where I've been scrupulously, meticulously loyal to the true image before me. Those paintings challenged me more than others, because they forced me to question my existing internal photo album. My favorite cow painting troubled me at first, because the cow's ears seemed too low. But they really were that low. And when I accepted their actual location on the beast's head, and represented them the way they really look, I was happier with the finished result. Similarly, I did a flower painting last year that bothers me to this day. I didn't follow the real image; I made the petals too small, because in my mind, there were so many petals. In the photo? Not so many. But they were densely packed together, and my brain created far more than actually existed, and I got carried away...and then I was too emotionally committed to the existing half-finished painting to go back and start again from scratch.
I keep finding that life is like that, too. That's why I keep on quoting that darned professor. You really do paint with your eye. You see with your eye. And when you shut your eyes, or simply stop looking, you are certain to misrepresent the things before you, even those things upon which you've gazed more times than you can count. Your brain will happily conjure inaccurate detail after inaccurate detail, and your brain will like it. But it will not be truth. It will be what you wish were true.
I think back over my life, and I ponder situations that don't make me proud, periods of time I try to avoid recalling. I consider decisions that I've made—most of which have consequences that remain. I remember warning signs that were there all along, the same clear signs I stepped over and around in order to reach my destination. I saw those signs, registered them, and then I pushed them out of the way to grasp only what I wanted from the picture before me. I let my brain blur and darken the parts of the image that bothered me, that didn't seem right, the parts that did not quite match the ideal I'd already created inside my head. And down the road, when I could no longer deny what was quite clear, I was too committed to start over.
I need to embrace the "wiping of the canvas" mentality. I need to understand that my eyes will grow sharper when I admit to what they show me—even if it means wiping clean the canvas over which I've labored. It's hard to do, but liberating as well. At least, I've heard that it is. Now, please excuse me while I avert my gaze.