In his Treatise on Painting, Leonardo da Vinci suggested you could find new ideas by looking at stains on a wall. “Although it seems of little import and good for a laugh,” he wrote, the practice “is nonetheless, of great utility in bringing out the creativity in some of these inventions.”
By looking attentively at old and smeared walls, or stones and veined marble of various colours, you may fancy that you see in them several compositions, landscapes, battles, figures in quick motion, strange countenances, and dresses, with an infinity of other objects. By these confused lines the inventive genius is excited to new exertions.
I used to set down tea bags on an index card, and turn the stain into a drawing:
Leonardo notes that Botticelli used to throw a sponge with wet paint against a wall and find a landscape inside it. This is, essentially, how Ralph Steadman starts his drawings: first, a splash of ink, then seeing what the splash of ink wants to become…
…those sevens looked like ray guns to me!
And later Waters showed off his piece “308 Days,” which is a 3.5 x 9 feet long piece showing about 10 months worth of his crossed-out to-do lists on index cards:
Looking at the scribbles I thought, “Hey, wait a minute that reminds me of…”
Twombly! Waters is a collector, and says he owns over 80 of his books. He keeps the catalog for Letters of Resignation beside his bed. (His housekeeper once told him, “They have the nerve to put this in a book!”) Waters says he loves Twombly because he makes people mad. “This kind of contemporary art hates you too, and you deserve it.”
He explained on Newshour:
I even have a piece that says, “Contemporary Art Hates You.” Because it does, if you hate it first. It’s a thin line. You can’t have contempt about it and go in, but you have to learn, you have to study a little. You have to figure it out. Why these things happen and then suddenly this whole world up– opens up to you. You can see it in a completely different way. It’s like, you were blind before.
The minute you start looking, the world will keep showing you pictures.
PS. Here’s Waters showing off the joke with the sevens:
I lost my voice this week, so my 3-year-old has been
reading reciting his books to me at bedtime. Something about being read to distances me from pages I’ve read hundreds of times. (Literally — the book is in his hands, so I’m further away.) Tonight this page from Little Fur Family caught my eye:
then he reached in the river
and pulled out a fish
and looked at it
He threw it back in the river.
“Look at your fish!” I thought.
Then I remembered Kio Stark telling me that back in 2012 Robin Sloan (author of Sourdough) published an app/essay called “Fish,” a “manifesto about the difference between liking something on the internet and loving something on the internet.” So after the 3-year-old was down for bed, I downloaded the essay and read it.
Robin notes that he returns to his absolute favorite books, music, and movies, over and over again: he re-reads, re-listens, re-watches. But on the internet, he “likes” something and moves on. It’s the act of returning, he suspects, that separates love from like:
And then he gets to the main point of the essay:
That’s right! Robin tells the story of Louis Agassiz’s “Look at your fish” lesson, which I read about in David McCullough’s Paris Review interview, but which is also in McCullough’s 1992 book, Brave Companions.
“We don’t look at our fishes,” Robin writes. “We catch and release.”
Here’s a page from Show Your Work!:
That’s exactly what the Little Fur Child in the story is doing on the page that caught my eye: catching and releasing.
So now I’m thinking about this metaphor of fishing and being on the internet, and it’s falling apart in my head, because catch and release means the fish stays alive — you take a look, then you throw it back into the river and somebody else downstream can catch it later and take a look for themselves. If you hoard the fish, or you eat the fish, nobody else gets to enjoy it. What you really have to do, if you want to really look at your fish is make a copy of the fish — clone the fish! — and then throw it back in the river.
(Ah, but now I might’ve spoiled the surprise (updated) ending of the essay!)
But, for writers, maybe it’s not just returning to the things we love… maybe it’s embedding the things we love in new things that we write that keeps those fish alive. Like what McCullough did with the Louis Agassiz story — he caught the fish, but he released it back into the wild in his book. And then Robin caught the fish and released it in his essay. And I caught it and released it… in this blog post?
Footnotes Stray thoughts
1. Little Fur Family comes right before Goodnight Moon, both of which have to be two of the weirdest picture books ever written, both written, of course, by Margaret Wise Brown, who was pretty weird herself…
2. I probably noticed the page in Little Fur Family because I’ve been obsessed with the way of seeing shown in Lawrence Weschler’s Everything That Rises. It occurs to me, only now, duh, that the fish story, too, is all about Agassiz’s “way of seeing.” (Those are the exact words McCullough uses in Brave Companions.)
3. We haven’t even talked about David Lynch’s Catching The Big Fish: “Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water
I become a little possessed when I read Lawrence Weschler’s Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences. Weschler finds threads between images and shows those images in juxtaposition. Once you start looking this way, you start seeing convergences everywhere.
Books — especially hardcovers that lie flat on a table — are the perfect medium to show such juxtapositions. The pages face each other, like a showdown. The gutter in the middle is a natural break that makes the argument. When you close the book, the images press up against each other.
These are just three random books I happen to have read this week. But after reading them, I’ve noticed a change in my noticing. Some detector has been tripped.
In just the past 24 hours, I took these 3 photos with my cameraphone:
Some juxtapositions are uncanny, some a little farfetched. It’s easy to get carried away. “Sometimes I think I may be getting a little ahead of myself,” Weschler writes, “but the world does keep showing me these pictures.”
“Insight comes, more often than not, from looking at what’s been on the table all along, in front of everybody, rather than from discovering something new.”
In his Paris Review interview, David McCullough talks about how important seeing is to the writer and historian, and how much his training in drawing and painting has been of great benefit to him in his work. “Drawing is learning to see and so is writing.”
He has a motto tacked above his desk: LOOK AT YOUR FISH.
It’s the test that Louis Agassiz, the nineteenth-century Harvard naturalist, gave every new student. He would take an odorous old fish out of a jar, set it in a tin pan in front of the student and say, Look at your fish. Then Agassiz would leave. When he came back, he would ask the student what he’d seen. Not very much, they would most often say, and Agassiz would say it again: Look at your fish. This could go on for days. The student would be encouraged to draw the fish but could use no tools for the examination, just hands and eyes. Samuel Scudder, who later became a famous entomologist and expert on grasshoppers, left us the best account of the “ordeal with the fish.” After several days, he still could not see whatever it was Agassiz wanted him to see. But, he said, I see how little I saw before. Then Scudder had a brainstorm and he announced it to Agassiz the next morning: Paired organs, the same on both sides. Of course! Of course! Agassiz said, very pleased. So Scudder naturally asked what he should do next, and Agassiz said, Look at your fish.
He tells that story in all of his writing classes, and then emphasizes that looking more closely helps you discover new things in old or ordinary material that other people have not:
The chances of finding a new piece [of the puzzle] are fairly remote—though I’ve never written a book where I didn’t find something new—but it’s more likely you see something that’s been around a long time that others haven’t seen. Sometimes it derives from your own nature, your own interests. More often, it’s just that nobody bothered to look closely enough.
Filed under: looking
My friend was at a Cleveland Browns game and a wife turned to her husband and said, “Did you see that??”
“I seen it!” the husband said. “I seen it WITH MY OWN EYES!”
That’s how I felt last night when I caught my first glimpse of Saturn’s rings through my birthday present. So good.
After I wrote about looking at things upside down, a reader relayed what his daughter was learning in army cadet training: “In the field, troops are told to scan from right to left. As we generally read left to right, doing the opposite aids in detecting anomalies in the landscape and potential threats to safety.”
Here’s photographer Dale Wilson (emphasis mine):
One of the first tricks I learned many years ago had nothing to do with photography, but was drilled into me by an army sergeant. It only took a few smacks up the back of my head to learn how to look from right-to-left when scanning a landscape in an effort to see the hidden “enemy” in our mock battles. This process of reverse reading forced me to slow down and read each tree as if it were a syllable I was seeing for the first time. Even today, about thirty years after I called that sergeant every adjective not found in a descent dictionary, I still find myself scanning a landscape from right-to-left.
More on reading right-to-left here.
“Many an object is not seen, though it falls within the range of our visual ray, because it does not come within the range of our intellectual ray, i.e., we are not looking for it. So, in the largest sense, we find only the world we look for.”
—Henry David Thoreau, journal, July 2, 1857
A reader wrote in to tell me my pictures of the moon through my new telescope were beautiful and all, but the moon was upside down. Indeed! When you look through a Dobsonian telescope the image you see is upside down because the mirror in the bottom is curved, as is explained in this video, with a kitchen spoon, some sticks, and a piece of foam:
I didn’t bother altering the image of the moon in the post, because I wanted to show it as it looked through my viewfinder.
I’m reminded of Betty Edwards’ book, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, which includes an exercise that asks the drawer to draw something upside down:
Familiar things do not look the same upside down. We automatically assign a top, bottom, and sides to the things we perceive, and we expect to see things oriented in the usual way – that is, the right side up. For, in upright orientation, we can recognize familiar things, name them, and categorize them by matching what we see with our stored memories and concepts.
When an image is upside down, the visual cues don’t match. The message is strange, and the brain becomes confused.
What you do, when you turn something upside down, is make it strange — when your brain doesn’t know exactly what it is that you’re looking at, you start to really look at the thing and see it with “fresh” eyes.
(A fabulous read on art and optics is David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge.)
As Paul Valéry put it (paraphrased for the title of Weschler’s book on artist Robert Irwin): “To see is to forget the name of the thing one sees.”