Vision and the ability to see the world around us is very important to us. A large portion of our brain is dedicated to making sense of what we see around us. We also know that the brain has many short cuts and streamlining tricks to limit the amount of detail that we need to directly observe to make decisions about what we need to do next. If we catch sight of a long thin shape at the edge of the path our brain might jump to the conclusion that it’s a snake and our body is put on alert before we get a better look and realize that it’s only a garden hose. This is adaptive and useful although we might feel silly. Our brain also tends to gloss over what might be just ordinary and routine and so often we don’t really see what is around us.
In my career as a field biologist we have a term called search image. When we go out to the field and we are looking for something rare or uncommon, often we rely on sketches, drawings or descriptions to get a mental picture of what we are looking for and what habitat it likes. Often I can walk past what I am looking for because I am not being observant enough to notice that first one or I am convinced that for some reason the habitat is not right. Then you will see the first one, the search image in the mind gets refined and then it gets easier to see the rest of the population. Many species of plants and animals are cryptic and camouflaged and it takes finding that first one to make the hunt a success.
Alternately, I often have hiked on pieces of property with the express intent of determining if there is anything special on the property that has conservation value. In that case it is helpful to have a familiarity with what is common and an open mind to what might be unusual, uncommon and significant. As a conservation biologist I find that my art, watercolor painting, has been good training for actually seeing and observing the world around me in more accurate ways.
Art is often used to express ideas, impressions or emotions that are otherwise difficult to envision in any other way. To learn to be an artist is to learn to see more deeply and understand what is being seen more accurately. When painting a subject or a nature scene it helps to break the shape into its component shapes, assign each shape a value of light to dark and a color. Then the design needs some thought to consider what is the focal area and what parts of the scene are distractions and can be deemphasized or left out. All of this requires looking at the subject to see what is actually there and not to assume what is there. Unless the art is abstract, making careful observations, even close measurements and careful drawing if often the difference between success and failure.
Using the eyes of an artist I notice more detail and also the impression that it makes on me. The switching to the biologist I can help make art that is accurate and respectful of natural form and function. Art also has the ability to let me play in the abstract to try and capture something on paper that I would not be able to photograph or describe. I believe that art makes be a better biologist and being a biologist informs my art.
Note: Ken Bridle’s watercolors can be seen at Wellspring Mountain – a holistic retreat center in Surry County, and on display at Hanging Rock State Park in November-December 2016.