Art Therapy Training – Observation

Perception is not reality

Training for Therapists: Learning to observe

A bit of theory

In this excercise we focus on the first and formost important preliminary step for a deep understanding of any artwork: give up our intellectual categories.

The goal is to train yourself to get free from the interpretation of reality, in order to observe “what is”, rather than “what we expect to see”.

This excercise is particularly difficult for anyone with a higher education or strong intellect, as we tend to apply our cultural filters to what we see. It’s not a case that children are generally the ones who do this exercises best, as they still have the wonder of discovery.

As a child, I could get lost for hours looking at the everchanging shape of the clouds.

Step by step exercises

Let’s start with practice. We will begin with observing a scene of choice, possibly not people, as it’s more difficult for beginners. The landscape with the tree below is just an example for clarity’s sake.

Tip: Keep your eyes half-closed during the exercises, it helps to blur distracting details, and focus on the single steps.

1. Observe a landscape

Choose a scene you like, and make sure you are relaxed and focused. Stay in the moment and avoid any thoughts.

Art is different from meditation: while meditation focuses more on the inner world, here the attention remains completely open to the outside.

2. Observe the proportions

Start by spotting the main lines and proportions of the scene, don’t focus on any detail.

Noteworthy examples in Art: Greek Temples, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Pythagoras’ Golden Section.

3. Observe the shapes

Usually this is the easiest part, as most are already used to perceive what they see through lines and shapes.

Noteworthy examples in Art: M. C. Escher’s Geometric Designs and Optical Illusions, or any sketch with pencil.

4. Observe the shades & lights

Now half-close your eyes in order to blur any detail from your attention. Just try to see the main areas of shades and light.

Noteworthy examples in Art: Leonardo Da Vinci, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Charlie Chaplin.

5. Observe the colors

Again with eyes half-closed, focus this time only on the main colors of the scene.

Noteworthy examples in Art: Pointillism Paintings, Vincent Van Gogh, Kandinsky.

The challenge of observation

I observe… but what happens if I think at the same time?

You don’t see anymore.

Focusing on your thoughts blurs the external reality. Actually you are perceiving your inner world, but you are not fully aware of what you are seeing with your eyes.

Examples of perceptive deception

The following optical illusions show the deceiptive nature of perception, which is flawn by our interpretation. A simple shift in our perspective, changes what we see in the blink of an eye.

The first three images each represent two different subjects, creating an optical illusion according to how you look at them. The last image is an example of impossible architecture by M.C. Escher.

Click on the images to enlarge the details:

Young or Old Woman? My Wife and my Mother in Law
Young or Old Woman?
Oleg Shuplyak - Illusion of two Birds
Bird or Leaves?
Tom French - Painting
Face or People?
M. C. Escher - Waterfall
Up or Down?

If you have questions, you can write your comments below.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are these excercises difficult?
It depends. The more you are used to rely on your intelligence, the bigger is the “Challenge of observation”. In my personal experience, for people who find pride in their education, the mental switch is difficult.

How much time does it take me to learn?
Depending on the challenge mentioned above, it can take you anywhere between one hour, day, week… or never without the proper guidance. As an example it took me one day to master the exercises, but only because as a painter, I was already trained “to observe without thinking”.

This article contains a preview of the book “Manual of Artherapy“.

Written by

Francesco Castronovo

It's nice to meet you, and welcome to my world.
I have 3 passions in life: Art, Psychology and Spirituality. I find deep meaning in my life by helping others with my life experiences, and leave them something to remember. Learn more »

1 thought on “Art Therapy Training – Observation”

  1. Thanks Francesco for this simple and effective explanation. It is amazing how in the moment in which I switch on my brain I lose the feelings I had before ;)


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