Just an Eye - But What an Eye !


Contributing Member
I've been watching with a degree of horror the discussion relating to AI vs Art. Frankly, I don't like it - But - as long as a human is involved, by definition it is creativity in action. But the idea of consciousness being involved without a human is somewhat troublesome philosophically if not scientifically.

However it did get me think about what it is that I do and what it is to be a human artist. The urge to portray something or create is as I see it a human trait, stronger in some but still present in all. The last two paintings of mine arrived from quite different processes and motivations. A portrait between them was scrapped until I feel confident to retry. However, the portrait effort reminded me of the quote by Cezanne on Monet about how one sees and observes. Paraphrasing him, " Monet is just an eye - but what an eye". Can AI compete with Monet's eye?

But I digress. I have just realized something that I am 100% sure was understood by Neanderthals, but I have only just twigged. I paint Pleinair quite a lot, I also paint even more in the studio. I often take photos and am 90% of the time frustrated that I cannot "get" the scene using that damn "one eye".
I love landscapes, the great majesty, the depth, width and changing moods - and the camera NEVER gets it for me. Oh, I have seen beautiful landscape photos, stunning even, often manipulated post-photoshoot on the computer or using camera filters - but beautiful all the same. And yes it is true creativity to achieve those heart stopping images.

But it has finally sunk in - that when I paint - I paint a scene, not a SNAPSHOT. My paintings provide a wide-angle, depth, colours and values that the camera cannot achieve. I love to paint big landscapes, I love the BIG vistas, not a vignette. Something where you have to sit, turn your head, refocus on objects and scan the scene. The mind and eye are in a constant process of taking in many aspects of the scene. The only way I can describe it is, to go outside, look at a distant hill or tree - what else do you see? The mind focuses on that object and filters the rest out, you have to then refocus to take in the near view and then the distance fades out. The camera tries to average this and fails (in my view).

Now - This is what I have realised - When I paint, I place all those objects on the paper at once. The near, far, left and right with as close as I can to true colour and value. Of course, I manipulate to "focus" your attention or play with colour - but I give you the whole scene.
Many if not all artists here and I am sure everywhere are doing something similar. I am mindful of those "abstract" artists that bend reality and believe they also do something similar - giving a bigger viewpoint of a subject.
So that is my "revelation". A bit late in life, but I finally get what Cezanne was pointing out. The act of translating what the eye sees is a gift by artists to the world, offering a view of something that in its own way is a "snapshot" - But SO MUCH MORE.
Thanks for tolerating my rant.
May your pencils never run out and your brushes outlive you.
That's a very interesting set of observations (I refuse to call it a rant -- far too reasonable for that)

One could argue that the way human vision works makes it almost impossible to paint a snapshot anyway, because the visual expanse that we experience during 'seeing' is an illusion, involving much infilling and guesswork on the part of the brain (Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained goes into this in some detail).

I don't see the current wave of AI-generated art as threatening (although I can see why some of those who make a living through art/design might feel differently). My reasoning is that the algorithms being used are far removed from the processes used by human artists, and don't currently embody any real sense of creativity. It is more of an information-theoretic collaging of found works -- all very clever technically but extremely superficial.

What would be more concerning/threatening is if (or sadly when, in all likelihood) an AI artist starts to use computational models of human vision to critique its own ongoing creations. Assuming that at some level there are a set of loose principles (e.g. of colour harmony, value relationships, composition, size variation, various tricks to engage and interest the eye/brain, ...) that we follow as humans when creating art, there is little to stop some future generation of AI artist attempting to learn similar principles and apply them, making adjustments here and there just as we humans do. No doubt there are some nascent attempts at doing just that already being explored.

One of the reasons I prefer to paint abstracts (or near-abstracts) is to learn for myself some of the principles that lead to a harmonious and engaging visual experience, in the absence of a representational starting point. One advantage I fondly (or perhaps foolishly) imagine that I possess over an AI artist is a richer experience outside the confines of visual art that I can bring to bear on my painting. For example, I'm taken by the idea of introducing analogies to musical elements (rhythmic interactions, crescendos, etc) into my work. I'm not sure that an AI artist would necessarily take that step without being guided by a human hand. But who knows?

As an optimist I prefer to believe that even in the future the space of potential art will be large enough, and insufficiently explored, to accommodate both human and AI artists, and that our fellow humans will always prefer human-produced artefacts.
It was not my intention to get bogged down in an AI discussion. AI may be a thing to be very cautious about in the future, but for now, I'm more concerned about political rationalists, sensationalists and megalomaniacs.
I rambled on a bit, but this is a little like the "finger pointing at the reflection of the moon....". It was a small insight for me.
The fact that my paintings (some of them anyway), attempt to provide a complete view of a scene where the viewer rests their gaze on the entire experience without having to shift their focus that would disturb the "message". The experience is just as valid for a landscape, portrait, abstract or sculpture. It's a little like the Buddhist "absorption" during meditation - where one is fully engaged with the object.

Anyways, it was somewhat of a revelation for me, that when I experience for instance a landscape, I engage in as much as possible, but it can be a long process looking at many aspects of the scene as separate bits. Then later, my painting becomes a representation of that experience and is often a meditative process that excludes others (as I have been reminded) until it is complete. I am sure others can relate. So, that is what I was trying to express about my moment of "satori". I simply had not thought about this aspect of offering my viewer an experience through my work. God that sounds so self-inflated!! Ok, another way of describing it, my painting in "some way" expresses what I experienced in that scene, and frequently, my paintings don't work as well unless I have actually been to that place.
And by extension, in my view anyway, abstract expressionism fails unless - the artist is trying to express something they have actually engaged in the mind and senses.

I totally get what Cezanne tried to express, and "almost" see Monet's experience in such work as his Waterlilies......
If it relates to AI, so be it, but it wasn't my intention except to point out the differences.
Just an Eye - But What an Eye!" is a phrase often used to describe someone with a keen and perceptive eye for detail. It suggests that although the person in question may only have one eye, their ability to see and observe things is so remarkable that it is equivalent to having multiple eyes.
My version of part of what you're positing, Murray, is that I try to capture the "lyrical", not the "literal". The feeling, not a narrative, even though my painting preference is totally representational and not abstract.

The other thing you're describing is the well researched phenomenon of how we "see". Our eye records like the camera, but the brain interprets it for us. This is most evident when a photographer is fascinated by a tree formation, takes a shot, and is then disappointed with the result because the camera recorded it as a tangled mass, contrasting with the brain which chose a pattern in the tangle. As well as the normal visual process of flitting around a scene in seconds focusing on one spot, then another, then another.

Creating a painting involves a brain interpretation, otherwise you might as well have just shot a snap photo. That is not a swipe at photography (my first major art form); rather a recognition that the skilled photographer understands how to mimic the brain's process of "seeing".

That's why I tell my plein air companions to be careful about being sucked into the panorama, unless they have a strong compositional structure for it. From your comments, you're working at the opposite, I surmise. I prefer to do a panorama in a distilled format, a vignette more in detail.
Hi Bart. I agree that composition is key in big vistas, and it's partly why I am fussy over doing a painting like that unless I can tick the boxes of thirds or gold proportions (in my head). I am also representational, in that I try to pull elements together even if it's a bit of artistic license. My Portugal painting is one such, as it's not "true" but captures the sense of the place. By the same token, Goats Head is kinda vignette (to me) as it's a part of the huge vista. But as an Aussie, I'm somewhat drawn to the "big" views as I am sure some schools of the Americans are (eg Hudson school). I long to go sit in the wetlands of USA or UK to paint both foreground and long views that rise into hills.... And THAT is what I mean. In nature it's so vast you can contemplate parts. In a painting (I think) we can present that majesty in a single composition you contemplate as a whole. The mind does the legwork, not the eyes.
I think we are probably talking the same thing but are each drawn to a slightly different approach.... Just as it should be in art.
Then, maybe I should paint more and do less philosophy 😁