“Seeing” – The Missing Link to Becoming a Great Painter?

by Leslie Miller in Thoughts on Painting

I have long said that I can teach color mixing and brushwork, but I cannot teach seeing. But perhaps I am wrong! Let’s find out…

“Seeing” is a specific skill that can be practiced and improved on, as important as brushwork or color mixing or any other painting skill. I am using the word “seeing” here with a specific context. Read on for some examples!


If you are working from a reference photo, it’s important to assess or describe that photo before painting. Describing is the first step on the path to seeing because it forces you to focus on every aspect of the photo, both as a whole and in detail. The more you describe, the more you will see. The more you see, the more you can capture whatever it is that draws you to this specific reference. 

PRO TIP: Learning to describe a photo or painting using artist’s terminology will help you immensely. Warm vs cool colors, values, saturated color vs neutralized color, hard edges vs soft, etc. You’ll see why shortly.

To get started, you could ask yourself:

  1. What do I like/love about this photo? Generic answers such as “I like the colors,” or “I like this boat, or “It reminds me of a Monet,” do not provide useful information. Learning to describe what you see and why you like/don’t like it is crucial to this process. Study your photo to find everything about it that makes it paint-worthy. After all, you chose it for a reason.
    1. “I like how the complementary colors of yellow/purple make the painting pop.”
    2. “I like the way the sunlight illuminates one area of the painting while the rest is in shadow.”
    3. “I like the way the posts used to be red but have obviously faded over time. I wonder how I might mix that faded red color…”
    4. “I like the warm sunny feel/the cool moody feel/the bright springtime feel, etc.” Go deeper…What specific aspects of the painting give it that feel? If you don’t know, how can you capture it?
    5. “I like the abstract pattern of the crisscrossing tree branches.”
    6. “I like how the trees throw shadows on the wall; I like that pattern of light and dark.”
    7. “I love the way the distant hills seem to be melting into the sky.”
  1. Ask yourself: how would I approach painting this photo? Giving this some thought beforehand, while studying your reference, gives you vital information about how to successfully proceed …
    1. How would I start it? Which techniques or tools do I want to use?
    2. Do I want to crop some parts out to focus on one area?
    3. Do I want it detailed and realistic, loose and impressionist?
    4. Where are the darkest values? The lightest?
    5. Do I need to sketch/trace it out first to ensure I keep these interesting shapes and lines?

Once you really see the photo and know what about it excites you, you can create your own version of it in your style. Keep checking your reference photo to capture nuances in shape, value, texture, etc, as you go along — if these are the aspects of the reference you need to recreate to capture it’s essence. 

PRO TIPStand back frequently while painting to look at your work in progress. Compare it to the reference photo (also from a distance). Are your overall values accurate? Your shapes? Each time you step back, notice if you are starting to capture the important aspects of the photo… as previously determined BY YOU!


  1. Am I creating a sense of distance? If not, what do I know about atmospheric perspective that would allow me to create more distance?
  2. Do the objects in the painting have interesting variety, or are all my clouds, trees, flowers, or rocks the same shape/size/color? How can I vary them? Do I have overlapping shapes? 
  3. Is my brushwork smooth/blended where I want a calm area and lively/bold/interesting where it needs to show motion, texture, or express the form of an object?
  4. Have I kept enough of my darks to add a convincing sense of depth?
  5. Am I happy with how it’s coming along? If not, WHY NOT? How can I use artist terminology to explain how it looks or what I don’t like… because doing this will frequently give you the clues on how to fix it!


Some questions to help assess your finished painting:

  1. What is working in the painting, what do I really like, and what do I feel needs more work? Why? Reactions such as, “It’s boring,” tell you nothing. “It looks like a child painted it,” tells you nothing. “Aah, it’s okay,” tells you less than nothing. Use descriptive words—we all have excellent vocabularies!
  2. Did I capture the FEEL of the reference photo? (If yes, great. If not, what is different, what is it missing, what could I do to capture that feeling?)
  3. Do I have a good range of light to dark values, do I have the important shadows and highlights; are they light/dark enough to make an impact in the painting (from a distance of 4-6 feet)? 
  4. Do I have rich, juicy colors (whether brights or neutrals)? Does any area/object need another layer to give me the look I want?
  5. Does any part of the painting keep attracting my attention? If so, is it a part I want to pop or is it a part that keeps sticking out to me in a not-so-good way. Does it bother me every time I look at it? How would I describe the problem area? Does the description give me a clue how to fix it?

I like to leave my “finished” painting out where I will see it all the time. Sometimes I make minor adjustments for days, which can add up to major improvements. If you are unhappy with a piece and don’t know why, you could put it out of sight for a couple of days/weeks/months, then pull it out again. Sometimes what a painting needs becomes more obvious with time and more experience. 

I am not trying to teach you to make a photo-realistic copy of a photograph; not at all! There’s no law that says photos must be copied; they can be used as inspiration or a jumping off point for something else. However, the ability to capture the essence of a scene is an important skill; one that will make you much happier with your work. That’s why artists throughout history learned by copying the works of the Masters before them.

We are so lucky that we now have an entire world of online art and photography to teach us value, perspective, balance, & color harmony, if we can only learn to SEE them!

Many of my students cannot assess or describe their own work. They can take it to a certain point, but don’t know how to make the kind of  improvements — large or small — that could really give it that wow factor.  The more you can describe both the reference photo and your own work, the clearer you’ll become over time about what your paintings need. Describing is the first step to seeing more! This type of self-assessment helps you learn to “see” like an artist…

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject…


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