This Thing of Seeing Things

“Have You Met Miss Jones?”
The Colors of Jazz Collection
©2020, Molly Larson Cook
30″ x 24″
Acrylic and ink on gallery-wrapped canvas


“This thing of seeing things. All kinds of seeing. Dead seeing. Live seeing. Things that are mere surfaces.
Things that are filled with the wondrous. Yes, color must be seen beautifully, that is, meaningfully, and used as a constructive agent,
borrowed from nature, not copied, and used to build, used only for its building power, lest it will not be beautiful.”

–Robert Henri, The Art Spirit


Sight is, of course, the most important of our five senses for an artist.  But for many artists, and I include myself, there is something almost like a sixth sense when it comes to seeing.

This added sense makes life and the universe interesting, complicated, noisy and at the best of times, gorgeous.

The seeing doesn’t always translate into a painting for me, an abstract expressionist.  But it triggers ideas and makes me reach for my camera to record some image or, especially, some color combination in nature.  A couple of days ago it was the blue of a summer sky against the light and dark green leaves from the trees outside my place.  The colors were intense and beautiful.

Other days, it’s the warm color of dried grass or a red wing blackbird on a tall stalk.  Flowers, of course, provide a palette I love, and often when I’m painting, I feel more than see the flowers in the colors on the canvas.

But it’s not just nature.

An art supply store is like candy to an artist who loves color.  Paints, inks, papers – rainbows of colors, but more than rainbows because for some of us every one of those colors triggers another response.  We think about the blank canvas and about putting any of those colors on that canvas.

For writers, getting down the first words on an empty page is both intimidating and exhilarating.  Some writers will write or type any words at all just to break the whiteness of the screen or the page.  One writer I know always uses green-tinted notebook paper because he says it’s less intimidating than stark white.  I prefer yellow legal pads for writing by hand.

When I gesso a new canvas I always add a tiny bit of color.  The good reason is that it makes it easier to know if I’ve missed any spot with the gesso.  But the other reason is that it takes away the starkness of the canvas.  Still, it’s a bold move to make the first stroke on that wide white surface.  Bold and also exhilarating.

Sometimes the first stroke of color and then the next stroke seem so right, they’re all I need or want on the canvas.  This feeling might last a few minutes or a few days.  I know the painting will change, but it takes another bold move to add more paint and “spoil” the relative perfection.

Of all the things it is, perfect is the one thing art is not.

Perfection in “art” leads to more dead seeing than any other thing.  What we want is live seeing, something that is not mere surface. We want something vibrant, and that vibrancy comes from the colors.  As the work of Mark Rothko demonstrates, the colors do not have to be bright, nor do there have to be many of them, but the right choices will vibrate and engage the viewer in the liveliest seeing.

It’s not easy for an artist to explain what’s on the canvas to someone who doesn’t care for abstract expressionist work.  Mostly we don’t try.  But for the artist, it’s not hard to know that those first strokes are just the beginning.  Those strokes and colors will be there under the layers to come and will have informed the layers in an inexplicable way.  “Underpainting” just doesn’t tell the story.

Some mysteries are to be enjoyed rather than explained.




2 thoughts on “This Thing of Seeing Things

  1. Janice – you’ve just reminded me of one of my favorite school activities – that same rough colored paper. I’ve looked for it since, but probably long gone in the digital age. Thank you for the lovely message. Poetry and art connect us, my sister.

  2. Hi Molly,
    I love this…I remember as a child, among our school supplies was ‘colored paper’ heavyweight, rough-grained, pliable, which was used for drawing special things, or just cutouts for collage. It was one of my favorites. I loved flipping through it and determining what color to choose for a project.
    I guess this is an abstract ramble to a great post, so thanks for the tickle.
    Stay safe, stay healthy, keep writing and keep on creating abstract art.

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