Seeing and Looking 1: Look Out!

Seeing and Looking 1: Look Out!



Look Out! or, The Enchanted Gaze.


Seeing is becoming aware with our eyes: noticing and discerning. We  sift visual information, sieving light reaching the retina through a mesh woven from memories, recognising patterns and identifying anomalies very quickly. Emotional memory ‘sieving’ primes attraction or repulsion.

The sifting happens mostly automatically: we only become aware of what is sieved out as relevant.

Seeing is co-created by light from ‘out there’ and its categorisation in terms of previous experiences ‘in here’. It is a psychological action, but with conscious visual awareness as the last step. We would be overloaded without the filters but, especially as we age and have seen more and more things, and have more and more dismissive categories, we can easily sieve out and dismiss our capacity for enchantment and find the world has gone flat.

In looking, we direct our eyes, gaze steadily and with intent. It is also something we do, an action. We often don’t notice the choice in where, how and why we direct our gaze. Learning to be as conscious as possible of looking as an activity enriches being in the world: one of the first things most people notice when they try is that ‘out there’ is fascinating, and often breathtakingly beautiful.  Repeated experiences of this, in time, percolate back to the sifting process of seeing as the internal model adjusts. We can prime ourselves to see beauty: the more you look the more you see. Life is better. Educated looking is the best succour and consolation in depression I know. Art is the best teacher of looking:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

Looking and seeing are processes, a braiding of visual events and what we bring to them, a reciprocal, back and forth interaction of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’, each affecting how we experience the other. These are dynamic, fluid, and complex processes, and therefore perhaps more open to change once we are aware of them, than more fixed systems of perceiving the relationship between ourselves and the world, for example pain. (Pain transmitting nerves are either ‘on’ or ‘off’ and are not evenly distributed. A pin in your back might not hurt at all, but one in your lip will, and the level of discrimination is hardwired. We can’t direct it. Most aspects of looking and seeing we can.)

Art Therapists have not generally taken a great deal of interest in the possibilities for psychological change and emotional relief in observational art making, and TV shows like Landscape Painter of the Year even less so. I have benefited from it enormously personally, and seen others do so.


Images are sometimes praised for ‘capturing’ something. : it sounds aggressive and possessive, like the ‘something’ has been snared, or brought down with a tranquilising dart. Perhaps educating our looking and seeing through image making allows us to be captured, (captivated even), by something instead. That feels like coming up for air if inner immersion is threatening to sink us, as it does in depression.


 The image: Reflections and a slightly puzzling picture seemed appropriate.

Posted by Malcolm Learmonth
15th March 2016

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