To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
William Blake “Auguries of Innocence”
For many of us, major travel was off-limits during the pandemic. Even though we now can travel, some of us are waiting before considering big trips.
Because I couldn’t travel last year to impressive, new sights, my home became my world. Staying put was my opportunity to observe the magic of the small; it was my opportunity to grow my powers of perceiving.
I discovered that often when I think I see something, I don’t really.
Mostly, I view the world through a filter of concepts, ideas, and words that cloud what I perceive. There’s nothing inherently bad about forming words and concepts–I’ve gotten lots of mileage out of working with them–but they often prevent me from seeing the world with fresh, observational eyes.
Beginning to draw has given me a way to see the familiar freshly and enter into an altered space where, for moments, life around me becomes fascinating.
This shift is so easy, it can happen in the blink of an eye.
Drawing the familiar
For an observational drawing class I’m taking, I’ve been drawing doors, windows, and a few pieces of furniture around my house. These are objects I walk past every day without paying attention.
However, something extraordinary happens when I’m asked to draw a door. I see it anew. I slow down and notice the lines in the moldings, the shadows on the door frame, the angle of the locks. I see where the light catches one side of the door, and shadows fill another. I notice the composition of this small, everyday scene, with a chair, out of place next to the door, and a grandfather clock on the side. My door becomes fascinating. The fact that all is not tidy is irrelevant to the scene.
As someone who didn’t dare to draw for years, capturing a scene challenges me. My lines are squiggly. My proportions and relationships are often off. I can either 1) erase, 2) start again, or 3) say “good enough for now” (a preferred approach). No one is paying me for an exact rendition. Instead, for forty minutes I have fun. I rediscover the familiar. I become calmer and more relaxed. I use my eyes, intuition, and feelings together.
Other approaches: Snapping scenes
Occasionally, I ramble around the property, iPhone camera in hand, and notice small things I wouldn’t normally see. The spirals in clods of manure. The glistening skin of a slug. Orange mushrooms that pop up out of nowhere.
When I walk without the camera, I can increase my observational powers by playing “Snap, Snap.”
Without the camera, I consider what is before me and ask myself, Where am I curious? What looks interesting or charms me? How do lines, shapes and shadows interact?
I let impressions form within me. I imagine a frame around the scene and squint my eyes so I can see forms rather than detail. I consider how the light falls. Then I think, “Snap, Snap.” and record this image.
In many ways, playing “Snap, Snap” is better for my purposes than adding to my online collection of 12,519 photos that meant something to me once, but now hog huge amounts of disk space.
“Snap, Snap” is enough to train my eye.
If you are an artist
If you are an artist, (of course, we all are in our own ways) practicing seeing may not be news to you. You may move into a zone of increased perception with ease. But if you feel limited by the need to produce “good stuff,” then playing “Snap, Snap” or doing a fast sketch, to be quickly discarded, can take off any pressure. The goal is not to make art but increase presence and perceiving.
When it comes to practicing perceiving, my home is my world. There is so much to see, as Blake wrote, in a grain of sand. The next time I travel, perhaps I will see the dandelion sticking out of a brick at Chartres while others are photographing the spires of the Cathedral.
But that’s for the future. Today, I’ll use the power of observing the familiar to open the world where I am.