Cheetah Vision is a term that I use to describe the artistic ability to focus on very specific features during the creative process.
As I train Watercolor Painters in this ability to work with and develop the Middle Values in their painting process… it requires a specific way of “looking at” and “evaluating” the subject. And just as a Cheetah is able to focus on one single Zebra in a stampeding blur of stripes and dust… artists must learn how to focus their unique artistic vision and decision-making… on selected parts of their subject… to the exclusion of everything else.
In the practice of Classical Yoga, this process is referred to as Ekagrata… the ability to focus ones attention on one specific idea, sound, object etc., to the exclusion of everything else.
Here in America… the concept of ekagrata in Yoga is often mistakenly described as concentration. But the word concentration usually implies something that exhibits a great deal of physical exertion, a frowned forehead, and great willful effort. However… the yogic term – ekagrata… implies something more akin to the experience we have when when we are totally engrossed and quietly absorbed in reading a book. It’s not about “intense effort” but rather… very attentive focus.
And for artists… this observation skill is incredibly important.
If you can’t see the differences in a subject… how are you going to paint it?
I began learning how to paint in transparent watercolor when I was 16-17 years of age back in high school… by working with one of the most famous watercolor instruction books ever… “Ways with Watercolor” by Ted Kautzky. Kautzky was an amazing master of transparent watercolor. And he had an extraordinary ability to create correct color values in his watercolors.
So profound was his visual ability to observe, analyze, and accurately evaluate the precise values of a color in Nature that he actually painted backwards. Most watercolor painters paint from light 2 dark… whereas Kautzky did the opposite. He painted from the darkest to the lightest.
Instead of building a watercolor from very light pale washes… gradually building up the values until eventually arriving at the full range of darks… Kautzky usually started with the Darkest Darks in the subject!
Here’s one of his watercolors. Would you have started a painting like this by painting the dark trees on the right… including their cast shadows falling over the road?
Many years ago when I began trying to actually teach Watercolor… I soon realized how problematic this whole issue of Color Values was for most artists. So over the years I have gradually refined my own painting process and the way I train artists today… by trying to make this issue of Color Values far easier and more accurately predictable.
I never had the opportunity to train with Ted Kautzky, nor have I ever met any artists who actually did in fact train with him. I have come to realize that Kautzky was a far better painter than teacher. And his books, as great as they are, relied so much on his extraordinary natural abilities in terms of values… that he tends to assume that we have a similar skill set! So as I began working with more and more artists… I had to evolve a much easier way to arrive at what Kautzky did so effortlessly.
The Key is in the Darkest Darks
Over the years I have simplified what Kautzky did by focusing on one single visual element of any potential painting subject… the very darkest elements in that subject!
Here’s a photo I took on my last trip in the Himalayas. I liked that Trumpet Vine and the cast shadow falling over the wall and ground. So I took a quick photo as we drove through a tiny village called Bartok on our way up to Gangotri.
Now… I want you to focus on only the darkest features in this photo. And I want you to observe several things about those darkest features.
First of all… there is not much of this image that is very dark! About 90% of this image is actually all middle values! And then… How dark are these darkest features?
It’s actually quite difficult to determine just how dark these dark areas are. In the photo they all look pretty much the same dark to me? And this brings me to a very important fact for artists working primarily from photographic reference images to create their paintings.
The darks in all photos… tend to merge towards very dark.
Why is this important to know?
Because I want you to evaluate just how dark the darkest elements are.
Why? So that you don’t make the mistake of painting the very same dark color into the foreground… middle distance… and the far distance. That’s why we’re doing this! When you paint the same degree of dark into any two… or all 3 of the three visual planes… you are actually flattening the illusion of depth.
If I were painting this Trumpet Vine gate… I would purposefully alter the darkness in the darks we see here in this photo. They all look the same to me. But when I paint it… I won’t make that mistake! I’ll fix it. Because I’m an artist… and I know what I’m doing. And so should you!
Let’s look at another subject in this same way…
Remember… pay close attention to only the darkest visual elements in this photo. That’s the very first step.
And as soon as you do… you can easily see how the darkest parts of this subject are in the shaded areas of the elephants body. And so if I were going to try and paint this image… I instantly would realize that it’s all about the middle values. The darkest elements are indeed important… but it’s really all about how I paint the middle values.
And in fact… I have painted this subject. And you’ll notice how I worked the darker brushwork up under the elephant’s head. I purposefully avoided copying the darks in the photo. Because that would have drawn your eyes back down underneath the elephant to its back leg. And I wanted the focal area to stay up in the head & trunk.
You… as the artist… the painter… have to first… identify where these darkest areas are in your subject. And then… you have to determine whether or not you want to change them in the painting. If you can’t see them… and think about them… you’ll simply paint them all the same in your painting.
I want you to create better paintings. And to do that… you have to open yours eyes… engage your Cheetah Vision… and give it some thought!
Putting Cheetah Vision to the test
The idea here is for Watercolor painters, especially those working in Transparent Watercolor, to develop a new way of working… when either looking for new painting ideas in photo reference… or actually focusing on an idea or a reference image that you think might make a good painting.
Here’s a photo I took in late afternoon in a famous Himalayan hill station in North India. So if I’m going to paint this idea… I want to know 2 things immediately… Where are the darkest features… and how dark are they? And I see that the darkest features are all on this right side of the composition. But the “near darkest darks” extend down into those figures in the middle of the lane. There’s a few other features that are dark. But the vast majority of this painting will be middle value brushwork. Once I recognize where the darks are going to be… the very next step is to shift my focus 180 degrees… from the darkest areas of the image… to 3 other features… the whitest… lightest… brightest features.
Whitest… Lightest… and,,, Brightest
Step 1 – The Darkest Darks… clarifies in my mind not only where the darks will be in the painting. They also clarify that virtually everything else will be middle value brushwork. And I’m going to start my brushwork using those middle value colors to paint around… all of those areas where we see features that are either the white of the paper… very light colors or values… or… very bright colors. If you only consider the whites in a subject… you’ll make many mistakes by painting right over all of those other features that are light or bright!
Step 2 – The Whitest Whites – Lightest Lights – and Brightest Colors
Learning how to actually “study” potential painting subjects quickly… is a skill that you can refine. And by doing so… you will find new confidence as you begin a painting. When you just jump into a painting with no sketches… no value study… and virtually nothing other than an idea of “just getting at it”… you’re going to make the biggest mistakes in the very first 30 minutes!
I have to know where these darkest parts of my painting are going to be… and… how dark do they need to be? And I then need to know… where are my lightest areas going to be? By knowing just these two vital features of any painting idea… I can begin my initial brushwork with confidence. And I’m going to use middle value colors to work my initial brushwork in… carefully painting “around”… all of those whitest… lightest… brightest areas.
If I can see it… I can Paint it!
Years ago I had an amazing revelation when I began to master this seemingly simple process of observation & evaluation. It was incredible to realize that if in fact I could actually see the various visual elements in a potential painting idea… I could paint that subject matter. It seems odd to actually state something that one would think we’d all know already. But I think it’s because we as artists are actually overly sensitive to our own visual perceptions. We are so engaged in the visual stimuli that we often get overly activated too quickly merely because we are so visual. And I think it was my long time practice of Yoga Meditation that retrained my perceptual skills to be a little less reactive… and a little more able to actually observe an object without reacting so instantaneously.
But the fact is… that if you can see the differences between these 3 features of any painting reference or idea… the darkest features… the lightest features… and the middle values… you’ll be able to paint that subject far better.
It may sound simple, but it actually takes some focused practice to develop and refine this skill set. You begin by studying your potential painting reference. No sketching… no brushes… just engage your eyes & brain.
I do this when working in plein air, outdoors directly from Nature… as well as when I’m back in my studio working from photographic reference.
And to make this even clearer… here you see a photo I took while ordering my lunch in a small restaurant in the bazaar of the tiny Himalayan pilgrim village called… Gangotri, the traditional site revered as the origin of the Ganges River.
The top image is my basic photo. The subject appealed to me because of the intricate design and the misty quality created from the heat & steam in the crisp mountain altitude ( 10,000+ feet ). I liked the “depth” of the image.
But look here at this 2nd image below the original photo. In Photoshop… I’ve selected only the very darkest features of the photograph and separated them from the rest of the image. This is where I’ll use the very darkest brushwork. I love Photoshop because it actually works very much the way I think in Watercolor. This 2nd image shows you where I’ll have to work in the very darkest values in order to create this illusion of depth. And this brushwork will have to be done carefully.
But really… it’s here in this 3rd image where the most crucial work needs to be done. This is all where I’ll use middle value brushwork… working from darker middle values to lighter… and painting carefully around all of this kitchen cooking gear. By being able to actually see all of this are of middle values… it helps me visualize how I would proceed to paint this subject. I would then actually begin with darker middle values in the guy cooking closest to us… and develop my middle values outward towards the street, gradually lightening the middle values. When I paint this idea I’ll take stages & video to show you how this is done.
So now… I’ve got a plan. Now… I could draw it out and start painting.
NOTE: In my Workshop at TexArt next May… this will be the whole topic and focus of my week’s training. And I will be posting additional tips here… as that Workshop approaches.
I’ve already posted 2 previous presentations on this vital subject here in this TexArt Blog. If you haven’t reviewed them already… you might find them interesting as well… here are the easy links to those previous postings…
The Power of the Middle Values in Watercolor…
The Elegance & Power of the Watercolor’s Middle Values…