Old Barns, New Vision: On Learning to See

Hard at work in my painting teacher’s studio.

For almost three years now I’ve been going to weekly oil painting class. We take longish breaks over the summer and for the holidays, and it’s always a great feeling to get back to work, to the smells, to the Zen experience painting has become for me. For those two hours I’m there in the studio, I don’t think or worry about anything else. My mind is pleasantly, blissfully, otherwise occupied.

In December I started a new painting from one of my photographs of old barns. I’m developing a bit of a “thing” for them, I believe (what artists call and turn into “a series,” so to speak). One of my most recent paintings that I really liked was another set of old barns I photographed in Pulaski, New York:

04_Old Farmstead_JT

The old barns have a character to them that has really caught my fancy. They are challenge to capture my feelings about, the decay without a sense of decrepitude, the life while still existing in disuse. I find most of them to be charmingly neglected, like eccentric old relatives with many tales to tell.

I like to look at them, to think about their stories. And therefore I think I am coming to see them better and better, more clearly, and yet beyond just their appearances.

Aside from learning skills and techniques, what I realized I have learned most through painting is how to see. How to break down a scene or an object – a cloud, for example – into smaller parts, like with color. A cloud is never just white. The eye puts together many shades of blue, gold, purple, gray, orange, etc., and blends them into it’s believable, understandable version of “white.” The same can be said of shapes, too, lines and curves and most everything.

Like the picturesque old barns. Their colors are never just gray, or red, brown. Nothing is ever perfectly straight or flat or level. They are always something in between. And the part of me that loves gray areas – that dislikes only seeing things in black and white, or the notion of perfection – loves this idea.

When you really look at something, finally come to see it clearly and completely, whether it’s an old barn or a person, you will see the flaws alongside the beauty. You will see the crooked lines, the misshapen parts, the mix of colors that once looked deceivingly pure. Those supposed imperfections are more real and beautiful and admirable to me than all the glossy perfection people seem to work so hard for sometimes.

That is a false reality in my eyes, and really not worth striving for.

The same can be said with the physical act of painting itself. I have had to learn when to stop, when I’m done, when it’s finished. It will still have flaws, areas I’m not thrilled with or that I could try to fix over and over. And that’s okay. I have learned to stop saying to myself, “that’s perfect, I’m happy.”

Instead, I am learning to say to myself, “I think it’s finished, and I’m pleased with it.” Which is the same sentiment I try now to apply to everything else in my life.

Learning how to see better as a painter has helped me learn to see better as a person, I believe. Not just the outsides of things, but the insides, too. And if my art or the process of creating it can help me grow, or help others grow, then it will have a purpose beyond just being therapeutic for me or having something pleasing to look at it when all is said and done.

And if developing a thing for old barns crumbling away in hayfields is part of what it takes to do that, well, then keep the lessons coming.