Tree Study by John Ruskin (1819-1900) Ruskin Foundation, Ruskin Library, Lancaster University

“That woman poached a couch and skinned it!”
This what my friend and fellow painter exclaimed to me in a coffee shop one day.  I glanced up to see a woman wearing a rather unflattering plaid coat, and he was right, there was something about that particular pattern that just screamed “COUCH!” 

As fellow artists, we started to analyze the visual conundrum before us. Why exactly was that particular plaid so couchy when many other plaids went unnoticed?  Several cups of coffee later we concluded that the size of the plaid was smaller and tighter like is often seen on upholstery, and that the texture of the coat also lent it a 1980’s couch vibe.

Now, perhaps to some people spending an hour analyzing why a visual stimulus creates a certain feeling would seem frivolous. However, training your eye to see better brings all sorts of visual effects into focus, often in interesting and informative ways. I can only imagine how many people felt something unusual when seeing that woman’s coat but did not know what it was. By looking carefully with a trained eye it becomes easier to identify when you are being visually manipulated by a coat to think “COUCH!”.

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I used to live on a street with the sassiest tree you ever saw.

Coats aren’t the only inanimate objects with the ability to manipulate your visual senses. I used to live on a street with the sassiest tree you ever saw. I mean, this tree had attitude. The gesture of this tree just oozed sass.

​To give you an idea of what it looked like, it grew from the space between the sidewalk and the road, and for the first few feet from the ground the trunk raised up in the expected direction. Now I don’t know what this tree’s growing years were like, but there was a somewhat sudden curve in the trunk towards the street, and then an equally sudden curvature back towards the sidewalk. The effect was truly unique – it looked exactly like the tree was sticking out it’s hip over the street, as if to dare any passing car not to stop and ask what was wrong. It was the gesture I make when I can’t believe my boyfriend is asking me to do my half-load of laundry directly after washing his own half-load without including mine. You know, the “are you kidding me?” hands-on-thrust-out-hip gesture.

I made a habit of pointing out the sassy tree to my neighbors, and we all found community and joy in knowing that our neighborhood boasted the sassiest tree on the planet. Not many other neighborhoods can say that. The fanciest and most exclusive living communities in the world would not be able to replicate our tree if they tried – the gesture was too perfect, forged through years of the circumstance that created it, and it was ours to revel in.

When you spend time learning how to draw or paint, what you are really practicing is your seeing. When you are constantly asking yourself “what makes this thing look like this thing?” you subconsciously start asking yourself that every time visual input happens in your life, whether in a coffee shop or walking down the street. Poached couches and sassy trees – these are just a few of the visual delights that await the practiced observer.

Want to enhance your own drawing and observation skills? Check out our Ateliyay! Curriculum today!

Mandy Theis is a classically trained artist and certified K-12 art teacher based in the NYC area. You can follow her on Instagram @mandyfineartist. What visual delights bring YOU joy? Leave your comments below 🙂

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