Do you need to learn how to see?

An absurd question?  Anecdotal and confessional evidence suggest that many men cannot see anything in the refrigerator.  Or, in their own closets.  However, women have their blind spots, too.

Human evolution has given us vision that is alert to changes and edges, vision that seeks information necessary for survival.  (A pair of socks and leftover chicken salad qualify.)

Now that we are not stalked by fanged predators, we are left to decide what is important.  Except that we rarely make a conscious choice.  We abandon our vision to default choices that evolve over the decades of our lives.  Some people see right away that a painting on the wall is askew.  Some can identify a bird in flight.  Some can hit a baseball coming at 90 miles an hour.

We see what we choose to see.  In Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrait of Ginerva de’ Benci, an aficionado may perceive Leonardo’s thumbprint in the curls of her hair.  (He used his thumb to blend thin layers of oil paint to give added transparency.)  Some may see a quiet despair in her visage or remark on the juniper tree behind her.  Some will see the river in the background, but miss the two steeples in the hazy background.

(To see Leonardo’s thumbprint visit the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC or  At the approximate horizontal plane of Ginerva’s lips, look to the right of her jaw, past the ringlets of hair to the point where the thin leaves of the juniper appear.)

Da Vinci taught himself to see.  He developed observational skill.  He watched a dragonfly observing that it “flies with four wings, and when those in front are raised those behind are lowered.”  As he sought the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa, he studied the facial muscles in a dissection to see how the human face smiles.

He rejected the Florentine tradition of contour lines in painting.  He saw that there are no lines in nature: “Lines are not part of any quantity of an object’s surface, nor are they part of the air which surrounds this surface,” he wrote. “The line has in itself neither matter nor substance and may rather be called an imaginary idea than a real object; and, this being its nature, it occupies no space.” 

Da Vinci advised painters “do not edge contours with a definite Outline, because the contours are lines, and they are invisible, not only from a distance, but also close at hand… The line forming the boundary of a surface is of invisible thickness.”  Instead of “invisible” lines, Da Vinci created slightly blurred object edges with light and shadow.  “Therefore, O painter, do not surround your bodies with lines.”

He further urged painters to keep an eye on people they see walking through town.  “Take a note of them with light strokes in a little book which you should always carry with you,” he wrote. “The positions of the people are so infinite that the memory is incapable of retaining them, which is why you should keep these sketches as your guide.”

But, the sketch was only a frame for a puzzle missing many pieces.  “If you wish to have a sound knowledge of the forms of objects, begin with the details of them, and do not go on to the second step unto you have the first well fixed in memory.”

Like a printed page, he observed, one cannot grasp the entirety with one glance.  Meaning emerges from word-by-word examination.  Seeing, then, is also a function of time, walking the eyes step-by-step.

Seeing was a practice for him.  He invented a game to give “your eye good practice.”  While standing several feet away, contestants try to cut a piece of straw to match the length of a line drawn on the wall.  The winner cuts her straw closest to the exact length.  (Imagining the hours of fun, one begins to look longingly for the last straw.)

Da Vinci’s practice of seeing was not dedicated only to accuracy.  He advised painters that observation also nourished the imagination.  He suggested studying a mottled wall with stains or a variety of rock, writing:

You may discover in the patterns on the wall a resemblance to various landscapes, adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys and hills in varied arrangement; or again you may see battles and figures in action; or strange faces and costumes, and an endless variety of objects, which you could turn into complete and well- drawn forms. The effect produced by these mottled walls is like that of the sound of bells, in which you may recognize any name or word you choose to imagine. . . . It should not be hard for you to look at stains on walls, or the ashes of a fire, or the clouds, or mud, and if you consider them well you will find marvelous new ideas, because the mind is stimulated to new inventions by obscure things.

The curious mind seeks out the obscure to see through shadows to clearer perception.  Observation is simple, if you take the time.  Imagine Leonardo’s acute focus as he leans into the canvas of Ginerva wafting his thumb so gently on the wet paint and there, by the juniper, he nudges a bit too deep.

You learned how to see as a child.  Renew your vision, curiosity, and imagination.  Learn to see again.