Synchronicity is a concept describing how seemingly unrelated things take on meaning by being experienced concurrently. Years ago a friend gave me the Fall 1991 issue of the magazine “Whole Earth Review”. It is 144 pages densely filled with a wide variety of articles on technology, ecology, and human potential – the promo on the inside front cover starts, “Mayans, Hawaiians, and Tibetans. Virtual reality, psychedelic alchemy, neuro-tarot. Youth culture and elder care. Teaching lumber companies not to trespass. Radio as anarchic medium. A grandmother’s advice on childrearing. Zines. Independent music producers. Lucid dreams.” Lots of interesting thoughts and speculations there.
There were two articles within that issue that stuck with me and that have informed my thought and my creative process ever since. The magazine draws no particular connection between the two articles – it puts them in separate sections – but both have to do with developing special perceptual skills for purposes of moving through the world. If I hadn’t encountered these articles in the same place, they might not have made such an impression on me, but their alignment opened a door for me about how we can train and expand our perception of the world, not through drugs or mystical experiences, but through simple practice.
For me, artistic development is about learning to perceive more deeply, to notice beauty that most miss. Mass commercial culture is all about bombarding people with sensations, pushing their buttons and pulling their strings. By appreciating subtle things and enjoying all the fantastic phenomena the world gives us for free, we can liberate ourselves from commercial mind control. But even if you don’t care about all that and just read this blog for the drawing tips, there’s no technique more powerful than learning to see more when you look.
So, back to “Whole Earth Review” – both of the articles I’ll be talking about are available in full online, and you’ll find a list of links at the bottom of this post.
“Nightwalking: Exploring the Dark with Peripheral Vision” tells of its authors Zink and Parks’ experiments in enhancing peripheral vision. The human eye contains two types of light sensitive receptor cells. Cones, densely packed in the center of the visual field, see color and fine detail. Rods predominate in the outer circle of the visual field. They see neither color nor fine detail, but are far more sensitive than the cone cells in dark conditions. The visual cortex uses this peripheral rod vision for orientation and to notice movement happening away from our point of focus. (See my earlier post, “Exercising Perception”, or my guest post on Daniel Maidman’s blog for more detail on all this.)
Peripheral vision is usually a subconscious process. Zink and Parks found that they could expand their conscious attention into the peripheral visual field by locking their central vision on the end of a stick attached to a hat and extending about a foot in front of their eyes. When the focal point is immobilized, awareness is free to move elsewhere. They practiced hiking in the desert, over very uneven terrain, this way, and found that they were able to move smoothly and sure-footedly, avoiding obstacles and pitfalls without looking at them.
Even before I read this article I had been doing perceptual experiments on my own. I had often tried walking around the city with my eyes crossed, which is essentially the same thing Zink and Parks were doing, and had discovered the fascinating ability to watch things happening far away from my line of sight, even simultaneous things on opposite sides of me.
Since the peripheral visual field is dominated by rod cells, noted for their high sensitivity to extremely low levels of light, Zink and Parks decided to try the technique walking in the wilderness in the moonless night. If you’ve tried walking on a moonless (or new moon or crescent moon) night far from artificial light sources, you know how hard it can be to see where you’re stepping or what’s around you. Zink and Parks again used the hat with a stick in front, adding a dot of phosphorescent paint to the end of the stick, and again went hiking in the New Mexico wilds. They found they were able to see all sorts of things one would never see by normal looking in the dark – rabbits and bats moving around them, the faint bioluminescence of decaying wood. They were able to move swiftly and safely over rocks and ravines. (I wonder if anyone has tried this in a dense forest at night – that would be much darker than the open desert landscape, even on a moonless night.)
In my own practice as an artist, I’ve found the ability to move my awareness into the peripheral visual field is a vital skill. I can look at a detail with my sharp central field and still maintain a sense of the whole of what I’m looking at because the peripheral vision is taking it all in. Many observational artists intuitively squint at their subject – this disables the sharp vision, helping you to see the whole pattern. A deliberate practice of developing peripheral sight can be even more powerful.
The second article that struck me in the Fall 1991 issue of “Whole Earth Review” was “The Soft, Warm, Wet Technology of Native Oceania,” Harriet Witt-Miller’s piece on the traditional navigation techniques of the peoples of the Pacific islands. Eighteenth-century European explorers were astonished to find that the far-flung islands of the Pacific, widely scattered across thousands of miles of open ocean, had nearly all been settled long ago by people with outrigger canoes who had no sextants or compasses or chronometers. How did they cross such distances, and find tiny dots of land in the vast expanse of ocean?
These cultures, now tragically threatened by rising sea levels, had highly sophisticated methods of accurate maritime navigation, all based on direct observation rather than on abstract patterns such as latitude and longitude or the geometrical satellite array of the Global Positioning System.
Traditional Pacific navigators or wayfinders learn to observe very subtle things. They can look at the light reflecting off the bottom of a distant cloud and tell whether it is over green land or over a coral atoll’s crystalline lagoon, thus detecting islands beyond the horizon. They know the stars and the way their arcs of movement change with the hour and the season. They observe the behavior of sea birds and the properties of water and floating debris to determine in what direction lies land. They have a deep understanding of the movement of wind and water currents. They learn to distinguish the constant patterns of ocean swells from the shifting surface waves by sensing the deeper movements with their scrotums resting on the bottom of their boats.
The Micronesians map their world with “stick charts”, made of palm sticks. According to the caption of the below illustration from Witt-Miller’s article, credited to “Exploratorium Quarterly”, “Curved sticks showed prevailing wave fronts, shells represented the locations of islands, and threads indicated where islands came into view.”
Western ways of knowledge and technology have often been about superimposing an abstract pattern over the real world, and operating according to the abstraction. For the visual artist, that traditionally means systems of linear perspective, canons of human proportion, color theories, etc. For the contemporary artist it may also include the abstracting analyses of critical theory and semiotics.
I understand and use such abstractions – well, critical theory, not so much – but in my own practice of observational figure drawing I stay much closer to the Pacific wayfinder’s method, looking at subtleties of reflected light, following the swells and hollows of the model’s body as though I am moving across a territory. I look at the points of inflection, such as nipples or kneecaps, in terms of angular relationships and the flowing patterns that join them, as the sticks connect the shells on a Micronesian sailing chart. My process is tactile. I feel my way along.
All of these different kinds of observation are happening simultaneously, or in quick succession. Part of my mind is aware of the peripheral view. Part of it is looking at the colors in the shadows or the direction of hairs on the body. Part of it is mapping the points and following the flows. Part of it is focused on my paper, my brush, my colors. It is impossible to coordinate all these factors into a systematic method I could describe or define. The magic that makes it work is intuition, the power of the mind to integrate a torrent of incoming sensations, conscious and not, into a coherent experience. Intuition is trained by practice, not by theory. It must be rigorously exercised, and then it must be trusted.
As I have pursued my artistic discipline, I have been deeply informed by these ideas of navigational perception. To draw or paint or sculpt from observation is to explore, to discover, to wonder.
Both the short articles cited here are full of details I haven’t mentioned, and well worth reading for themselves:
Both articles were originally published in “Whole Earth Review” No. 72, Fall, 1991.
Other relevant links:
Nelson Zink’s website NavaChing
Harriet Witt’s website Passenger Planet
Exploratorium’s website “Never Lost” on Polynesian navigation
Sam Low’s article “A World of Natural Signs”
Illustrations here besides my own drawings were found on the web. Clicking on a picture will take you to the place where I found it.