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How an Artist sees

May 17, 2012

Edgar Degas wrote: 'Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.'

Here, for artists, is a statement of the 'bleeding obvious.' Since it comes from one whose work commands our respect, we need to examine its meaning. There may be more to it than what lies out in  the open. We might discover something to aid us in making our own art.

As artists, we are aware that making art is a process of selection. We look at the world about us and select what most interests us.

  • This is our Subject.

Then we select the materials we want to use in depicting this subject. We decide on using pencil, charcoal, pastels, oil paints, watercolours or acrylics.

  • This is our Medium.

With the basics decided, we then allow our emotional, intellectual or spiritual intelligences to suggest the manner in which to present the subject.

  • This becomes our Style.

At every stage, we have myriad options from which to choose. We select some but reject or ignore others.
'Vision' is a term applied to the artist who takes an unusual approach to the most ordinary of subject matter or is able to make images that strike a chord in the hearts and minds of the audience. Vision is also a physical fact that can exert powerful influence on the way an artist makes images.

  • Some famous Impressionist painters worked with impaired vision.        

Claude Monet ( 1840-1926 ) is considered first among the founding artists of Impressionism. It was his painting titled ' Impression, Sunrise' that inspired the name of the movement. During his seventies, Monet developed cataracts. This is suspected as the cause of a dulling in the colour mixes he used in his later works. Following operations that removed the cataracts in 1923, Monet repainted some of his water lily paintings with bluer tones.


Edgar Degas ( 1834-1917 ) had life-long problems with his vision. At age 36, an eye defect was found when he enlisted for the defence of Paris during the war with Prussia. He lost the central vision in one eye and then in the other when in his fifties. Around this time, he began experimenting with pastels.
For most of his life, Degas painted in oils on canvas but this different medium allowed him to adopt a looser style of drawing, putting less strain on his eyesight. As pastels require very little binder and no intermediate carrier, they afford the artist the most pure and brilliant colour possible.  
The combination of these factors is another reason Degas is included as an Impressionist.


Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) was short-sighted and in later life was diabetic. This may have caused a form of retinopathy.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir ( 1841-1919) also was short-sighted and suffered with Rheumatoid Arthritis. 


Mary Cassat (1844–1926) was an American painter who lived in Paris and became the most noted woman member of the Impressionist group. She was a good friend of Degas and she also developed cataracts, which ended in total blindness.

Despite difficulties in even seeing the world around them, much less focusing on intricate artworks, these artists and many others like them, continued to make paintings of beauty and light. Their example can inspre us all to create work that reflects the sublime reality of Nature and invoke the best side of Human nature.© Dorothy Gauvin

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