The snow was almost melted. There was more snow on my side of Cleveland–the East side with the “Lake Effect”– than the west side. But in both places, the air had that expectant vitality of crocuses awakening and pushing toward the surface.
I was sitting in a parking lot checking emails on my phone. As I pondered a response, I looked out toward a sagging shrub-lined wooden fence.
An out-of-place color in an unexpected space caught my eye. I wondered: what is that wedged in the shrubs?
I got out and walked to the shrubs. Revealed through critical observation, I saw a ball. Then, three balls: two footballs and a soccer ball. Apparently kids had been playing games in the lot at another time.
Maybe it was months ago when there was a crisp chill in the fall air and the persistent auburn-colored leaves still clung to the shrubs. Then, the balls had disappeared into the green hedge in a Wrigley Field sort of way.
What is Critical Observation?
Critical observation is the ability to objectively gather data about a situation while sifting out the irrelevant details while focusing on what is meaningful. Critical observation requires being curious, noticing differences (e.g. “which of these is not like the other?”), asking questions, reconciling the new data with the established and accepted data, and most importantly: thinking.
For me it is the process of observing, thinking and asking questions, then more observing and applying more thinking, that helps bring sanity and calm during times of chaos.
“Critical observation is the ability to notice subtle details which allow us to maneuver situations more tactfully”.
I would consider critical observation a nuanced, sophisticated, higher-in-the-hierarchy-of-skills type of strength. It’s considered a new soft skill. (thinking, intuitive, connecting the dots, problem solving), as opposed to a technical, teachable skill, such as accounting, or proficiency in managing an oil change in a vehicle.
It was critical observation that apparently allowed Sir Isaac Newton to define gravity, after watching an apple fall to the earth from a tree, we are told. It is also the process that allowed Velcro to be invented after a Swiss electrical engineer and inventor, George de Mestral, examined the hooks of the cocklebur that clung to his clothing after a hiking trip.
“Someone who can create an accurate narrative that instructs and provides direction to your company is someone you want on the team”.
“Naming” is an Impediment to Critical Observation
I am an artist. When teaching, I guide students to observe what is in front of their eyes. To draw accurately, you need to see what you actually observe, not what you think you see. Our brains are wired to immediately “name” things: friend, foe, food, danger, etc. During critical observation, that impulse to name things gets in the way.
Naming simplifies details. In my example, with the balls in the shrubs, my brain initially presented a simplified, stripped down identification: “shrubs”. As I continued to look at the shrubs, my brain refreshed the scene by identifying a shape, perhaps a ball, and adding it to the initial definition.
My plein air experiences as an artist and observer of nature, have inspired me to study how we become experts at observation. This blog post looks at “flow” for artists, how we learn to focus our critical observation, and the benefits of paying attention.
This happens when learning to do art, too. When sketching a human model for example, our brain identifies and names “arm, leg, head”. It defaults to a categorized image in our memories of an arm, leg, or head.
As a child, our cognitive abilities are untrained and our fine motor skills are also unrefined. Typically early elementary school years are the last time in Western educational systems, when we focus on drawing. So, for most people, their skills at intentional observing and contemplating—and drawing—may stop at the second grade level.
To actually “see” what you are looking at, you need to train yourself to truly “observe”. It is more than casually looking at something. The power of observation is the revealing of truth via attentive appraisal and evaluation.
Why is it Helpful?
Critical observation is a deeper level of connecting to our environment. It focuses our attention and triggers attentiveness. It is a critical step in problem solving. It can change our lives because it is what allows us to:
- Disconnect with the “same old, same old”
- Become alert
- Delight in the complexity of the world…and possibly enter the timelessness and magic of mental “flow”
Artists, Flow, and Letting Your Subconscious Steer Your Pencil
Accomplished artists use deep observation to get into the “flow”. Connecting the mind to a hand, and disconnecting our insistence on naming, sharpens powers of observation.
When drawing the human figure for example, artists encourage intuition. Artists bypass the naming function by engaging their minds to feel the edges, the mass and space. They accept, without balking, the deceptions of foreshortening. Experienced artists know that as observed in a human figure, a line, a crease, a curve, and an edge, are each unique.
When drawing, you can feel the flow happen when your instinct overtakes your brain. You are beyond words. You feel your pencil flowing over the surface of the arm, face, chin as a determined, directed wind gliding over a landscape. You feel the roundness, the valleys, the sharpness, rather than seeing the topography of the skin and attempting to replicate it. It is elegant, amazing, and for me both rejuvenating and exhausting. Curious, isn’t it?
I believe it’s exhausting because you have to work so hard to keep the naming part of your brain separated from the activity of the intuitive, non-verbal instructions you are giving to your hand. It is akin to an out-of-body experience. There is no sense of time or place.
As the 20th Century American artist John Singer Sargent summarized:
“‘Impressionism’ was the name given to a certain form of observation when Monet, not content with using his eyes to see what things were or what they looked like as everybody had done before him, turned his attention to noting what took place on his own retina (as an oculist would test his own vision).”
Claude Monet was describing the image as it appeared on the interior of his eyeball—not after it had been interpreted by his naming brain. He was observing how the colors appeared as a stacking and an aggregate of colors rather than as one discreet pigment. His observations, realized on his canvases as “impressionism” affected the other emerging Impressionist artists in his circle. They followed his lead, made their own observations, and adapted their painting styles to diverge into the creation of new art genres. These observations changed forever how we think about art.
The image is an example of Jane M. Mason re-creating a John Singer Sargent masterpiece to demonstrate how the watercolor master used an energetic brush stroke. Watch this demo on Watching Paint Dry LLC YouTube channel.
Back to the Balls in the Shrubs
I did not see the three balls from my car. Yet, when I walked to the shrubs, surprisingly there they were. Like a real-life Where’s Waldo, or a Highlights magazine “Hidden Picture”, I was caught off guard and delighted to see not only one, but three.
Taking the time to be observant, to go “off-grid” to look around critically, adds texture, knowledge, and richness to life. Critical observation is how we ascertain truths and reconcile content with facts. Practicing observation heightens our abilities for critical deduction. It’s an opportunity to momentarily step away from the superficial. And, it’s a way to surprise ourselves with understanding beyond a cursory glance.
John Stilgoe, the Robert and Lois Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape Development, Harvard University, offers a course, “Scrutinizing the American Environment: The Art, Craft, and Serendipity of Acute Observation”. His course values visual acuity in observation:
“In an age dominated by programmed, mediated material, especially that based on the Internet, looking at real things becomes more difficult yet perhaps far more important. Just looking around is a skill based on valuing visual acuity directed at things most people overlook.”
Years after students complete an art course from me, they tell me how the process of sharpening their powers of observation changed their lives.
Trees in the fall have astonishing complexity and color.
Snow doesn’t appear only white, but also blue and purple, brown and gray.
Shadows are not black but dance with reflected light.
Even a wintertime line-up of brown shrubs can reveal all sorts of surprises through critical observation.
So, Can Critical Observation be a Form of Meditation?
I think so. It allows you to disconnect. Metaphorically and literally, you change your focal point and depth of field. You use different thought processes and stimulate mental visualization without the burden of constant naming, to process different questions or scenarios. You uncouple from the loop of hysteria, worry, angst, anger, fear, or whatever emotion permeates the spaces in between your thoughts. It can be done anywhere. No equipment, experience, energy drinks or helmet required.
Critical observation can work for anyone, but perhaps especially for anyone who feels the weight of a mental anvil while dealing in a 21st Century global basket of conflicts. Taking a break for critical observation is a simple, omnipresent opportunity to weave into our daily exercises.
And for an artist or innovator, every time you engage critical observation, it sharpens your ability to astutely observe the next time.