Paint What You See, Not What You Think is There

Is this a difficult concept to master, or what?  Well I just learned once again why it sounds so easy but can sometimes be so difficult to do.  There’s a lot written and taught about this concept dealing with colors, values and shapes  For artists who practice this concept regularly, it can mean the difference between having an okay painting to producing a great one.

I’m in the process of painting four sunsets.  The underpaintings were completed and yesterday I started layering oil pastels on the first painting.   About 45% had been completed, when I realized I didn’t read the cloud values correctly.  I thought I saw a dark mass of clouds (almost black) because they were in front of a setting sun.  A simple black and white photograph would have shown the correct value ranges of the clouds.  In reality the clouds while dark were actually higher in value than the foreground land, which actually read almost black.  For me, a lesson learned.  I hope I can lighten the value enough without turning the clouds into mud – the painting will posted in a couple of days.

I researched the concept and found a couple of things about “painting what you see and not what you think you see” that I wanted to pass along:

  • Youtube video, 5-part series by William Gelvin at Gelvinstudioofart which was good for helping to solidify this simple concept.  Just know if you check out his lessons, he talks a lot and the final painting is a little sloppy – he acknowledges that because the example wasn’t about the end result, rather how he got there.  I walked away with the concept fully reinforced.
  • DPW Painting Challenge further explores the concept with “The 10 Minute challenge” that helps you focus on painting what you see.  I plan to do my challenge and will post (yikes, I’ve never painted anything in 10 minutes) my results at a later time.  The link is:
  • Here is an article by Keith Bond,, that he correctly calls “A Painters Dilemma.”

I know to get better, I must spend the extra few minutes before I paint to see my subject as shapes, colors and values.

Anyone else ever face this dilemma?

About Mary

Oil Pastelist
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14 Responses to Paint What You See, Not What You Think is There

    • Mary says:

      Thank you, appreciate hearing from you. I’m going to explore a new underpainting technique and this may help to develop all three of these aspects of my paintings better in the early stages.

  1. Such excellent advice Mary!

  2. I have constantly that dilemma, I am glad you brought it up and posted the links, thanks!

    • Mary says:

      Your welcome and thanks for commenting. The more I read up on this, the more I realized that it’s one of the largest conflicts for artists.

      I probably won’t be able to eliminate the problem, but hopefully I can learn to focus more on what I’m seeing in terms of color, shapes and values.


  3. Petronette says:

    Hi Mary,

    Yesterday I saw on youtube, someone who was not drawing a portret, but was hatching it, with values. If he had the values, then he was going to draw some lines !
    I also find it very difficult to see the values, and if my mind is calling: I am drawing an eye, ear, nose, …. then I put my example upsite-down, to focus only on the lines.
    For me it is helping to go to my other brain (left or right).

    Here is the video:
    (I am very jealous on the sketchbooks of his students.)

    I am looking forward to see your paintings.
    Have fun with it !

    • Mary says:

      Hi Petronette – yes, that’s how I learned to bring in shading at first with Brenda’s lessons. Then through I saw how you could blend using the different pencil values for shades and tones. Both are effective depends on what look the artist is going after. I’ll check out your youtube link.

      It will be a while, but I plan to do the 10 minute challenge, at least one or two each week to force myself to paint what I see. Maybe you’ll do them as well.

      Thanks, Mary

  4. meiro says:

    Intriguing post…, increased my knowledge about painting.
    Thank you so much JW.

    Warm regards,

  5. Healthy A-Z says:

    I’m intrigued. This is out of my experience since I don’t paint, but I find it interesting. I do understand your point; you explained it well. I look forward to seeing your end result. Good luck with it!!

    • Mary says:

      Thanks Cyndi. For a painter it’s all about creating an illusion of art of 3 dimension and depth on a one dimension surface.

      Hopefully it gets posted on Monday and I can begin w/a fresh sunset. All four scenes are unique and beautiful.

  6. timkeen40 says:

    I can’t relate in paintspeak, but from one artist to another, I know what it is to get in the middle of something (story, poem) and reallize that the thing is just not going the way I thought it would go.
    It is a struggle to finish from that point on. I know you will finish and make it look great. I look forward to seeing it.


    • Mary says:

      So you understand, appreciate hearing that writers will go through the same only in different terms.

      We’ll see if I can salvage this, maybe the best that will come from it is the exercise that I won’t forget.

      Thanks for commenting, really appreciate it! Mary

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