You Have to Really Look in Order to See

Over the weekend, I was fortunate enough to spend a day in a workshop taught by Jane Sassaman. The class was Abstracting From Nature. I signed up because I love natural subjects — animals, plants, landscapes — but do not want to get sucked into photorealistic interpretations when I make a quilt or other piece of art.

While I was looking forward to the class, I had a hard time preparing for it. The supply list was quite short because it was mainly a drawing class: paper, pencil, and reference material were all you really needed. The reference material was where I balked. She recommended large pictures of flowers but most of mine are little 3 x 5 snapshots or digital files. I couldn’t bring myself to print out a bunch of flowers because I knew I wouldn’t be using everything and it seemed like a waste of ink, paper, and time. (It didn’t occur to me to take my laptop to class: other people did that.)

Fortunately, she mentioned that you could bring a bouquet along to class instead, and that seemed so much easier. Our irises have been blooming for a few weeks now and a few of the flowers had fallen over, so I cut those stems, stuck them in a vase, and took them to class.

Am I ever glad I did. We started by drawing our plants in order to notice the key features: number of petals, leaf shape, how leaves branch off the stem. Students working from photographs were stuck with a handful of views of their plant and some had to ask around class to get pictures of leaves or buds. I could pick my iris up and look at it from any direction I liked and I had parts that don’t usually make it into photos.

One of the irises I took to class with me.
One of the irises I took to class with me.

I love irises and thought I knew what they looked like. But drawing them meant slowing down and really looking at the individual flower in front of me. I was astonished by what I saw.

I’m sure I’ve seen the fuzzy beard before, but I never really paid any attention to it. I fell in love with the soft veins in the petals, the graceful curves of the leaves, the papery material
on the outer edge of an open calyx, the over-the-top ruffles along the petal edges.

Some of my iris sketches
Some of my visual notes on irises
My notes on the entire flower.
My notes on the entire flower.

I even discovered irises have petals hidden inside I didn’t know about.

You rarely see an iris from this angle.
You rarely see an iris from this angle.

By the end of the day, my brain felt pulped. My attempts at abstracting the irises were hindered by my love of those elegant ball gown ruffles.

One of my "abstracted" designs... not all that abstract!
One of my “abstracted” designs… not all that abstract!

The strain of looking so hard and long left my eyes feeling dry and crossed, as if they would never return to normal. Now I hope they don’t, because all that looking helped me to see the world afresh. I am filled with wonder at the glorious complexity of an iris and reminded of the true power of taking time to draw: it helps me to connect with and really see all the miracles that surround me.

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