Seeing Is Editing

“Your job is to distill the essence.”

William Zinsser, On Writing Well.

This applies to writing and to seeing as well. Seeing is editing. You look out into the world and, mostly unconsciously, you notice a fraction of the stimulus available. The more familiar a focal point the less you notice, if anything at all.

That’s why travel can be enlivening and shocking. Your brain has to spend cognition editing a new environment and deciding what to notice.

When focusing on a subject, through drawing, photography, or writing you reclaim the steering wheel of your eyes. You decide what’s important in the scene, and more importantly, what to leave out.

This is a sketch by Picasso showing his mastery of editing. The penguin is distinct through one simple line (or two if you look close).

I can imagine myself on an editing tirade, deciding to promptly apply this advice, and removing too much and incidentally losing the essence. The subtle foot in Picasso’s drawing is what brings it together. Without that detail, it wouldn’t have any grounding.

As I’m building up my creative practice, at times I think what’s around me is boring. I think this is a case of over-editing. It’s your brain as a tyrannical editor. The more mundane can be the most thrilling. With a blank slate, it heightens your sensitivity and puts you back in touch with the subtleties coming in.

I’m still an amateur at drawing and reaping the early benefits of being a beginner. I took a meditative few minutes to capture the budding tree outside my window editing what I chose to see (below). I was surprised to find that the practice alone of patiently thinking through what I was doing for a few minutes helped to guide me through my day and be part of the changing of seasons.

What is the essence of what you’re seeing and doing? What can you edit out? Are you editing out too much and not seeing anything at all?

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