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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Craighead

Shaping our Minds through the Craft of Painting by Tenaya Sims (Learning how to See)

Tenaya Sims is a nationally recognized artist and founder of Georgetown Atelier in Seattle, where he teaches students foundational skills in drawing and painting. Tenaya Sims is teaching his second annual workshop at Texas Hill Country Atelier July 9-12, from 9:30 to 4:30. See more info here. Seats are still available!

FREE Public Talk at Butt-Holdsworth Library

5:30 - 7:00 PM, Monday, July 8, 2024

When we think about learning a skill such as drawing or painting, we often see it as a one-directional process from the brain outward: we absorb information, then perform the task.

However, I’ve found that it’s much more bi-directional than that—our minds are shaped in the process as well.

A painter standing in front of a canvas studying "how to see" to paint realistically.
Painter focusing on "seeing"

A cornerstone of most atelier educations is first learning the Skill of Observation, often referred to as ‘Learning how to see.’

The term ‘learning how to see’ might sound odd, as most of us believe we see just fine. Yet, non-practitioners might be surprised at how much of the world in front of us isn’t what it seems.

a painter in front of a canvas with a ram's skull set up in the background. The image on the canvas that he is painting is a realistic representation of the ram's head.
A painter "seeing" accurately in order to paint realistically

When we take in visual information, our brains automatically apply an interpretive filter, making us see things symbolically rather than as they are.

It’s almost like we’re all hallucinating by default, and it takes considerable effort and training to remove that filter and see the world that’s right in front of us.

The Challenge of Visual Perception

When starting out, most people want to draw everything from a purely front or side view.

a pencil drawing from a three-quarter view of a person's face that is flat and has no 3D effects
Drawing by an untrained artist

For example, when drawing a 3/4 portrait, our brains can trick us into drawing features as if they were in complete profile.

Similarly, a more frontal view often gets bisected symmetrically, as if perfectly facing the viewer.

Our minds are so focused on objects and symbols that we’re often blind to the underlying arrangements of shapes and colors that constitute them.

Consider the charcoal drawing below in its early stages. Trained individuals can recognize it as an eye because they see the assembly of abstract shapes, rather than a symbolic version of it.

charcoal drawing of an eye showing depth and underlying forms
Beginning stages of a charcoal drawing by an Atelier-trained artist
a frontal view of a woman's face
Drawing by an untrained artist

When people without fundamental training draw an eye, they often create a football-shaped outline with a circle in the middle and lines for lashes.

When they realize this symbolic version doesn’t match the actual appearance, it’s easy to become discouraged and think they 'suck at drawing.'

In reality, it's just an invitation to develop their observational perception. Consider the development of the eye in the drawings below.

The artist has practiced observational drawing and therefore can draw a more realistic view of the eye.

Development of a realistic drawing based on practiced observation

The drawing below is a result of Atelier training, which focused on learning to see realistically, and then transferring what you see onto the page.

Atelier-trained artist's rendition of the eye and nose

Atelier training can teach you how to draw well and produce realistic drawings and paintings.

Evolutionary Influence

A photographic image showing the silhouettes of a giraffe, elephant and lion on a safari plain.
Identifiable silhouettes of a giraffe, elephant and lion

While I’m not an evolutionary biologist, I assume this tendency stems from our evolution, where quickly identifying important things based on limited information, like silhouettes and facial expressions, was crucial.

It’s amazing how we can identify a lion, giraffe, or elephant with just a quick glance.

Color Perception

photograph showing that distant hills in a landscape are blue instead of green due to atmospheric perspective
Distant hills are actually blue, not green

Another example of how our symbolic mind distorts our perceptions is in the realm of color.


When looking at a landscape of rolling hills, our brains tell us that distant hills are green like the closer ones. However, they are actually blue due to atmospheric perspective.

Similarly, beginners often assign solid colors to entire objects. For instance, consider a ‘yellow lemon.’ Is it really just yellow? Your brain wants to see it that way, but it’s not. The same applies to the ‘white wall’ of the window sill.

a picture of a lemon on a windowsill indicating the different colors that need to be painted in order to depict the lemon realistically
The many different colors must be transferred to the canvas in order to paint realistically

This is especially true for skin tones.

Simply using pink for fair-skinned individuals or brown for darker-skinned individuals looks off.

Notice the variety of colors in the skin.


Learning to quiet the symbolic mind and see the world as it appears before us is the first major step in drawing and painting naturalistically--an essential skill for achieving those aims.

In doing so, we also expand our perception to see the world not merely as symbols, but as a vibrant tapestry of constantly changing colors, shapes, and forms.

a picture of tenaya sims teaching a workshop at Texas Hill Country Atelier
Tenaya Sims teaching a workshop at TX HCA

Tenaya Sims is teaching his second annual workshop at Texas Hill Country Atelier in July. Seats are still available!

July 9 - 12, 2024

9:30 - 4:30

FREE Public Talk

5:30 - 7:00 PM, Monday, July 8, 2024

Butt-Holdsworth Library


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