The Innocent Eye is Blind

Paintings and text by Dik F. Liu
Dik F. Liu website

A cityscape from life. The light is from 8:45 a.m. to around 12:45 p.m. Different time of day for different parts of the painting. 

It's from a large 9th floor balcony of a university I teach in. I painted while standing on a stool to make the view possible. The viewing angle is wide enough that the perspective on the right side begins to warp. I guess it is a phenomenon unique to observational painting — unless one is using a wide-angle camera lens.

If the lines were straight, the painting would look more “realistic.” That has always struck me as the fundamental difference between a realistic painter and an observational painter. The observational painter paints the world as he sees it, even if the resulting painting does not fit the accustomed paradigm of realism.

I have wondered the extent to which one can be a PURE observational painter. As Kant noted in Critique of Pure Reason, percept without concept is blind, as concept without percept is empty. Pure seeing sans knowing might well be an impossible task. Later in that book, Kant bluntly rephrased that idea as “The innocent eye is blind, as the virgin mind is empty.”

I think all observational painters edit to some degree, even if they do so unknowingly. I never feel that I know enough about what I am seeing to knowingly edit my paintings. The visual world has so many surprises that when I‘ve tried to work from imagination, the results look programmatic and unimaginative.

I have thought that Fairfield Porter was as close to a pure observational painter as there was. I wonder if that's why his paintings were so hit or miss.