What’s Perception Got to Do with It?

What's Perception Got to Do With It? By Susan Ingram
Day 1

“It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.”
~Henry David Thoreau

What’s perception got to do with it? Everything! Thoreau couldn’t have said it any better. To illustrate this concept on a very personal level, I would like to share with you an experience I had nearly eight years ago. To this day, I continue to reap profound benefits from it.

In the summer of 2006, as I was in the process of switching my career from that of ‘regular lawyer’ to that of coach and mediator, I decided to do something very different that would hopefully assist me in my new endeavors. I enrolled in a 5-day course entitled “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.” This course was based upon a book of the same title written by Betty Edwards, a professor of art with a doctorate in art, education and the psychology of perception.

I had absolutely no experience with drawing, and in fact could not even draw a decent stick figure. Truly! I had read about the differences between the left brain (verbal, analytic, rational) and the right brain (nonverbal, intuitive, spatial) and wanted to understand how this course in drawing might, as Ms. Edwards claimed, enhance my overall creativity and intuition.

Day 1

The first morning, we were given a number of quick assignments, each taking no more than 5 to 10 minutes – to draw our hand, our face, the face of a friend or relative, and a corner of the room we were in. I felt totally inept, so much so that, for my hand drawing, the best I could do was trace the outline of my left hand on the drawing paper. (See “Day 1” photo.)

Starting that first afternoon, the instructor began to show us how to “see” things differently. We would first “explore” a concept related to key elements of perception – such as the perception of spaces, of relationship, of light and shadow – and then apply those concepts experientially in our drawings over the next several days.

Day 2

What's Perception Got to Do With It? By Susan Ingram
Day 2

The second day, we were given about an hour and a half to draw our hand – this time with aforethought, and as gracefully and detailed as possible. I was at a total loss as to how to even begin the assignment, so I called the teacher over and asked for some advice. That’s when she said, “Why don’t you start with the negative space [between the thumb and the index finger]?”

I would have never thought to begin there, but I certainly wasn’t getting anywhere trying to draw just the thumb first. So I took her suggestion. And a funny thing happened – just by drawing that negative space, the fingers of my drawing began to take shape. And they were even graceful. So by changing my perception – to look at the negative space between the fingers – I was able to create a drawing of my hand that was exponentially better. And this was just one day later! (See “Day 2” photo.)

As I explained earlier, this experience affected me profoundly. First of all, it taught me that I was capable of doing much more than I might initially think possible, as long as I was open to other/different ways of perceiving things. And, as I suspected, it didn’t just have to do with artistic endeavors. This experience opened up other areas of my life as well. For example, I trusted my intuition more and found more creative ways to problem-solve.

Perhaps the most powerful lesson of all was that this ability didn’t just apply to me, but to every human being. When I looked around our class of first-time and experienced artists, it was clear that everyone had improved tremendously from what they thought they were capable of when they walked into that class. Each and every one of us has this potential within us. All we have to do is be willing to access it. Pretty powerful stuff!

I welcome your comments and thoughts on this topic. And if you’ve had a similar experience, please share your insights as to how it impacted you.

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One response on “What’s Perception Got to Do with It?

  1. Susan

    Thank you so much for your inspiring article. It has reminded me that my own barriers to seeing or perceiving other possibilities than the ones I already know are erected by my unwillingness to liberate my imagination from the confines of habit. Habitual thinking and familiarity with a particular way of perceiving limits creativity and the joy of discovering something new. We can all gain something valuable by exploring our artistic expression without preconceived ideas of what is possible. As an artist myself, I consider my studio or wherever I happen to be creating something as a rule free zone…anything goes…just Have Fun!

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