mike utley composition of photo

how we (I) see

some remarks on perception

A nice little topic. Good enough for a book or a university course 😉. My small contribution is of course just scratching the surface. Nonetheless, it can bring up one aspect or another to reflect on how we perceive or why we see the way we do.


First of all, may I ask you to look at this picture of Roy Lichtenstein and ask yourself the question: “What am I seeing?”. It’s not a quiz and there’s nothing to win – except insights.

roy lichtenstein object
Roy Lichtenstein, Brushstroke (Tuten 23), 1982, painted and patinated bronze sculpture, 54″ × 27-1/2″ × 11″ (137.2 cm × 69.9 cm × 27.9 cm) © Roy Lichtenstein, courtesy Pace Gallery and Castelli Gallery

Many years ago I read an article about viewing habits. A certain audience was asked the question (sort of): “Do you think we all see the same thing when we look at something?” One of the responses was something like: “Stupid question. You see the house over there and I see the same house over there. Why should we see anything but the house”. The majority of respondents said we all see the same thing. And that sounds kind of reasonable.
And yet it’s not true. We can’t even believe our own eyes.
e.g. Let’s look at this gif of a mask – from outside and inside.

hollow face illusion
Wikipedia: Hollow face illusion swing

Why do we see it like this? For 100.000+ years we have learned that a face must always be convex. But if we see a face shown in a concave shape, our reptilian brain intervenes and switches to convex.

Of course, we come across the same phenomenon when looking at artifacts from other cultures. It takes time, patience, and intensive examination until we have adapted our viewing habits and even more of it until we can judge (content, quality, importance…) according to the rules of the respective culture. But then it can be that we just see things differently.

Example Roy Lichtenstein
So first, let’s look at this sculpture by Roy Lichtenstein again that another blogger posted last week.

lichtenstein and chinese source
Roy Lichtenstein and Xiang Shengmo

When I look at it, the first thing I see, unsurprisingly, is a bird perched on a branch, just as they abound in Asian paintings [1]. So, due to my many years of intensive involvement with Asian painting, I can not help but take this perspective. I don’t know the background to Lichtenstein’s sculpture, but I’m very sure that he played with the Asian context. Coincidence? No. Here is another example with a painting and he did several of this kind which is all after Asian brushwork.

big paint #6 image source: Wikipedia

Example Mike Utley
There are many great bloggers here who post beautiful photos and I could say a few things about many of them, but Mike Utley’s work stands out and so I chose one of his. When I saw his first photos, I was surprised by how strong Asian points of view can be discerned. Only later did I see that he also writes wonderful haiku and that’s when the connection became clearer to me.

Here is one of his haiku: (#220)

holes in the pockets
of my soul; I lost myself
somewhere on the way

mike utley photo
Mountain Reflections at Saint Mary Lake, Glacier National Park (c) Mike Utley

So when I see a work by Mike Utley, two perspectives run parallel in my head. The Western and the Asian. The sketch below should illustrate this.

mike utley composition of photo
original photo – western view – Asian view

From a Western point of view (image middle) the picture is horizontally divided into thirds (directly under the upper third there is even a strong line that defines the upper third), but at the same time there is also a (mental) horizontal line (orange) exactly in the middle and one in the middle vertical line which separates the upper, light, and lower, dark part. Our western eye loves that kind of thing, so we naturally like the photo. It appears balanced and stable, and that underscores the calmness of the image.

If I look at Mike’s photo from an Asian point of view, I first see a different construction (the main lines of force in light blue) and I see 2 vanishing points (green and darker blue), something that is used very often in Asian art, but with us up to van Gogh did not exist. (to the best of my knowledge. Especially his last painting shows that very strong). And van Gogh had it again from the Japanese woodcuts, which made a deep impression on him. [2]

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890. 50.2 cm × 103 cm (19.9 in × 40.6 in). Van Gogh MuseumAmsterdam

So if you split the photo by Mike Utley horizontally, the upper vanishing point leads into the distance, the lower one deep into the water. A way of seeing that is deeply Asian, even if it is also increasingly seen in Western works.
What also evokes Asian associations in Mike’s photo is communication (the central theme in Asian art). The clouds communicate with their reflection as well as with the pieces of rock below. In addition, the “soft” communicates with the “hard”. Since Mike, as he says, has not dealt very intensively with Asian art, it seems to me that something “Asian” has flowed into his work through his haiku.

Pure Western work

Of course, we all know the importance of compositions. When we, as art lovers, look at Western paintings, we all too often forget how important the composition of the picture was, of course, in Western classical painting as well. Even if we don’t consciously notice it, it has a decisive influence on our impression of a work. As an example, I would like to cite this painting by Caravaggio. I came across this outline through the Facebook group ArtLife and got the graphics from there.

caravaggio composition
Caravaggio composition after Don-Victor Vargás (Facebook group ArtLife

Once we have seen the picture structured in this form, this striking line of force, which appears as an arch, has taken hold in our vision, and our way of seeing has already changed.
We can further explore the picture and will get a completely different perspective through our new understanding of construction. [3)
For painters like Cezanne, the construction (above all cone, cube, sphere) was not only at the center of his vision, without it almost all of his pictures are unimaginable.
I don’t think I need to give any more examples, there’s so much good literature out there. Quintessence: We should be aware – to put it simply – that our eyes do nothing more than absorb light and transmit it to our brain. And there the information is interpreted and converted – according to our disposition – naturally, culturally, learned…. This short post was only touching on the question “why do we see how” – and no, we don’t all see the same thing when we look at “the house in front of us” 😊. [4]

A little extra

My last post touched on the subject of Zen. I’ve finally found one of my earlier works that go well with it since I’ve played with one of the most popular kōan (公案): The Sound of One Hand Clapping.

Here is the kōan: Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand? (隻手声あり、その声を聞け) — Hakuin Ekaku

painting sound of one hand clapping
sound of one hand clapping. c. 1985


[1] Link: https://www.metmuseum.org/
明/清 項聖謨 山水花鳥圖 冊, Xiang Shengmo (1597–1658). From an album of eight paintings; ink and color on paper, 28.3 x 22.5 cm. Credit Line: Edward Elliott Family Collection, Purchase, The Dillon Fund Gift, 1981

[2] I can recall coming across 2 different articles stating that this painting would be clear evidence that van Gogh was schizophrenic of late – the divergent vanishing points would prove that.

[3] I wrote about aspects of composition in Chinese painting HERE and the balance HERE. More articles under ART THEORY

[4] I only took out the construction, because that is our topic today, but of course, the same applies to oil paints, for example. Every school, indeed often every painter, had their little secrets that are not obvious at first glance, but of course influence the perception of the viewer.



33 responses to “how we (I) see”

  1. aparna12 avatar

    Wow. Loved this post.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thanks a lot! Very kind of you!

  2. wanderlustig avatar

    Sehr interessanter Artikel. Bei Roy Lichtensteins Plastik assoziierte ich sofort einen Vogel auf einem Baum. Vielleicht kommt das von meinen Reisen durch Asien, vor allem nach Japan. Trotzdem war mir diese asiatische Sichtweise unbekannt. Fotografien und andere Kunstwerke werde ich künftig auch daraufhin analysieren.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Danke schoen! Ja, als Asienkenner….:) Tut mir leid fuer verspaetete Antwort – spam Ordner

  3. mic avatar


    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you!

  4. swabby429 avatar

    Neurologists tell us that what we see are mentally fabricated constructs. In a sense, what we see is an illusion. This is at once sensible yet unnerving. So yes, people do see different things when looking at the same physical object. This is one of my favorite rabbit holes.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you! Yes, true words! Perceptions are a very tricky thing – and yet we so often think our perceptions are “real”.

      Sorry for the delay – all comments would be in the spam folder 🙁

  5. les2olibrius avatar

    Un cours très agréablement rédigé et surtout fondamental.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Merci pour vos mots amicaux! Désolé pour ma réponse tardive – dossier spam….

  6. petrujviljoen avatar

    A wonderful post. Thank you.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      I thank you for reading! Enjoy a great weekend!

  7. Auden James avatar

    Thank you for this insightful post! I especially appreciated the compositional analyses.

    Incidentally, it’s touching on some subjects I, myself, have been mulling over again recently after rereading Kant’s third Critique. Your post raises the same basic question, namely, what is there in our perception that is not subjective? Is there ever anything in it that tells us something about the object of perception? Or is it all just in our heads? A kind of eternal, if aesthetic, soliloquy?

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you very much! Kant, yes! And the question is exactly what you write: “Is there ever anything in it that tells us something about the object of perception? Or is it all just in our heads? A kind of eternal, if aesthetic, soliloquy?”

      I think that the Western philosophers also find it difficult to find an answer to this, because the question itself is “inherent in the system”. I have been dealing with Zen for many years and find much more exciting answers there.

      Sorry for the delay – all comments would be in the spam folder 🙁

  8. Auden James avatar

    I’m not sure if my previous comment was successfully submitted, so this is just a test, sorry. But, again, I want to thank your for this insightful post!

  9. Rosaliene Bacchus avatar

    Fascinating topic! I’ve never considered that the Western and Asian points of view differ when viewing a composition. Makes we wonder what the dominant elements of a composition are in Guyanese art that has been influenced by the West, Asia, and Africa.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thanks for your friendly words! I’m sure there are also influences from other cultures in Guyana’s art. I also studied ethnology and art history, but I know very little about Guyana. I’ll make up for it.

  10. acrylicphil avatar

    Very interesting, as usual! Thank you for the post.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you so much!

  11. Linda GrashoffL avatar

    Enlightening! I hope to put the Asian perspective into practice, to see things more than one way.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you very much Linda Grashoff! I think it’s certainly not a bad idea to try it once in a while as it can open up another world. New aspects can also arise in photography. Your photos are perfect anyway…

  12. kevinashton avatar

    A very interesting article Friedrich, with some great observations of how different cultures may look at the same object. I think most people are guarded about their observations and what they say can also depend on the company they are in. If in the company of friends they will probably give you their frank opinion, but if they are in a gallery amongst “art experts” they will be less honest about what they see or perceive.

    Best Wishes

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you Kevin! Yes, true words, exactly!
      Sorry for the delay – all comments would be in the spam folder 🙁

      1. kevinashton avatar

        No Worries Friedrich, always good to hear from you.

      2. Zettl Friedrich avatar

        Thanks and all the best! If I want to torture myself, I look to your blog 🙂 One dish more tempting than the other.

      3. kevinashton avatar

        lol Thanks Friedrich,
        Best Wishes Kevin

  13. Mike U. avatar

    This is a fascinating article, Friedrich. To see the Western and Asian perspectives side-by-side really speaks to the differences in how we view the same thing. This is a mini-master-class in perception and perspective. The way you’ve diagramed the images allows even a layperson to get a good grasp of the differences between Western and Asian interpretations. I definitely wish to learn more. I am humbled and honored that you’ve chosen to include my image and haiku in this piece. It truly means a lot to me, and I’m grateful for your kindness. Many thanks, Friedrich. 🙂

    Also, your painting, “Sound of One Hand Clapping,” is brilliant. There’s a surreal sensation of both stillness and motion at once. It’s beautiful in an otherworldly way, and powerful as well. What a wonderful piece.

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you Mike! Also that you were so kind and wrote me an email. Yes, there was a technical problem and I couldn’t receive any comments. Now it should work again.

  14. Carolyn Kaiser Harmon avatar

    OK Friedrich, you have convinced me to try to paint differently. I will keep you posted. I appreciate you pointing out our short-sightedness. Thank you for the reminder and your beautiful art in your other posts — loving the gold. ❤️

    1. Zettl Friedrich avatar

      Thank you, Carolyn, for your kind words! I will add more gold in my next posting on Saturday 😌 And a goody….

      1. Carolyn Kaiser Harmon avatar

        I can’t wait!

      2. Zettl Friedrich avatar

        and a big fat ❤️ 2u2

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