One summer, Phil and I took a ride up Switzerland and stayed at Bogno, an itsy, bitsy town nestled high in the magnificent Alps, not far away from the city of Lugano. We stayed at a wonderful, cozy hotel run by an Italian couple that served up late afternoon aperitifs along with a heavy dose of warmth and hospitality. One day, while sipping my green tea and enjoying the conversation with the locals (it seemed the whole town poured into their café at 5:00 pm), Luigina, one of the owners, came over to me with a sparkle in her eye, ready to share with me the town’s secret.
Gnomes. Mischievous little creatures played in the woods nearby, and she instructed me that when I take my hike I should be on the lookout for them. I promised her I would, and the next day, I headed up the steep mountain on the postcard perfect summer day. As I left the town and was greeted by the bright sunshine bouncing off the leaves of the trees, I quickly began to feel the magic of the woods drip into my soul. The silence that permeated the air filtered into my heart and the world began to mysteriously transform. Those greens that were highlighted by the sun were surely sparkling gems. Those patterns of light and dark became as beautiful as the chiaroscuro of a Rennaissance masterpiece. And that snow-capped mountain in the distance made me feel that I could certainly reach out to it and begin to fly. Above all, I was convinced, that lurking in those deep dark shadows were the gnomes. If only I would look a little harder.
As an artist, this was a familiar feeling to me. My daily search to capture the magic of the visual world is much like setting out to find a gnome. As I start down the path of a new sketch or painting, the world magically transforms before my eyes—colors become alive, the trees that I am painting begin to talk, and I am sure that if I am attentive enough, I will spot a gnome playing in the dark umbers of my palette.
Whether the gnomes really live in the Bogno woods, I cannot say. But what I can be sure of is that their magic can be felt by anyone who chooses to open their eyes and see. As an artist, this is my daily challenge. But we artists are not a special breed – we have just spent years studying how to shut down the noise of daily living and meditate on the beauty of the visual world. To help you do the same, I have made a simple list of things you can do to cultivate the habit of enjoying the gift of seeing.
1. Practice Meditation and Mindfulness: There is a reason that this practice has been handed down for so many centuries. Seeing begins in the brain, and if your brain is filled with all sorts of busy thoughts, the filter of the busy mind will block the magic from flowing. If you have already included this practice in your daily regime, I encourage you to add another short (or long!) practice, but with a different twist. For example, maybe you do a sitting meditation everyday. How about adding a moving meditation, such as walking or yoga. And if you haven’t yet explored meditation, please don’t be intimidated by the vocabulary. Meditation and Mindfulness are simply whatever works to quiet your mind. It doesn’t require fancy candles or chanting, it can be as simple as reciting a peaceful word in your mind over and over again. Even exercise can be a type of mindfulness practice, if it calms your mind. For example, my daughter has found that when she does her laps for her swimming practice, her mind is calmed. Pay attention and explore what works best for you.
2. Flower Study. Go out to the garden, or to the local florist and pick out just one pretty flower that speaks to you. I say pretty because pretty makes us want to look, ugly makes us turn away. Place the flower in some water, and place it in a peaceful corner of your home. Take a few deep breaths and for 5 minutes (or longer!) just LOOK at the flower. Study the shapes of the petals and how and if they fold. For example, the petals of a daisy have a gentle curve, while a rose when it opens can have an exquisite curling of the edges of its petals. What is the color, and are there subtle color changes in the petals? What are the shapes of the leaves? Do they have jagged or smooth edges, and is the surface smooth or glossy.? The goal of this study is to focus on the act of seeing—every time you mind wants to interfere, just gently tell it to quiet down, because you are much too busy seeing!
3. Focus on Negative Spaces. We artists like to use the term “negative space” to describe the space around and in between objects. For example, when two people are sitting down talking, the space between them is the negative space. When we see, we tend to always look at the objects, which in this example are the people in conversation. If instead, we focus on the negative space, our seeing experience can be enhanced. Try this out for yourself—you can even make it a part of the flower exercise above. While studying the flower, look for the negative shapes formed in between the petals, or in between the leaves and the stems. See how it helps you appreciate and enjoy even the more the beauty of the flower.
4. Touching with your Eyes. One of my favorite tools as an artist is the lowly pencil. I fell in love with the pencil in my early training when I discovered that when I drew with it, it felt as if I was “touching” the object with my pencil. I now know that the sensation of touching was actually coming from the intense contact of seeing when I was drawing. Try a little experiment and see if you can get this feeling, even if just for a moment. Find a quiet moment and place in your day. Take a piece of fruit or vegetable and spend a few minutes touching the object. Feel if it is rough or smooth, is it round or does it have edges, and is it a simple shape, such as an apple, or like a compound shape, such as a stalk of broccoli. Feel with your hands as much as you can and then place the object in front of you. Now just study the object with the same focus. Study the shape, the texture, the color with your eyes—as you do this, is your sense of touch engaged as well? The feeling may be subtle at first, but be attentive when you notice it. You will probably recognize it as something familiar, it is not the first time you have “touched with your eyes”.
5. Put Out the Smoke. In our busy hi tech world, we are moving ever faster. So when we are forced to slow down, such as in heavy traffic or waiting in line, the fire of frustration is quickly ignited. Instead of fuming, see if you can turn the unhappy experience into a not so unhappy, and maybe even pleasant one. The next time you are caught in a frustrating “waiting” moment, immediately take note of it, before you have gotten too agitated. Stop and breathe for a few seconds and find something to focus on. Maybe a building or tree, or even a simple every day object on the counter of the supermarket. Study the object with the same intensity that you studied the flower. How big is the object, is it round, it is tall, what color is it, what is the texture? How is the light hitting it, are there strong shadows? As you study the object, you may discover something new about the object, and that you have never really “seen” the familiar object before. And the bonus of this exercise is that you will often realize that you have helped put out the smoke of frustration.
I would love to hear your experiences in finding the magic—and if you happen to spot one of Luigina’s gnomes in your search please let me know!!
For Fun: If you are interested in learning more about gnomes and the enchanting artwork of Rien Poortvielt, a gnome expert, check out this book:
And if you want to head to Bogno to search out some gnomes, here is the hotel’s website: