Popper & Induction Applied to Art

A common error made by people trying to draw is that they draw what they think they see, rather than what is actually there. Since the brain is specialised in creating and interpreting symbols, people draw the symbols (e.g. “An eye is an almond shape with a circle in it”), instead of their real shapes (e.g. “Eyes are made of many components, such as eyelids, eyelashes, tear ducts, wrinkles, and more, and those are represented by types of lines, etc.”).

The advice they are usually given is, “Draw from life,” or “Draw what you see.” But this is rarely helpful. They will often just continue to make the same mistakes, and not know why or how to improve.

From the point of view of the artist giving advice, it seems accurate. Just look at what’s there, and draw that. Draw what you see, not what you think you see. It seems fairly straightforward; why don’t beginners just take this advice?

The reason is that all observation is theory-laden. Even if you look at stuff and try to draw it, you still won’t improve unless you improve your theories of what’s there, or how to look at it, or how to translate what you see into marks on paper. The artist already has the theories about how to draw. We can’t induce those theories just from looking at stuff.


Summary: To draw well, you have to learn what to see when you look at stuff and try to draw it. Artists say that if you just practice drawing from life, you’ll learn it. This is wrong for the same reason the ‘problem of induction’ is wrong: we first have theories, and only interpret what we see through those theories. We can’t just ‘observe’ without knowing what to observe.

Credit goes to Karl Popper, who created some of the ideas used here, and to an artist friend for making the connection between induction and art.