“What sort of a sun?”

(Of possessing Beauty by understanding it and asking yourself enough questions in the process)

Why are some of us so drawn into drawing/painting and writing, even before an idea of being good or not good enough at it ever dwells in mind? According to John Ruskin (1819 – 1900), mainly known as a watercolourist and an art critic but also a writer, the twin purposes of art is to make sense of pain and to comprehend the sources of beauty. For the latter, there are five central conclusions of human’s interest in beauty and in its possession:

Firstly, that beauty is the result of a complex number of factors that affect the mind psychologically and visually.

Secondly, that humans have an innate tendency to respond to beauty and to desire to possess it.

Thirdly, that there are many lower expressions of this desire for possession, including the desire to buy souvenirs and carpets, to carve one’s name in pillars and to take photographs.

Fourthly, that there is only one way to possess beauty properly and that is through understanding it, through making ourselves conscious of the factors (psychological and visual) that are responsible for it.

And lastly, that the most effective way of pursuing this conscious understanding is by attempting to describe beautiful places through art, through writing or drawing them, irrespective of whether we happen to have any talent for doing so.

Since his early childhood, Ruskin had had an unusually peculiar sensitivity towards observing details of the visual world, recalling himself at the age of 3 or 4 as being “contentedly in tracing the squares and comparing the colours of (my) carpet – examining the knots in the wood of the floor, or counting the bricks in the opposite houses with rapturous intervals of excitement.” To him, the matter of drawing is neither about doing it well or becoming an artist. He values the act of drawing as a higher conduct than becoming a good sketcher or a skillful artist itself, because he believes in the act of drawing as an act that has value even when it is practiced by those who have no talent. Above the act of drawing, the beauty of the object of drawing is what matters more to love: “I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.”

Often irritated by how seldom people noticed details, Ruskin told his fellow students in what way he wanted them to see things:

Now, remember, gentlemen, that I have not been trying to teach you to draw, only to see. Two men are walking through Clare Market, one of them comes out at the other end not a bit wiser than when he went in; the other notices a bit of parsley hanging over the edge of a butter-woman’s basket, and carries away with him images of beauty which in the course of his daily work he incorporates with it for many a day. I want you to see things like these.”

At another occasion, he describes two kinds of persons going out for a walk: one is a good sketcher, the other is not familiar with that of any kind:

There will be a great difference in the scene as perceived by the two individuals. The one will see a lane and trees; he will perceive the trees to be green, though he will think nothing about it; he will see that the sun shines, and that it has a cheerful effect; and that’s all! But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the case of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness. He looks up, and observes how the showery and subdivided sunshine comes sprinkled down among the gleaming leaves overhead, till the air is filled with the emerald light. [...] Is not this worth seeing? Yet if you are not a sketcher you will pass along the green lane, and when you come home again, have nothing to say or to think about it, but that you went down such and such a lane.”

I find that there’s often a close acquaintance between the act of drawing and writing, with the latter being termed by Ruskin as “word painting”. This explains how Orhan Pamuk describes his obsession with drawing/painting in most parts of his autobiographical book Istanbul but ends it in a way that left me speechless for about 5 minutes pondering over the last sentences he said to his mother:

“I don’t want to be an artist,” I said. “I’m going to be a writer.”

Both (drawing and writing) are the most effective tools in understanding beauty. Photography is often chosen as a “lower” means of expression, as a less powerful visual mean to possess and carry the beauty of a scene in our mind effectively since “the camera blurs the distinction between looking and noticing, between seeing and possessing; it may give us the option of true knowledge but it may unwittingly make the effort of acquiring it seem superfluous” (de Botton). Although respected for his drawings in his lifetime, it was Ruskin’s word-paintings that ignited his admirable fame in the public sphere during the late Victorian period. From a younger generation than Ruskin, Virginia Woolf shows this similar obsession in observing details, a great asset she always trains to apply her stream of consciousness techniques in writing. She found great delights in looking at blossoming flowers and most things that people fail to notice or even don’t find as worth observing:

“I adore looking at blossoming flowers though for the most part, it emotionally drains me. I like getting a sense of the world constantly reborn and enhanced; yet I am melancholy because such beauty is untouchable. Such beauty is chaotically intolerable.” Virginia Woolf, aged 15, from The Early Journals 1897-1909.

“I spent an hour looking at pots and carpets in the museums the other day, until the desire to describe them became like the desire for the lusts of the flesh.” -Selected Letters.

Ruskin reveals a simple key to opening the sensitive part of our physical senses in observing the details and the causes of the beauty by doing something meditatively intimate with oneself. We need to ask ourselves questions while observing something that fascinates us, a series of questions that a trained sketcher usually raises and tries to answer in the process of sketching:
‘How do the stems connect to the roots?’
‘Where is the mist coming from?’
‘Why does one tree seem darker than another?’
‘What in particular is attractive about this stretch of water? What are its associations?’
‘What is a better word for it than big?’

Failing to ask ourselves these series of questions in the process of understanding beauty leads to the thread of sloppiness: of not being precise in analyzing what we had seen and felt. And not being precise in analyzing them leads to the failure of making sense of things and to preserving the lasting effect that beauty is supposed to have on us.

In a much simpler way, Woolf taught the little Nigel Nicolson, the son of her lover Vita Sackville-West to go further with himself and to understand what he has experienced by asking questions in order to describe his morning (skip to minute 07:10)

“I remember once she said, ‘What has happened to you this morning?’
And I would reply, ‘well, nothing.’
Oh come on, come on,’ she would say. ‘What woke you up?’
And I would reply, ‘It was the sun. The sun coming through our bedroom window.’
‘What sort of a sun?’ she would say. ‘A kindly sun? Angry sun?’


-For more, see Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel, as all the quoted parts on Ruskin are from there.

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