How to see the world like an artist and find beauty in the everyday

Each morning I wake to the sound of bird song and daylight softly seeping through my curtain. April has brought with her blue skies and warm days. All this I experience from the other side of a window. As I write this, the world is in lockdown due to COVID-19 and I am getting very familiar with the four walls of my first floor flat in London. I do not have a garden or any outdoor space and although I am lucky enough not to have a temperature, I am without doubt in the throes of cabin fever.

Nothing really changes. The weekdays blur into the weekends. The cycle of monotony is punctuated by choosing to sit in a different chair at the table just to spice things up.

And yet, stuck in the confines of my own home, I begin to notice that I am surrounded by beauty. Ordinary objects which would previously only get a passing glance are now under the microscope for longer than usual and start to reveal hidden details. Even looking out my window, across a street I’ve walked down a hundred times, I notice a house with a teal facade for the first time. Has the house always been painted like that? When did that crack appear in my wall? How have I never noticed the pattern in my wooden table?

Believing is seeing

The world is a strange and magical place when we’re a child. Everything is new, everything is exciting. That sense of childlike wonder comes from experiencing the world without layers of mental concepts and social constructs. We experience things “as they are” — or, at least, as a more objective bundle of phenomena.

As our brain develops, we begin to put objects, ideas and people into categories based on their similarities and commonalities. This allows us to organise things around us and simplify our understanding of the world.

Categorisation is incredibly important. At a trivial level, it would be almost impossible to navigate the world if every object we encountered was a new experience. “That looks like a tree, that looks like a tree,sodoes that, so does that… Okay, so I’m in a forest.” It’s also helpful to be able to instantly know that this snarling thing before me is a tiger, being able to recall information I know about things called ‘tigers’, and knowing that the best course of action is to back away slowly and not try to stroke it.

The world of objects exists only in our mind. The world we experience, therefore, is created in our mind. Once we recognise this, we can attempt to peel back the layers. There are no such things as chairs just as there are no such things as books. A book is merely a collection of matter arranged in a particular structure, and that particular structure is something that we call a book. Books are a concept that live only in our mind. If we tore a book page-by-page until there was nothing left, would it still be a book?

Exercise: Look at a collection of similar — but not identical — objects in your home e.g. mugs, glasses, books, chairs. How does your brain group them? What would need to change to one of the objects for it to now not be part of the same category? If a mug didn’t have a handle, does it still count as a mug? What if the chair didn’t have a back? Or a back but no legs? What if you took apart your house brick by brick and reassembled it elsewhere, is it the same house?

An artist’s eye

The downside, at least when it comes to our appreciation of the world, is that categorisation often prevents us from seeing the beauty in the everyday. We skip over details because we box them into things we recognise. “This is a table, this is a chair.” No, it is a bundle of colours, shapes and textures. No two objects are alike. At every moment we are surrounded by a dazzling array of intricate detail if we choose to pay attention.

The 16th Century Dutch artists famed for refining ‘Still Life’ into a genre of its own knew this better than anyone. Still life artists seek to portray typical inanimate objects, highlighting their shape, composition, texture, quality, and colour. Any ordinary object can be raised in status to the subject of a painting. The magic of still life is that it shows us new ways of looking at the everyday objects around us.

And you don’t need the honed skill of a Dutch Renaissance painter to achieve this effect. Separate the sensory information you’re receiving from your mind’s attempt to classify or categorise what is before you. All it takes is a moment. A moment of stillness, attention and appreciation.

Exercise: Look again at one of the ordinary objects from the previous exercise. What do you see? What array of shades combine to make up what looks like a uniform colour? How do the shadows and light change your perception? Look for the intricate details, the slight changes in texture or hue, don’t allow your brain to pass over anything.What does it feel like in your hand? Is it rough, or smooth? Trace a finger over the imperfections.

The wonder of interbeing

The first chapter of Thich Nhat Hanh’s wonderful book The Art Of Living is dedicated to ‘interbeing’. Interbeing is the acknowledgement that everything’s existence is interrelated and connected. Connected not in a spiritual or ethereal sense, but merely that every physical object is made up of constituent parts that originate from somewhere or something else.

“Imagine, for a moment, a beautiful flower. Looking into a flower, we can see that it is full of life. It contains soil, rain, and sunshine. It is also full of clouds, oceans, and minerals. It is even full of space and time. In fact, the whole cosmos is present in this one little flower. If we took out just one of these ‘non-flower’ elements, the flower would not be there. Without the soil’s nutrients, the flower could not grow. Without rain and sunshine, the flower would die. And if we removed all the non-flower elements, there would be nothing substantive left that we could call a ‘flower’. So our observation tells us that the flower is full of the whole cosmos, while at the same time it is of a separate self-existence. The flower cannot exist by itself alone.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Living, 11–12

With the concept of interbeing, we are yet again given a new lens through which to see the world. The mundane becomes magical. We can explore the exceptional history of an object and acknowledge the entire cosmos’ presence in each simple thing.

Exercise: Look again at the same object from the previous exercise, this time through the lens of interbeing. Think about the different elements that make up the object. Imagine each element’s history before it was assembled into this particular arrangement. See the connection of this object to other objects stretching back across time. Okay, now put the mug down…

Finding beauty in the everyday, every day

This might not come naturally. Sometimes a whole day goes by before we realise its passed. Being present is surprisingly difficult, and it’s only when we are present that we are able to appreciate the beauty around us.

One of the easiest ways to start cultivating a practise like this, to see the world with childlike wonder, is to create mental shortcuts. Each time you put the kettle on and start making a cup of tea (which is probably anywhere between 8–15 times a day during lockdown), pause to feel the weight of the cup in your hand. Feel the texture, the swirling colours, the smell. Create a mental shortcut between making tea and being present to appreciate the moment, and then gradually turn your attention to other objects around you.

On the whole, our days will be filled with ordinary moments, ordinary people and ordinary things. And the older we get, the more ‘ordinary’ everything will seem. But it’s precisely in characterising them as ‘ordinary’ that we miss their beauty. The ordinary with extra attention is the extraordinary.²

¹ Throughout this piece I have used vision and sight often as metaphors to best articulate my point, however I do not believe that it’s restricted to this sense.

² This sentence has been rephrased from The Daily Stoic because I so loved their simple encapsulation: “The ordinary + extra attention = extraordinary”