Cover image for How to use your eyes
How to use your eyes
Elkins, James, 1955-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Routledge , 2000.
Physical Description:
xi, 258 pages : illustrations ; 28 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
QP475.5 .E456 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
QP475.5 .E456 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks-Oversize
QP475.5 .E456 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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James Elkins's How to Use Your Eyesinvites us to look at--and maybe to see for the first time--the world around us, with breathtaking results. Here are the common artifacts of life, often misunderstood and largely ignored, brought into striking focus. With the discerning eye of a painter and the zeal of a detective, Elkins explores complicated things like mandalas, the periodic table, or a hieroglyph, remaking the world into a treasure box of observations--eccentric, ordinary, marvelous.

Author Notes

James Elkinsis Professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is the author of What PaintingIs(1998) and Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?(1999), both published by Routledge.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

How to Use Your Eyes is not a reference text, Elkins assures us in his preface. Instead, the author of What Painting Is (1998) has written a fascinating new book filled with gorgeous illustrations that would inspire us "to learn to see anything." It's a tall order, to be sure, but one that the author pulls off admirably. An empiricist at heart, Elkins is as likely to study the cracks in an oil painting as he is to contemplate its grand artistic design. Therefore, it is no surprise that, of the myriad things to see in the world, he has chosen to showcase 32 objects that we often encounter but somehow never take the time to examine closely--things as elemental as a blade of grass or a moth's wing; as mysterious as Egyptian hieroglyphics or a mandala; as deliberate as an engineering drawing. How to Use Your Eyes is a wondrous visual tour that Elkins hopes will help us "learn to use our eyes more concertedly until the details of the world slowly reveal themselves." Readers will be inspired to stop and smell--nay, seethe roses. --Veronica Scrol

Publisher's Weekly Review

How does one read an X-ray? What do the markings on a butterfly's wings mean? Why do the colors in a sunset always come in a certain order? Elkins (What Painting Is) answers these and other questions in this engaging guide to little-noticed and little-understood elements of the natural and technological worlds. "It's about stopping and taking the time to simply look," explains Elkins. If you learn to look at things in the right way, Elkins believes, the world around you "will gather before your eyes and become thick with meaning." Much of his book focuses on such "universally unnoticed" objects as twigs and stamps; in one chapter he demonstrates how to identify trees in winter by the leaf scars on their twigs, while in another he shows how stamp artistry reveals crucial details about the time and place of its use. Elkins also probes more esoteric subjects such as mandalas and Chinese characters (which are vastly more complicated than popularly thought in the West). This variety of topic seems intended to catch a wide array of reader interests, but it eventually feels like a thin pretext for discussing wildly dissimilar material. Still, most of the topics are interestingDespecially the chapter on "ice halos" (magical rainbow-like rings that form around the sun during the winter)Dand Elkins proves himself an enthusiastic, fun guide. With dozens of full-color photographs, this is a great book for the coffee table. (Nov) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In that fascinating zone where creative imagination and scientific observation meet, Elkins (What Painting Is) shines a conceptual flashlight, aiming to illuminate in 32 short chapters a fraction of what we are missing daily. He asks us to use our eyes and our minds differently, to see the world as few of us bother to see it because we rarely make the effort. Each chapter is devoted to an object such as grass, stamps, or fingerprints or a phenomenon like atmospheric halos and sunsets. Sometimes Elkins focuses on learning to perceive in a certain way; at other times, he emphasizes what the object in question has to say about the environment. In either case, this is less a summation of factual information than an invitation to slow down, learn to observe differently, and discover how the truth changes, depending upon how you do or do not see. This could be useful to students in the burgeoning field of visual culture but should also appeal to general readers at public libraries.ÄSusan Lense, Upper Arlington P.L., OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One how to look at a postage stamp This is a diagram of the first postage stamp, the "Penny Black," showing the young Queen Victoria. The key was designed to help tell the difference between two neatly identical versions of the stamp; it points out places where the engraver went over the original design, strengthening it and bringing out the queen's features. After fifteen years of use, the lines had worn down, and they had to be deepened. Later versions of the Penny Black are just a little coarser-looking than earlier ones, and the queen eventually got the kind of intent stare she has in Figure 1.1. After that the designers changed the color, and the queen ended up with fat cheeks and a somewhat silly expression (Fig. 1.2, top left).     The stamp just says "POSTAGE," and "ONE PENNY." (With the period, to make it more emphatic.) In 1840, England was the only country making stamps, so there was no need to add the words "Great Britain." Even today English stamps are the only ones without the name of the country, although France tried to rival them at one point by reducing their name to a tiny "RF," for "République Française." When it comes to designing stamps, space is at a premium. The omission of "Great Britain" freed up a fraction of a square inch, and gave the artists more room for the queen's face.     Postage stamps are little universes, compressing the larger worlds of art and politics into a square half-inch. The art gets cramped but it also gains a surprising depth, and the politics gets boiled down to platitudes. Stamps make up for their tiny size by having detailed designs, some of them done with microscopically fine engraving machines. The airy trellises that run up each side of the Penny Black and the filigreed lathe work background were made with a machine specially designed for the purpose. Afterward, the central area was erased, and the artist Frederick Heath engraved the queen's profile. Many of the lines are too small to be quite seen with the naked eye. But they are designed so that we almost see them, and that lends the stamp an entrancing softness. It is as if the stamp had its own atmosphere, like a little bell jar with a plant inside. Heath would have had a magnifying apparatus, so that his view of the stamp would have been like the large key plate. Today, people with Heath's skills are almost nonexistent, because the work can be done on computer at any convenient magnification. The Penny Black is exactly what it appears to be: a tiny artwork, made on a tiny scale. Today's stamps are ordinary pictures electronically reduced.     The words "POSTAGE" and "ONE PENNY.," together with the two filigreed borders, make a complete frame around the queen's profile. The frame is jointed at the top with two Maltese crosses and at the bottom with two blank squares. In actual specimens of the Penny Black and later issues, there is a different letter in each box; note the "G" and "J" on the stamp in Figure 1.2. They are "check marks" intended to defeat forgers, and each stamp in a sheet had a different combination. I can imagine contemporary counterfeiters having a laugh over this--these days counterfeiters are hardly deterred by metallic strips, anticopying patterns, and micrographic writing. To counterfeit these stamps, all they would have needed to do was to fill in the squares with the letters of the alphabet.     The whole ensemble ends up looking like a painting in a frame. That was the first and most important model for stamps, and it never quite worked. The Penny Black (and the red version in Figure 1.2) doesn't really look like a painting or a framed medallion, and even if it did, its size would make it look odd. In the next two decades other designers tried to create designs that were intrinsic to stamps. The fourth stamp made after the Penny Black is the 4 penny rose, designed by Joubert de la Ferté; Figure 1.2, top right, is an adaptation of his design. Ferté kept the profile of Victoria but reduced the frame to a set of geometric lines of the kind that might ornament a Greek temple. It is much weaker--much less like a simple picture and frame--than the Penny Black. The "check marks" have grown too big for the frame: they look more like sturdy pillars on the ground plan of some neoclassical house. Victoria's face is set in a disk, and the disk overlaps the frame on both sides. The idea was to make the stamp look more like a coin, but the idea backfires, and it ends up looking like a large heavy medal placed on top of a picture frame. Ferté's design could never actually be constructed in three dimensions; it is a paradoxical composition of two different things: an antique medallion and a framed oil painting.     Soon afterward there was a series of stamps in which each value was given a separate design so they could be quickly distinguished. The three pence stamp has three intersecting arcs, the six pence, six (as in Figure 1.2, middle), the nine pence, nine. But this kind of symbolism quickly becomes a problem. The shilling stamp was an ellipse--not an obvious choice--and the two shillings was a mandala, a kind of cat's-eye ellipse. Other series were designed with even more elaborate shape symbols, but they were never released--and for good reason, since they were more confusing than useful.     Then the designers tried another strategy, and based their stamps on architecture instead of paintings, coins, or numerical symbols. Cecil Gibbons, a philatelist who has studied this subject, calls the new architectural stamps "atrocious." The designs were divided into blocks, as if the stamps had been built out of rough-hewn marble. Some look as though they were made a little too quickly, so that the blocks don't fit properly. A couple are reproduced at the bottom of Figure 1.2. The stamp at the lower left is made of little blocks, and the blocks don't quite fit--there is a little shadow in the gap between them. The one on the lower right is reminiscent of a round window with marble trim.     After the masonry series, the designers turned to heraldry and coats of arms. They made stamps with little shields and rows of compartments with the devices of the royal family. Victoria's head began to look like the helmet that is put on the top of a traditional coat of arms, and the stamps filled up with obscure symbols.     From this point it is easy to follow the history of stamp design. Each new formula is a new metaphor: first oil paintings, then coins, then number symbols, then masonry, then heraldry.... King George V (who reigned from 1910 to 1936) was a philatelist, and the stamps of his period introduce the horizontal "commemorative" format, which gives more room. In 1929 Britain issued the first stamp without a frame, or rather the first stamp that let the white paper border be the frame. Nowadays anything is possible, and there are triangular stamps, relief-surface stamps, and even 3-D stamps; but these basic design problems have never been solved. The underlying issue is that we still treat stamps as if they had to be modelled on something (paintings, masonry), instead of thinking of them as little objects in their own right.     It is nearly impossible to find stamps that do not rehearse the issues first broached by the Penny Black. In the nineteenth century, country after country produced stamps that looked just like England's, or else they borrowed their designs from English innovations. Italy, Germany, France, and the United States all began with variants of themes that had already been explored by English designers. Even today stamp designs are centralized, and many of the world's smaller nations have their stamps made for them by a few companies in New York City. The early stamps of Mongolia were designed in Hungary as part of a long-standing agreement between the two countries. The Hungarian artists were in turn influenced by British design. The stamps of some nineteenth-century Indian states, such as Cochin, Alwar and Bundi, Jhalawar, and Travancore, were often designed in a central British office, and they have the same classical frames as the early British stamps (Fig. 1.3). Victoria gets replaced by all sorts of exotic things. This Cochin stamp has a shell of Indra and a ceremonial umbrella. Nepalese stamps have Nepal's symbols--a sripech and crossed kuchris . The Mongolian stamps have the soyombi , a kind of coat of arms. To find stamps that are genuinely beyond the reach of European influence it is necessary to look at places so poor and so isolated that they were physically incapable of European-quality printing and design. Some early issues of the Indian state Bhor, for example, are little more than colored washes that were accepted as stamps (Fig. 1.4).     Stamps get ignored because their politics are reductive and their pictures are unrewarding. They tend to be simple and to borrow their ideas from other arts. On occasion a stamp might say something new, or say it in a new way, but most of the time stamps rehearse the lowest common denominator of a nation's patriotism or its sense of art. Since the mid-twentieth century, the general trend throughout the world has been toward harmless or comical motifs: flowers, animals, movie stars, platitudes. Stamps are getting more trivial, sweet, and childish with each passing year, as if to atone for their first century of aggressive, sentimental nationalism.     Every once in a while, stamps can be interesting both politically and artistically. The stamps issued by the newly independent Irish Free State (1922-49) are an example. Ireland had just won its independence, and it took itself very seriously. Heavy, medieval symbols--the shamrock, the Irish harp, the Red Hand of Ulster--were done in somber greens and browns. The captions were seldom in English but in Irish or bilingual Irish and Latin. When Ireland lifted its trade restrictions in the 1950s the stamps began to get playful in the modern manner.     In our rush to be inoffensive we have largely lost the idea that stamps can have interesting meanings, and in our desire for modern efficiency we have forgotten that stamps can be tiny worlds filled with details that can barely be seen. Early American stamps are exceptionally finely done (Fig. 1.5, bottom row). The nearly microscopic lines produce a wonderful, shimmering effect; the tiny "motorwork" scrolls are so fine that they are barely visible even at this magnification. The stamp at the upper right has lines so small they are altogether invisible. Done this way, even a landscape a quarter-inch across can look enormous, full of light and distance and air. Compare it to the stamps in the middle, which were recently printed to commemorate the old stamps. The new stamps are coarse, crude, and uninteresting. Clearly, no one was meant to look at them. The sky is filled with dashes that look like rows of migrating geese, and the picture is ringed with a set of fake pearls.     I wouldn't say that all stamp designs should be as subtle as these old stamps--but at least the old designers knew that there is no reason to make everything easy to see. It's a lovely feeling to be drawn closer and closer to a tiny scene and to wonder at its depth and detail. Nineteenth-century stamps could work that kind of magic. Now all we have is colored flaps of paper, with almost nothing to catch the eye. Copyright © 2000 James Elkins. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Contents: Preface; Human Artifacts
1 How to look at a postage stamp
2 How to look at a culvert
3 How to look at an oil painting
4 How to look at pavement
5 How to look at an X-ray
6 How to look at Linear B
7 How to look at Chinese script
8 How to look at hieroglyphs
9 How to look at Egyptian scarabs
10 How to look at an engineering drawing
11 How to look at a rebus
12 How to look at mandalas
13 How to look at perspective pictures
14 How to look at an alchemical emblem
15 How to look at special effects
16 How to look at the periodic table
17 How to look at a map; Natural History
18 How to look at a shoulder
19 How to look at a face
20 How to look at a fingerprint
21 How to look at grass
22 How to look at a twig
23 How to look at sand
24 How to look at moths' wings
25 How to look at halos
26 How to look at sunsets
27 How to look at color
28 How to look at the night
29 How to look at mirages
30 How to look at a crystal
31 How to look at the inside of your eye
32 How to look at nothing; Postscript: How do we look to a scallop?
List of plates