Do We Actually Understand?

Replica of Rembrandt Palette – Photo by Virgil Elliott

We often ask ourselves these days, “Is there an app for that?”.  Tasks are automated, calculations are figured for us, knowledge compressed and packaged for immediate consumption.  Just push the button and the answers to your immediate question or problem is immediately answered.  This is great but, does this threaten our ability to actually understand anything?

A few years ago a friend gave me a vintage telescope. If you know anything about telescopes, then you now that setting them up can be prohibitively complex to those trying it for the first time. The setting circles, collimation, alignments, all this before trying to find something might make one wonder if there is a “better” way?

Some new telescopes have a “find it for me” button.  Push that button and like magic, the stellar object is in view!   What happens if I want to take the time to take the time, as the saying goes?  New systems have eliminated the need for any knowledge of telescopes.  So, the question may come, do I really understand this or am I just relying on the technology?

The Timelessness of Applied Knowledge in Art

Notice the photo shown that was taken recently at the very studio used by Rembrandt.  History shows that an artists’ palette would often be composed of only a few colors.   These colors were made from the raw earth materials that were locally available.   Those who made the colors must have been knowledgeable in collecting or mining the raw materials.  They would have to have known about grinding and making compounds into the final product to be used as a paint.

For the artists, a complete knowledge of the theoretical relationship of color would be necessary.   Others would know the craft of brush making, or canvas weaving.  Others knew about woodworking for framing. These may be some of the manual considerations that make us ask, why bother when it comes to making a painting?

During every age the idea of progress is measured against what might be lost from the way things were done before.  “Find it for me” apps and “easy buttons” are great for simplifying certain tasks.  Sometimes though, it seems being “connected” makes us dis-connected from certain things, like a thorough comprehension of what were doing.  Our ability to problem solve increases by our ability to truly know something.  As complicated as a task may seem, there is great satisfaction of succeeding in something that we tried for ourselves from start to finish.

Note: Interested in a deeper study of materials and artistic processes?  Virgil Elliott’s book,  “Traditional Oil Painting” is a must have for a painters library and can be found on his website at  

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