Intentional Observation: Incidental surfaces

The included photograph is of a piece of foil I use to wrap my small sculptures in before smoking them in the electric kiln. Not all of the foil swatches look like this when the smoking is over, but a few of them do.

This is the kind of thing a lot of people overlook in life. We generally move too fast to observe incidental or natural — and beautiful — occurrences such as this in our environments. The foil is a tool; not even a tool, this is more like a package. It’s something people might discard without paying any attention to.

Next time you sip your coffee, make it a point to observe the finish on the mug. Is it metallic, brushed or polished? Is it glazed, glossy or matte? Is the texture smooth, milky or silky? Are their any imperfections on the surface — heaven forbid, especially if it’s not handmade.

The next email can wait. Facebook will still be there if you linger with your beverage another three minutes. And if you make it a practice to intentionally observe your surroundings, you will likely be better at whatever it is you do, be it programming or the arts.

I’m going to go take my own advice with a morning brew of Ethiopian Yrgacheffe (fair trade, organic, shade grown etc, etc). Good stuff. Cream and raw sugar please.

This is one of my favorite mugs, although (hypocritically?) I don’t use it much. I’ve gotten used to the larger mass-produced mugs we have in the house. The one above is a bit small. Regardless, the one in the photo provides a much better beverage experience. It was done by a grad student at the University of Nebraska when I was earning my undergraduate degree.

The contrast in textures and colors is wonderful. The blue glaze crazed like crazy, and the rim isn’t a perfect circle — which I like. There’s a small crack on the bottom between the foot and vessel; it was on the “seconds” shelf when I bought it. This cup, the appearance in color and form, reminds me of Scandinavian design, which I’ve long been a fan of. And as a guy I love that the space between the handle and vessel is enough to actually be functional. I’ve noticed that a lot of mugs crafted by women bear handles too small to my larger, clumsier man-hands.

Your turn.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

4 Responses to Intentional Observation: Incidental surfaces

  1. Jim Janknegt says:

    A good reminder. Thanks! I remember my 7th grade art teacher. She was the first one who taught me the difference between looking and seeing. Something in my brain clicked and I had that experience that the first exercise in Drawing on the right side of the Brain shoots for. You know the upside down Picasso drawing. I was blown away! I spent the next year at least looking at everything as if I was drawing it with super slowed down seeing. What a time that was!! That is basically what drawing from life does is slow down looking, something we all benefit from. That is why I always discourage folks from drawing from photographs. It is a totally different experience from drawing from life. When I was in graduate school I did a lot of landscape drawing of the Iowa countryside. When I sat on a stool drawing the fields and trees somehow the smell of the crops, the feel of the breeze and the scolding of the redwing blackbirds made it into those drawings. That would never have happened if I had taken two seconds to snap a couple of photos and worked from those back in the studio. I don’t draw anymore but thinking about all this sure makes me want to.

  2. Paul says:

    I use photographs of the storms I sculpt and reference, but like I said a month or two ago I’d love to sculpt with clay en plein air. Haven’t had the chance yet. Too many trees and hills around NW Arkansas to just wander out the backdoor and do this. I do also want to begin some pencil drawings of said storms in the open air as well, easier than carrying around clay and my carving tools, but haven’t done much of that either. Thus, photos suffice.

    One thing photos do better though, with respect to a storm, is capture a specific moment of that cloud formation. If you watch a storm for more than five seconds you’ll see them changing, building right in front of your eyes. This is part of the the challenge in recreating them, but it’s also an aspect of the recreation that I find dynamic and exciting. Like I noted yesterday morning in my studio notebook (one of them) no two storms are ever the same.

  3. Jim Janknegt says:

    I’m sure you’re aware of Constable’s cloud studies. He was basically drawing with oil paint, very fast. I like them better than his finished paintings. Maybe try sketching with paint or with pastels.

    I am always amazed at Leonardo’s drawings of running water. What an eye to be able to see so clearly to draw moving water. An artist friend here in Austin has been painting plein air paintings of water. Very abstract and concrete at the same time.

  4. Paul says:

    Actually I haven’t heard of Constable’s clouds, but that’s worth investigating . . . It’s been years since I’ve seen Leonardo’s water drawings.

    Other than from life, my inspiration comes from Flickr, Keith Jacobshagen and perhaps Jeff Lawson. Not many, if any, artists that I’ve run across have focused so much of their attention on the thunderstorm however. There are certainly a lot of artists I don’t know about, but if there are tactile artists out there with bodies of work related to storms Google doesn’t seem to know about them either!

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