From Jasper Johns:
In 1954, Johns had a dream in which he saw himself painting a large American flag. Soon after, he did his first one, in encaustic. He recalls thinking: "It was something I could do that would be mine." Paradoxically, in that impersonal image, the young artist found his self-identity.
Painting a flag triggered many related ideas. "Using the design of the American flag took care of a great deal for me because I didn't have to design it. So I went on to similar things like the targets - things the mind already knows. That gave me the room to work on other levels."
This sense of the "other levels" is critical to Jasper Johns' method of operation. If he does not create an image, but uses ready-made designs, images, and lettering, what does his work consist of?
We have a clue in a further elaboration: he considers the flags and targets similar because "they're both things which are seen and not looked at, not examined, and they both have clearly defined areas which could be measured and transferred to canvas."
There are two ideas here: first, the notion of an image which is seen and not seen, because of its familiarity. And second, the idea of an image which can be precisely measured and put onto canvas - an object identified by its fixed proportions. An accurately reproduced flag is familiar; and therefore, "not looked at." But by painting the image in encaustic, with its heavily worked, encrusted surface, Johns' flag image becomes familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, and therefore draws our notice.