Just returned from the San Luis Obispo plein air event that wrapped up last weekend. One of the features during the event was a lecture by Jean Stern, executive director of the Irvine Museum, on “The Art of Looking at Art.” Part of his educational discussion which I found intriguing, was his breakdown of directional eye movement throughout a painting. A thorough example of how artists use shape, line, value and contrast to move you around their compositions. Once he finished, I quickly went to look at my work to see if I accomplished what he was talking about. I was happy to find that (in my humble opinion) I felt I succeeded. Above is one of my paintings from the week-long event and the inset is how I saw the movement within the work.
This 9x12 scene, “Girls at Bay” depicted one of the inlets at the south end of Morro Bay. I loved the colorful buildings and boats in the distance and wanted to make that my focus. Guiding the viewer around your painting and getting them to look at the things you want them to is always one of my main goals. Just like a good author or director guides you through their novel or movie, the same holds true for a painting. As I composed this scene, my objective was to give the viewer a few nuggets of information and the rest of the elements were used to support and guide you along the way. Keeping the foreground simple and minimizing hard edges and high contrasts, allows your eye to “look past” those elements and move up to the structures. The sweep of the shoreline invites the viewer into the scene. I kept the two overturned boat values very similar to the ground color to give them a less important feel. Your eye should move past those and curve around to the left. Once there, you’re in the focus and invited to move between the three circled areas of the harbor, the orange house and the contrast between the brighter boats on the shore with the dark mass of the foreground tree. The tops of the distant trees help guide you back down to the harbor, as does the verticals of the boat masts. The hard-edged arc of the dark foreground tree keeps you from exiting to the right. The little blue boat I felt was the most critical element in the painting. In actuality, it was white and blended in with the large boat behind it. I changed it a dark blue, to give it contrast and used the hard edge and direction of the bow to point you back into the painting instead of letting your eye exit to the left. I kept all of the tree and bush shapes simple to keep you focused on the structural elements. Since my focus is in the mid-ground of the painting, I didn’t add too much detail to the buildings and boats. Just a few hints of windows and things to keep them feeling farther away and yet still describing what they are. This lets the viewer use their imagination to fill in the story instead of painting in every little detail.
Good direction is always key. Although nobody likes to be told what to do, a gentle nudge down the right path never hurts. Enjoy!