Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Make Use of Your Peripheral Vision to help Narrate Successful Paintings!

 This is a lovely painting by artist and friend- Ron Guthrie, (Ron is from Solvang, California...)  a 16"x 20" entitled- "Oaks At The Chamberlin Ranch"

What I like about Ron's painting especially, is it is a good lesson in what I often teach, encouraging artists to learn to use peripheral vision as a way of seeing their subject, and narrating a successful painting.  Orchestrating a heightened attention to the focal subject.

This supplemental useful way of seeing, many artists never take into consideration.  Artists tend to the habit of observing, analyzing, and representing what they are looking at directly...painting it as though one thing at a time were the subject of interest...though in the painting that translates to all things then fighting for the role of interest.

In truth....we can only really look at one thing at a time.  Hold a hand up at arm's length and looking at it all else blurs out of focus.  Look at the area behind the hand, the hand itself peripherally blurs.

I had been in discussion recently with an artist over what I believe would help his development or growing in the treatment of edges...the subject different than say my normal fare, albeit urban...but the concepts and principles of painting are the same.  Look at one building...others peripherally appear out of focus...etc.,

One doesn't have to go crazy with the illusion, that is totally seeking to destroy the form, and edges...and yet that in itself might be an interesting assignment just to see how far one can take it with the work yet coming off feeling realistic.  Edges, whether we like it or not, and details, saturation of color...tell us about depth.

If I hold my hand up three feet away, and one can see the creases of the palm, of the knuckles and so forth that we understand to be normal.  But if I go and stand 100 yards away and hold my hand up, and someone suggests the creases of the palm can still be seen...that creates a precedence that all details closer than 100 yards have to be insanely represented.

There are many details in life we often don't consider.  One, in painting wildlife for many years...I knew artists obsessed with vermiculations (details in feathering) of birds.  They would painstakingly represent each and every mark of a feather.  When finished...they felt they had captured stark stunning realism.  The one detail they missed, was the detail of a bird's "softness"...

By painting every mark in the feather...the bird came off feeling like a chunk of wood, or rigid, hard.  Going over the detail work and glazing, layering transparently to tame it down, softening it ...kept the idea or understanding of detail and transmitted its more important trait or detail of softness.

By insisting edges at a distance deserve their due...masses should carry significant detail, etc., we lose the [i]detail[/i] of [i]depth illusion[/i]...which on a flat surface such as a canvas support is critical.  We have to tweak and push some things just to make what should be obvious all quite apparent.

We also risk losing the "ah-HAH!" or the purpose...the essential component of the narrative that the viewer will understand grabbed the artist by the jugular and said, "Paint ME!!!"  for things that compete in a painting then all clamor and fight for attention.

This is a wonderful example Ron gives to us on how peripheral vision works, how it can assist the painter in the illusion of depth perspective.  It is a great example of how a focal point is made clear in a narrative.  A very fine example how to treat visual voices/details that are not essential.

Many painters would look at each brush/tree in composing the work...and then treat each its due.  Looking at each tree individually does cause the focal power of the eye to hone in on the significant features....but what those trees come off looking like [i]while looking at the focal tree[/i] here is what is important to the technical aspect of painting.

The other thing that can be a very nice benefit too of judging lesser important areas to the narrative peripherally, is that peripheral vision is more sensitive to color than direct observation.  You will sense more color to the side of where one is looking, and that too can be very helpful in a more complete full representation of how we see.  By being sensitive in judging this can complement the focal subject.

I will oft judge the color of the sky looking at distant tree masses, judge color of a nearby shadow of a tree looking at the lighter value of the tree receiving the light of the tree looking at the shadow, etc.,

I'll not pretend to have this concept mastered....but it is one I am aware of, bring to student's attention, and know I need to obsess with in my work.

In this plein air painting I did of "Maxim's Dining Out" note that the sharper edges are the umbrella canopy, the areas of interest in the people eating...compared to the distant church.  The edges of the structure of the churches are obscured, broken (ever so slightly), the color desaturated, values lighter...and while a point of interest in the painting, do not fight to wrestle the narrative of the painting.  The illusion of depth (like the softness of the bird) comes thru by knowing what detail is more important. (note- all these images clicked on will come up larger to view).

Thing is...while there was a lovely haze from a later sun's light, while standing there, were I to intend to observe and study the church more, I would have seen much more detail.  Does the church deserve more detailing?  If it were the main casting role in the stage of this play's narrative, sure.  Just remember whenever you set up to paint...there are easily a half-dozen paintings waiting to happen.  Do not try to tell every story on one canvas.  Tell one story...the one main purpose the main actor and all things else are the supporting cast.

Note the assigning of the minor role that the far midground sloping trees have.  Their crowns reaching into the sky are not defined.  What is important is that while looking at the main tree here, those other trees "feel" like trees.  You need not refine appearance to move beyond what successfully "feels" if its role, that of supporting comes to work.  Would you see more at this location studying those trees?  Absolutely...but this is like the raised hand metaphor.  The tree is the hand, all else behind is  peripheral and its refining visual information obscure.  The end result is there is no question what the focal point is...and the convincing depth becomes a detail of "depth illusion"...depth illusion is space.  It is here/near, there...and way back there.  Not necessarily a "thing" like a tangible tree, but a most important detail.

I'll share just a couple more...this 12" x 24" shows my experimentation with this peripheral principle.  Just how abstract, I am asking myself...trying to flesh out, and yet "feel" realistic as  a painting.  study the distant "behind" trees...and really...quite abstract.  Important to me, and my constant check was looking at the dark base of the grouping of trees on the right, and speaking to myself saying, "okay...forget what those trees look like, are they they feel like trees back there while looking at the base of these forward most trees?

I'll encourage you to ask that as well...and do so, by ever so slightly squinting your eyes.

This last example...a plein air of a lone tree I painted about a half-mile from my home...and note the definition of the main tree as compared to the distant trees...note how the edges in the distant contours are scraped, pushed around...

Every so often I see a really fine work of another artist such that Ron has here, which reaffirms and re-ignites me on my push and need to experiment more...


Matthew said...

Excellent post!

I first really learned of this concept by reading your postings on WetCanvas and through Johannes Vloothuis's web seminars late last year. It is a subtle thing - something that many would not notice unless it is pointed out - but it is a very useful for tool for adding realism. It took me years to learn that "realism" doesn't mean making every single thing in the painting as detailed as possible!

Larry Seiler said...

There seems to be a disconnect, Michael.... from the Encounter of the moment by the artist to the notion to paint the scene. As though it were the all inclusive details that were the cause behind the compulsion than the broader fuller sensory aesthetic experience, as though the eyes were separate from the soul.

What is not immediately seen is as real as what is seen in its obscure lesser critical role. Why we tend to give life to such should find greater concern.