Learning to Focus

In search of a suitable subject for an entry in the Arts for the Parks competition, Las Vegas, Nevada, artist Phil Paginton painted Point Loma Lighthouse (acrylic, 22×28), an early morning view of the Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego, California. Although acrylic can be a difficult medium, Paginton has handled it well. Overall, he’s done an excellent job of capturing the feeling of a warm, sunlit San Diego morning and has placed the building against a dramatic backdrop of sky. Even so, Paginton says: “Every time I look at this painting, my eyes just can’t lay upon it and rest there. It’s as if my brain keeps trying to rearrange something until I finally concentrate only on the lighthouse. Then the scene becomes restful.”

Areas to Work On
I’m a firm believer in learning to trust your visual instincts and, in this case, Paginton has succinctly identified the basic problem with this image: lack of focus. Although well rendered, this painting is visually confusing because the center of interest (the light face of the building) is in the lower left corner of the image. Your eyes are thus trapped and vacillate between the corner and the remaining three-quarters of the image. It’s as though someone gave you an ice cream sundae and then said you could eat only the cherry. There’s a second problem of focus as well: The light-struck building and all that surrounds it have been given equal visual weight. As a result, viewers are unsure which aspect of the subject landscape

Art Principles At Work
Paginton’s goal was to use early morning light to convey the “feeling of a lonely sentinel protecting sailors from harm.” Since the park doesn’t admit visitors until 10 a.m., he used a telephoto lens to shoot a series of reference photos from the visitors’ center some distance away. “I had a lot of trouble finding a good angle to paint the lighthouse from,” he says. “I also had to remove a lot of park signs, walls and paths to create this image.” In addition to these changes, here are some other ways Paginton could improve the focus.

Establishing a dominant subject. Compositionally, Paginton needs to decide which aspect of the subject will be dominant landscape. This could be accomplished by changing the format from 22×28 to something like 22×40 to make the building a lesser player in this drama, as I did with the help of my computer and some photo-editing software. A longer format, as in Illustration A,

would convey the feeling of the “lonely sentinel” more effectively and would give Paginton the chance to show the ocean in the distance as well. Another alternative (Illustration B)

would be to crop in very tightly to focus on the lighthouse and thus create a more satisfying balance between the center of interest and the rest of the image. Trimming the “fat.” Still another option is to crop a bit of the “fat” off each of the four sides to create a better overall compositional balance for the lighthouse (Illustration C).

For this version, I also did a bit more adjusting. I had noticed that Paginton reflected the sky in the shadow side of the building. While this is probably faithful to the reference photograph, it doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity for adding excitement to the image with richer colors. For my version, I changed the building shadows to a muted purple to provide a complementary color to play against the warm, sunlit face of the lighthouse.

Honing in on the details. Even with these changes the painting’s center of interest remained poorly located and confusing. To correct this, I flipped the lighthouse left to right so that the sunlit face moved more toward the center (Illustration D).

Finally, in Illustration E

I added a small bush with colorful flowers to bring interest and a harmonious color to the rather plain shadow side of the building.

Lessons Learned
Using a photographic reference is a great starting point for a painting. However, you do need to take the time to exercise your artistic license and reinterpret the photos in whatever way most effectively achieves your artistic goals. Don’t limit yourself to the angles, proportions, colors or exact lighting captured in reference photographs. Taking a variety of shots from many different angles helps but, in the end, there’s no substitute for using your drawing skills to create the point of view, color and lighting that best expresses the goal of your painting.

My last point is to be sure to trust your visual instincts. Simply put: If it looks wrong, it probably is wrong. In this painting, Paginton based his composition on advice he had once been given that the viewer’s eye should enter from the left and “read” to the right. So his mind followed this “rule” (as he interpreted it) although his eyes clearly told him differently. The challenge is learning how to put the wisdom of your eyes into words. When your eyes tell you that something is amiss, immediately try to translate what’s bothering you about your image into a course correction. Many times, the cure for paintings that aren’t as successful as they could be is a simple matter of improving focus and trimming the excess. About the Artist: “I’ve been painting on and off for about 25 years,” says Las Vegas, Nevada-based Phil Paginton. “I keep at it because I want to become better. There’s something missing still from my art and that’s what I’m trying to find with each new work.” In the past few years he’s placed in several local art contests.

Florida-based Patrick Seslar is a contributing editor for The Artist?s Magazine.

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