To paint well, a representational artist must embrace the art of the illusion. The appearance of form, depth, and color are all manipulated by the artist’s hand to produce the appearance of something that is recognizable on a flat surface. The better the magic is understood, the better the performance.
One aspect many apprentice painter/illusionists overlook is the relationship of the viewer to the performance. When positioned to paint, there is a triad between the bulk of the objects, the position of the light source, and the artist. It takes all three. They exist cohesively. When a finished painting is viewed, the same relationship is created. If the artist has skillfully handled the pigment, the viewer will psychologically enter into the painting and position his or her self into the artist’s perspective. No matter where we stand in relationship to a finished painting, we enter it and stand where the painter intended. This phenomenon also occurs when viewing a television or movie screen. While it may be preferable to be centered to the screen, once the performance begins, we all slip into the pseudo reality being presented. It is as if we are there.
There are two factors that heavily govern this illusion. First, no matter where we look, we are visually dead center. It is akin to a camera lens. It records a field of vision based on the center of the lens. The second factor is that we all seek to find a perceived eye level. This signifies our elevation and relationship to the surrounding objects. It gives us the lay of the land so to speak. In the landscape, we look for the perception of the horizon. Since the horizon shares a relationship with our eye level, we instantly gain our bearings when one is perceived in a painting. In still life and portrait painting where a horizon is not always present, the portrayal of linear perspective gives the viewer their bearings.
When I start a painting, the first mark I make is a simple dot in the center of the surface. This reminds me of the viewer’s presence in the painting. The second mark is a horizontal line to signify the eye level / horizon line. If it is lower than center, the viewer will be looking up and if placed higher than center, they will be looking down—no matter where they are in relationship to the painting. Sometimes I will draw faint lines that converge on the horizon line at the center point to remind myself of the depth of the scene. These will be covered once the painting begins but help to remind me of the psychological relationship the viewer will have with the painting. There are many tricks to be learned and most of us will apprentice for years before becoming professional illusionists, but understanding the power of a simple dot in the center of a painting composition and the perception of eye level can help when it comes time to pull the artistic rabbit out of the hat.
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