The Visual Egg | Thinking About the Focal Plane

Learning to paint is learning to see. The more we comprehend how the optics of the human eye work in conjunction with the mind, the better able we are as painters to create the illusions we call paintings.

The science involved in photography shares many similarities with human vision. For example, the camera has film (or a digital sensor), and we have the retina. The camera has an aperture opening, and we have the pupil. The camera has a lens, and we have a lens. Of course, the human eye is much more complex, but the mechanics are still very similar. The camera’s ability to capture a pictorial representation that doesn’t rely on human memory has led many people to accept the resulting photograph’s accuracy without question. This blind acceptance can set up many aspiring painters to fail unless they’re careful. Human perception can, at times, be vastly different than the photograph, and it’s our job—especially if we employ photos as reference material—to understand these disparities.

In the past, I’ve discussed how color, value, depth of field and focus can be manipulated photographically. While these are important considerations, there’s another that’s often overlooked: the focal plane. This is the distance point where sharp focus is set. In photography, this is achieved by the lens and aperture settings. A similar physiology occurs with the human eye, but the sensation of being present within the scene is vastly different than the photograph. Let me explain: If we focus visually at a chosen point, say an arm’s distance from our nose (approximately 3 feet for an adult male), and then move our arm to the left or right, the distance parallel to our nose becomes closer the farther the arm extends in either direction as long as we continue looking forward. This produces a focus plane that’s more like a tunnel than a billboard. The same focus disparity occurs in photography, but because of the lens’ focal length (telephoto vs. wide angle) and the masking frame (the format rectangle used to capture the image), we rarely perceive it.

One way to achieve this illusion in our painting is to downplay the corners of a painting’s composition even when cropping a scene to include only a small portion of what’s visible. Imagine an egg shape drawn around the center of the height and width of a painting. Then paint the corners slightly darker, less in focus and comparatively lacking in interest as compared to the rest of the composition. It shouldn’t be extreme—just vague enough to make a difference. (Otherwise, it will become a vignette, which is a completely different technique.)

Representational painting is a depiction of the human experience, and the “visual egg” is one of the techniques we can use to make our paintings appear better than the photograph.

Subtle manipulation of the corner in Nature's Tapestry (pastel, 12x16) heightens the sense of being present within the space of the scene.

Subtle manipulation of the corner in Nature’s Tapestry (pastel, 12×16) heightens the sense of being present within the space of the scene.

• Look for Richard McKinley’s Pastel Pointers column on pastel palettes in the new August 2013 issue of Pastel Journal!

• The Maggie Price Essential Pastel Painting Set is now available at North Light Shop with a collection of resources for learning pastel techniques!

• Watch pastel art workshops on demand at ArtistsNetwork.TV

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