Use Composition & Perspective to Change It Up
No matter the venue, the accepted rule of thumb is that a painting should always be hung just above eye level. As a result, many artists create paintings with this point of view. That means perspective and composition become even more important if an artist wants to stand out. I’m drawn to works that startle me out of my preconceptions and an artist who alters her or his vantage point does that.
An Artist That Knows the Rules — And Breaks Them
Louisiana artist Mitchell Long subverts expectations by manipulating vantage points in his paintings of landscapes, cityscapes, and interiors. He often makes the horizon line loom low or stretch high, or manipulates the picture plane so that viewers feel small—or as though they are floating a few feet off the ground.
A plein air painter of more than 20 years, Long tends to revisit a handful of locales again and again. But by investigating new approaches, skewing perspective and compositional presentations he assures that each work resonates on its own. “I latch onto ideas or techniques that mean something to me visually,” the artist says. His desire to create dynamic visual effects involves creating works painted in high-key ranges, using grids to overtly structure the picture plane and developing monoprints.
Although Long paints solely from life, he has recently begun experimenting with visual manipulations that are largely the domain of photography—panoramic views and fisheye effects. Sometimes the liberties he takes with perspective are a matter of circumstance. “I figure out how to make a composition work within the design or space,” he says.
“A few years ago I was interested in doing a painting of my bathroom. But the space was so small that I couldn’t fit my easel in the room, so I decided to work directly on the wall. The wall became my easel. At one point I even painted while standing on the toilet and looking down.”
Focus on Perspective and Place — Not Detail
With his panorama paintings Long solves the challenge of being overwhelmed by too much detail by turning his back on his subject—literally. As he works, he turns away and quickly looks over his shoulder, to prevent himself from fixating on any one detail. He gets a sense of the scene at a glance, much the way a passing viewer in a gallery or a museum would.
In some paintings he alters the focal point, bringing the periphery to the fore or painting central sections in acute detail. “There’s a quote from Cezanne that I keep in mind,” Long says. “He said that if you turn your head just 90 degrees, you see a whole new world.” A slight turn of the head or twist of the neck can alter an artist’s whole perception. You can take a painting to unpredictable and intriguing places—and take your viewer along for the ride.
Even with all his experimentation, Long is committed to work that combines the visual memory of how the eye sees and direct observation, much like the Impressionists and other artistic masters. “Right now I am really drawn to drawings by Cezanne and Van Gogh,” he says. “In their drawings, they articulate spaces so beautifully with so little. With just a dot and a line, the form is there.”
Multiple Vantage Points
Long’s use of multiple vantage points makes viewers feel part of the altered state of the paintings. Probably much more so than if his work was created from more conventional perspective positions. Such experimentation came about after years of practicing art. With the formal concepts firmly in place, Long had the confidence to break the rules of composition in oil painting. From there he could take his work in new and interesting directions.
It’s always better to know the rules you are breaking. That means you get to steer the identity and look and feel of your painting, rather than just fall into it happenstance. For me, it makes me feel like I am flowing with my creativity — and not a prisoner to my ignorance. We can all do this together. Explore possibilities by experimenting with the way we see and how we put our compositions together with the help of color, shape and perspective strategies. Start with the Perspective Guide for Artists, a kit that includes video resources, an eMag, and an entire book devoted to the subject written by and for artists. Enjoy!