I find sometimes the simplest things inspire us to see differently. When I discovered how to track movement in my paintings I started thinking of composition with a slightly new twist. I decided to find where my eye landed first in a painting, in order to determine the area of greatest interest. Using a simple experiment that I tested with my students' observations, I began to realize that there are no hard and fast absolutes but generally most of us tend to look at the same compelling elements first. In a painting with good, strong 'bones' the direction and speed of the movement is fairly predictable.
Movement is the energy of a painting, the motivating factor in shifting the viewer’s eye from place to place. We tend to repeat movements that please us. Think about the successful paintings you’ve completed already and determine whether you can find connecting threads of movement, or put up a little show for yourself and identify the kind of movement you use most often. For instance, you may be inclined to use a centered and circular motif in your still life compositions. Perhaps you use strong zigzagging diagonals in your figures, or calm horizontal movement in your landscapes. Knowing your habits will allow you to either use this inclination to its best advantage, strengthening what's already working, or encourage you to try new things
Put the painting under consideration in good light and try this experiment: First cleanse your memory of the image, perhaps by gazing at your palm. Resolve that when you look at the painting you'll identify where your eyes go immediately. You want to find that spot where you can't help but look inside of the first three seconds. Do the experiment two or three times, gazing at your palm first, and see if you keep looking at that one place. I know it's impossible to forget the image in reality, but that's okay. Just repeat this a few times and see what happens.
Now analyze why. What is so compellingly interesting in that area? By the way, don't assume you know where your eye goes. Do the experiment and actually look. There's no right or wrong answer, but it will teach you things.
Once you have a good idea of that starting place, the Center of Interest (COI), repeat the experiment and identify what direction your eye moves next. From the COI, do you look right, left, up, down or at a diagonal? Again, do it a few times. Start to track the movement your eye makes through the painting.
Establish a couple of things. Where does your eye slow down and linger? Where does it slip quickly along, without spending too much time looking? What's the difference? Is there a spot where it stops completely? Is that where you want your viewer to stop?
Ask a couple of other people to do the experiment, too, and see if they have similar responses to yours.
Generally you'll find that there are some compellingly interesting elements that will draw your eye no matter what. First, faces. We're wired to examine faces, so expect your viewer to look there. Cars and other vehicles, which have front 'faces', also draw the eye, but not as forcefully. Compositionally, high value contrast grabs attention. Wherever the darkest dark and lightest light come into proximity your eye is almost sure to go. That is, unless there's a spot or area of brilliant color, a contrasting shape (one triangle amid circles), one sharp edge or line, or a singularly detailed area. If all of these are present and developed to the same degree the eye will bounce around crazily instead of moving on a well designed path.
Want to play? Examine this painting. Do the experiment above, identifying where your eye goes first, what directions it moves, where it slows down and where it speeds up. Don't just look at it and make assumptions. You might find some interesting things doing the experiment.
Okay, let me share the journey my eye made in this simple image.Yours may be very different from mine. Or not.
The white highlight is unavoidably the COI. From there my eye travels up to the smaller highlight, over to the stem, down it and across the shadow to the left. Then it does a little slow figure 8 around the colors there, up around and over to the edge. The long arrows are quick movements, down to the shadow across it, where the soft shadows slow it down again, making a zigzag path up and around and back down again. Those short, zigzag arrows are slower areas. The flat top edge finally draws my eye up, where I may begin the journey again.
Here are some other paintings you can analyze.
Roads or pathways of any kind draw the eye to the apex and unless there's another spot that has more interest, the journey might end there. The shapes, values and colors in the sky most likely draw the eye in this painting. The overall triangle of trees in the foreground is like an arrow pointing to the apex of the road, too. Lines like the ones on the highway can also be very compelling to the eye, unless controlled by value, as in this case.
Edges, colors and contrasting values play very important roles in the movement in this composition.
Did I mention this isn't science? You might take a look at James Gurney's blog to see several much more sophisticated approaches to the idea of tracking eye movements, if you want real science. Mine is a technique meant to get your gray matter thinking about the elements of art and how they work to move the eye. I believe there's value to practicing this little experiment, because in time you'll be able to spot trouble areas.
You may realize that your eye slowed down where you didn't want your viewer gazing that long. Better soften the details, perhaps along the foreground rail. Or you might notice that the COI is competing with another spot too much. Better clarify the value contrast, tighten an edge, heighten color--or vice-versa, in the competing area.
My students seemed to enjoy playing with this technique and remarked that there's more than one way to analyze composition.
Keep going, gang!Deborah