Nature abounds with subjects worth painting. . . but that abundance comes at a price. If we put too much visual information into a single work of art all at once, our viewers won’t know where to look. It’s like throwing them into the wilderness with no way out.
However, just as a musical composer guides what his audience hears, note-by-note and chord-by-chord; painters can guide their viewers’ eyes by placing visual paths of interest in and through their artwork.
Visual paths occur when certain areas throughout a painting are connected by some manner of visual emphasis. A viewer’s gaze will enter the painting at the place most emphasized, then move around the painting by way of that emphasized path.
Paths can be planned ahead of time, thought up during the painting process, added at the finish or created all throughout. In most cases, their placement will draw your attention into and through the subject matter. If a strong visual path is not present, the viewer’s eyes may get stuck or trail off without seeing the entire painting.
In a Moscow Café , by Canadian painter Robert Genn, is a great example of a visual path in action. In fact, there are at least three paths working together in this painting.
The primary visual path is created with a repeated cool color (blue) surrounded by warmer colors. Note how your eyes bounce from one area to the next..
Now see what happens when I delete that picture on the upper right side.
With just that touch of blue missing from the right (and with the man’s head turned toward the left) our eyes are soon stuck circling around the subject’s head and going off the left edge of the painting.
Types of visual paths
Throughout the history of painting, artists have experimented with various methods for creating visual paths. A few of these have become classics, similar to the etude , prelude or fugue in music.
The following are 6 examples of visual paths—each one is guaranteed to create visual interest and keep the viewer’s eyes moving through your painting:
1. The triangle path. This is one of the oldest and most familiar of the classic visual paths. As you saw just a moment ago, it’s also the one used by Robert Genn, above.
2. The S path. The S path mimics the shape of an S or a Z. You can see it below in John Burton’s painting, Repentance.
Notice how the S path begins in the clouds in the upper right, is picked up by the breaker wave, and completed by the frontal water.
3. The C path. Used in a number of ways, this path can be reversed, curved from the bottom like a U, or curved from the top like an upside-down U. Clyde Aspevig has used it here in the U formation.
4. The O (or spiral) path. Here the eye is drawn in circles, clockwise or counter-clockwise, often spiraling inward as in Jennifer McChristian’s One Cantalope Left.
Jennifer effectively places little emphases of light within a larger, darker, area to keep the eye moving around the central figure.
5. The converging path. Another historical classic, this path uses perspective lines to point toward a single spot in the painting. The example below is by Marc Hanson.
6. The gradation path. Here the eye is guided by an overall gradation or transition of color from one area of the painting to another. Colin Page has subtly transitioned light to dark and warm to cool from the bottom up in this painting.
Artists often find ways to combine, alter, or elaborate on these classic visual paths. It is also possible to create your own unique path, effective in its own right.
As long as your path helps to keep the eye moving throughout the painting you can count it as a success.
If you’re looking for help with a specific painting technique or process, let me know and I’ll do my best to write a tutorial on that subject.
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Have you heard of alternation? A rarely discussed design tool, alternation can sometimes be the very method you need for moving the viewer’s eye through your painting, or making dull areas interesting.
We’re already familiar with gradation, a design element that keeps the eye. . . read more
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