We’ve talked about the pencil, the ballpoint, fountain pens, and the brush, now let’s talk about the eye of the artist. First let me say that this terminology can be an unnecessary barrier when someone tries to understand art, and it doesn’t have to be. When referring to art, the eye falls into two primary categories.
When viewing art, you’ve probably heard they have a good eye. This refers to an eye for a painting’s composition, what may gain or retain its value over time, and purchasing paintings which work well together to form an art collection. This term is usually applied to non artists when talking about either a collector, or someone working with a gallery or museum.
When referring to an artist, it speaks to all of this and more. Such as selecting your subject, designing a composition, as well as the value, tone, and colors of a painting. It can also speak to creating a series of paintings, what you choose to paint that can become a series which compliment each other and the overall theme.
There are a couple of points concerning selecting a subject. First it’s not that there is a bad subject, because a good artist can make uninteresting items intriguing. They can even paint an alley and showcase something to draw the eye too. This could be an individual, animal in the alley, or even the light gleaming on metal cans.
Second, when selecting a subject, keep in mind the lighting on the subject, purposely try to observe as much about the subject as you can, and remember this will develop over time. After years of being an artist, I notice light and other things more easily than before. It’s almost as if they jump out at me, when actually it’s because and here comes another art term, I’ve trained my eye.
It sounds a little arrogant when you say it, but it’s basically the equivalent of practicing a piano. You’re not just working on hand eye coordination, you’re training your ear. I have no musical ability, but I have family who do. They can listen to a song and hear notes and slight differences that I could never appreciate, they’ve trained their ears the way I’m working to train my eyes.
Here is a concrete example, I notice colors that I did not notice before. When I first began, I would not have painted the top of someone’s head white anywhere except their eyes and teeth. Now I know that I would not use pure white for eyes or teeth, it’s too drastic in a painting. What I would do is paint the top of a head with a white area if they were directly under a strong light such as on stage. It’s both true to life, and gives a visual expression of the light in the room. All paintings are about light, even if they use dark areas to draw attention to the light.
Another example is when painting yards or trees. The same is true about color as it is white in the illustration about a platform or stage. We know that grass is green, but it’s not all the same green. There are yellow greens, grayish greens, and blue greens in grass and leaves.
This leads into designing a composition and the value, tone, and colors of a painting. I believe in art, the best way to illustrate is to use concrete examples, so let’s select a subject. Suppose you see a dog you want to paint, you’ve got your subject, but remember you don’t have to paint the dog where you saw it. If you see it on a street, you may want to take a photo, then paint the animal sitting on the steps.
A wonderful tool about training yourself to see better relates to the act of squinting the eyes. If you’re near sited like I am, you don’t have to squint, you only have to take off your glasses. Why would you want to see blurry images, because it allows you to focus not on the details, but the shape, values, color, and composition.
A good way of illustrating this an impressionistic painting of a building. You will see the edges are very soft and fuzzy. The style isn’t for everyone, but it is distinctive, and is a visual example of the concept of squinting. Shapes are important because painters use them almost as road signs to navigate a viewer through a painting.
It could be a stream pointing to the main object of interest, for example a duck on the water. The same is true of a tree laying on the ground pointing to the elk walking by, they are directing your eye to the focal point of the painting. Squinting helps you see the big shapes that can help you frame your composition to make a better image.
No matter what combination of tools you use, adjust your composition to make the best painting. Portrait painters do it all the time and for some really good reasons. First no one wants ever portrait to look basically the same. It’s not good for the person buying it, this would take away from the specialness of a painting. If they’re all the same you could just blow up a photograph.
The artist doesn’t want all their portraits to be the same. It would not only become boring to paint the same way every time, it would reflect poorly as a body of work. If you look at a series of portraits painted by well known artists, you will see differences in composition. It’s not that you can’t paint the same person, animal, object, or even same scene more than once, only that you should seek to have some difference in each painting.
In terms of color, you can even paint the exact same scene in a different hue. Many artists will paint a similar setting at different times of day. Value, color, and tone are wonderful ways to affect a composition. Two different colors with the same value soften an edge, whereas drastic color change makes an edge stronger. Edges make a painting, and affect how it’s viewed by others, another visual navigator.
One of the most important parts of an artist’s eye is conveying their subject in a way that communicates something about the person, place, or object. Tell a story through your painting, through the selecting of a subject, drawing, composition, value, color, tone, and likeness. Some artists believe that likeness isn’t important, but I disagree.
If I have someone paint a portrait of me, I want it to look like me. It may not be a perfect likeness, but it needs to be identifiable. George Washington can have a unique look in a painting of him, but I believe it still needs to look like George Washington. The same is true of John Smith, or whoever you are painting.
It also needs to represent them in mood, design of setting, and overall story. If I’m going to paint a portrait of someone, I want the setting to look believable. Take for example American Presidential portraits. The most successful are true to their subject, they are believable. Whether it’s President Kennedy, which was a posthumous portrait, it looks like he could have stood this way. Or President Bush 43’s portrait set in his office, it looks true to his nature.
All of these things help to make an artist’ eye better. It’s part experience, part training yourself to notice, an aspect of planning, and above all listening to the subject. In art as well as life, listening to others will be beneficial to everything you do. Yes, you need to filter the voices you allow in your life, but we all need the influence of voices in our art, and our lives. Having a good ear will always improve your vision.