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Lesson Eight – Guiding the View

Zeuxis and Arte are sitting inside Arte’s house, in Arte’s room. It is still raining outside, a very heavy rain that drains all energy. Zeuxis looks appreciatingly around in the girl’s private space. It is a very romantic room, with walls painted in soft orange colours. Apparently, Arte is an orderly girl, for all her private things are well stacked away in cupboards and drawers, except the photographs of her parents, her books and records. Her girlish relics are on the sofa: her teddy-bear and a cloth giraffe, next to where Zeuxis comfortably groans.

Arte: Oh, Zeuxis, when we will at least begin to see something of colours? It has now been a long time that you taught me all there is to know about lines and shapes, and a few tricks of illusion even. But I hunger for colour. Just a little on colour, please, please.

Zeuxis: All right, Arte. For talking about colours however we need the sun, light, and the open. There is but one small subject left before we should embark on colour. That would be ideal for this day. So the lesson after this, I promise, we will start studying colour. Have you well read my texts on content in paintings?

Arte: Oh yes, Zeuxis, I did. I particularly liked the part you wrote on moral content. I also browsed through my mom’s Pliny, however, and found in there that a certain painter Zeuxis wanting to paint a portrait of Helen of Troy. Unable to find any one woman beautiful enough to serve as a model, he inspected all the girls of the town naked to chose out five, whose peculiar beauties he proposed to reproduce in his picture. And Angelica Kauffmann even painted a picture of the scene!

Zeuxis, choking and reddening: Why, Arte, eh, by Zeus that is a surprise. I, I, Hmm. I thought that that story had been forgotten since long. Damn Pliny! I never touched one of those girls; I just looked and reproduced. It is a painter’s privilege to seek out the pretty, also in women. The nude is noble. My intentions were pure. At least the picture of Helen was more pure than that picture Parrhasios made of Atalante and Meleager doing things to each other young ladies had better not see.

Arte: Right, right, Zeuxis; no need to get angry. Just looking, eh? Were you not also a little a François Boucher "avant la lettre"? Well, well, one wonders at all the interesting things one can find out by reading. Anyhow … that picture of Parrhasios, was that the one that was bequeathed much later to the Roman Emperor Tiberius on the condition that if he did not like it he could have ten thousand gold pieces instead; and that Tiberius not only preferred to keep, but hung in his bedroom? I read about that in Suetonius. What then did you still want to teach me today? I will be patient, I promise.

Zeuxis embarrassed thoroughly now: I will show you, girl, how painters are so clever sometimes that just in a little picture that you look at they take you cunningly by the nose without you even noticing so.

Arte laughing out loud: That, Zeuxis I really would like to hear about! The person that takes me by the nose is not born yet. I am all ears.

Zeuxis, laughing also now: I truly believe that, Arte! Checking on Pliny and reading Suetonius! By all the gods of Parnassus! Let’s start then.

Zeuxis: Have you observed that when you look at a painting, you usually do that in various stages? In a first phase you look at the overall picture. Then you start taking in details, and begin to reflect on the painting, and even on the artist. All viewers do so.

Arte: What do we, viewers, then, do at first?

Zeuxis: The first view takes only a glance. But in that time, the viewer will obtain a very important general impression. This is the moment when the global idea of the painting pervades the viewer and brings forward feelings only due to the overall colour patterns and the patterns of the composition. In this phase, of course, the general mood of the content helps in forming an expression that appeals most directly to emotions and intuitions. Here, the most mysterious processes of the mind are at work, inducing feelings only on general impressions.
I have in the previous lessons tried to explain some of the principles that induce feelings and moods in a viewer, even though the most important element of all, colour, has still to be discussed. The architecture of the elements of lines, shapes, composition, colour and content generate the miracle of the emotions of the first instant. Feelings of rest, of nervousness, of tension, of cruelty or of pastoral scenes, the general mood of the prevailing colours, pervade our being and either make us happy immediately, or surprised or interested, or make us stand in awe. The elation or the quietness of the picture will be observed. Once the first phase finished, and that usually after only a few seconds, the viewer will enter into the details of the picture.

Arte: So that is the second phase?

Zeuxis: Yes. The viewer can begin at random somewhere at any point of the picture to study the details, and proceed from there also at random, scanning the painting as his eye leads him or her. This leading of the eye, arranging of emphasis in the picture to guide the view, is exactly what many painters, and most of the best, have worked on.
The painters will lead the eye of the viewer over the canvas. The artists can build their compositions and use all the elements at their disposal, as we have analysed, to guide the viewer over the picture. Surprisingly, often the viewer is not aware that the painter guides him, as the best painters have done this so discretely that the viewer does not realise he or she is being guided.
The painter can use lines to direct attention. The eye of the viewer will follow the directions of the general lines. These lines can of course be formed as well by figures, as by the forms of the composition.

Zeuxis projects against Arte’s wall a picture of wonderfully bright colours.

-> Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). Yellow – Red – Blue. Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou. Paris. 1925.

Zeuxis: The painter may have used bright and pure colours that attract the view to one point of the picture. Then, with further bright colours, but maybe less bright that the spot of brightest light, the painter can lead the eye of the viewer further into a certain direction, or all around the picture. Then the painter used colouring to guide the view. A good example is Wassily Kandinsky’s painting "Yellow – Red – Blue" in which the viewer is first attracted by the shining yellow colour and then follows the colours to the red and blue parts of the canvas.
Colours of high intensity, fully saturated, pure colours attract the eye of the beholder. Areas in these colours will be drawn to the front of a painting. Less intense and darker colours will be drawn to the background; areas in these colours will be more discreet. These areas will be supportive surfaces, contribute less immediately to the first impression. They will need to be discovered in later phases of contemplation. Pure hues also will tend to expand and occupy larger areas than they really have. That is why many great painters used these hues sparingly.
When the painter did not so much emphasise his colours to guide the views over the canvas, he or she had still the composition of the scene at his disposal.
The artist can exploit all the pictorial means in the same panel. He or she can use the breaking of symmetry, the breaking of gradual repetitions, or the breaking of balance to attract attention.

Arte: We saw that already, Zeuxis. How can I be led by the nose, as you told?

Zeuxis: You are taken by the eyes! A very powerful means of guiding the attention of spectators is vision, the act of viewing with eyes, itself. The eyes of the figures in the painting take up a viewer so that his or her own glance will follow the directions of where the figures in the picture are looking at. Often such directions of eyes in the painting take on the viewer and the viewer can be led unknowingly from one look to another all over the canvas.
The painter wants the viewer to start looking at a certain point, and then guide his or her view in a certain sequence over the scene. The artist may have wanted that to emphasise the central theme of the picture, to attract the view first to the central part of the scene and to the essence of the idea and the expression. But the painter might also have wanted to draw the eye first to details, and then to guide the viewer to the essence, thus to lead him or her from picturesque detail to the surprise of the central idea. This central idea may be hidden amongst details in a far corner, as well as being in the middle of the picture, as long as the viewer understands that the whole composition of the picture points to there. Surprise is an interesting feeling that almost always brings admiration, if only for the intelligence of the artist.

Zeuxis projects an ancient Spanish picture.

-> Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682). The Virgin and Child with Saint Rosalina of Palermo. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid. Around 1670.

Zeuxis: To illustrate this concept let us look at a picture of a painter who was once very popular, but who has in modern times often been denigrated as being much of a too nice, suave nature.
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682) was a painter of Spain’s Golden Century for art. He was a painter who made many pictures of picturesque scenes of Spanish children playing in the streets, and of devotional scenes. One of his pictures is the "Virgin and Child with Saint Rosalina of Palermo".
When you look at this painting, Arte, you will remark first the strong structure under the left diagonal, a structure of which we have spoken in this book. Murillo placed his scene in the basic triangle under the diagonal. Moreover, he applied the pyramid structure for his scene of the Virgin and Child. You can easily see how the pyramid is formed beneath the head of the Virgin by the composition of the way Mary is seated, and how St Rosalina kneels deeper below the Virgin and Child.
When you look at the picture your eyes will at first follow the strong diagonal and immediately ascend to the right upper corner. This is an effect of the strong diagonal, which leads the eye to the upper border. There your eyes come to the head of an angel and the eye of that angel captures your sight. Remark of course how this angel holds a reed leading all the more to the upper corner, and thus supports the direction of the diagonal. The angel looks down, so your eyes descend, guided naturally by that look, and come to the head of the Virgin. There again the look of Mary catches your view. She looks down at St Rosalina, so your eyes also go down lower. When you arrive at the Saint, the eyes of the girl again capture you and she looks at the child Jesus. Your eyes followed thus a whole trajectory from the upper right corner down to where Murillo wanted you to end, which is at the Child Jesus.
Here your view lingers, because the Child looks at Rosalina, so you wander in a circle, as your eyes are now caught in the view of two figures that look at each other. Your eyes are caught now between the two figures, your view goes to and fro, from Rosalina to the child and back again. This affects us deeply, because the bonds between Jesus and Rosalina are very strong, as so subtly shown by Murillo.
Nowhere in the rest of the painting will you find similar links. Indeed, Murillo not only fixed and interlinked the gazes of the two figures, but he also painted their arms in directions that point to the two. The right hand of Rosalina goes to Jesus, all quite naturally since she is offering a flower, and the left arm of the Child goes out to Rosalina. This strengthens even more the mystic symbiosis of the Saint and Jesus.
All the time, the viewer is not really aware of how the painter has led his or her view.
When you finally break your attention away from this couple, and that really takes an effort, your view will probably again go upwards, guided by the elation of the supported oblique line of the diagonal, and reach the angels again. Now your eye will go to the left, since that scene was not yet explored, and you will discover the little angels or putti on the upper left. From there your view can go down again to the last detail of the scene, which is the landscape of the town in which Saint Rosalina is seen preaching the good word. You have then assimilated the whole scene.

Arte: That painting looked very un-interesting, yet that Murillo was a smart chap!

Zeuxis: Yes, Arte. Many viewers will find this picture so easy as to be a common, uninteresting old scene, like you had in the beginning. Through seeing you learn, and for seeing, intent is necessary, and that means learning. Some viewers only, like you now, will have learnt how the artist guided their view intelligently, and they then will admire the skill and professionalism of the great artist that Bartolomé Esteban Murillo truly was. The smallest details can then be explored, like the bare feet of Rosalina, the skills with which the robes are painted and the harmony of nice colours.

Arte: Thank you, Zeuxis. You are nice. I guess with those words we have reached colour?

Zeuxis: Yes, we have, Arte. I would like you to read some more on how to look at paintings. I will write you a letter on that subject. But promised, the next lesson will be on colours. I am afraid though that you will be disappointed in the beginning, because there is so much to tell you on colours that we have to start with theory again. After the first lessons, you will call your tortoise after me!

Arte: Oh my, Zeuxis, I recognise you once more there, the logical Greek philosopher, whereas I want strong emotions to rock me! And my tortoise already has a name. We call it Achilles! But lessons on colours will have to wait. I have to travel with my mother. I’ll be off for a while and we may not be able to meet.

Zeuxis: To Spain, to Granada again?

Arte: No, to France this time. My mother helps students of the horticulturist school in our town. She organises with the students a part of a flower show at the town of Epinal in the Vosges Mountains. I have to help her to arrange the flowers in a space allotted to us. We will mostly exhibit rare orchids, and we will install a small cascade of water to imitate the jungle where the orchids live. Our orchids are mostly orange and that will go nicely with the green.

Zeuxis: We will get to colours there then, Arte, all in due time. A flower show is a most marvellous place to study colours. We will find time before the show and at evenings when there are few people around. I’ll show you how flowers can be arranged with nice colours combinations.

Arte: That would be nice, Zeuxis; we’ll see if I can have free time for us at Épinal.

Zeuxis disappears.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: June 2010
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