Above is Roger de Piles’ diagram demonstrating how to focus in order to see the visual unity in an observed scene.1 As the painter, A, focuses on the sphere, B, he is peripherally aware of the other spheres in his field of vision. The shadows in the other spheres appear lighter and the edges less distinct as they get farther away from the artist’s focal point, B.
In simple terms, the impressionist draws or paints what he or she sees – but quite often not what he is directly looking at. First and foremost the impressionist is striving for something the 17th century art critic Roger de Piles called the unity of effect. In part, what de Piles outlined in his book, Cours De Peinture Par Principes, was the idea that unity in a picture was achieved by the artist fixing their gaze upon one aspect of the scene while painting what they were seeing peripherally.
Some claim that seeing impressionistically is not the way we naturally see because our eyes continually bounce around the scene, focusing here and there as our attention warrants. Gammell called painting like that a piecemeal approach, which is often done via window shading.2 Others, myself included, are of the mind that we naturally see impressionistically because when we focus directly on an object, all of the surrounding objects appear progressively less defined.
I find two main reasons for seeing like an impressionist, composition and verisimilitude
Let us deal with verisimilitude first. Dictionary.com defines verisimilitude as the appearance or semblance of truth.3 It is when a painting has a life-like presence; when the objects appear to exist within a real, literal space. Often the objects, or even the scene itself, seem to partake of our own space as opposed to existing in a world of their own.
In my opinion achieving an appearance of real space or verisimilitude in a painting is most easily done using a single focus. Opposite of that, when the artist distinctly focuses on each object separately (as well as each aspect of each object), the result is more likely to cause the viewer to examine each little part of the painting rather than to perceive it as a whole. Many times I have been in a museum and watched a visitor stand almost nose-to-canvas at paintings where every detail is rendered on its own. Conversely, I have watched visitors consistently position themselves at a distance from those paintings in which the artist considered the whole more than the parts. Oddly, perhaps, is the fact that most non-artists would not even be aware of where they viewed a painting from.
Velazquez, Las Hilanderas (1657).
Above is Velazquez’s Las Hilanderas (also known as The Spinners or The Fable of Arachne), from the Prado Museum in Madrid. This painting is almost 8 x 10 feet in size and is a perfect example of pre-Monet impressionism. This concept of apparent visual truth (verisimilitude) and viewpoint did not begin with Monet, nor even de Piles,4 and has likely been in many an artist’s mind since the painters of ancient Greece who painted the backdrops for plays.5 To view this painting as a whole (in person of course), one has to stand at least 30 feet away. Due to how Velazquez handled the edges in the painting, and to a lesser extent the values, the painting seems to push the viewer back all in its own.
The relationship between impressionistic seeing and composition may be a bit less clear but it is no less relevant. Seeing impressionistically opens up another avenue for the artist to explore, relative to their control of the viewer’s path into and through the painting. Much like perspective, impressionistic seeing can allow the artist to determine where the viewer looks first, second and so on. This control extends and may even surpass the art of pleasantly placing important elements on the 2-dimensional canvas plane.
Before you go back to the Velazquez above, plan on being aware of what part you look at first, second, etc. Is there a path which your eye follows? Why? As I noted before the answer is part value contrast and part edge relationship. Each edge is related to the whole and to Velazquez’s intent for the viewer. This is not simply, “fixate on your center of interest and progressively blur as your peripheral vision gets farther away from it.” Instead, this is thoroughly intentional and informed painting. Velazquez observed what he intended and then deviated from that observation to enhance and control the effect he wanted the viewer to experience.
The effect I describe is seen quite distinctly when in front of the real painting although it is not completely lost in the small reproduction. What many are unaware of, possibly because it would not have occurred to them, was that as with many of Velazquez’s paintings he likely knew where Las Hilanderas was going to be displayed before he even began the painting.6 Because of this he would have known from where in the room the viewer would see it. This foreknowledge more than likely told him where to stand while he was doing the painting.
1 See this page on Google Books.
2 Window shading is defined as finishing one section of a drawing or painting at a time. It is the opposite of trying to keep the entire painting moving along at the same rate. Although Gammell and all of my own teachers were adamantly against window shading, many brilliant paintings have been done using the technique.
4 From Central Perspective to Central Composition: The Significance of the Centric Ray, Thomas Puttfarken, Marburger Jahrbuch für Kunstwissenschaft 21. Bd., (1986), pp. 156-164.
5 Plato on Painting, Eva Keuls, The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 95, No. 2 (Summer, 1974), pp. 100-127.
6 Las Hilanderas was painted for Don Pedro de Arce, King Philip IV’s huntsman.