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October 2012

October 2012 -- Magic



  • Ask an Artist:
    Questions of Social Media
  • Artist Spotlight:
    Interview with Pierre Carles
  • Behind the Art:


  • Half the Story: DPI
  • Magic Effects


  • Fiction: The Sound Down by the Shore

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  • Magic
    Behind the Art
    by Melissa Acker

    When we paint or draw, we attempt to recreate a two-dimensional rendering of a three-dimensional subject or space. Of course, actually doing this is impossible. It turns out, though, that the human eye is very easy to fool, and there are many rules that artists learned to manipulate the eye into moving and seeing what the artist wants them to see.

    So in this tutorial we'll go over some of the magic artists use.

    Depth and Distance

    For our first example, we're going to build a simple landscape composition.

    All I've done here is drawn some wiggly lines. Two things are notable about it. First off, the space between the lines gets narrower as the eye moves up the drawing. This is going to give an illusion of depth. Note the darkness of the lines. The ones at the bottom (the ‘foreground') are darker than those at the top (the background). The background should always have less contrast than the foreground.

    I've also varied the lines so they aren't all exactly the same or parallel, but that is just to add visual interest.

    In the image on the left, all I've done is throw a layer of green under the lines. It immediately reads as a hilly landscape now, doesn't it? The lines we've drawn, with their varying height and value, give a little bit of depth, but we can do better.

    In the image on the right, I've altered the colors a little bit, but not the values: the values are almost identical. In the bottom (foreground) I've added yellow to the base green. In the background, I've added blue to the same green. Now we're getting somewhere.

    As you go further into the background, yellow and red get filtered out by the atmosphere, which is why distant hills always look blue.

    I've tidied the image up a bit more in two ways. I separated the colors of the hills by the lines, and I lightened the values on the crest of each hill (by adding white, in this case). Remember when I talked about contrast? That comes into play here as well. The difference between the light and dark in the foreground is easily seen. The difference in the background is barely noticeable. The contrast between the light and dark areas decreases as the eye moves backward.

    In this example, we've used three tricks -- color temperature, contrast, and value -- to trick the eye into perceiving distance. Let's keep exploring some ways you can use contrast to control where the eye goes in your composition.

    Eye-searing, isn't it? Bright colors on a grey background can do that. Using bright color sparingly in a monochromatic composition is one method to draw the eye to your focal point.

    If you have a mix of greys and colors (which most paintings do), use compliments to draw the eye to your focal point. In this case, red and green. Other common complimentary parings are blue and orange, and yellow and violet.

    What other kinds of contrasts could we use? How about value?

    Here, a small spot of black in an otherwise light composition is like a magnet for the eye.

    It works the other way, too. Note in both examples I altered the background tones closer to the tone of the predominate spots. In this image, for instance, I made the grey background a much darker grey; that way, there is more contrast between the white and black spots than there is between the background and the black spots.

    Using contrast only works when there are unequal amounts involved. For example:

    There are approximately equal amounts of black, white, and grey in this little square, so the eye doesn't really know where to look. Let's make it better.

    This is better. The white is more powerful the less of it there is. Note the black and grey areas are not equal. In addition, the white is off-center. All these things make it a strong, if very simple, composition.

    Another powerful trick in the artists' arsenal is hidden in plain sight.

    Where does your eye go in the above image? It goes to the circle the arrow is pointing at. You can quite literally put arrows into your paintings that point the eye in the direction you need it to go. Use it wisely, though: this is one trick that can backfire on you very quickly.

    For instance, where does the arrow point in this image? It points right outside of your composition. This is bad. This makes it even harder for the viewer to enjoy your piece, because they have to fight their eyes to even look at it.

    What about this?

    What's wrong with this, you might ask? I'll show you.

    All those lines converging on the same spot is bad, very bad. Don't do it. Space those connections out a little.

    Ahh, that's better.
    Some of the tricks we've covered in this article include manipulating contrast, value, color and shape to control where the viewer's eye moves around in painting. Mastering these tricks is the key to making captivating compositions. Keep practicing and good luck!

    Melissa Acker

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