Watercolor Class

Eye Movement

It's Primitive


Multiple Focus Points

Additional Reading

"Orchid Optics" — Watercolor, 1997 by PB

A painting can be technically sound, but if people don't look at it for more than a few seconds, the impact is lost.


Isn't that a contradiction?

If the painting caught the essence of a scene, and the colors contrast nicely, shouldn't viewers be enthralled? Shouldn't they be drawn to the painting?

You would think that would be the case, but without a design that specifically captures eye movement, viewers are easily pulled away.

On the other hand, if the design directs the viewer to the painting's focus and keeps it busy following directional lines and complex shapes, viewers find themselves held by the painting.

The perceptual psychology of a painting is a fascinating area. Fortunately, a reasonable body of literature exists to help untangle the dynamics.

Without exposure to the principles of eye movement control, the ability to retain someone's attention seems whimsical and almost mystical. After learning the eye control techniques, however, the process becomes quite straightforward.

It's Primitive

Something in our past trained us to keep our eyes moving, especially if nothing was happening. It may have come from our primitive ability to scan a creek bed looking for water, or survey a meadow for fruit trees, or glance at a path for sharp rocks.

However the skill originated, our eyes want to move along if nothing catches their attention. In their search for something catchy, they will follow lines and examine any shapes they come across.

In a painting, four mechanisms influence eye movement: lines, pointers, shapes, and multiple focus points.


An ocean view is the classic line painting. Historically, artists have tried to capture the soothing nature of being on a boat or a quiet beach. The first inclination is to paint the ocean — with its singular color and flat horizon. Unfortunately, simple ocean paintings are impossible to look at for long. The horizon line leads your eye out of the painting.

Artists that persist with painting ocean scenes come to realize they must break up the straight line with waves or ships. The inherent straight-line nature of the ocean makes it difficult to paint.

Once you recognize the powers of lines in a painting, you can use them to direct viewers to your focus points.


Our eyes love to explore complex images. They almost have a mind of their own and become enthralled in a scene, somehow searching for a hidden secret that isn't obvious to our conscious mind.

Whatever the reason, intricate shapes pull us in, and sameness chases our eyes away.

Let's say, for example, you're trying to represent a meadow that stirs your feelings of a warm summer day. You should try to weave in wind effects or variations of color, or the sameness of the grass will drive your viewers away.

In fact, many powerful scenes are inherently boring (to the eye) and need active shapes to ensure they don't push people away. Blue skies need clouds; lace needs wrinkles; and the night needs moonlit figures.

Shape painting techniques emphasize complex background washes and lighting effects.


Pointers are images that work like lines. They move the viewer's eyes from one part of the painting to the next.

Typically, you can reshape an image, like a leaf or a branch, to point into the focus area.

Multiple Focus Points

As a prelude to today's short attention span and addiction to the remote control, the eyes and mind seem to have a limited attention span.

Single points of focus only keep the eye's attention for so long. Multiple focus points, however, play off each other and bounce the eye back and forth.

Multiple focus points can leverage the different the eye movement principles. Lines move the eye around; shapes pull them in; and pointing images can move the eye from one focus to another and back.

An example:

The coffee cup sketch demonstrates good eye movement through the use of lines, pointers, shapes, and multiple focus points.

1. Lines. The circular lines formed by the handle get the eye moving. As the eyes leave the handle, they get pulled into the flower which generates another circular flow.

2. Pointers. The bottom leaf does a great point. Just as your eyes are about to leave the figure, the leaf points you back into the handle, and the circular flow starts all over again.

3. Shapes. The obvious shapes are the handle, the flower figure, and the steam rising. Each provides complexity and keeps the eye busy.

The steam creates another subtle affect. The eye begins to follow the steam up and out of the drawing. However, the eye doesn't leave. It's pulled back by the complexity shift within the steam's image. At the top it's simple, but the eye, in its pursuit of complex details, follows the simple to the more complex smoky pattern at the base. Once the eye is back at the top of the cup, the multiple shapes pull it into the center flow.

4. Multiple focus points. The major shape areas are also focus points. Although the flower figure is the strongest image, the handle, the steam, and the base offer the eye areas to consider.

The coffee cup drawing is somehow soothing. Not only is it easy to look at, the eyes want to linger. They seem to be enjoying the gentle flow from one area to another.

When the eye movement techniques are combined properly, the painting enthralls the viewer.

What's next?


It might be useful to pause and consider how far you've come.

If you've stepped through the exercises, you can now identify a painting's center of interest; you can stir mood and shift emphasis with color; and you can keep the eye interested with a mix of lines and shapes.

That's a great deal of artistic insight. It covers areas that even experienced painters struggle with — they are core issues and key to progress in the arts.

More importantly, if these sessions did their job, you can feel a growing sense of the artist within you. It may be the gentle rumbling of something new, or the rekindling of an old flame, but it is stirring.

So, what is next?

That depends on you. If you feel the urge to paint, the exercises and references suggested here are good starting points.

If you are more inclined to observe and savor the art around you, you now have the skills to observe at a higher level. The subtle will be more obvious, the obvious not so overpowering.

Even if you don't start painting right away, the artist in you may surface in unexpected ways. It may be the extra swiggle of mustard on a hot dog, or the urge to doodle in the staff meeting, or the extra flash of color in your next shirt purchase. However your talent begins to surface, savor it. You are the artist.

Additional Reading

How to Make a Painting by Irving Shapiro. Watson-Guptill, 1985.
* Excellent sections on eye movement and shapes. Mr. Shapiro's describes the core design and proportion elements. A superb work. (Out-of-print but still available.)

Watercolor Wisdom by Jo Taylor. North Light Books, 2003.
* Not a lot of recent books will take on the design topic in a meaningful way. Ms. Taylor takes in on and backs it up with expectional examples.

Mastering Color and Design in Watercolor by Christopher Schink. Watson-Guptill, 1987.
* Mr. Schink takes you through the transition between colors, shapes, and design. He makes a tricky topic clear. (Out-of-print but still available.)

Hard to Find Books

Most books can be ordered through Amazon.com by clicking on the book's title link. If the book is not available or out-of-print, Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble list vendors with used copies.

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